Fantasy in Musicals

I’ve been playing a lot of shows in the last week. As part of a commitment for my own personal growth, I’m looking at a lot of new (to me) scores. Any piano playing is useful to me, but since my particular interest is in directing, I decided to focus on shows for which I can get both script and score at the SU library.

I ended up with this collection, mostly because I wanted to look at Camelot.

Because I already had this checked out, I decided to go for other shows in the set. Surprisingly, we didn’t have all the scores for some of the more well-known shows. So the first four shows I looked at were:

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Score by Frederick Lowe

Book by Dale Wasserman
Lyrics by Joe Darion
Music by Mitch Leigh

Book by Moss Hart
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Music by Kurt Weill

Book by Joe Masteroff
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Music by John Kander

I realized that these shows have some interesting parallels and contrasts, so I wanted to take a couple of minutes to compare them.

First, a quick synopsis of each one:

  • Camelot is the story of the establishment and downfall of King Arthur’s Order of the Knights of the Round Table. Established as an ideal of using military power to moral ends, it is torn apart when Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot and they run off together.

  • Man of La Mancha is a loose adaptation of Don Quixote, framed by an imaginary episode from Miguel de Cervantes’s life. While imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition, Cervantes acts out episodes from his famous novel for the diversion of his fellow prisoners.

  • Lady in the Dark is the most unusual in construction. By recounting a series of dreams in therapy sessions, Liza Elliot tries to figure out why she’s feeling lost and sad. In between sessions, she tries to balance her personal life with her work as head of a magazine.

  • Cabaret tells the story of Cliff Bradshaw, an author who spends time in Berlin just before the ascension of the Nazi party, where he falls in love with Sally Bowles. His landlady falls in love with a Jewish merchant, and the Kit Kat Klub offers surreal commentary on the story and politics.

So in each of these stories, fantasy or imagination has a significant part to play. In Camelot, Arthur’s imagination carries him to great heights of achievement before it collapses. Man of La Mancha is built around the idealistic delusions of an old man highly detached from the world. Lady in the Dark illustrates Liza’s dreams in a surreal, highly stylized manner. And Cabaret revolves around side comments in the imaginative world of the club.

The first thing I noticed is that the shows pair up in interesting ways. Camelot and Man of La Mancha are idealistic interpretations. Arthur’s optimism about the ways of the world is undiminished throughout. Even at the very end, he remains idealistic. On the eve of battle he finds a young boy and send him off to tell the story of his “one brief shining moment” at Camelot. He hopes that it will give cheer to the world forever.

Man of La Mancha is, in many ways, a story about optimism. Don Quixote interprets every moment as an adventure, a joy. His imagination elevates everyone—innkeeper becomes lord of a castle, a weathered prostitute becomes a lady worthy of adoration. Even as he is robbed blind toward the end, Don Quixote believes he is being entertained by an exotic prince and princess. When his illusions are shattered by the Knight of the Mirrors, it is a blow.

In both of these stories, fantasy is a good thing. It excites the nobler parts of humanity. Lancelot is first stirred by finding an ideal higher than his own perfection. Arthur wants to escape the warring local factions and senseless violence of the world. Guinevere wants to exercise her own will. The Round Table gives them all this.

It is ultimately brought low by the flaw in human nature: love. Guinevere and Lancelot fall in love deeply. Arthur sees but cannot interfere for fear of wrecking what he has wrought. Even in the final scene, with the two men on opposing sides and Guinevere lost to him, Arthur has a conference with the two of them and laments that he could not overcome these weaknesses.

Don Quixote’s fantasy ennobles Sancho from servant to squire. We don’t see the relationship develop (it’s established in the opening number), but Sancho is devoted to him. What we do see is Aldonza’s transformation to Dulcinea. Don Quixote insists to her at every step of the way that she is a lady, that she has dignity, that she deserves his loyalty. This despite the fact that every other part of her life tears her down.

When we meet Aldonza, she is a maid and prostitute in a seedy in. She’s preyed on and exploited by muleteers and she uses what she has (her looks, body, and attitude) to manipulate them as best she can. When Don Quixote is star-struck at her, she laughs him off. It’s not until she sees him doing his devoted vigil in the courtyard, that she truly speaks and listens to him. What he says (the famous song “The Impossible Dream”) awes her.

In the end, Aldonza gets what the little boy Tom does not get in Camelot. Arthur is still alive at the end of the show, so he gets the final reprise. In Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote expires after the stress of having his illusions destroyed and then restored. Aldonza takes up his song and leads the final reprise of “The Impossible Dream”

In both cases: fantasy = optimism.

Now let’s turn our attention to the dark twins. These have a surprising number of historical parallels, but let’s stick with the stories for this post.

There is never a question in Lady in the Dark of whether Liza’s dreams are good or bad. It’s made clear in the opening scene that she is disturbed by them. And her presence in a therapist’s office is a clear sign that the progress of this show will be her interpreting her dreams and solving the problem.

And in Cabaret, the dream and fantasy is a kind of collective subconscious, where an attractive roommate becomes two, and an unusual attraction becomes dating a gorilla. There is a continuous tension between the unnatural joy in the club and the growing storm outside. In the end, Cliff escapes while the other characters hide in their illusion.

Liza’s dreams are populated by people she sees, her memories, and her fantasies. In the first dream, she is the most beautiful, interesting woman in the world. A far cry from her daily life. In the second, she is simultaneously at a high-school reunion and a wedding to a man who in real life is available but whom she does not love. In the third, her indecision becomes a kind of circus and trial where she is instructed to make up her mind.

Only in the final dream of her childhood is the true history revealed. The song she’s been humming all show is a kids song she sang, her family told her she was ugly and should never wear blue, and she has always lost when in conflict with other women. Once she understands the problem, Liza is able to step up and solve her own problems—taking action for herself and what she wants.

Cabaret does not have such a happy ending. Although Cliff is able to escape Germany without issue, Sally returns to the club where she believes she will be safe. Fräulein Schneider, the landlady, believes it will all blow over. Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit seller, thinks getting away from Fräulein Schneider will disguise him enough to escape Nazi scrutiny. Although we do not find out what happens, at the end of the show even the shoddy, deep-rooted cabaret feels like a tin shack in a hurricane.

In this case, fantasy is a kind of sedative. It deadens the senses of those caught up in it. Only Cliff, the most down-to-earth character, is able to see what’s really happening and go. In that sense, he has more in common with Ernst Ludwig, our primary Nazi.

In these shows, fantasy = darkness.

It’s interesting to note that of these shows, three of them are from the 1960s. Only Lady in the Dark precedes, them, having run initially in 1941.

Obviously all of these shows are different. But in each case, the characters struggle with imagination, fantasy, or dreams. In some cases the struggle ends with a victory for the character (Lady in the Dark) or his cause (Man of La Mancha and Camelot). Only in Cabaret is the victory of fantasy a loss for the world.

I should write longer posts about each of these shows, but I wanted to at least share these thoughts, since the parallels almost defied coincidence.

All Er Nothin': Rodger's and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! on Broadway

During my trip to NYC this week, I had a chance to buy rush tickets to one show for a Wednesday matinee. I was on the fence, divided between Beetlejuice and the new production of Oklahoma! Taking advice from several people, I bought tickets to see Oklahoma!.

It was astounding.

I should preface this by saying that I have never seen or worked on a production of Oklahoma!. You can see that on my Music Director portfolio here. Before seeing the show, I knew the broad outlines of the plot, and I’d listened to the original cast recording. Incidentally, I also found these arrangements by Nelson Riddle that I really like.

I also read an article years ago about the original production of this show at Bard College (more about that in a moment). It completely fired my imagination and planted the idea of completely stripping down a show to examine its story closely.

So when I got a chance to buy the ticket (and sit on the front row, no less) for a reasonable price, I was in.

This production of Oklahoma! stays true to the text of the original book and score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on a play called Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, it was adapted in the first collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein. They of course went on to other great shows including South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and Carousel (among many others).

This interpretation was a concept by Daniel Fish and originally staged at Bard College in 2015. He has continued to refine it through a few other iterations until it landed on Broadway this year. It received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and is currently playing a limited engagement at the Circle in the Square Theatre Center.

Once again, I saw most of the original cast. Curly is normally played by Damon Daunno but I saw his understudy Denver Milord, who seemed perfectly natural in the role. Laurie was played by the stunning Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Jud (her other suitor, an awkward outsider) was Patrick Vaill. This serious love triangle is given comic contrast by Ado Annie (Ali Stroker), Will Parker (Jimmy Davis), and Ali Hakim (Will Brill).

There is no ensemble, only a collection of featured roles including Aunt Eller (played by Mary Testa), Cord Elam (Anthony Canson), Mike (Will Mann), Gertie Cummings (Mallory Portnoy), and Andrew Carnes (Mitch Tebo). The only person with no speaking lines is the Lead Dancer, an enigmatic figure who appears only once as the performer of the dream ballet. That was Gabrielle Hamilton.

The show is accompanied by a country band, including guitars, fiddles, mandolin, bass, and accordion. The band and instruments can be seen here.

With all the names out of the way, let’s get to the show.

First, I was astonished by the appearance of the theatre. Much like my comments about Hadestown, I like a show that strikes the audience as soon as you walk in the door. In this case, the entire space, floor to ceiling (including under the chairs and basically every flat surface) was covered with smooth, untreated plywood. The far wall of the theatre (which would be “upstage” by most definitions) was the same surface, but painted with a vague pattern of rolling fields and a distant farmhouse.

The front row of the audience is actually onstage, seated at long tables covered with white paper and with a crock pot every few feet, steaming away. These were full of chili which was served with cornbread at intermission. The tables are recessed slightly below stage level.

There were two cutouts near the “downstage” end where the band members played. This made them visible while also out-of-the-way. They were able to interact occasionally with the players (as when Gertie shows off her wedding ring or when Curly plays duets with them during the box social). There was a visible tunnel entrance on the downstage end and three hidden doorways on the upstage end.

I don’t want to summarize the show, and my impressions are far too numerous to mention. So I’m going to spit them out in whatever order they come to me. I’m also not going to divide them up into positive and negative as I did with Hadestown.

  • The arrangements suited the show perfectly. It was country flavored without being authentically country. You’d never confuse it with stuff played on a country music station, classic or modern; It’s neither Patsy Cline nor Jason Aldean. But it mostly works!

  • There were two scenes played completely in the dark, two scenes played in surreal green light, and two scenes that used live video projected on the wall. These were highly impactful, but didn’t obviously connect to the otherwise fairly natural look of the show. I would have liked to see these woven in more logically, with a clear pattern of meaning.

  • The country accents and acting were essentially natural. I felt like I could run into these people on the street. That being said, Hammerstein wrote more than a few turns of phrase that sound country but aren’t. “I’ve known what’s right from wrong since I been ten” just doesn’t flow as naturally as “since I wuz ten” or even “since I’s ten”.

  • The chili was surprisingly good. (I was worried. As a displaced Texan, I have my favorite kinds of chili. I didn’t expect to like it.) However, it wasn’t really integrated into the show and felt more like a gimmick than it did a vital part of the concept.

  • The Characters of Will and Ado Annie were comically exaggerated but too much. They were clearly not the brightest bulbs, but both very sweet. Ado Annie’s song “I Cain’t Say No” worked better for me than it did in the Tony Awards. And it felt like she was saying “Why would anyone want to say no?” rather than “I don’t feel comfortable saying no” or something. This was a girl who is happy-go-lucky with her sexuality.

  • I have read complaints about the writing of Ali Hakim as a broad middle-eastern stereotype. He’s supposed to be a pseudo-Persian con-man traveling salesman. In this one they did away with all pretense of exoticism except for a wild beard. I thought it worked well.

  • The dream ballet was interesting and really well-executed. But it was also so abstract that I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Interestingly, it was also performed mostly to recorded music, allowing for more colors that weren’t available to the band.

The ending…oh my. (Spoilers from here to the dividing line). In the original version, as related by my friends, Judd arrives at Laurie and Curly’s wedding drunk and gets into a fight where Curly accidentally kills him. There is then a perfunctory trial where Curly is exonerated and sent off on his honeymoon.

In this version, it’s all slowed down and surreal. Jud is not obviously drunk. He gives a revolver to Curly, who, after a long moment, shoots him (Jud darts toward him, which sets him off). Curly and Laurie are spattered with blood until the end. The courtroom scene is played slowly and deliberately, with Aunt Eller steering things. She masterminds the not-guilty verdict.

The final reprise of the title song is almost robotic, cheerless. The actors go through the same motions as during the earlier version, but there are no smiles, no cheer. It’s really kind of unnerving, especially with the remains of the scene still spattered around the stage. If you leave this show smiling broadly, you’ve missed the point.

I want to finish this by giving my overall opinion of the concept. I admire its originality and commitment. This concept is really about the script and the acting. Everything else is meant to serve that. And for the most part, the orchestrations, choreography, and set design did add to it. I don’t think it’s the “definitive” interpretation of Oklahoma! (if one exists), but it’s a highly compelling one.

I hope to one day be involved in creating a show that is so singular in its vision, and that is able to strip away the expected finish in the interest of emotional honesty.

Road to Hell: Post Show Notes on Hadestown on Broadway

I was very excited to have the opportunity to see Hadestown on Tuesday night. It’s this year’s big hit show. I’d heard excellent things about the show, and of course it won the Tony Award for Best Musical this year. In what was perhaps a rash decision, I purchased resale tickets in the back row of the mezzanine at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. It was totally worth it.

Since Hadestown opened in April, I was able to see it with the original cast intact. The more well-known cast members included Andre De Shields (Hermes), Reeve Carney (Orpheus), Amber Gray (Persephone), and Patrick Page (Hades). Eva Noblezada (Eurydice), was out for this performance, so I saw her understudy Khaila Wilcoxson instead. She was fabulous!

The featured ensemble of The Fates were played by Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad. The rest of the ensemble was Afra Hines, Timothy Hughes, John Krause, Kimberly Marable, and Ahmad Simmons. As far as I know, I did not see any other swings or understudies, but I’m also not sure if those are announced the way lead actors are announced.

The band was led from the piano by Liam Robinson. It included seven players by my count, though a guitarist is not listed on this Playbill page. Several of them played multiple instruments.

A few notes about Hadestown first. It tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, which I won’t summarize here. (I will provide a link to the Wikipedia article about it though). Filtered through a concept by Anais Mitchell, here it’s told with steampunk and dixieland/folk elements.

The show is overtly theatrical, including direct addressing of the audience and no attempt at realistic locations. It originated as a concept album by Ms. Mitchell in 2006, and was developed through a series of productions (Off-Broadway, then in Calgary and London) along with the director Rachel Chavkin, who became famous for her work on Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 a few years ago.

I listened to the original concept album in 2016 and was kind of unimpressed. The tunes were nice (I especially liked “Way Down Hadestown” for its dixieland jazz feel) but they were individual moments, not parts of a story. It was more album than show.

The show gathered steam recently, so on the drive to Virginia I listened to the Off-Broadway live recording and was much more impressed. In particular, the song “Wait for Me” grabbed my attention. Other standout tracks included “Road to Hell” (the opening number) and “Our Lady of the Underground” which starts Act 2, and in which the character Persephone introduces the members of the orchestra by name. The show was clearly structured now with a through-line I could follow even without the scenes.

After the show won the Tony Award, I wanted to give it a shot live when I went to NYC on this trip. The reviews I read were universally raves and the performers (especially Ms. Gray and Ms. Noblezada) were widely praised. Mr. De Shields won a Tony Awards for his performance, and the cast showcase there was compelling, though I didn’t fall in love with it there.

With all that in mind, when I found out tickets weren’t completely unattainable, I was thrilled to get a chance to see it.

I’m a big fan of shows that begin with a strong statement as the audience enters. Usually this seems to come in the form of having the curtain raised showing the set so the audience can examine it. Hadestown was no exception.

I’d heard some interviews with the ensemble members on the Ensemblist podcast where they had described it like being in a New Orleans bar. I could absolutely see French Quarter vibes in this set. A few tables and chairs were scattered around, and along the walls were several tiers on which instruments (and later the band) sat.

There was a small balcony with stairs leading up to it and underneath the balcony was the “bar” which was blacked out with cloth to hide the drum set. The center of the stage contained three concentric rings which were later revealed to be turntables used extensively as the show went on.

At the start of the show, something truly shocking happened. With broad smiles on their faces, the whole company (cast and orchestra) rushed out onto the stage, waved at the audience, and took their seats. My mind was already blown. I’ve seen shows that begin with the actors taking their places in full light, but never an immediate acknowledgment of the audience.

Mr. De Shields emerged last. He rambled across the stage, shaking a hand here, touching a shoulder there, greeting all the ensemble members seated at the tables. The principals and fates were off to the sides and back. Then he turned to face the audience and just looked, totally at ease. Without a word he had every eye on him.

There was a long pause. Then with a broad grin, he unbuttoned his jacket and revealed a sparkly vest beneath. It broke the tension and the audience applauded.

He gestured to the trombone player and kicked off the first song.

I won’t go into such detail about the rest of the show, but those first moments absolutely captivated me. So many of my favorite theatrical elements drawn together with a total command. This is a show that embraces imagination and requires the audience to believe totally.

The acting itself, for the most part, was realistic. Characters looked at each other when they talked, and moved around naturally. Any time a character was speaking or interacting with another, it was realistic or slightly heightened. The dialogue in the show is often in verse and short phrases.

Much of the show is sung or underscored and occasionally the cast joins in the accompaniment. At one memorable moment, the band dropped out and the only music was one actor stomping a beat and singing. The Fates sometimes played accordion and violin. Orpheus himself, the prototypical musician, played guitar often.

Some other singular moments that I remember:

  • The fracturing of the barroom set when Orpheus descends into the underworld, revealing an industrial wall covered with blinding lights.

  • The unexpected trombone solo, in which the player actually stood out of his seat and walked downstage to stand by Hermes; he played a jazz solo directly to the audience

  • Most of Persephone’s solo moments, were riveting.

  • The famous “swinging lanterns” during “Wait for Me” which were striking, but not as astonishing as I’d imagined them to be.

That last point brings me to some of my specific dislikes about the show.

I should point out now that these are incredibly personal, and do not take away from the achievement of this work. Also, they are likely colored by the fact that I heard so much about the show before seeing it, and imagination has better special effects than life.

As I said, some moments didn’t quite rise to the level I’d imagined of them. When you’re in a proscenium theatre, there is a distinct divide between actors and audience, whatever you do. Even in this show, the fourth wall wasn’t completely disintegrated. I wanted to feel like dancing in the opening number, and instead I just wanted to watch them dance.

Orpheus is an enigma of a character, more device than person. In this story, he’s described as kinda dumb but incredibly gifted as an artist. I wonder if the story would be strengthened by making him simply dreamy, not unintelligent. Then his determination to rescue Eurydice would be more admirable and deeper. It would result from courage, instead of from youthful unthinking.

A quick note that I disagree with the statement that Orpheus/Eurydice are underwritten compared to Hades/Persephone. Some people feel that the latter relationship is given more nuance. I think it’s just a more complicated relationship. Orpheus and Eurydice are clear and simple.

Reeve Carney has a nice voice and it was well suited to the character of Orpheus as singer/songwriter. He moved stiffly sometimes, especially at the beginning. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional. He also had a habit of squeezing his eyes shut and grimacing slightly when he went into falsetto, which he does a lot. It sounded good but looked like he was working really hard.

This last one is a spoiler, so skip to the dividing line if you want to miss it.

Finally, I was really looking forward to the climactic moment of the show when Orpheus breaks and looks back to see Eurydice. The stage picture was incredible. I think it would have been heightened even more to have been in complete silence. At first I thought it was silent but after a moment I realized the violin was playing high, shifting harmonics in the background. It was eerie, but having a sharp contrast to the musical build could be devastating.

So here’s the short version of my thoughts: Incredible show.

fThe complaints I just aired are really footnotes to what is an extremely compelling night at the theatre and a highly original vision of what musicals can do and be. My complaints are really the definition of creative differences.

I hope to one day work on this show, and I’d love to get to talk to anyone involved in creating it or putting it together. Everyone has made a massive creative investment, whether onstage or off. This is truly a vision of what theatre can be.

Updates of All Kinds!

Hello and welcome back!

If you’ve been watching this site, you’ve undoubtedly been bored, as nothing has happened here since January.

But now things have kicked off! I’ve done a fair amount of revision over the last few days, and there is more to come. It will take me a while to get everything cleaned up and consistent, but it’s something.

In addition to site updates, here’s an unfairly brief summary of my life recently.

Big Changes

In March, I found out that I had been accepted to Shenandoah Conservatory, to study conducting there. This program has been highly recommended by several people who I respect, and I jumped at the chance to be involved.

I accepted the offer and resigned my job at Magnolia West High School. I finished out the end of the year (earning a UIL Sweepstakes trophy in the process!) and moved to Winchester, Virginia. I’m renting a house with several other grad students, and I’m sitting on the couch as I type this.

I’ve spent the time since my move working with Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, the summer stock program run by the conservatory. In addition to showing me around the school, I’ve had a chance to interact with faculty and staff who I will be working with during the year. Needless to say I’ve spent plenty of time at the piano and in the library.

I was awarded a partial assistantship, which was recently converted to a full assistantship, which will cover many of my expenses in exchange for my work. I’m excited to see what that will lead to!

Other Events

At the same time, I also left my job at Advent Lutheran Church, where I’d been playing since December of 2018. I am incredibly thankful and blessed to have worked with Pastor Kim and with Scott MacAdow there, and I learned a lot. I also finished my studies with Dr. Dave Englert, and earned my Service Playing Certificate from the American Guild of Organists.

Before I moved, I had a chance to go one last time to UIL State Solo & Ensemble. I accompanied about 20 students, including covering for two students who I had never worked with but found themselves in need.

The move went smoothly and I enjoyed seeing many parts of the country. You can check out my Instagram feed for pictures of the travel.

Looking Forward

My time with SSMT has nearly ended. I’m still playing for some occasional rehearsals while David, the main rehearsal pianist, is busy with shows. But it allows me many free days and not much to do.

So with the remaining summer, I’m making a point of sightseeing and preparing myself for the fall. I’m playing plenty of piano and reading a lot. I hope to visit friends in Washington, D.C., and possibly even in New York City before the summer ends.

And of course I’ll be updating and filling this site in as well. No excuses, since I have plenty of free time.

In Memoriam (After the Fact)

I didn’t realize it until I checked Facebook (I’m terrible with remembering dates unless I write them down), but today is the 5th anniversary of my Grandma’s passing.

Her name was Susie Lewis and she was an incredible force in my life. I wish I had planned ahead and could write a longer, more coherent post than this, but instead, I will content myself with sharing some of the many things she did for me and the lessons she taught me.

Grandma was always my biggest fan as a musician. She owned the piano where I first learned notes (it’s still at my Grandpa’s house, sadly neglected as I live so far away). She always supported me in singing and playing piano, even though she could barely carry a tune. I was recently reminded of the lullaby she used to sing, so I know she wasn’t totally tone-deaf.

She always wanted to hear whatever I was working on at the piano, even if it was a little piece by an obscure composer. She actually paid for my piano lessons for several years when it was more difficult for my parents to do so.

Fun fact and quick sidebar: when I met my first real piano teacher, we quickly discovered that she had lived in the same small town where Grandma did. In fact, I think I remember hearing that my aunt baby-sat her kids a few times.

Grandma never missed a performance of mine, if she could help it. Because of her, my parents must have seen me in Les Miserables more than a dozen times over two productions. She was at every piano recital as far back as I can remember, and she spearheaded the receptions for both my high school and college recitals.

When I was very young, she convinced me to perform a simple arrangement of Crown Him With Many Crowns around Easter at her church. That was my first “public” solo performance. Over the next decade I would perform easily a dozen times there, everything from attempts at karaoke tracks of I Can Only Imagine (while my voice was changing and I had to sing most of the last half down the octave), to piano pieces. I think one summer in junior high I stayed with her for over a month and played something nearly every weekend.

I remember especially two performances in her honor, neither of them at a church. When I was in sixth grade (I think; I know my voice hadn’t changed yet), there was a Relay For Life planned in her small town. I got up and sang My Heart Will Go On which I had been working on with a voice teacher. My parents have the video—it’s precious. It’s the kind of performance that in high school I would have rolled my eyes at, but now I remember it fondly.

The second performance was while I was in college. My family planned a special event in her honor at a Louisiana Swashbucklers game (indoor football). Without telling her ahead of time, my cousins arranged for me to sing the National Anthem at the start of the game. I remember the look of pride and the hug she gave me when I came back afterward.

There are so many other performances I’m remembering now when she was in the audience, but I’ll leave it with those stories for now.

Music wasn’t the only thing Grandma supported me in. I went on so many trips with her, especially in the last few years of her life when she was driving to Baton Rouge regularly for chemotherapy treatments. It’s incredible to think about the fact that she did that for nearly a decade, traveling from across Louisiana, and later from Houston for treatments. She loved the doctor over there.

Grandma also went to Baylor with me for the first time after I became a student. For orientation weekend, we made a big loop from Houston to Waco, then to visit my great-grandmother in east Texas (I remember getting my first email from my roommate while we were there), then to Baton Rouge for another treatment.

She bought me my first laptop on that trip, which I used all through college. In fact, I still have it (I used it as recently as the school pop show last spring to run sound cues). She bought herself an identical laptop and learned how to operate the MacOS in her late 50s and early 60s. (She bought my second and current laptop as a gift for my college graduation, though she passed before making it to the ceremony.

The more I write this, the more memories bubble up. Rather than write them all down, I’m going to save some for stories. But I want to send off with some things that I only figured out tonight after seeing other family members’ reflections.

Until tonight, I didn’t recognize the incredible strength I saw from Grandma. I didn’t think about the level of commitment—determination—it took to fight the battle she fought for over a decade. She made it look effortless and we never felt she loved us any less, or that she had less time for the things she enjoyed. In fact, she seized on opportunities to try even more—family vacations, travel to see distant relatives, even summer camps.

So in short, here are the lessons I learned from my Grandma.

  • Keep your loved ones (both family and friends) close.

  • Once you’ve committed to a course of action, go for it.

  • Never give up. But be willing to change strategies in case of new developments.

  • Try new things. Explore the world!

  • Luck will help, but commitment and a good work ethic is what carries the day.

  • Encourage others to take pride in their accomplishments.

  • Life isn’t as complicated as it seems. Love, determination, and a cheerful heart will solve a lot. Then you can worry about the other stuff.