Ethel Merman broke one of our speakers yesterday. Admittedly, we don’t have the world’s finest speakers, but Ethel Merman may have one the world’s loudest voices. It’s beautiful, but soft it isn’t.
My daughter and I were listening to Gypsy, a show about a stage mother who is—to put it mildly—not a wallflower. She is perhaps one of the most famous of strong-willed mothers in theatrical lore, right up there with the passive-aggressive (if hauntingly poignant) Amanda Wingfield of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie.
Musical theater is the native language of my original nuclear family. My parents listened to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim endlessly, they were the soundtrack of my youth. My sister and I not only went along for the ride, but took up the family obsession, making “radio shows” together on cassette tapes and practicing all the songs from A Chorus Line. I was about 5 when I began to sing the lyrics to “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” in the shopping cart at Hughes Market. The song is all sorts of explicitly sexual and “inappropriate.” I’ll never forget my mother leaning in and saying gently, “Some songs shouldn’t be sung in certain venues.” It was like biting the apple of knowledge; now I was a sinner. But my mother was simply telling me that not all family cultures are the same.
I knew all the lyrics to Sweeney Todd before I was 7. (I’ll leave that to the child development experts to sort out.) If my mother wanted to help me feel that she empathized with any experience I was having, she usually turned to musical theater.
There is always a song for it.
My 3-year-old daughter had just experienced a triumph when I put the original cast recording of Gypsy on, by way of celebration. She had mastered a skill that has eluded her: she used a grown-up scissors to cut a perfectly straight line.
She shouted, “I did it, Mama!” Her success had coincided with a modest triumph of my own: I’d landed a small job. We both felt giddy with surprise and full of hope.
I went over to our CD player and popped in Ethel Merman singing “Some People.”
Some people can be content
Playing bingo and paying rent
That’s okay for some people
Who don’t know they’re alive!
I bounced her on my hip and we danced. She curled her head into my neck—and here’s where it gets sticky, I cannot speak for her—we seemed fused in our common emotion: a fleeting sense of power coursing through our veins.
Some people can get a thrill
Knitting sweaters and sitting still
That’s okay for some people of one hundred and five!
But I—at least gotta try!
As my heart raced and my blood pressure soared, powered by the wind of Ethel Merman’s lungs I stopped and checked in with my daughter.
“Are you alright? Is it too loud? Do you like the song?”
My child bounced enthusiastically.
“Keep playing it, Mommy!” she shouted. I saw her little brain working out the rhymes, trying to predict the next words, syncopating her movements to the beat of one of Broadway’s canonical shows.
Still, I felt troubled when our dance marathon ended. Had I usurped her moment of triumph? Even if I hadn’t, am I just too big a personality in general? I try to walk a line between retaining my identity and making room for the other people who live in my house. My daughter seems confident, she finds her podiums and her own voice box without difficulty. It is my husband, who has a lively brain but a less forceful determination to express every last thought, who is often dragged by the two aggressive tides of his wife and kid. All the more reason I must at times police myself: I want to set a good example. I want to teach my child the art of listening and collaborating, which are hard-won skills when one is driven by powerful internal forces. Nobody wants to end up like Mama Rose.
I’m an actress and I come from theatrical stock. My mother was a dancer and an actress and my father was an avid book collector who turned his passion toward producing a movie. Both of my parents have large personalities and I do have memories of feeling tyrannized by them. I was overwhelmed by the opera my father frequently blasted from speakers that seemed to be perched at every corner of our home. The frightening music crowded out every living thing in the house; it sucked the air from my lungs. With my mother, I felt camaraderie but sometimes her theatricality would embarrass me. I cringe at the thought that I could embarrass my child in the same way.
And so I go on, playing music I love, reading poetry aloud, hoping to transmit some cultural continuity. I walk a line between personal expression and coercion. I try to maintain enough distance to allow my child to become who she is innately, uninhibited by my forceful personality or excessively influenced by my passions. Attempting that balance is taxing, and at times it crosses into hyper-vigilance. Part of parenthood is, however, trying to get it “right,”—or at least a little more “right” than our parents did.
I have an anniversary edition of Gypsy, with a bonus track of a song that didn’t make the final cut. It’s called “Mama’s Talking Soft.” The lyrics give me much to consider.
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