Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion

Last night, in a whirlwind, I got to do something extremely fun; be a guest on a Prairie Home Companion. This was my 3rd time on the show, and each time was very different. The first time I landed on the show it was by coincidence and fluke. I happened to be performing at a fundraiser for the new york public radio station WNYC because someone I went to college with works there and asked me to do it for free. Garrison Keillor was the main act, and after he heard me sing, he said "if you want to come on the show, have your agent contact us and we'll get you on there." Well, I thought he was just being nice, and my agents don't even know what PHC is as far as I know, but I went to the website and sent an email to the general email address, and sure enough, somebody wrote me back and said they'd love to have me on the show!! So I went on and sang a couple of arias, a fake coffee commercial that Garrison wrote, and a duet with him from The Music Man. Then they asked me to come back on Christmas Eve (2005) and that was probably one of the most fun gigs I've ever done because Garrison wrote a Guy Noir sketch which centered around me! I played a disgruntled opera singer and not only did he rewrite the words to 3 arias (which I had to learn that day) but I got to play opposite him in a sketch that involved sword fights, chainsaws, and all kinds of craziness. Last night was a little calmer because I was a last minute addition to the show, and he didn't really have time to write a whole sketch for me like last time. But it was still pretty crazy for an opera singer who is used to rehearsing!

The morning started out with me receiving an email from the music director Rich Dworsky - I still hadn't been told what I was singing, and was waiting to hear if my suggestions were accepted. I had a hard time thinking of the right Christmas songs that would be classical and would suit my voice, so I suggested the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria (which I hadn't sung since I was a kid, but that was okay) and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which I could sing legit enough I figured. But this email said that Garrison wasn't crazy about pop tunes, and couldn't I sing something more classical? It also gave me his phone number and told me to call him, which I did around 9:15 AM. I gotta say, talking to Garrison Keillor on the telephone is a surreal experience. I mean, last week I was in my parents car listening to him tell stories on his show, and now I'm talking to him on the phone. Bizarre. He told me he wanted to rewrite the words to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas ("because I'm a writer you know, that's what I do," he wryly joked) and I said sure. He also asked me about rewriting some of the arias from The Messiah to put in a script, but didn't tell me why or for what script. An hour later I had received via email "Have yourself a merry little christmas/ Let your meals be light / From now on let's try to curb your appetite" and the rest of the hilarious rewrite. And a few minutes later came a rewrite of "He shall feed his Flock" from the Messiah that began, "He shall feed his cats with cans of tuna / And he shall clean their litter boxes every day, every day." Now if you know The Messiah and you're imagining that to the tune of He Shall Feed His Flock, you're laughing already. And even though I had no idea what script this would appear in, or if I would have more of a part, I looked over everything, got myself ready, and headed off to Town Hall.

I arrived at around 1 in the afternoon for my soundcheck, but Garrison was still at his apartment writing for another couple of hours, so we practiced the Ave Maria, the Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with the new words, and the Messiah piece even though we had no idea where it would go. "Are there any sketches about Cats?" I asked, hoping to get some clues. Nobody knew. After we rehearsed, I hung around hoping to hear news about scripts, and a bit later got called down to the stage again. "Garrison wants you to sing with the blue grass singers in their medley" I was told. So I marched back to the stage to rehearse whatever this was going to be. These awesome musicians had this medley of traditional Christmas carols intermixed with this song I had never heard. They wanted to know if I could just improvise a harmony with them. WHAT? Anybody who knows me knows I hate singing harmony, and I definitely am not good at IMPROVISING harmony! But they somehow convinced me (they told me I could sing the melody on the carols - I just had to figure something out for the other parts) and Rich, the music director was helping me figure out this high descant to sing about them. I have to say singing those carols with them was really enjoyable - I just sang softly and tried to blend with their voices, and it was a really lovely experience. As we were rehearsing, Garrison breezed by and said (while walking past) "Just have Jennifer sing the carols, not the other parts." Phew! No more harmonic improvisation for me!

Then somebody handed me the Guy Noir script, where the Messiah Cats song was located. Unfortunately, I didn't have an actual acting role like last time, I just appeared and sang my song. I waited for my turn to rehearse the script, but my pianist had left for the afternoon to get some work done, so I sang it without piano and hoped for the best. One of the challenges of working on that show is trying to fit the typed out lyrics he gives you into the music because the syllabification is always different and if you get one syllable off, you're screwed (on live radio). I sort of hung around because I thought Garrison might need to hear me sing his new lyrics for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but he was so behind he had to go up to his dressing room and write his monologue, which I don't think he'd started yet. When Rachelle, my pianist got back, we tried the Messiah piece one more time ( I messed up the syllables the first time, which freaked me out) and went upstairs to wait for the rundown, which finally arrived about 10 minutes before the broadcast was supposed to start. I saw that my cool trio with the bluegrass singers had sadly been cut due to time constraints, and that Ave Maria was basically the last thing on the programs. Yikes! I have to sit in the FREEZING theater until the end and then belt out Ave Maria?? Live???

So the show happened, and everything seemed to go fine. I didn't mess up any of my syllables, the audience liked his new lyrics, and Ave Maria, even though it got moved to another spot in the program on the fly, still managed to come out okay. Of course my parents and Georgia (who were in the audience at Town Hall) were wondering why I was so nervous that I was shaking, but it wasn't from nerves - it was because the theater was like a meat locker and I was actually shivering! But in spite of all of that, everything went fine, and I had a great time as usual. And doing anything that is being broadcast live gives you even steelier nerves that you might have already had.

The show will be available at the Prairie Home Companion website after today's rebroadcast. Check it out if you are so inclined.


Unknown said...

Look, you wrote a long blog entry AND i read it. :o) Great job yesterday--you were a star. Oh, and how I WISH i could have heard your harmonizations....

Incipit vita nova Ann said...

You were terrific as always--and GK is right. You are too slim to sing his version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"! We look forward to seeing you next week --and what on earth were you doing up at 6 this morning??!

L. Williamson said...

This is so cool! I dont know you but I started reading your blog a few months ago and I love your humor. Really, though, who gets to go on PHC three times? Thats so neat!

Katypracht said...

Awesome job - I wish I'd been there to see you sing it live!

In awe of your ability to throw stuff together on the fly,