The Chorus Boy Chronicles
From the age of 3 to the age of 23, Brian Spitulnik was sure of one thing: he wanted to be a Broadway dancer. When he was 24, he was cast in the long-running revival of Chicago. Since then, he has regularly worn black mesh before thousands of people. Now the only thing Brian is sure of is that he isn’t 24 anymore.
Death of a
The day they pulled Mark Anthony Taylor’s body out of the Hudson, I was sitting onstage at the Ambassador, obsessing to my cast mate, Noah, about the latest argument I was entrenched in with my boyfriend.
“Dude,” Noah said as the show progressed downstage of us. “I’m exhausted by your relationship.”
It was St. Patrick’s Day, 2010, Mark Anthony had been reported missing two months before, and it had been three years since I’d taken Mark Anthony’s role as male swing in the Broadway company of Chicago. I had spent those three years ingesting creatine and nitric oxide before my daily workouts, piling beefcake biceps and pecs onto my naturally scrawny five-foot-eight frame, hoping the muscles themselves would work like an evil-eye amulet to stave off the pink slip in a FedEx package that, at any moment, could appear on my doorstep, terminating my Chicago contract the way Mark Anthony’s had been terminated. While my body was being pumped full of chemicals and inflated to Michelin Man proportions, Mark Anthony’s body was being prepared for burial as a John Doe, unidentifiable and unrecognizable, bloated by the river water and disfigured by the creatures of the Hudson, until someone on the New Jersey police force thought to wonder what the word “Posh,” written on the t-shirt stuck to Mark Anthony’s torso, might mean. Posh, the police soon found, was the name of the gay bar on 51st Street where Mark Anthony had been known for years as a regular, the honorary mayor, and an all around good-time-gal. By locating Posh, the police were able to link Mark Anthony’s body to the missing person’s report filed in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan just after the first of the year. Only by then cross-checking Mark Anthony Taylor’s dental records with the molars in the mouth of the man they’d found on the shore of a Jersey state park were authorities able to confirm that this was Mark Anthony Taylor, missing person and former Broadway dancer.
While I was walking out my stage door that night, heading to the studio apartment that Trent owned a few blocks from the Ambassador, I was preparing to apologize for the argument that—Trent was right—had been my fault. At around that same moment, Mark Anthony’s mother was preparing to drive from Detroit to New York to claim the belongings and collect the body of her only son.
The upheaval between Trent and me that week had begun the night of the Lincoln Center concert celebrating Stephen Sondheim’s eightieth birthday. Trent was performing in the concert, and though he was doing glorified supernumerary work—moving chairs and music stands for the stars singing the Sondheim canon—he had scored an invitation for himself and for me to attend the private party being thrown afterward. I hadn’t been able to see the concert live because I had a show myself, but I jumped on the subway as soon as Chicago came down and met Trent outside the restaurant on 67th Street that had been bought out for the occasion.
Trent, knee-bucklingly handsome in a black suit and a heaven-blue shirt that matched his irises, smiled at me, the squinted-eyed, turned-down smile that meant he loved the way I looked in my gray suit, and that he was glad I was there. I asked him how the concert had gone, he said, “Amazing. Absolutely amazing. Sondheim cried,” and I said I couldn’t wait to watch when it was broadcast on PBS. We walked into the restaurant together, bulwarked on all sides by the sense that, by virtue of our looks, the way his light features complimented my dark, we belonged at that party. We each took a glass of white wine from the tray being passed and pretended not to stare at Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Elaine Stritch, and Sondheim himself, exotic animals escaped from the zoo, meandering peaceably amongst each other.
Trent and I chugged our wine, seized two more glasses, and made our way to the group of people we were comfortable around—the ensemble and the choreographer. We drank as the ensemble recounted the highs and lows of the performance—Donna Murphy had caused a scene by flushing the train of her gown down the toilet, Elaine Stritch had done nearly half a dozen takes of “I’m Still Here” before getting the lyrics right—we all laughed, then drank some more. We ended up in a conversation with the director, Lonny Price, who was telling a teary Marin Mazzie that Sondheim had pronounced her “Not a Day Goes By” the definitive interpretation, and at one point, just before the restaurant closed, we found ourselves sitting at a table with Stephen Sondheim, though what he said I can’t recall because all I was doing was thinking, Remember what he’s saying, remember what he’s saying.
Around 2am, the lights in the restaurant were brought up. Trent and I drained the last drops from our glasses of white wine, which, until that moment, had managed to somehow remain full all evening. We walked out into the March air, kissed the choreographer on the cheek, told Lonny it had been such a pleasure, and hailed a cab in front of the unlit Lincoln Center fountain. We held hands on the ride home, both flushed with the feeling that we were part of the engine that propelled New York. We walked into the little apartment I would soon move into with Trent, where the dog that would soon be our dog was waiting at the door to greet us, panting.
“I’m going to take the boy for a walk,” Trent said, picking up the leash hanging by the door.
“Great,” I replied, kissing him on the mouth. “I’ll make us peanut butter and honey sandwiches while you do.”
Trent narrowed his eyes at the floorboards, shook his head, and said, “Yeah. Yeah, you do that.” He then walked out the door with the dog and slammed it shut behind him.
When Trent returned twenty minutes later, I was now the one to greet him at the door, panting. He said he didn’t want the sandwich I’d made, and went directly into the bathroom to turn on the shower.
“Hey. Trent?” I said, knocking on the bathroom door after I’d devoured half of my own sandwich.
There was no answer, so I opened the door and said his name again.
“Yes?” he said from behind the shower curtain in a voice too cheery to be anything but dangerous.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come for a walk,” I said, sitting down on the closed toilet. “I thought since it was late, we could save time by dividing and conquering, you know?”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Trent said, laughing. “Why would you ever do anything that doesn’t directly benefit you?”
I could see the silhouette of his thick frame through the shower curtain, and even as I knew we were ramping up for an argument in which we would both see the other as utterly unreasonable, I also knew I’d forgive him, just for having that thickset body, that Cary Grant chin, that full, sulking lower lip.
Still lathering up behind the curtain, Trent told me how he’d watched me, watched me from the moment I walked into the party that night until the moment we left, watched how I’d done everything I could to make him feel small, insignificant, nothing more than set dressing among those Broadway icons; how I’d done everything in my power to make the entire experience all about me. Through my white wine intoxication—already fizzling down to a head-splitting hangover—I thought back through the evening and was embarrassed by the way I’d acted, all laughy and schmoozy and thinking I looked great in my gray suit. Still seated on the closed toilet, I started to cry ugly, face-crumpled, Pinot Grigio-fueled tears.
Trent was out of the shower now, looking at me, his eyes frosty, his arms crossed. I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t my fault. Something had shifted recently; something had made me feel that the person who walked through the stage door at the Ambassador Theater every night was a person I didn’t recognize. I wanted to tell him that at some point in the past year or two, it had become necessary to exhaust myself at yoga classes and on the treadmill and in week-long fights with him, just to keep my mind from demanding answers to the question of why I was still in that show. I wanted to tell him that when I did let myself wonder where my life was going, I found that, for the first time, I didn’t particularly care. I wanted to tell him that if I took anything too seriously—my job, our relationship, my stubbornly enduring desire to dance in more shows and be someone people had heard of—I was pretty sure I’d lose my fucking mind.
But I didn’t say any of that to Trent. All I said was, “You’re right. I’m sorry,” and covered my face with my hands. The dog had come into the bathroom and was licking the water dripping from Trent’s ankles, and, I swear, I wondered if I should try doing the same.
In the weeks that followed, no one at the theater seemed to be talking about Mark Anthony all that much. “He was such a talent,” someone would say, and that would be that. Someone heard that toxicology reports had been done, that no drugs were found in his system, and that his death had been the apparent result of a heart attack. His mother’s hypothesis was that Mark Anthony had suffered a heart attack while taking a stroll along the river. But it seemed to me that the temperature of the Hudson in January would be enough to cause cardiac arrest. Whether he was drunk and stumbled in accidentally, whether he jumped from the George Washington Bridge because he could not think of a reason to stay alive, or whether he had indeed been doing nothing but enjoying a walk along the river when the years of partying hard and eating fried food took their toll, it seemed no one would ever know, and, from within the walls of the Ambassador, it seemed there were very few who cared.
I began to pity Mark Anthony. Poor thing, I would think. He threw away this great job, he had no joy in his life once he’d been fired from Chicago, he was all alone, drinking until closing time at Posh night after night. Because there seemed to be the belief that talking about him at the theater would bring death or, worse, a pink slip, to our door, it was years before I learned that Mark Anthony had had a man in his life, a long time love who, inexplicably, was also named Mark Anthony; I learned that Mark Anthony and his mother had been close, best friends taking care of one another ever since she’d had him at seventeen with no father in the picture. I learned that Mark Anthony had once been the guy making people laugh backstage at the places call, he had been the guy to order plates of nachos and another round of tequila shots for everyone at the parties, he was the one at understudy rehearsals to step into the female roles in “Cell Block Tango” without missing a hit or a flick in the choreography. “Show bidness has been bedy bedy good to me,” Mark Anthony would say in an offensively accurate Bengali accent, and he would mean it. But something in him had changed. Perhaps, like me, he had ceased to recognize the person signing-in to work eight shows a week in the dark, mildewed stairwell backstage at the Ambassador. Something in Mark Anthony had broken loose, and the boy who believed show business was very, very good to him became the man who had to, by any means possible, find an escape.
Though I might never know, I wondered what Mark Anthony had heard about me, his replacement, and if he had cared enough, one way or the other, to hear anything at all. Would he have heard gossip from the cast members who had been with Chicago for a decade or more? Would he have gotten satisfaction out of hearing how quickly this twenty-four year old kid who thought he was such hot shit had begun feeling clubbed by show business? Would he have been happy to hear whispers of how his replacement really didn’t know how to do anything but sit-ups, a right-legged battement, and sing sixteen bars of audition music? Or would he simply have pitied me the way I now pitied him?
As the older Chicago cast members retired or were let go, there were fewer and fewer people left in the building that remembered Mark Anthony. I continued wearing myself out at the gym, in yoga classes, in marathon misunderstandings with Trent, and, year after year, continued showing up for work at the Ambassador, while Mark Anthony became just a name on an old clothes hanger or show poster in storage.
By the Monday Trent and I celebrated our two-year anniversary, I knew I would have to leave him by Friday. We had both come home from our Friday night shows, I had packed a bag with a few t-shirts and a toothbrush, and I told Trent I needed space from our five-hundred square foot apartment, space to sort out my thoughts; time, just a little time, to figure things out. Trent told me if I didn’t know how I felt about him after two years, I’d never know, and that I should leave and never come back. So I picked up my overnight bag, told Trent one more time that he was, indeed, as always, right, and I left.
I moved my books and clothes out of Trent’s apartment and rented a place too big and too expensive for one person on the Upper West Side. For the first time in my life, I had one night stands and faked being the kind of guy who could feel great about sleeping with lots of people and caring about no one while no one cared about me until I found I was no longer faking it. The highs I’d gotten from dancing as a teenager had long since given way to the glories of self-flagellation within my relationships, but in the absence of someone to torture and be tortured by, I began making more friends, pretty, peripheral friends who didn’t know much about me and by whom I enjoyed being known as not much more than a good-time-gal.
As the year went on, I noticed that the urgent need to escape—the stomach-churning, jaw-tingling feeling that consumed me when things were either too good or too awful to last—did not ease up when I moved out of the apartment I shared with Trent. I wasn’t chasing highs anymore, but slowly, I came to see that what I’d been looking for with Trent, the thing I had probably been seeking my whole life, was an experience that was indisputably significant. I had been measuring the value of my experiences by the extent to which I could bend before I broke. In the past, it was always at that low point, that point just before the break, when the feeling of needing to run, to change, to transform, would surface. The problem I faced in the year that followed the end of my relationship with Trent was that the thing I now wanted to flee was the concept of myself as a Broadway dancer. In this relationship, the relationship between the chorus boy and myself, I had no one to blame or cower before or resent or lust after or forgive; no one, that is, but the kid from Maryland with lots of big plans and too many big dreams.
After years of being a prissy vodka-soda drinker, whiskey on the rocks seemed the appropriate liquor for me to be swilling as the final days of my twenties trundled by. I woke up one morning in July—most mornings in July, actually—with my head pounding and my stomach churning. I carted myself to City Diner on 90th and Broadway, ordered eggs, bacon and coffee, and pledged to give myself a week, or at least a few days, to dry out before I had another drink. When I had ingested enough coffee to do anything more than press my finger tips against my temples, the conversation of two women sitting in the booth behind me caught my attention.
“I don’t know where I’m at,” one woman said. “I feel as though I’m not here.”
“Margaret, we’re at City Diner, you’re the one who said you wanted to eat here.”
Both women had the sharp, craggy voices that seemed to develop, inescapably, after a lifetime of residing in New York.
“I’m not in reality. Just throw me on the pile, Isabel” the first woman said.
“You live at 237 Riverside Drive,” the woman named Isabel replied. “Your daughters are paying for you to live there. You’ve got a good life.”
“I never liked my daughters,” Margaret said, as a matter of fact, not of bitterness.
“You adore your girls, you always have,” Isabel said.
“That so? Oh. Well that’s good. And I’m married to Jamie.”
“No,” Isabel said. “Jamie’s dead, you’re married to Harold.”
“Oh. Harold. What a schmuck.”
The two women laughed.
“You always thought he was gay,” Isabel said.
“I always thought he was gay,” Margaret agreed, still laughing. “But after Jamie died, I said, if Harold can fuck like that, I don’t care if he’s gay.”
I put down my coffee cup and leaned back in my booth to better hear the two women.
“We thought they were all gay.”
“Except Jerry,” Margaret said. “I never suspected Jerry, but he was. Such a waste and such a genius. No one can match his West Side Story.”
“How Jerry adored you,” said Isabel.
“He did. I know he did,” Margaret said, as if defending a disputed point. “I was never out of work. I went from show to show to show.”
“You did. We both did. We were lucky.”
“We weren’t lucky,” Margaret said. “We were dumb.”
Margaret then began listing the shows she’d done: King and I and On the Town with Jerome Robbins — the man she referred to as Jerry — Brigadoon and Oklahoma! with Agnes De Mille. She recounted the time she’d turned down De Mille’s offer to play a principle role in the London premiere of Oklahoma! because she was seventeen and couldn’t imagine why she would want to live anywhere but New York.
“I was dumb, Isabel. I was so dumb,” Margaret said, not laughing now at all.
“No, honey, no,” Isabel replied. “You were just young.”
The two women sat in silence for a moment. Then Margaret sighed and said, “Well, I’ve eaten enough. I want to go home, fart, and take a nap.”
“I’ll take you home,” Isabel said.
“I live at 538 West End Avenue.”
“No,” Isabel said. “Now you live at 237 Riverside.”
“Oh, yes. With Harold. We thought he was gay,” Margaret said. She began to laugh then, a low, rumbling chortle that seemed to infect Isabel, for she soon added her own high, staccato chirp.
“My God, Izzy,” Margaret said. “Such beauties we were. And we had no idea.”
They got up to leave and I finally got a look at them. Isabel was tiny, no more than five-feet tall, with bones that looked avian, her head haloed by a tight bramble of gold and grey curls. Margaret was thicker, her hair cropped short and close, and behind her large, ovate-frame glasses were the eyes of someone who, just as she said, didn’t know where she was.
I watched them walk out of the diner and thought about how there was a very real possibility that forty or fifty years down the road, I could be sitting in that same diner, unable to remember where I lived or to whom I was married, but without a moment’s hesitation recall my first job at that dinner theater in Westchester, the season I’d spent trapped in a dancing bear suit at Radio City, the years I had oozed and slithered across the stage of the Ambassador in Chicago. That part of me, the gypsy, the tramp, the vain, self-aggrandizing chorus boy, was a part of myself I might not ever be able to eradicate; I could beat it senseless, call it names, try to hide it away or destroy it completely, but still, there it would be, refusing to die, choosing to linger. Long after I had forgotten the relationships, the apartments, the cities, and the friends, the shows I did would remain; the choreography I’d done and the songs I’d sung preserved much more than anything that had ever happened before places or after the curtain call.
The night before I turned thirty, I was in my dressing room on the top floor of the Ambassador, chatting about real estate and diapers with the straight married guys in my dressing room, interrupted every now and then by the boys from across the hall parading through in five inch pumps, nappy wigs, and dance belts. Steve, the other male swing, was now the only person in the male ensemble who had been in the show with Mark Anthony, and when I wondered aloud if Mark Anthony’s ghost was still up there in J8, his identity as a Chicago chorus boy loitering about, waiting to take care of unfinished business, Steve had said, “Nah. He’s not here. He’s got better things to do than hang around this dump.”
When the stage manager’s voice came into the dressing room over the monitors, calling places for the top of act one, we all plodded down the six flights of steps, affixing tape to the back of our necks, patting our pomaded hair into place, stretching a sore shoulder or lower back.
“Thirty,” my dressing roommate, Noah, said as we both grabbed our bowler hats and headed for the darkened wings. “It’s all down hill from here, bro.”
“Downhill meaning it gets easier?” I asked. “Or downhill meaning I’ve already peaked and I have nothing more to look forward to?”
Noah slapped my back and smiled. “Dude,” he said. “I’ll let you find out.”
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