“Back through the years, I go wonderin’ once again,
back to the seasons of my youth…”
-Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors”
Since I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief and loss recently, my therapist advised that I think about things that are generative, things that make me feel alive and growing. When the future feels way too scary I think, instead, about my past.
I was walking with my baby Ayla the other day and out of nowhere a memory of my favorite childhood musical performance washed over me, and I started to sing:
But if you think it, want it, dream it, then it’s real. You are what you feel.
It is 1991. I am in seventh grade. Mr. Rubino, the new music teacher at Farragut Middle School in Hastings-on-Hudson, is directing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a bible story turned modern-day rock opera. But this was not to be the typical middle school musical. Signing up with my closest friends, none of us had any idea what was about to unfold on that auditorium stage.
I was cast in the role of Simeon, one of Joseph’s eleven brothers. Not knowing anything about the play, I remember asking Mr. Rubino, “Is this a big part?” He said, “The brothers appear in almost every single song.” YES! I lived for these musicals. Of course, I realized only later that I was to play one of eleven scheming brothers who, jealous of their father’s favorite son, plot to kill their sibling, Joseph.
Every day after school I would grab a bag of chips (or two) from the vending machines and head over to rehearsal. First we learned the songs, which if you haven’t heard before, have the kind melodies that get stuck in your head forever:
Go go go Joseph you know what they say! Hang on now Joseph you’ll make it one day!
We were part of something middle-school epic that year. Not only did we learn the entire play from beginning to end, but Mr. Rubino proceeded to teach us the harmony for every single song. In recalling this recently it finally hit me how incredible this was. But there is something powerful and adorable about a group of children singing harmony, and somehow we pulled it off.
We sang the songs on the way to school, in the hallways, in class, on the phone, in the mirror, to our parents and siblings. For most of us, it was the first time we experienced singing in harmony with one another and we were obsessed with practicing and hearing the sounds vibrate between our bodies. When I recall the songs now, I still sing my harmony lines, a low tenor part (well, low for a 12-year-old girl).
Mr. Rubino was masterful in teaching us how to use gesture and our voices to convey the meaning of the text. He was tireless in his efforts. Every week he added a surprise element to the mix – a new costume, a choreographed dance, a new stage prop. A few days before the evening performance he unveiled the final touch: a huge, electronic, red blinking “Joseph” sign was lowered onto the stage.
Where the hell did Mr. Rubino get that sign?!
Finally, when the lights went down and I was onstage singing my little heart out to an audience, I realized then the true power of what we had accomplished. I remember the teachers and students’ jaws dropping and standing ovations. I remember how blown away the community was with how much attention and effort we all put into the performance. I remember the good friends I made in the process and hugging each and every one of them after the curtains closed.
Sitting here now, getting all my pre-drugs before chemo, I love imagining my twelve-year-old self, with braces and bangs, in my brown vest with the sparkly letters that spelled “Simeon” on the back (still in my closet at my mom’s house). Amidst the clicking machines, nurses running back and forth, people fighting for their lives, in my heart and mind I am a million miles and twenty years away. I am on top of the world.
Ayla, who usually LOVES music, was not happy at all with my impromptu performance that day, but once I got started there was no turning back. That baby was going to sit in her stroller and listen to her mama sing!
Now sing it with me folks!
Give me my colored coat! My amazing colored coat! Give me my colored coat!
My AMAAAZIIINGGGG COOOOLOOOORED COOOOOAAAAAT!!!!!!!!