You wait, little girl, on an empty stage
For fate to turn the light on
Your life, little girl, is an empty page…
“Sixteen going on Seventeen” – The Sound of Music, Rodgers & Hammerstein
First of all, to anyone who cares, apologies for the distinct lack of regular blog posts over the last couple of months… I have been busy with a variety of projects and mourning the loss of my 20s… Yes… It’s been tough. (I am aware that in the context of the world my life is pretty darn rosy, pardon the pun… my name’s Rosie, you see… ha! But there is something cathartic about writing all this down… so humour me?!)
There is something monumental about the turn of a decade of your life and, if I’m honest, this whole turning 30 lark had been freaking me out for a while. I think it’s because, in my head, for many years, I’d thought that I’d really be a grown up by 30. I’d have it figured out. I’d be secure in my own skin. I’d ‘have confidence in me’… but I’m not quite there yet. The supportive cheerleader/Pollyanna part of my brain chimes in with choruses of “Everything is awesome” (from the Lego Movie… look it up, it’s an earworm and a half) and sure, I’m doing pretty great in a lot of ways… My singing teaching career is on an upward trajectory, I’ve had a cool job as an MD of critically acclaimed production of a Shakespeare play, I’ve produced a sell out show at one of the top cabaret venues in London, I live in a nice flat, I am married and in love with a wonderful guy (always with the Oscar Hammerstein references) and I have amazing friends and family and all that jazz and I’m so so grateful (Alright Pollyanna – calm down with the bragging, don’t you know I’m British?!?!). BUT…the impending change of decade made me evaluate my 20s and… my goodness… they were a whirlwind… and (to stick with the metaphor), that wind didn’t quite blow me in the direction I had expected…
When I started this blog nearly a year ago, I wrote that it was my attempt to become practically perfect in every way by the time I turned 30. Well, that hasn’t happened… but the progress is that I’ve realised that the pursuit of perfection is the thing that has been paralysing me for so long… and it’s what particularly held me back in my 20s… though it was definitely present in earlier years too. (P.S. I still love alliteration and I don’t care if that makes me a bad writer.)
When I was 16 going on 17, waiting for life to start, Rodgers and Hammerstein had long captured my heart. I was the girl who was ballsy enough to muscle her way into an audition for a production of Oklahoma! at a very well known public school when nobody from her state comprehensive knew about the auditions… and get cast as the lead. I was the girl who thought nothing of taking 4 hours of dance classes in one go. I was the girl who was so hungry to learn an unpublished song that she found the email address of a wonderful pianist who had recorded it and emailed him to ask for it…and he posted it to her, all the way from the States. I was the girl who wanted to be liked and, most of the time, was liked. I was a good girl. I was determined. Being anything other than a performer had never crossed my mind…I’d refocused from ballet mad 13 year old to singing mad 16 year old but, I just had to perform. I was never happier than when I was in a show, on stage…and although, of course, I loved playing leading roles, I was just as happy in the ensemble…as long as I was performing.
Fast forward to 30 and everything and nothing has changed. That spunky, determined girl is still here… but it often feels like she’s hiding in the shadows. Life has happened. When I was 16 going on 17, we were caring for my Granny who had Motor Neurone Disease… The tough memories from this time are mostly blurred…It’s funny how the mind does that. All the good times in school musicals and plays and choirs and orchestras seem clearer but the finer details of watching my grandmother fall apart, piece by piece, are blurred. Granny lived with us from when I was 2 and a half, through to when she died when I was just a month shy of 17. I remember watching ‘Countdown’ and drinking tea and eating shortbread and old fashioned lemonade in the garden. I remember being the one with her when she died… I was reading her ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Hollyoaks’ was on the TV in the background. Even at 16, I was cracking jokes about having ‘bored her to death with Jane Austen’ before she was even cold. Her not suffering any more was a relief. I think we’d processed much of the grief in the months before.
I guess that was the first really tough thing written on my empty pages… and since they have been filled with highs and lows and a fair amount of rambling along at ground level. I missed out on my A grade in A-level Music and lost my place at KCL so took a year out, worked doing all sorts of jobs at my local Arts Centre, a part time classical singing course and a few amateur shows, and ended up at the University of Sheffield the next year. Sheffield was wonderful and became my home from home for the next eight years. I made wonderful friends, met Jon (my husband), sang a lot, started teaching singing and managed to come out with a first class degree. After Graduating in July 2009, I continued working in the University Student’s Union and teaching singing and planned to apply for Postgraduate classical voice courses at UK Music Colleges. My voice was still fairly immature and very light… I knew I was never going to be a Wagnerian soprano but I wanted to train classically. I still sang show tunes at any opportunity… even if that was just singing through the entire score of South Pacific with my Dad and sister when I went home for Christmas. In April 2010, when I was 23, my Dad died. That night is still vivid. I’d had an audition for an opera and called my Dad to chat afterwards. We spoke every day. More than once most days. He wasn’t feeling well apparently but didn’t really want to let me know so passed the phone to my Mum. I was on my way to pack more boxes at mine and Jon’s flat as we were moving to another flat that weekend. I think it was a Tuesday. Barely a couple of hours later when Jon and I were picking up a pizza at the local take away place and Jon gets a call from my mum… she didn’t want to panic me… but Dad had collapsed and it didn’t look good. I needed to come home. We rushed back to our half packed flat and bundled some things into a bag to head to London. I made some calls to cancel my work for the next day and, before we’d got everything together to go, Mum called again to say that Dad was gone.
Stuff happened in the next two years… really good stuff, actually… but, to be honest, it all felt like a bit of a blur. Existing. Jon proposed outside the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in April 2011 and we got married in April 2012. I kept teaching. I kept singing. I’d stopped dancing. I was in a couple of very good amateur musicals at the Lyceum theatre in Sheffield, a few operas, a lot of concerts, travelled to London to have singing lessons with an amazing teacher every few weeks. There were failed auditions for Music Colleges. There was the realisation that opera probably wasn’t the right path for me. There was trying to fit into a mould that would mean I could earn a living as a performer… My voice is light and bright and Julie-like, so choral singing seemed like a good option. On a sensible whim, I did a Masters in ‘Solo Voice Ensemble Singing’ at the University of York and passed with merit but had been thrown in the deep end with peers that had so much more experience than me…and felt like I was terrible 80% of the time. I learnt a lot that year…not just about Monteverdi.
We moved to London in July 2014, I got a choral scholarship in a lovely church, with a great choir and potentially the most kind choral director I’ve ever met. I realised I didn’t want to be a choral singer. Rodgers and Hammerstein had always had my heart. I applied to RAM to do Musical Theatre, barely told anyone about it, and didn’t get a place. I didn’t want to give up. I auditioned for a one year Musical theatre course starting in February 2015 at Associated Studios and got a place. I had a great time and finished the year wanting something, praying for it, holding breath and keeping fingers crossed (Guettel geeks – you’ll understand). I didn’t get an agent straight away but, after a bit of hustling, I got signed. In the year and a bit since I’ve graduated, I’ve moved flat again, had boring temp jobs and more fulfilling teaching work and the odd gig… but nothing much… yet. At 16 going on 17, I’d hoped and almost expected to be much further ahead with my performing career by 30 than I am. I feel disappointed about it…and then I feel guilty because, I know I am ridiculously lucky to have everything I already have. At 29 going on 30, I found myself feeling scared that I had to stop chasing my dreams and start being a grown up.
I think it’s the other way around really. Being a grown up is easy. You can’t stop it. It’s also easy to stop chasing your dreams…but you are in charge of that one.
That song that my 16 year old self heard and my 17 year old self was so desperate to learn was “Jenny Rebecca” by Carol Hall (who theatre nerds will know as the composer of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). My Dad played me a recording of Frederica Von Stade singing it, with Martin Katz on piano:
Jenny Rebecca, four days old
How do you like the world so far?
Jenny Rebecca, four days old
What a lucky, lucky, lucky,lucky girl you are!
For you have swings to be swung on
Trees to be climbed up
Days to be young on
Toys you can wind up
Grass to be lying on
Sun up above
Pillows for crying on
When you’re in love
Ponies for riding on
Wind in your hair
Slides to be sliding on
Leaves in the air
Dogs to be caring for
Love to be giving…
Dreams to be daring for
Long as you’re living
Yes, you have
Dreams to be daring for
Long as you’re living…
There was something about the simple beauty of this song that captured me at 16 years old and still does today. Whenever Julie Andrews is asked about her career she always says she has been very ‘lucky’…in various interviews you hear her say: “How lucky can a girl get?!”. Despite the challenges she has faced in losing her singing voice and losing her husband, she is still, 81 going on 82, daring to do new things (Who’s seen Julie’s Greenroom on Netflix?!).
I’m some way past four days old now and my name isn’t Jenny…or Julie… but I still have dreams to be daring for as long as I’m living. Don’t you?