One of my first professional gigs as a young cellist was performing in the pit orchestra at a theater in my hometown, Indianapolis, Indiana. The show was called Miss Moffat and it was a spectacular failure. What made its failure so impressive was that it starred Ginger Rogers and was directed by Joshua Logan, two legendary artists who should have known better than to go anywhere near such a dreadful show. For those of you who are too young to remember him, or who spent your adolescences doing something other than listening to recordings of classic Broadway musicals, Joshua Logan was a renowned director. South Pacific and Annie Get Your Gun were among his many hits. If you don't know who Ginger Rogers was, you and I have absolutely nothing to say to each other.
Miss Moffat was adapted from the Bette Davis movie, The Corn Is Green. The movie was a potboiler about a schoolteacher, Miss Moffat, who moves to a Welsh mining village and rescues a brilliant young man from a dismal future in the mines. For the musical version, the story was shifted to a community of African American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow-era Deep South. The racial politics of the show were equal parts naive and offensive. A sassy mammy caricature shared the stage with assorted shuffling, dim-witted men. The songs ranged from forgettable to embarrassingly bad.
Ginger Rogers was in her 70s by the time she took on Miss Moffat and she had tremendous difficulty remembering her lines. Everyone thought it was terribly sad to see an icon of the golden age of film suffering the ravages of age. But standing outside the theater on opening night, I overheard two elderly women discussing the performance. One woman said, "Poor Ginger was having a lot of trouble remembering her lines. I guess it happens us all eventually." Her friend huffed, "I saw her in a play in 1952, and it was the same damn thing."
Throughout the rehearsals and performances, Ginger Rogers complained that the orchestra pit was so dark she couldn't see the conductor from the stage. Her memory lapses, she said, were the result of her timing having been thrown off by the theater's bad lighting. Our conductor was given a lighted baton to solve the problem. The star's timing/memory problems continued, so the baton grew larger and brighter every day. By the end of the show's blessedly brief run, it looked as if the conductor was looming above the orchestra wielding a light saber.
I arrived early for every rehearsal and cornered Joshua Logan to ask what it was like to work with Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and other Broadway stars of the past. Kind and patient man that he was, he managed to smile graciously and not run away whenever he saw me coming toward him. During one of our conversations, he told me the tale of how, in an earlier incarnation of the show, Bette Davis had been the star. He said Bette Davis's stage fright had forced Miss Moffat to close before it reached Broadway. With Ginger, though, it was on its way to becoming a huge hit. The entire time we talked, those awful songs were ringing in my ears. I remember thinking that he had to be out of his mind.
At the cast party after the final performance, Ginger Rogers, decked out in a glittering gown and wrapped in a fluffy, white, faux-fur stole, made a stirring speech about the joy of live performance and the particular charms of Miss Moffat. At the end of her speech, she flung her stole over her shoulder and exited with the line, "Next stop, Broadway!"
She seemed to believe it. I was convinced that she, like Joshua Logan, had to be nuts. To my knowledge, no one has staged Miss Moffat again since that night.
Much later in my career, I was a part of an equally ill-conceived production. This time, it was the premiere of a contemporary opera. It was a dreary slog through a post-apocalyptic landscape, an unwieldy mixture of atonality, gospel, and spoken word. Each night, the concert hall filled with approximately 200 patrons. Each night, by the end of three punishing hours, our audience dwindled to a handful of brave and battered souls.
The composer of this opera was a very friendly man who had written a number of far more successful works. He attended every performance, making copious notes in his score to fine-tune the work for what he optimistically believed would be future productions. One evening, after audience member exits had left only the composer, his wife, and three others in their seats for the final note, I found myself riding in the elevator with the composer. I expected an uncomfortable conversation during which I would have to offer him consolation. But he was chatty and absolutely glowing with happiness. He said the opera was going far better than he could have imagined. The only necessary alteration for subsequent mountings of the opera: it was imperative that the next lead soprano perform her role nude, as he had first envisioned it.
I thought then of Ginger Rogers and Joshua Logan. This fine, seasoned composer and those legendary troupers had surely suspected on some level that they were involved in catastrophic ventures. Still, they gave every indication of truly believing that they were on the cusp of the greatest triumph of their long careers. During that elevator ride, it struck me that these three people understood something I needed to learn: being a little, or a lot, delusional isn't the sad result of a long career in the arts; it's one of the prerequisites. They knew that every project needed to be approached as if it were a future Top Hat, an undiscovered South Pacific, or a baby La Bohème. They had figured out that a big part of what enabled artists to take creative risks decade after decade was the unwavering conviction that perfection was one lighted baton, one unafraid actress, or one naked soprano away.
I would love to say that when I stepped off of that elevator, I was the joyful possessor of an inextinguishable optimism that lingers with me to this day. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead, I struggle with feelings of inadequacy as both a cellist and a novelist, sometimes simultaneously. But I've had the good fortune of seeing great artists enjoy extraordinary failures. That has given me the hope that I can continue to take risks throughout my life. And if, some years from now, I manage to create some spectacular late-career flops of my own, I just might be lucky enough to be too blinded by the faux-fur stole piled high on my shoulders and the dazzling, far-off lights of Broadway to recognize how bad they are.