There were minutes left in that night’s performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and I was trying to stay awake during one of the show’s duller scenes.
I stood stage right watching Joseph (played by Donny Osmond) stumble silently toward his father, Jacob, in what was (and surely still is) the longest and most uninteresting reconciliation in the history of musical theatre. A bore in my opinion, but no one asked me. I was just a 9-year-old kid who had fortuitously fallen into fame.
Six months earlier I tried out for the K.I.D.S. (Kid Ignited Destined to Succeed) Unlimited Challenge Choir. Before the audition, I was a girl who got too sweaty during daily recess kickball games. After the fact, I was a rising star whose glimmering Broadway career lay just beyond the grammatical catastrophe that was the K.I.D.S. Unlimited acronym. I was no longer just any fourth-grader but Yellow #7, a bona fide member of Chicago’s Joseph cast. My five months of service would yield $700, but the more exciting perk was endless applause from thousands of strangers. (It was not often that I received such affirmation of my awesomeness—in fact, before Joseph, my mother was the only person who responded to any of my efforts with clapping.) Clearly I had been catapulted into a realm of glory previously unseen by chubby Mediterranean children, but that didn’t make the whole Jacob-reunites-with-Joseph snoozefest any less dull. And so, daydream I did.
I turned my head slightly. There he was—Pete Rizzuto, Green #13. He was five years my senior and the choir Lothario. Once, while we were backstage, I asked him to crack my back because he was always cracking the pretty girls’ backs between scenes (it’s just, they usually didn’t have to ask). He wrapped his arms around me and lifted me into the air. I remember feeling his breath on my neck. It smelled vaguely of cough medicine and honey. I also remember how pleasant it was to be held by a boy who wasn’t my father.
I was lost in the back-cracking memory when it happened.
As Jacob and Joseph finally embraced, the girl in front of me—Jackie Zimmer, a popular girl with Kleenex-white teeth and glossy brown hair and enormous boobs—let out two tiny coughs. The noise rippled out over the audience, hit the walls, and floated back toward the stage. It was noticeable, sure, but barely: When the curtain dropped a few songs later, I had forgotten about the whole incident. Apparently I was the only one.
In the greenroom, everyone rushed to Jackie’s side wearing looks of concern typically reserved for burn victims or cancer patients. Even Rebecca, my redheaded she-devil stage manager, sprung to Jackie’s aid. I, on the other hand, stood in a corner with my brow furrowed and my chin glued to my chest. How was it that Jackie managed to attract all of that extra attention? She had cleared her throat—it’s not like she was an asthmatic. At least Pete doesn’t seem to care, I thought. He was dragging his fingers through his thick black hair and laughing at something Orange #12 had said, paying no mind to Jackie. I smiled victoriously and started to pack my things.
Then, all of a sudden, he yelled. “Hey, Jackie!”
I turned to see Pete wearing a dazzling, easy smile that always distracted me slightly. But as I watched him saunter over, there was a constricted feeling in my chest that overrode the weakness in my knees. “Yeah?” Jackie said.
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you, Pete!”
She threw her arms around him and he hugged her back and they were laughing together and I was just a nobody watching from the corner.
This is bullshit, I thought. I wasn’t sure what “bullshit” meant, but I’d heard my father say it when something didn’t go his way, so it seemed fitting. In that moment, I was certain that I hated Jackie. And yet, I wanted to be her so badly.
I want to be Jackie, I thought.
If a little coughing yielded such overtures for her (not to mention a very long hug from Pete), what might a premeditated hack-fest achieve? My mind was racing as I looked ahead to our next show.
There were minutes left in that night’s performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and I was trying to screw up the courage for the task at hand. In a moment, Jacob and Joseph would meet at center stage. Show time.
I took a deep breath and let out a steady stream of loud coughs, the epicenter of each seemingly located in the soles of my feet. I overdramatized them: They were wet and gravely, as if I were suffering from a particularly debilitating case of pneumonia or maybe a rattling bout of whooping cough. Ten seconds later, the deed was done. At the scene’s end the whole choir ran in from the wings and took a seat around Donny as a xylophone erupted into the hollow lilt of “Any Dream Will Do.”
But something was wrong.
Donny looked perplexed. Distraught, even. And instead of bursting into song, he shouted. “Stop!” he said. The conductor looked up but hadn’t understood. He signaled the orchestra to play on, so Donny tried again. “Stop, stop—stop the music!” He was waving his arms like an umpire calling a safe play, and understanding flitted across the conductor’s face. The music screeched to a halt in the orchestral equivalent of a ten-car pile up. A stray trumpeter who missed the memo got a small three-bar solo before he tapered off pathetically. The theater filled with puzzled murmurs. “I’m so sorry,” Donny started, “but who was coughing during that last scene?”
My face flushed and my palms got clammy. Geysers were erupting from my armpits. I stared at the floor and tried to look busy, innocent, something. Donny Osmond had just stopped the show for me. This is serious, I thought. This could get me in trouble. I looked up and found him earnestly searching our faces. “It’s ok,” he cooed to no one in particular. “You can tell me. Which one of you was it?”
The house lights were up now, which completely obliterated any semblance of a fourth wall. I slowly raised my hand. After a beat, he noticed me. “It was you?” Everyone in the Chicago Theatre followed his gaze. I nodded twice in response. “Are you ok?” he asked. I nodded again. “Are you sure?” Several nods. “Do you need to leave the stage?” Vigorous head shaking. A relieved smile spread across his face. “Well great! She’s alright, folks!” he said to the audience. They exploded with applause.
Applause? Applause was good. I found myself wondering if that was the best outcome I could have hoped for, but I still played it coy. I smiled bashfully at Donny and then the audience, trying to look as fragile as possible as the orchestra struck up once again.
The curtain dropped. I’d just had a one-on-one conversation with Broadway demigod Donny Osmond, who sought me out to make absolutely sure that I was in good health. Upon his departure I expected to be swarmed by my concerned cast mates, but instead I watched as friends separated by blocking found each other, headed offstage, and ignored me completely. How strange. Didn’t they realize that Donny had stopped the show for me? Everyone would want a piece of that story.
Except that they didn’t. No one paid me any more attention than they did two days ago, save for my stage manager. In the greenroom, Rebecca grabbed my arm and threw me unceremoniously into a chair. “Should you ever find yourself coughing during the show in the future,” she said, “you need to get off of the stage immediately.” Did I understand her? Immediately.
Everyone was watching now. I saw Pete, sympathy etched on his face, but I was too embarrassed to care. I turned away from the crowd just as fat, splashy tears began to fall. And then there was a soft tap on my shoulder. “Are you ok, Marielle? Do you need a lozenge?”
I turned around to find Jackie kneeling in front of me, beautiful and concerned, and I collapsed into her arms because she was the only one there.