SO... YER SINGIN’ WELL ... HOW DO YOU GET ON STAGE?
It has been many years since I asked that very question, one that comes up not infrequently, when a student begins to realize her/his goal of singing in a manner and style that visibly and positively-possibly, even effusively- arrests the attention of those privileged to hear him/her. (Those are great moments... few, but great!)
Alas, there is no formula de rigueur, to predictably advance an opportunity that may lead to your first paying job. My experience is a dream come true, i.e. bald-faced luck:
In “Richard Fredricks In Concert,” my having just sung three big arias in a row-“Avant de quitter” has three high G’s-followed by the “rouser,” “Where is the Life that Late I Led,” it was a bit tough to gear it down for Johnny Green’s great, soft and tender arrangement of “Easy to remember,” but fun! (Imagine my singing that in the dark Hollywood Bowl, with only a pink spotlight! PINK? Yeah, it was, go figure! However, had I worn my tutu …
After four years in the Navy-the last two and a half years, in a submarine, I began pre-Engineering at El Camino Jr. College, in Gardena, CA. Two years working of 18 ½ units, while running a wind- tunnel at night at AiResearch Mfg Co., and taking three lessons a week, studying voice and repertoire. At the end of my second year, I wandered into The Horn, a Night Club in Santa Monica, where I was told it frequented “agents and talent scouts” ... Imagine my luck when the owner there-Rick Ricardi-read my L. A. Times review, from my Inglewood Musical Society concert and admonished me, “Don’t sing anything to heavy!” I began with “Because of you ...” and he flew down and asked for three more songs. He then called me into this “space” and asked if I would be interested in singing Summer Stock?
I asked-given my last six years of Navy and Engineering ... “What’s Summer Stock?” He explained to me, Musicals and Operetta’s in a “Tent” for ten weeks.
Long story short, I sang for Philomena Smythe-you can’t make that name up, a small agent for choristers ... over the phone, “On the Road to Mandalay” and she called me back ten minutes with an audition time for the next day at 1300. I sang “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” and ... they hired me!
“For what?” I asked. Chorus, $75 a week, you’ve got to join Equity!(Wow ... my first job in showbiz and I get into Actor’s Equity. Sometimes it takes years....
Except for Submarine Duty, that was the best ten weeks of my life, ‘til then! Unexpectedly, I was given a half dozen solos that showcased me well, I, who hadn’t been on stage since the eighth grade as the comic, Chu Few, in my Jr High production of “In a Chinese Temple Garden!” I made a number of mistakes but I learned, I learned ... and began to fashion my craft!
After the Sacramento Music Circus, the wonderful conductor Gershon Kingsley called me at home in L A and asked if I would like to do two weeks at the California State Fair Bandstand, four shows a day! Yes I did and he instructed me to go to Schirmer Music and pick up some arrangements for me to sing! An really great experience. Gershon had to go back to New York and then the “Have arrangements, will travel” Conductor, Manny Harmon came in to finish the two weeks. At the end, he asked me if I would like to join his band for at least one concert a weekend, for $300 a night. I told him I was going to the Univ of Denver for a years study ... and declined. Aaaaugh, amateur!!! I could have stayed at home, gone to UCLA and made a ton of money, as well as broadening my experience and getting a stronger foot in the business as a leading singer! It was all just too new to me and ... I had no one to counsel me on the other options that were available.
After DU, I worked seven nights a week at The Horn, singing, playing the bass and bongos ... for no pay, except that I got one magnificent hour a week with the coach, Carlos Noble! He made me the singer I was to become by making me understand that-while my voice was exceptional ... I had little understanding of what my real job was ... to communicate, to talk to my audience, essentially, one at a time. If I would engage a lovely young lady and make what I was saying ... to and all about her, every other lady (ostensibly) would relate. After a phrase or three, my eye would then catch another on the other side of the house and continue the connection. That was Carlos!!! I took it right on into everything I did, from Opera, to Musical Theater, to art songs in recital! Intensity of communication ... neat stuff!
I sang “They Call the Wind Maria” for the National Company of Music Man ... and the New York Audition Staff, jumped to their fee yelling Bravo! I got the job, The Train Scene, chorus, nine months on tour. Music Man was A BIG DEAL ... Everywhere we went, Convention Centers, filled and, almost always, I was asked to sing. Meredith Willson called me by name. I left the Show in Chicago. I’d been recommended to the St. Louis Muny, for Stock Baritone, Summer Season, 10 weeks. I had to cover every leading man and sing/act my own part in each show. After the first weeks show, I had the leading man’s dialogue and music-plus my own D and M for my part ... for the current show at night, and the new show, we were rehearsing during the day, for the next weeks show! I really began learning faster than I ever imagined I could.
Then on to New York, where I did church work and auditioned for Broadway chorus ... “Thank you!” a lot of those. One of the shows I showed up for was The Unsinkable Molly Brown, by-you guessed it-Meredith Willson. All of the prospective singers were lining the hall waiting to get in when HIMSELF came through the throng, recognizing me and stopping with, “DICK ... how are you! We’ve missed you!” the last part with a thinly veiled reference to the fact I had left Music Man in Chicago! He moved on and all the other guys in the line were bemoaning the “fact” I was a “shoo-in!” When my turn came, all of the Willson folk from M M were there-you remember, “jumped up, Bravo?-and it was, “Oh Dick, you don’t have to sing! Stand over there with the others (the accepted ones). I was feeling pretty good. When done, the stage manager-a friend from M M on tour-said “... This is for typing!” “Typing?” What typing do you need for a late 19th Century Western? The first ten ... they cut three, second ten, same thing, third ten ... they cut four ... and I was one of them! Meredith just paid me back for leaving the show after nine month, and they had to replace me in the Train Scene (big deal) and find someone else to sing the Convention Centers!
Well, I was finally offered a Broadway Show-Tenderloin-when they had a special audition for me at the Shubert Theater. (That was the strangest part of it ... I had not previously auditioned for the show ... but, it became apparent that the knew who I was from other auditions!)
Nailed it. The producer told me that they had a bit of a reservation about hiring me, because they thought “... my voice might be too good for the chorus!” I piped up with, “No problem, give me a lead!” He laughed and rhetorically asked, “Well, what have you done (in showbiz)” “Aaah, there’s that!”I said. I had a conflict, another job, not signed, but I wouldn’t let the guy down. “But, this is Broadway!” came the plaintive cry. “Yeah ... I know, but I gave the guy my word!”
Three months later, I re-auditioned for the New York City Opera ... and they hired me. They wanted me, but didn’t have a spot for me the first time I sang for them.
Timing ... had I signed for the Tenderloin ... I would have been bound by a “six month rider” and couldn’t have left the company, ergo, no NYCO!
Three years later, after my successes at City Opera, I was hired to sing the leading role of Leadville Johnny Brown, in the Unsinkable show, out of which I was “typed” ... out! And ... irony of ironies, just who do you think was coming to the Casa Manana, in Fort Worth, TX for the opening of the first Summer Stock production of Unsinkable Molly Brown ... Rini and Meredith Willson! Opening night was one of the best performances I had ever sung. (There are three or for songs from that original performance on my audio page, Colorado my home, opener, I’ll never say no to you, The Soliloquy ... judge for yourself!)
And Meredith gushed over Ruta Lee-who was magnificent-saying, “Where were you when I was casting the show?” To me ... he didn’t have the guts to even say hello ... Great reviews!
I guess the point of all of this is ... I was really, really lucky for the opportunities that revealed themselves and the ones I made for myself ... but, the most important part of the equation is ... can you deliver on demand? That is always the botton-line answer! Technique, technique, technique ... ;-)