Stephen Mosher On The Story Teller
I would rather sing than anything.
I sing even more than I dance. And I dance a lot. Music has a big effect on me, whether dancing or singing but dance comes to me so naturally and I have, in life, tended toward, no gravitated toward, challenge. And singing has always been a challenger for me. I don’t have a strong voice, naturally. I lose my voice talking over people in a bar. The chance that I could sing like any of my favorite big voiced singers was never in the cards.
And then there were the people who told me, over and over, how great were my limitations and the obstacles. And I listened to them.
Shame on me.
So in January, right after entering rehab for alcohol addiction, I was talking to my friend Georga Osborne about how much I had always wanted to do a nightclub act and she told me ‘DO IT’. And one month earlier, while drunk, I HAD called Ricky Pope and said ‘Will you do a club act with me?’ and he replied “yes, now hang up and go sleep it off.” And I HAD also called Michael Bucahanan and asked “Will you teach me how to sing?” and he replied “yes, let’s talk again when you are sober.” So, clearly, this is something I had to get out of my system.
It’s out of my system.
I worked for months on a song list, trying to find a theme, like choosing wallpaper or the right app at a restaurant. I had two or three different song lists. Some country music. Some rock and roll music. I wanted to make a mash up of the James Bond theme You Know My Name and the Jason Bourne theme Extreme Ways. I just had to sing Put the Blame on Mame. I had to end with I Shall Be Released – because I was miserable and had to believe that, one day, I would be released. I continued to try to find ways to piece it all together for one night of singing in public, making sure the naysayers didn’t win. Checking a dream off the bucket list.
And eventually I did, indeed, have a show with a framework. Go, me.
When I asked my besties (and favorite girl and boy singer songwriters) Jen Houston and Dan Tracy to do this with me, neither hesitated before saying yes. There was absolutely no chance that they thought “I’ll say yes because he will never follow through” because they both know that I always follow through. So they meant it when they said yes, clearly.
The only problem is that Ricky and Dan travel all the time and rehearsing would be a problem. Then Ricky, one of the workingest actors I know, got summer stock work. So we worked on songs, pulling out that one, adding this one, creating arrangements that would fit my vision and also my limitations. And the thing about Ricky is that he is always supportive, never critical and he began to teach me about lifting the soft palate, placement in the front of the face and proper breathing. Jennifer helped me understand more about breathing (something I still don’t fully grasp, not being able to fully locate the muscles, as I would a deltoid or a quad). Marci and Pat both had words of advise and, eventually, Michael Buchanan and I began coaching. I wasn’t sure if any of it would work but I would have to make it work.
Because Sidney Myer had given me a spot in the Don’t Tell Mama calendar.
Georga Osborne, my cabaret fairy godmother, sent an email to Sidney and me, asking him how I could get on the schedule at DTM. He and I sat down for a deliriously delicious two hour talk about who I am and what I wanted to say with my show. I told him that I am a Story Teller. And my show was a series of stories about life, my life, what I’ve learned and where I am going. He loved it. And we loved each other. I have never met anyone like him and if he had said no to me, that two hour talk would have been worth all of it. But he didn’t say no. He said, come, spread your wings. He did not say it doesn’t matter that you are a nightclub neophyte who has never sung in public before. He said our playground is your playground.
And we began the big work.
With every rehearsal Ricky asked me “what is this song about?” .. “no what is it about for you?” .. “no what is it about in the context of your show?” He made me think. He made me work. He made me an artist.
Jennifer listened to my ideas and my backphrase heavy style (it’s how I hear it in my head) and turned them into killer arrangements. She explained what to expect from my body and emotions on the night and taught me ways to make my voice fill a room. She made me so excited that I actually believed that maybe I was a musician and not a dilettante.
Dan, out of town for a protracted time, listened to my recordings of rehearsals, emailed me to ask for charts and rehearsed his part in between gigs.
Don Kelley, Georga Osborne’s friend, came on as percussionist and, from the start, spread the project with laid back good will.
And Brady Schwind agreed to direct me. When it comes to directing, Brady and I trust each other more than anyone. I direct him when he is in front of the camera, he directs me when I try some new artistic venture and we direct each other in life. There was nobody else to look at this for me. And, out of the gate, he had questions? Why are you telling this story? Why are you talking about that instead of yourself? The audience wants to know you, not that. Tell your story and they will go with you. He told me this bit of brilliance that I will never forget: when an audience sits down they want to know 1) why am I here? 2) what’s in this for me? 3) when do I get to go home. If you let them know these things they will relax with you and go on the journey. The made me, The Story Teller, redefine the story.
Because the show was missing several key elements until Brady made me re write it. Once he had his hands on it, adding those inimitable Brady Scwhind touches, it was perfect.
It is very difficult to be a novice at something and feel, at times, like you are alone. I recognized that Ricky needed to go out of town for work. Girl’s gotta eat. And I always support him in every single endeavor. I knew that Dan’s work in the Midwest was extremely important. And I always support him in every single endeavor. And I have seen first hand how her nanny work (Jen cares for the child of a close friend because his work and his wife’s work is very demanding), her recording career and the making of her show Shut Your Cake Hole keep her hyper busy. But, if I’m being honest, there were times (twice) when I sat down on the sofa and cried because it wasn’t looking good for me. I wouldn’t have the room for my final rehearsal until 9 pm the night before the show. I wouldn’t have my entire band together until that time. I was a little panicked because that is a situation that seasoned singers must be able to handle; I was certain that I would stumble in the circumstance. I only needed, though, a couple of minutes of crying and feeling alone before I considered my long history and the closeness of my relationships with Ricky and Jen and Dan, and I realized we were going to be fine. I had enough faith in them and in my own musical instincts to know it was going to be like cutting an ice cream cake with a hot knife. I may not be a trained singer but I have remarkable instincts and a great ear. Indeed, at one point Ricky said to me “I’m trying to think of a way to get you your note since this song starts with percussion” and I said “I don’t need the note, I have it”. He stopped and looked at me and said “You do have your note. You always have it.” It’s a compliment I will always remember. So instead of feeling lost and alone, I went to work every day and when it was slow in the gym I walked around the pool, singing every song until I just couldn’t sing them any more.
Dan returned home. We had two rehearsals together that went so smoothly that I discovered something I haven’t had, anew, in a while: complete understanding. My personal relationships with certain people have lead to perfect artistic relationships – it doesn’t happen every day and when it does, you take it and treasure it. We understood each other, musically, we blended together perfectly and it surprised us both so much that we laughed joyously.
I got word from the club that my show was sold out, a month in advance. People were calling me and asking if I could get them in, which I could not. People were traveling in to see me. I had a new outfit (I buy new clothing extremely rarely) and my parents were in town to see my little play (Brady had admonished me to stop calling it a ‘skit’ and call it what it was: a play or a show). I had rehearsed and rehearsed it dieted myself down to 167 pounds (Which I hadn’t been in a long time, thanks to catering food, illness and injury).
It was time.
The team at Don’t Tell Mama nightclub is a treasure. Sidney sets so beautiful and brilliant a tone as to make it the (true) happiest place on earth. Everyone is so friendly and accommodating. Armando came in to tech our final rehearsal, the night before and gave us a seamless and graceful night of making music. Erik came in to run the show and made sure we were well cared for. Max was a kind and accommodating server who took care of my guests as though they were his personal friends. As I stood in the alcove, waiting to enter The Brick Room, packed to the rafters, Sidney Myer stood with me, reminding me to enjoy the moment, to have fun, because the audience was going to do both. He put his hand on my back and rubbed between the shoulder blades. He reminded me to be in the moment, comforted my nerves and made me feel loved.
My name, over the microphone.
Sidney opened the door and the applause was thunderous.
There were so many people I had to stop for a moment. I wanted to take a picture. I had no camera, no phone. I took a picture with my memory. There were Jason and Kenny, right in front of me. Over to the right, by the tripod where Allan was filming.. there are Elizabeth Ann and Bob. There’s Ms Dowd. I took a few steps. Tony Cointreau’s face, above the crowd. Jimmy is sitting across from him. Applause and screams. I looked right at Collette. There’s Angel, across from her. Anita Gillette is sitting next to mama, I touched Anita’s shoulder. Glen Briggs got in. Good. Anna Lively got in. I knew she would. Marci looks pretty. Daddy is smiling. Look at my band. I have a band. They’re beautiful. I stopped at the foot of the stage and looked at all of them, overwhelmed and happy. It was time to sing. My first time onstage in over a decade, my first time onstage as a singer, ever. I paused at the microphone for one last look before taking the plunge. Deep breath.
“They say times are hard for dreamers but they are not hard for me….”
I couldn’t hear myself. We had done a mic check, worked the monitor. I couldn’t hear myself. I would have to trust myself and my band. I kept on going. Remember what Brady said, Stephen. Keep your eyes open. When you close your eyes, it disconnects the audience from The Story Teller. Look up. When you look down the people in the back can’t see your eyes. Socialize with your audience. Socialize with your band. The stage has to be like a game night at Two-A. Remember what Ricky told you, Stephen. You’re The Story Teller. Don’t worry about the song, just tell the story.
“This is how my world gets maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaade.”
Arms out like wings, the way Ricky told you.
The first number was done. Right into the second one. This was a good one. Lots of melody and band.
“Ev’rybody’s taaaaalkin’ at me… I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’ Only the echoooooes of my mind…”
It’s amazing what your mind can take in while you are on a stage performing, without it messing up the performance. Look how proud Michael Buchanan is… he is beaming. There’s my best friend from High School IN SWITZERLAND, Ian Thompson, with his wife Karla, right up against the stage. He’s going to laugh when I mention Chris Kavanaugh later. Look how handsome Stephen and Will are. How nice of them to come in from Jersey. Well, why not, you go to as many of their shows as you can, they wouldn’t miss this, they’re family. Marci is chair dancing…
Second number down. Nerves settling down. Have some water. There’s a glass of room temp and a thermos of hot water with lemon. It’s time to talk. A lot. Drink.
I have a lot of experience talking to people, telling stories, getting attention. All those years as maitre d’ at the catering company, all those years of hosting parties in our home… it’s just my nature. BUT 60 PEOPLE IN ONE ROOM!!! ON A MICROPHONE WITH NO MONITOR!!
Have a little faith.
When telling a story it is good to look people in the eye. It puts them at ease and draws them in. And the lights onstage are bright but if you peer hard enough you can see Lauren Dortch’s blonde curls back there in the dark and Matthew Jenkin’s black framed eyeglasses on that wall there. After that, you just talk to them. Share your truth. Be real because they can spot inauthenticity from fifty paces.
Damn, this monologue is long. I need to hydrate. The next number is 16 minutes of singing and talking. And this is the number Michael and I worked so hard on and he is right up against the foot of the stage. Here we go.
“In life one has to face a huge assortment of nauseating fads and good advice….”
“There’s health and fitness, diet and deportment and other pointless forms of sacfrifce.
Dorian was sitting in Brady’s seat, smiling and nodding.
“Conversation, wit, I am a doubter… manners and charm, they’re not way to impress “
Look right at Tom
“SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO forget the inner me, observe the outer.”
Look straight ahead and strike a pose.
“I am what I wear and how I dress.”
The My Strongest Suit/Zip medley is what I and the band call The Epic Medley. For every verse of each song there was about four minutes of talking. I am sharing stories about my grandparents’ association with Old Hollywood. The stories are captivating and, frankly, I tell them as if I had really been there. It is too many words to remember, too many complicated sentences to sing by memory and too many minutes to go without hydration… and there is no point at which to take a sip.
But I did it. Yes, I forgot the words to the third verse of Zip. Ooops. So what. I did it. They screamed. I said “Good night! I’m going home!” and they laughed. They got it. We were together. The audience was NOT out to get me.
Time for me and Jen to duet on her self-penned theme song from Married and Counting. If this didn’t get people who knew us and our movie in an emotional state, then I had planned this out poorly. I could see Pat’s face. He was teary eyed. I could see Annalisa’s face. No tears but the emotion was out. Anita was leaning on my mother like they were old girlfriends. Yaaazzz. I was a happy, happy man. Onstage with my galpal, singing her music to a crowd of people who knew the song, the movie it came from and its’ history. It doesn’t get better.
From my favorite girl singer songwriter to my favorite boy singer songwriter. We went right into a Dan Tracy original and, looking out at the audience, I could see them melting as, one by one, everyone fell in love. Even those who already knew Dan were seeing a new side of him when, before their very eyes, he opened his heart and laid bare his soul. Also, he and I sounded fucking awesome. I hoped I would get the harmonies right. Yes. Yes. There they are. Ok, we are halfway home.
Right into Is It Ok If I Call You Mine?, a simple and sweet song from the movie Fame that I have loved for nearly four decades. Only Jen and I had created an arrangement that was more in line with what I hear in my head. During our first rehearsal we tried it once and she said “Oh.. you want this to swing”. I asked what she meant and she told me “that is how you sing, it’s how you always sing” so I figured the professional musician knew what she was saying. And swung, it did. And it went over very well with the audience. Some laughs, some swaying in seats, an impromptu mandatory dance break, a shout out to Tony Cointreau, seated halfway back. It was a fun couple of minutes leading up to the reason I chose this song, something Brady had asked me the moment I first played it for him. Why this song here, he wanted to know. So I told him. Because it spoke about the young version of me seeing the movie Fame and wanting my own fame, which I never got. That would lead to a story about what it is to live inside of a disappointed life where dreams didn’t come true – at least to the extent one wished. But the moral is that a person can live with that life and move forward. I didn’t get the success that Married and Counting and The Sweater Book should have brought me. So what. There is the story. So what. It was fun. And now what I am left with is a life out of the arts with a man who smiles when he sees me – and you can build a life around that. At least I can.
To round out the story about my failed quest for fame and fortune in the arts I shared a story from The Sweater Book. I had prepared a Bea Arthur story and a Maggie Smith story and let the audience choose who they would hear about. The noise for Bea Arthur was large but it was also largely Tom. And I had done the Bea Arthur story at the rehearsal the night before, it was only fair to tell the Maggie Smith story and to do my Maggie Smith impression, which is usually better than it was on this night! Nerves, doncha know. Still, the crowd liked the story and I was able to tell it without making anyone look bad or defaming anyone. And with a fair amount of laughter from the crowd.
Time to shift gears.
Since I had sung with Dan and Jen it seemed only natural to croon a tune with Ricky. After all we had been singing together for over thirty years and we were quite good at it. And he is the most extraordinary teacher and director, I should want to sing with the first best friend I ever had as a grown up. And what a joy to sing with him, his voice is so silky, creamy smooth and gorgeous. And we were doing the song You I Like from The Grand Tour and how MUCH do I love Jerry Herman! I had chosen, carefully, what songs I would sing on this night because I wanted to be authentic to who I am and I have loved Jerry Herman since I was five years old. I think my first record album I ever bought was the movie soundtrack to Hello Dolly. Jerry Herman is authentic to me. And such sweet harmonies Ricky and I were doing – it was such a fun arrangement.
Which I messed up. Twice. I forgot one of the harmonies and one of the lyrics. But then I had made a mistake on almost every song I had done all night – almost – I guess this was part of the experience of performing live! None of the mistakes mattered, though, because I hit the final high note for the final harmony. I viewed the number as a joyful, amazing success.
Next up was me and Dan and Don Kelly, whose presence on percussion was making the entire evening a resounding hit. I was so happy (and remain so happy) that I came up out of the pocket to engage Don to play this show with us. Such a difference. And with Don on Go Slow Johnny, Dan and I had a great time presenting this number we had worked so hard on. It’s a sweet Noel Coward tune that we had jazzed up (swung up) and mixed in with a story about the time I proposed to Pat in a public place with young people looking on. Now, for some reason, this number had me very worried. I had it in my head it was a difficult song and hard to sing and I was really in my head. But there are those days you just have to jump. And hope a net appears.
I don’t know who Annette is but she did appear and the number smashed.
And speaking of Smash.
I was and am a huge fan of the television show SMASH. I do not apologize or explain. I am a devoted Katharine McPhee fan. And I knew that I wanted my second to last song to be the song Pretender from SMASH. I searched high and low for the sheet music. I had to do this song. It makes me happy hearing it, makes me happy singing it and it was the perfect up tempo way to finish the show, even though there was absolutely no story tie in. I wrote to the composers of the song on Twitter and they were not able to give me sheet music. I implored people on Facebook. Nobody replied. Finally I did what I have always done in this situation. I asked Ricky. Justlikethat he wrote out a lead sheet. And Justlikethat I had my closing number.
Except it wasn’t going well. I was singing the song and I couldn’t hear myself and it felt clunky and slow and lacking of the joy and upbeat nature of the song that I NEEDED to close my show. I could feel it wasn’t happening, I could feel it wasn’t connecting with the audience, and I got in my head and started to worry. Then I messed up a line.
So I stopped.
I asked the band to start over and everyone came alive all at once. Don was percussing a little harder, Ricky was swinging a little jazzier, Jen and Dan were playing with a little more zip. And it worked. I was so happy with the way it went. It was a perfectly flawed human way to end my show about my perfect and flawed and human life.
“I gotta go home”
And they boo’ed. Yeah, that’s right. But I took a moment to explain why I had to do this show – so the naysayers wouldn’t win. And why I have to retire from the arts – so the Light will win.
When I began putting this show together I wanted to end with my favorite song, I Shall Be Released. I have one of the most heartfelt and original performances of the song I have ever heard (and I have Youtubed every version out there) and Ricky and I had it perfectly prepared to close out this night. Until I saw the musical Amelie. When I heard the song Where Do We Go From Here I knew Bob Dylan was in Deep Shit Arkansas. You see I Shall Be Released was a plea for help. For years I have felt trapped. For years I have been so busy taking care of other people that I haven’t taken care of myself. For years I have labored under the heavy hands of alcohol, depression, bi polar disorder, failure, disappointment and unhappiness. For years I have longed for some released. And I Shall Be Released was going to express it to the world.
Only that’s not me.
I am, at my core, an optimist. I hate it but there it is. I am. And Where Do We Go From Here is my song. Phillipa Soo and Amelie may have sung it first, but it’s my song. And singing it in rehearsals was impossible. I couldn’t get through it without crying. I felt so much while singing it and everything I felt was bigger than the sky. I was terrified of this song. But Ricky and Jen watched me perform it at a rehearsal, tears and snot running down my face, my voice wavering and my expression the ugly cry. And they both said “Yes”. So I had to trust myself, something that can be hard to do on your best day, let alone a day when you are so far out of your comfort zone you may as well have multiple personality disorder. And I did. And it worked. I sang the song, I didn’t ugly cry, I put forth my story and finished the entire show with those magic words.
White. A Blank Page or Canvas.
The applause was deafening.
It didn’t last.
I had to calm the crowd down so I could do a tiny little three minute encore.
I hadn’t wanted to do an encore. I had wanted to say white a blank page or canvas and get off the stage. But my parents flew up for this show. And my Mama has begun to suffer memory loss. And I don’t know how much time we will have with her as she is, as she has been. I had this moment to tribute her, publicly in a special way. And so I sang, right to her, the song that is our song, made famous by our favorite singer.
“You and me against the world, sometimes it feels like you and me against the world…..”
Now I was done.
“I love you, mama”
And I was off the stage.
So, when you do a nightclub act they make you stand outside the room and say goodnight. I have never been good at this kind of thing because I am a terribly shy person and I don’t take compliments well. But this night, I did. And it was magnificent. Audra Hans said so many beautiful things about my ability to tell the truth and how she wishes to tell the truth in her art. Suzan Perry simply wept in my arms. Anita Gillette grabbed me and told me she loved me and that it was EXACTLY what cabaret should be like. Sarah and Josh Price had tears in their eyes. Lauren and Rob Crozier had tears in their eyes. Colette and Angle had tears in their eyes. Bob Bowen was effusive. Ian and Karla Thompson were complimentary (I can’t BELIEVE my best friend from High School in Switzerland was there!). Anna Lively told me I styled Go Slow Johnny like Julie Wilson would have. Ellen Osburn couldn’t stop hugging me. Tony and Jim just grabbed me and wept. And the smile on my beautiful husband’s face, the entire night, and after the show told me what I already knew.
I felt like I done good.
Isn’t it funny? In my life I wrote, produced and appeared in a play in Dallas in the 80s. Flop. I conceived and created a $70,000. Photography book nobody bought. I conceived an idea for a movie that bled dry three people I love deeply and it was completely overshadowed by another movie about tragedy, while ours was about joy. I self-published a memoir that even my family didn’t read. Every artistic venture I have ever attempted has left me financially and emotionally bankrupt. Wouldn’t it be hi-ho-larious if the one artistic venture that I could succeed at were the one I didn’t want to do? People told me for days after The Story Teller that I needed to do it again. Sidney suggested, strongly, that I add performances. Dorian Woodruff told me the show was such perfection that I needed to only do it three more times and I would win a MAC award for sure. The compliments that rolled in were overwhelming. And beautiful. And the review by Bart Greenberg encouraged me to continue at this work
I love singing. And I always wanted to do this. And I loved every minute of it (except for the abject terror and the threat of failure and embarrassment). I wouldn’t take back one minute of the last year working on The Story Teller. I also wouldn’t change one thing (well, maybe one). It was a joy and treat and something I will always remember.
But I don’t want to be a nightclub singer. I don’t want to be a cabaret artist. I don’t want to be a part of an artistic life where you have to spend all your time promoting yourself. I don’t want to a part of an artistic life at all. I just want to live, quietly, exercise, hike, climb, bike and spend time with my loved ones. It’s a kind of peace I haven’t had, haven’t really thought of and one I think I’m ready for.
But it was the ride of a lifetime. I’ll remember it, the musicians, the Don’t Tell Mamans, Sidney Myer and every face I looked into until the day I day.
And When I do Die..
I hope someone will tell My Story.