Can I Sit with You?


The Sound of Musicals

By Michael Procopio
Age 6 to the present

The men in my family loved show tunes. My grandfather, being of Italian stock, listened to opera. My father preferred Broadway musicals. Original cast albums like Cinderella, Camelot, A Chorus Line, and Annie followed us wherever we traveled in his car. My older brother loved big movie musicals, specifically those produced by Arthur Freed and his friends at Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. Most directly influenced by him, I learned to converse in a language liberally peppered with musical references. We compared the events of our own lives to those which occurred in the movies, usually unfavorably, since it is often difficult to make homework and cleaning up after dogs more interesting than dancing around pirate ships or singing with Munchkins.

In my family, a boy singing songs from The Sound of Music was nothing extraordinary– in fact, it was encouraged. The subtle changing of lyrics to suit any occasion was applauded by my elder brother. Sadly, singing “I Am Six, Going on Seven” in a voice approximating that of the eldest Von Trapp girl did not translate well to the playground of my elementary school. Worse, my impression of Ann-Margret’s frenzied “Smash the Mirror” number from Tommy was not received with applause but with baffled silence, then derisive laughter, which I found confusing since my brother and sister had both loved the impression as I performed it the day before. Upon review some thirty years later, it seems reasonable that a six-year-old boy writhing on the on the grass and pulling at his hair while singing in an exaggerated vibrato might make other little boys uncomfortable. It was clear to them that I was different. It was clear to me that they simply did not speak my language.

By the second grade, my performances were much more subtle; intended for more intimate audiences. To offset the boredom of a long bus ride to Olvera Street in Los Angeles, I decided to entertain my field trip seat mate with what I thought was a subdued interpretation of Esther Williams’ playful version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The boy sitting next to me had always been kind and therefore, I thought, deserving of my talents. Far from being entertained, he squirmed and moved as far away as he could from me without physically hurling himself from the bus. I thought he’d get it. I thought he’d understand. In a way, I think he did. I don’t think he spoke to me again until the third grade. I rode the rest of the way to Los Angeles in silence; my status as a resident alien confirmed.

There were few opportunities to further humiliate myself since I did not sit with other boys at lunch or get invited to their houses after school or even play with them unless compelled to in group sports like dodgeball wherein they sharpened their throwing skills and I perfected my dodging abilities.

If a boy admits to liking show tunes, he invites trouble. If a boy who likes show tunes also admits to dreaming about taking bubble baths with Michael Landon, he invites danger. To my mind, liking musicals seemed a perfectly normal, masculine thing. Blowing kisses to the shadow I saw in the shape of Mr. Landon cast by my night light every evening did not. I’d never heard of another boy doing that, so I kept my mouth shut, which felt unnecessary, since everyone seemed to know anyway.

Names like “girl” and “sissy” were first muttered and then shouted at me. As we got a little older, the words “fag” and “homo” entered the vocabulary. I objected to “girl” since I had no desire to be one, Ann-Margret impression aside. “Sissy” I wasn’t so sure about– I was bigger and faster than most of my taunters, but I was mildly obsessed with people like Charo and activities such as watching Days of Our Lives. By the time fifth grade came and the abandoned fantasies of Michael Landon were replaced by thoughts of holding hands with a tall Brazilian-Swedish boy, I knew my taunters were speaking the truth when they called me a homo; I don’t think they meant as a compliment.

The name-calling eventually lead to physical threats. The occasional sock in the arm or leg stuck out to trip graduated to stomach-punching and being shoved against walls. Once cornered in the library by one of the meanest boys I knew, I pleaded with him to leave me alone and warned him of the nearby presence of our school librarian. He laughed and suggested I cry to her as he punched me in the stomach. I weighed my options and decided the best course of action
was to bury my fist in his eye. I was surprised by how much my hand hurt. That never seemed to happen to people in the movies. The following year, the boy was placed in a classroom for children with learning disabilities. I briefly worried that I had caused his brain damage. At least, I thought, he wouldn’t be bothering me again. For the most part, no one else did either.

The rest of my elementary school career was spent rather quietly. When forced to play soccer with my classmates, my attention turned to the nearby boundary fence covered in honeysuckle vines. Whenever the vines were in bloom, the class broke from play to swarm the flowers. I’d hum Lena Horne’s version of “Honeysuckle Rose” from Thousands Cheer quietly and to myself, since I didn’t think anyone would appreciate the fact that I had a song for nearly every occasion. Or understand. Except my brother. I’d tell him, since he was the only person I knew who spoke ‘Musical’ better than I did. As long as I had him to talk to when I got home from school, I remained relatively untroubled by my scholastic isolation.

When I was 12, three major events occurred that altered the course of my social life: I started middle school, entered into an aggressive attack of puberty and my brother moved to France, where he could watch musicals in French, thus combining two of his greatest passions. Though the news he sent of Gene Kelly dancing and singing with Catherine Deneuve made me nearly faint from excitement, our conversations were few, given the physical distance between us. The combination of being in a new school environment with a rapidly changing body and no brother to confide in made the issue of my own social awkwardness more acute. Since my body and voice had decided change without first consulting me, I decided I might as well go for broke, and change my personality too. Twelve-year-olds are famous for that.

I watched the other puberty-stricken people around me, noting what they wore and what they listened to and eventually learned how to be more like them, to blend in. Never entirely, but enough to be accepted, be invited to parties, and allowed to sit with others at lunch. Instead of humming Cole Porter tunes in public, I started tapping my feet to Adam and the Ants, the Go-Go’s, and other musicians favored by ‘tweens in 1982. I learned to speak the language of the people around me, to enter their world and shed some of my former reputation as an alien. I succeeded to some degree– gaining friends and higher social status, but I never felt that I could be completely myself around anyone. On the outside, I could appear as normal– whatever that was– as I wanted to be. Inwardly, I felt like an alien passing for human. The names Judy Garland and Fred Astaire never passed my lips in public, no matter how much I wanted them to.

As I got older and entered college, I found what I had secretly given up hope of ever finding– people my age who spoke openly of Leslie Caron, Alice Faye and Donald O’Conner. People who spoke my language. People like me. And they didn’t look like aliens, but rather attractive human beings who were proud of being different from 90% of the general population. Eventually, I learned to look upon my show tune-loving tendencies as a source of pride. Now, I sometimes sing them out loud specifically to annoy people. In fact, if you happen to walk through my neighborhood today and you listen very carefully, you might hear a bit of Mary Poppins, Meet Me in St. Louis, or the sound of other musicals coming from the open window of my home and me singing right along with them. I don’t really care who hears it. Unless it’s playing too loudly during my downstairs neighbor’s nap time. It’s one thing to have fun annoying people from time to time, but it’s an entirely other thing to be rude to one’s neighbors.

Advertisements

10 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Oh, I so wish we rode the bus to school together. I would have sang with you (or may be not, because I am not that great of a singer).

One of my fondest memory as an adult is going with a bunch of friends to the movie theater and see the Anniversary edition of the Little Mermaid and sing out loud to the songs, until someone threatened to call security.

Great story. It made me smile.
thanks

Comment by Captain Blog

Just wanted to hip you to this cool group on Yahoo called The Judy Garland Experience, you can sing as many show tunes as you like and people won’t make fun of you there. Hell, they will probably join in!. The group has all sorts of great, and constantly changing, ultra rare and unreleased files of Judy and lots of other musicians (Joe Turner, Aretha, Sinatra, Peggy Lee, JImmy Scott, Anita O’Day, Ruth Brown, Chet Baker etc). I mean the files are really great, if you are a music lover you have to join, I’m serious.
The group is pretty tite and has Judy’s family members, other celebrities, fans, authors and lots more as members.
There is always some kind of an interesting discussion going on.
They also have mad pics, contests, polls,blah, blah, blah, you know what I mean, it’s all good, check it out!
http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/thejudygarlandexperience/

Comment by Dan B (no, not Bennett, think harder)

Great story…

Comment by Anonymous

Thanks for the comments!

The Judy Garland Experience? How in God’s name have I never heard of that before?

Comment by Michael Procopio

Supercalifragilistically hilarious. At six, I too loved Annie and the theme from Ice Castles, both of which I played saccharinely on my clarinet. Thank God I never did that in public.

Comment by Douglas Keiller

Michael,

I loved your story! If we had grown up in the same town during elementary school, I would have insisted that you attend our daily re-enactments of key scenes from Grease. I would have been honored to be your tone-deaf, South Asian Sandy. You can sing show tunes with me anytime.

Aruni

Comment by Anonymous

Awesome. I get such a picture of you as a kid! I just want to hug that kid and have him over to make cookies at my house and sing.

Jackie

Comment by Anonymous

You were just born in the wrong era – based on my dad’s singing, you would have fit right in, well, in terms of the songs, at least. He was born in 53.

We grew up to “Oklahoma”, “Singing in the Rain”, “If I were a Rich Man”, “Hello Dolly”….I could go on and on; and so could he – no need for normal conversation when you can answer everything with a song from a musical, right?

Sadly, I have a strong aversion to the musicals, myself, but I can definitely relate to the home environment!

Comment by Kelleen

Douglas– Ice Castles? Are you serious? Shan and I were forced to play that in junior high band. A shudder just went up my spine.

Aruni– Do you remember the all-dorm musical our freshman year at UCLA? I lived and breathed Grease for about two months; casting, directing, and finally having no choice but to play Eugene when the actor cast to play him backed out two days before the opening. Not enough time to build Eugene into the central character of the show anyhow. Grease! Another shiver up my spine!

But I’d be happy to sing with you anytime, too, Sandy.

Jackie– Would that kid be allowed to eat cookies and sing at the same time?
Thanks for the hug, I need it.

Kelleen– I think I need to have a musical conversation with your father…

Comment by Michael Procopio

Michael,

Thank you for your story. I also had a very happy childhood in a world of my own. It is just too bad that a unique, sweet person finding joy in singing is seen as an alien.

(It’s Michele the food runner from Kokkari)

Comment by Michele




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: