Saturday, April 3, 2010

High School Musical

We all have hallmarks of Spring. Spring for my husband is heralded by the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. My mother and I mark Spring by the arrival of the "open" sign in the seasonal Dairy Queen. My father left footprints in the garden every spring watching for the snowdrops to arrive. Jesus Christ Superstar marks Easter for me.

I love the music of Lent and the Easter season. Perky is probably not the first word that leaps to mind when people think of me...more like intense or intimidating, or so I've been accused. The rituals and rites of the Catholic Church during Easter Week are powerful, except for the darned incense. I could live without the incense, and so could my asthma. It was all just words though, until Jesus Christ Superstar and high school.

I started high school in Dorval, QC at Queen of Angels Academy.(high school in Quebec is Grade 7-11, and you do two years of CEGEP before university, or at least that's how it was when it applied to me)  It was a private, write an entrance exam school with an emphasis on academics. If you weren't in the top 5 in the class you were pond scum. We were taught by nuns exclusively, with the exception of the gym and Spanish teachers. We had high academic standards, we learned needlework and how to set a table properly (although I still have to look that one up) We would be expected to pop up and give a list of prepositions while sitting in Geography class.(I can still do it.) It was THAT kind of school, and I loved it.

And then we moved. Not only did we move provinces, we moved cultures. I was used to the French culture. We moved to the heart of German culture.  And we moved in time for me to start Ontario high school. I should have started in Grade 9 with my cousin Pat, based on my birthday date. One look at my academic transcript, and I was skipped ahead to Grade 10, and Grade 11 in French. Academically, it was fine. Socially, not so much because friendships are established in Grade 9. I was the new kid, I was socially inept, I was shy and introverted and I was smart. It was a lethal combination.

Two years into high school hell, the girls and boys only Catholic schools decided to combine forces to produce Jesus Christ Superstar. It had a huge cast and orchestra, a set that filled half the school gymnasium, and enough controversy to sell it out for 10 consecutive nights. Many people only knew that JC was a "rock opera", and questioned the suitability for Catholic schools to produce it. Without ever seeing the show, people branded it left, right and centre as sacrilegious. Letters to the editor filled the pages of the local paper. The teachers and advisors stuck to their guns and we produced a show that is still a legend in the local community. We stopped the critics nightly with an encore of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus.

I can't recall if I'd stumbled into high school drama before JC. I'd certainly discovered the solace of the choir. I could sing. I liked theatre and when I heard that the school was going to produce Jesus Christ Superstar, I leapt at the chance to audition.I was a natural for high school drama. I was chameleon, changing personae to fit who I thought people wanted me to be and feeling lost and adrift. Acting was easy. I did it every day.  I didn't get the school. I struggled with the German culture so different from what I was used to. Being smart was not acceptable. The school seemed to emphasize sports and school council more than academics, and I didn't fit into either of those things.

And then I joined the cast of JC. From there, I developed friendships that have endured the 30 odd years since high school. I fell into a group of theatre people, more men than women. If we weren't in the plays, we were gluing flats, painting sets and working behind the scenes. We were smart. We listened to Springsteen and read Thoreau for fun. (and understood it.) We looked out for each other. Many of the group of people who befriended me during the days of JC remain close friends.

Being a part of Superstar ranks as a highlight of my high school days. I still have the t-shirt, the signed program and with a bit of effort, I can still remember the Superstar dance, chicken wing bits and all. I can sing every bit of the score and I still remember my cue to enter the stage during the overture. It mattered. It mattered a great deal.

Superstar had an unexpected impact on my faith life .  I remember sitting in church on the Good Friday immediately adjacent to our performances of Superstar. It happened to be the liturgical year for the gospel of John, which influenced much of Superstar. As the words droned on, suddenly I was back on stage, living the words being read from the pulpit. Except that they were no longer words. They were flashbacks of a life experience that made the Passion story more vivid. The organist had been the music director of the play, and he played snippets of Superstar as people walked up to venerate the cross. Several cast members were in the congregation, and we kept catching each other's eye in camaraderie. We were in on the joke. The rest of the congregation remained oblivious to the fact that "rock opera" music was playing during the holiest of days in the Catholic Church.

It took many more years for me to be comfortable in my own skin, so Superstar was certainly not a watershed for me. It was the start of acceptance that it was fine to be smart, although it took until university for me to be completely comfortable with that. It was the genesis of accepting my creative side. I still have an eclectic and varied group of friends with a myriad of interests who probably wouldn't mix together, but who nurture and sustain the various bits that make me who I am.  Snippets of the score to Superstar still roll through my mind when I hear the reading of the Passion at Easter, although now it is often intermingled with snippets from the various Bach works I've learned. It has become part of the soundtrack of my life and my life has always been remembered by the music that was playing.

More than anything, I think Superstar was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere. It was the first time that I remotely fit in the new place that had become my home. It was the start of a love of theatre in general and musical theatre in particular, the start of a love of dramatic singing although the discovery of the power of my voice came years later. Most importantly,  it was start of friendships that have endured.

And so every Easter I dig out my soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar, first on vinyl, now on CD. As I go about preparations for Easter, in between Easter choir commitments, Jesus, Herod,  Judas, Mary Magdalene and Simon Zealotes will keep me company like old friends I only see once a year. I might even sneak in a few steps during the Superstar number while I boil eggs to decorate with my daughter. I will stop and try to remember the steps to Herod's dance, although I was never a part of Herod's angels. And I will know that Christ has risen. Hallelujah.

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