Magic to Do

St. Louis: 1980

Danny Herman and I move from Pittsburgh to New York City around the same time and struggle to get work as performers. In January of 1980 we’re offered jobs in the national tour of Don Brockett’s Big Bad Burlesque. We jump at the opportunity. Danny jumps higher than I do—he’s a dancer and an acrobat. I’m a pianist and occasional actress. After an intense rehearsal period we move to St. Louis and spend a few glorious months living at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, where we perform eight shows a week in a sparkling little theater deep in the hotel’s dank underbelly. We are up to our necks in sequins and Spandex and smell like sweat, hairspray, and eyelash glue.

The theater manager has a pet monkey that sits on his shoulder.

Danny is nineteen. I am twenty-three. We are big babies in adult-sized Danskins.

Before our first show each night we dine in an employee cafeteria that features hotdogs and a man with respiratory problems who shuffles around the seating area, chain smokes, and coughs on our food. I’m sure he has been employed by the monkey manager to keep performers from eating too much of the free grub.

“Excuse me, Miss,” Danny says to the stout, grunting, hair-netted woman perched behind the steam table, overseeing an unidentifiable mess in a pot. “Could you please tell me what vegetable you’re serving today?”

“That be squash.”

Over the course of eight weeks we request a lot of squash, mainly because we enjoy hearing the hairnet lady, whose name is Winnie, utter that sentence. In Winnie’s world, any vegetable or fruit is squash. Even the applesauce. Danny finds out Winnie owns an apricot poodle. He also discovers she once worked as a nude toe dancer with Jimmy Durante.

How you go from nude toe dancing to squash service is beyond me.  No business like show business.

We purchase a bottle of Kahlúa and learn to drink after-show White Russians while watching Ernest Angley heal people on television. We hold our hands on the screen while Reverend Angley screams, “Evil spirits come out!”

“Heal me!” I yell. “Make me a dancer!”

“Make me a singer!” Danny said. “Get me out of St. Louis!”

Then we fall back on the bed and laugh. Danny’s hotel room has heating issues. “Robin,” he says one morning, his lips turning powdery blue. “My shampoo is all f-f-f-froze. That’s not n-n-n-normal, right?”

The Kahlúa does not freeze.

I usually play the piano, but in this show I’m playing comedy roles. Because I’m required to participate in dance numbers, Danny, our choreographer, teaches me how to fake it. Swing your arms and smile. I trip over my silver shoes when challenged with anything more ambitious than a single pirouette, but I keep trying. Falling comes naturally to me these days, the result of overly-enthusiastic fake tapping, faulty backstage lighting, and a lazy stage crew that neglects to move large pieces of furniture from key entrance points. I’m black and blue all over. The side of my right thigh is the color of an eggplant.

That be squash.

During our run at the Chase Park Plaza, we get roped into performing on a telethon, hosted by “Let’s Make a Deal’s” Monty Hall. No one tells us who benefits from this telethon, but we don’t care because we’re excited to be on television. When go on at two in the morning—a broadcast hour that caters to perverts and insomniacs—I wear a flowered bikini and play a medley of “Glow Little Glow Worm” and “Poor Butterfly” on the piccolo while the corps de ballet performs behind me. I think we’re hilarious, but no one in the studio audience laughs. Danny, sporting a stars and stripes chorus boy outfit, is scheduled to tap dance to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Five minutes before he goes on, he notices there are no floor mikes onstage—a serious problem for a tap dancer on live television. He wants to alert someone but the the floor manager is smoking and flirting with one of our chorus girls.

“Danny,” I say, tapping him on the shoulder with my piccolo. “This is serious. Your ass is on the line. Do something. Talk to Monty.”

“I can’t talk to Monty Hall about floor mikes,” Danny says. “He’s a big star.”

“Your ass is on the line! Not his.”

Danny takes a deep breath, marches right up to Monty Hall and says, “Mr. Hall, sir, I really love your show and everything, but we have a very big problem. I gotta go out there and tap dance in five minutes and there are no floor mikes. It’s gonna sound like a silent movie.”

“Don’t worry about it, kid.”

“But Mr. Hall, sir, tap dancing without sound is kind of stupid. Do you think you could—”

“Kid, leave me the fuck alone. These tech people are professionals. They’ll give you what you need. Get out of my way.”

“But my ass is on the line—”

“Out of my way, kid!”

Imagine that. Bullied by a snarling game show host. I know, Monty is a volunteer like the rest of us, but he shouldn’t berate a kid in a sailor suit. I stand there in my flowered bikini and watch poor Danny on a television monitor—his feet, looking like flag-covered flippers—flapping away with no sound. Is there anything sadder in the history of show business than a teenager—in a stretch satin patriotic costume—silently tap dancing to “Yankee Doodle Dandy?” I think not. But who am I to judge? I have big hair, false eyelashes, and a piccolo tucked in my bra.

“That Monty Hall is a two-bit nitwit,” mutters Danny as he exits stage right and tosses his straw hat on the floor.

When our part of the show concludes I spend several hours avoiding Byron Allen, the twenty-year old moon-faced star of a cheesy TV show called Real People. Maybe Byron likes the piccolo, maybe he likes bruised thighs, maybe he just likes blonds, but he chases me all over that damn hotel, knocking on the door of every cast member in an attempt to find me. Danny, still wearing stars and stripes, hides me in his shower with the frozen shampoo. At least I have legwarmers; it’s cold in the tub.

When we aren’t drinking Kahlúa or grappling with B-list celebrities, Danny gives me dance lessons. In return, I help him with his singing, pounding out songs on the piano in an effort to find the perfect audition piece for him once we return to New York. We settle on a song from the musical Pippin, called “Magic to Do.” We won’t be in St. Louis forever. We might be having a lot of fun, but we believe that our squash days are limited, that soon we will take Broadway by storm, that there’s more to life than Monty Hall, Ernest Angley, and frozen toiletries.

***

Manhattan: Six Months Later

I’ve spent the day doing “promotional modeling” at Macy’s for a perfume called Mystere. I wear a black Ann Klein evening gown and a black mask and carry a black basket of black Mystere perfume samples. My job is to sneak up on women shopping in Macy’s and slip a sample of Mystere into their handbags, an activity likely to get me arrested, shot, or worse. But I need the fifteen dollars an hour, so I stalk the sales floors, a masked grim reaper in a couture dress, with Pigpen clouds of Patchouli dust wafting around me. In an attempt to avoid alarming unsuspecting shoppers scoping out the sales racks, I lurk in remote areas of the store. Most of the time I hang out in the ladies’ room lounge, where I dump my perfume samples in the trash and cover them with paper towels.

The mask is a real drag. I’m tired. I spent the weekend playing the piano for truckers and flight crews at at the Newark Airport Holiday Inn.

Later in my shift I wander over to the bank of pay phones to check my answering service, an activity that always lifts my spirits. I’m hoping to hear from Danny. He has gone to a Broadway open-call audition today for A Chorus Line and I’m anxious to find out what happened.

“Danny called,” said the answering service guy. “He made it through the dance cuts and he has to sing at 3 PM. Shubert Theater. 225 West Forty-fourth Street. He says:  ‘please be there to play.’ ”

Oh my God. A “cattle call” audition is a nerve jangling, ego shattering, potentially life-altering process invented by the red-tailed demons of the Great White Way. Danny must have plowed his way through 500 dancers and survived a bunch of dance cuts to make it this far. It is 2:30, but I am only ten blocks away. I make up an excuse about feeling faint, peel off my mask and black gown, throw on my real clothes, jump in a taxi I can’t afford, and haul my ass to Shubert stage door.

An official-looking clipboard guy stops me. I hate clipboards. Nothing good ever comes from a clipboard.

“I’m here to play the piano for Danny Herman!”

“Who’s Danny Herman?” says the clipboard guy.

“He’s one of the dancers auditioning today.”

Right. Sweetheart, this is a chorus-boy cattle call. No one brings their own accompanist to  a cattle call. We have an accompanist in there. And what’s that smell?”

“Perfume. It’s called Mystere. Macy’s. Look. I’m here for Danny Herman,” I say. “And he’s not no one. He is my friend and I’m here to play for him. He needs me. I gotta get in there.”

“You got a union card?”

“No. Yes. Not yet. Sort of. Do you count AGVA? I’m from Pittsburgh.”

“Christ. Yeah, Danny is on the list. But you’re not. Where’s your music, anyway?”

“In my head. I’ve been working with Danny for months on this. He only knows one song. He’s an acrobat and flips around alot while he sings. You know, like side aerials and stuff. He’s special. Please. Please. Let me in!”

“How do I know you’re not a dancer trying to crash the audition? You look like a dancer.”

“Not a dancer! I’m a piano player. No sane person would ever pretend to be a piano player. And do you really think I’m gonna try and dance in these boots? Please.”

“Ack. Okay. Go ahead. But if anyone asks, I never saw you.”

I enter stage left and squint into the gap between me and the dancers in the wings on the other side. I spot Danny and wave. He beckons me to his side, but I’m not sure how to get there without walking through the interrogation spotlight shining center stage and making a spectacle of myself. I decide to cross by sneaking between the mirrored backdrop and the upstage brick wall—the back wall of the theater. No one will see me. A pesky strip of yellow police tape blocks the passageway, but I crawl under it, get to my feet and scoot sideways through the narrow space—about twelve inches—between the mirrors and the wall. I pause, lean against the wall and tiptoe so I won’t make noise. It’s hot back here. And it’s really far from one side of the stage to the other.

As I creep along, I hear the voice of Tom Porter, a famous Broadway Stage Manager, booming over the sound system: “Under no circumstance should anyone go anywhere near the upstage mirrors. This is a newly installed mirror system and extremely expensive. One of those panels costs six months of a Broadway salary. Stay away.”

Ah. That’s the reason for the police tape. No turning back. At the halfway point I see Danny, waiting for me with his hands over his eyes. I do not swing my arms and smile. I’m sure, given my history, he’s concerned about me falling, but I’ve got this. No spinning.

I reach the other side. Danny pulls me out from under the police tape, and I take a deep breath.

“Jesus, Robin. I really thought you were gonna crash through two-hundred thousand dollars of Mylar. I was prepared to say I didn’t know you. Wow. You smell good.”

“Mystere. I came from the perfume gig. I think I got fired. Okay. Look. Let’s focus. You have to sing. When are you on?”

“I’m number eight. They’re on number six now.”

Danny, who has spent ninety percent of his life perfecting his dance and acrobatic technique, isn’t much of a singer. And I’m not much of an accompanist. Playing the piano in a hotel lounge has not exactly qualified me for this. But here we are, ready to walk onstage at the Shubert. We are two squeaky-faced Pittsburgh kids on a Broadway mission, fueled by naivety, hunger, and a genuine belief that we belong on this stage.

To distract from our musical inadequacies we’ve come up with an arrangement of “Magic to Do” that features Extreme Acrobatics. At least once every four bars, Danny flips. Not run of the mill flips, but Flying Zucchini flips that take your breath away and make you wonder if he has bionic knees. No one will pay much attention to the music.

 Our Broadway strategy: Get the job by flipping.

“You warmed up?”

“As much as I can be.”

“You know the drill. Announce yourself and the song and count it off. You can do this.”

“Next!” says the Stage Manager. “Number eight!”

“Here we go,” said Danny. “It’s my ass on the line.”

“Indeed it is,” I say. “Your ass on the line.”

We both seem kind of small in that big space—Tiny Dancer with Thumbelina on piano.  The stage looks like one giant trapdoor, ready to swallow us whole if we dare to place a misguided foot on its sacred floorboards. A crappy upright piano stands center stage facing away from the house, looking forlorn in the cavernous theater. I say hello to the Assistant Musical Director, then sit on the bench with my back to the audience. As I wait for Danny to announce his song, a strong case of imposter syndrome creates sweat circles in the pits of my very best synthetic blouse. It’s Danny’s audition, but why does it feel like mine?

“What are you singing for us today?” says an amplified voice from the house.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Danny Herman. I’m from Pittsburgh and I am very, very happy to be at the Shubert Theater today auditioning for A Chorus Line, one of my all time favorite musicals.”

As opposed to what? Brigadoon? What is he doing? He must be scared to sing. He’s stalling. That’s it. He’s stalling.

“You know, I love the musical Pippin. And this particular song, called “Magic to Do” seems like a really good choice for today’s audition . . . ”

He’s babbling. Why is no one stopping him? He sounds like the emcee at a Swissvale Moose Club talent show.

“Today I brought my good friend from Pittsburgh with me, Miss Robin Meloy, a wonderful pianist I have known for a very long time. Well not that long, but many months. Robin put together a very nice arrangement for me of “Magic to Do.” A funny thought occurred to me on the way to the theater today. . .”

I can’t stand it a moment longer. I spin around and whisper, “Danny!” He looks at me and I give him the stank eye, the death ray, the start singing now evil stare. I learned this look from my piano teacher. It’s very effective.

“Five, six, seven, eight!” he shouts.

CHORD.

Flip, flip, flip.

Chord, chord, chord.

Danny’s imperfect vocal melody slices through my flawed, raucous accompaniment. He flies through the air with the greatest of ease, defying gravity, an upside-down teenage man-boy chasing a Broadway dream one aerial at a time. He finishes the song to a smattering of applause and warm-hearted laughter.

I am in Danny’s Fifty-second Street apartment eating pizza when the phone rings. He has the job. To celebrate we go roller-skating at the Roxy, where we hold hands and skate round and round under a giant disco ball. We are dizzy with gypsy love. I do not fall, not even once.

Danny ships out and learns the show with a Bus and Truck company in Boston. Three months later Michael Bennett pulls him out of the line and sends him to Broadway.

I sit in the audience on his opening night and cry. Nineteen. Danny is only nineteen. I understand his Pittsburgh roots, his emotional and physical sacrifices, and the hardships he has endured to get here. I’m only four years older than he is, but I’ve been in the business long enough to know that only rarely do the show biz gods bestow a great gig on a deserving artist. I tuck Danny’s moment away in a place I can reach when my own spotlight grows dim. Someday my turn will come, but until it does, this gorgeous memory will pull me through.

I wear white gloves so Danny can spot me in the audience. During the curtain call I jump to my feet and cheer for him, for me, for the winding, bumpy road stretched out before us. Anything is possible.

Danny Herman, 2017

*****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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Note: Danny stayed with A Chorus Line until 1986. He currently works as a director, choreographer, and teacher. After many years of living in Austin, Danny, who still has much magic to do, has returned to Pittsburgh where he plans to open The Steel Circle, a non-profit arena theater that will function as a home for aspiring young performers who sing, dance, act, and flip. The employee cafeteria will not feature squash.

  • Robin Meloy Goldsby

    From Steve:

    “No sane person would ever pretend to be a piano player ”
    Hmmm. Love the essay!

  • Robin Meloy Goldsby

    From Monica:

    What a beautiful essay–it captures so perfectly the passion and sacrifices of aspiring artists.

  • Robin Meloy Goldsby

    From Jules in Pittsburgh:

    Love love love this essay! Love the prime time players, as well! 4 years prior, Danny was the assistant to the SHHS senior class musical’s choreographer. I was Annie in “Annie, Get Your Gun”. Danny was teaching all of us, “city kids”, non-dancers, how to do the steps and lifts to the big crowd numbers. I was awestruck by his dancing talent which was pure perfection. At one point, the football player guy who played Sitting Bull was supposed to lift me and parade around the stage. I’ve always been self conscious about my Italian bred physique and embarrassed that Sitting Bull guy had to lift me. As I was trying to wrap my brain around that, soon to be fact, the choreographer demands that Danny, “go up there and lift her!” I was HORRIFIED! I think I was apologizing the entire time, he hefted me, effortlessly, onto his back, showing Sitting Bull football guy how to do it!

    Thank you, Danny Herman, for not dropping me, or laughing at me and for teaching Sitting Bull guy not to drop me. Congratulations on your beautiful life’s work! Thank you, Robin, for this entertaining essay about your early days in NYC. You are truly an expert storyteller!

  • Mary Adams

    Chorus Line & Pippin were the first plays I saw in NYC in 1975 when my high school band marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. My eyes were defintely full of stars wishing that one day I could join the strum and thrum of those theaters. Over 20 years later, I was back in New York, not holding my saxophone, but clutching a briefcase… no mystere!

    As always, I enjoyed the story! Do put me on the list for your new album – 2 times! Cheers, Mary

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Thanks, Mary! I would have loved to have seen you marching in that parade. Mary on saxophone—now there’s a great picture. Two copies of Home and Away coming your way. LOVE, R

      • Mary Adams

        OMG – marching in an oversized black wool suit with a big white helmet sporting a wilted orange feather, wearing my Elton John glasses – not a pretty sight! A photo of teen angst!

  • Jill Cella Campisi

    I grew up with Danny in Pittsburgh and he is an awesome person!!! I am so happy to hear about The Steel Circle!!! Wishing Danny much success!!!

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby

      Hi Jill! Thanks for reading. Danny is a treasure. PGH will surely benefit from his return.