From 49th Street, through the metal gate with the Chicago ten-year anniversary poster plastered on its front, down the banked concrete alleyway, under the latticework of fire escapes that entirely blocked the sky, and through the stage door, out of the thick humidity that was blanketing the city during that final week of June, 2007. I was smacked in the face by the building’s aggressive air conditioning, a reminder that this was not, in fact, a dream. I ducked through a squat doorway, past two narrow bathrooms, and found myself in a room where black fishnet and spandex costumes were hanging from metal racks and from exposed pipes snaking across the low ceiling.
“Ah,” a voice said. “And here you are.”
I turned to see a man of indeterminate age seated in a rolling chair at a desk by the door. His arms were folded and he was wearing the smile of a cherubic child who’s just decapitated his sister’s favorite doll.
“I’m Edward,” he said. “You’re here! We were all taken aback, we were all simply, oh my. But here you are, and he’s not, poor thing, but ah, you know what they say.”
Edward nodded emphatically and widened his eyes, indicating that this was my cue to speak.
“I’m Brian,” I said, my hand extended. “The new swing.”
“Yes, yes, we know,” Edward replied, busying himself with papers on his desk, seemingly annoyed that I had supplied such an obvious response. “You’re here. He’s not. Poor dear.”
The phone call I had received four days before had given me enough information to understand to whom and what Edward was referring. Someone had been fired from Chicago; I had been hired to replace him. “Showbiz,” my agent had reminded me. But I hadn’t thought to wonder until that moment how the people remaining at the Ambassador might feel about the person fired, and about me, the person standing in his stead.
Edward pointed me out of the wardrobe room toward the stage management office, and said, “Welcome to our fair city. We do hope you enjoy your stay.” He then blew me an air kiss and shooed me away.
I walked up a stairway lined with whitewashed concrete walls, walls that bubbled like solidified lava, heightening my sense that there were things roiling just out of sight in this place. Past the callboard where the cast signed in eight times a week, on the landing at the top of the stairs, stood a man carrying the resigned, exhausted air of authority. Smiling, he introduced himself as Ned, the production stage manager. Ned spoke words of welcome, told me that things around the theater were a little nuts at the moment, everything would calm down and get back to normal soon, though normal in that building, he conceded, was something of a relative term.
Ned led me through the stage left wings, cautioned me to duck through a low doorway, and took me out into the house of the Ambassador. A full company rehearsal was about to start, and Ned deposited me in the empty theater to watch. The ensemble began to filter onto the stage, appearing from under the onstage bandstand and from the darkened wings.
The rehearsal pianist yelled, “Five, six, seven, eight,” and the dancers began to move through the overture choreography with the fatigued languor of professionals who know that a subtle inference of movement can suggest a level of impossible skill.
I’m one of them now, I thought, and hoped that they couldn’t see the blood rushing to the tips of my ears and the tears filling my eyes.
When I had watched the ensemble slither through numbers I had taught myself via obsessive viewings of bootleg VHS tapes as a teenager, a thick-limbed, six-foot-something dancer poured himself off the lip of the stage and oozed up the aisle of the theater to where I was seated in the house.
“I’m Malcolm, I’m teaching you your first track,” he said, flashing a wide, Cheshire cat grin and making no attempt to hide the fact that he was evaluating me, the new kid in front of him. I was aiming for an expression of not-too-eager alertness, but feared I was achieving something closer to a look of constipation. I watched Malcolm assess my beat up Converse sneakers, my baggy cargo shorts, the t-shirt that was once my brother’s Little League uniform, and my heavily pomaded, spiked black hair.
“How old are you?” Malcolm asked.
“Twenty-four,” I said.
“Well I’m a hundred and fucking fifty, nice to meet you,” Malcolm said. “Don’t be fooled by my appearance. I know I’m beautiful on the outside, but I’m bleeding on the inside.”
A lot can be learned about a place, I found, just by watching it. And watching the Ambassador is exactly what I did, for weeks and weeks on end. I spent my days in a dance studio on 8th Avenue, learning the seven male ensemble roles. At night, I’d find a seat in the mezzanine or in the sound booth of the theater and watch the show, focusing on different performers, applying what I’d learned during the day and taking note of improvised choreography that I planned to steal for my own upcoming first performance. The awe I’d felt when anticipating the cast’s abilities during rehearsal had already begun to boil down to the familiar competitive essence that had always served to fuel me forward; I now watched the show with the conviction that whatever they were doing onstage, I could do better.
I was three weeks into learning the show, and the desire to be on stage, to prove myself to these people, was spreading under my skin, turning quickly from exciting tingle to uncomfortable itch. I was already bored with watching the show from the audience, and because I had yet to venture up to the dressing room I would soon occupy on the top floor of the theater, I decided to explore. When I knew the entire company was going to be on stage, I made my way up six flights of stairs to the men’s ensemble dressing room, the heat and density of the air increasing with each subsequent landing. On the top floor, I came to a gray door with stenciled lettering that read “J8.” I opened the door and was struck by cold air blasting from the air conditioner in the window and the smell of feet, vinegar, and face powder, which seemed to emanate up from the spotted blue carpet. Squat, light bulb lined mirrors, crowded with photos and birthday cards, were hung over two long tables, each table fastened to a wall of the triangular room and littered with tubes of toothpaste and hair products, books and discarded paycheck envelopes. Of the four stations, one was clear of clutter and junk, waiting, I assumed, for me. I went to sit at the station, thinking I’d try to imagine myself getting into costume and preparing for the show. But when I looked at myself in the mirror above the station, my face was bisected by a yellow strip of peeling tape with the words MARK ANTHONY TAYLOR written in permanent marker.
By then, I was able to piece together a plausible narrative of what had befallen the swing whose job I had taken. I had learned that Mark Anthony had been with the show since around the time it moved from the Richard Rodgers to open at the Shubert Theater in ’97. Then, ten years later, he had received a FedEx on the doorstep of his Hell’s Kitchen apartment notifying him that his contract with Chicago had been terminated. He was informed that his belongings would be packed up by the company manager and, along with his severance pay, be delivered to him as soon as possible. He was told that he had no reason to return to the Ambassador.
From what I had heard, the final incident that pushed the producers to fire Mark Anthony occurred during a dance rehearsal with the associate choreographer. Mark Anthony had, instead of participating and learning new choreography for tracks he would be expected to perform, sat in the corner of the studio wearing sunglasses, his arms crossed, refusing to look up from his phone.
Sitting at that dressing room station, I didn’t feel right about removing Mark Anthony’s name from the mirror quite yet. But I did hesitantly start to think of it as my station in my dressing room in my show in my theater in my city. I started to feel that, for the first time since leaving home for college six years before, I had something that was somewhat permanent, somewhat mine. Smiling, I leaned back into the chair, closed my eyes, stretched out my legs, and knocked over a stack of magazines I hadn’t noticed under the table. Crouching beneath the table to pick up the pile, I found that what I had knocked over was a collection of porn the company manager had apparently elected not to pack up and ship to Mark Anthony. I backed away from the porn, slowly, feeling as if I had found Mark Anthony himself lying naked beneath the dressing table. That stack of porn remained beneath my station, untouched, for about six months, until I finally donated it to the other boys’ dressing room across the hall, where it was appreciated for about a week, then tossed in the trash.
A year went by. My boyfriend, James, came home from his national tour, and because we had been dating for nearly three years, I decided it was time we moved in together. I also decided that, despite the facts (I wanted to live on the Upper West Side while he wanted to stay in Queens, I wanted a dog and he did not, he was generally wary of living with me and I was generally convinced he was right to be wary because I was an all around shitty roommate), I proceeded to compulsively apartment search on craigslist. The other fact I chose to ignore was that I was in a Broadway show, James was not, and neither of us was comfortable with the dynamic this engendered between us. I was still under the impression that all it took to get what you wanted was to want it badly enough, which must have been a really charming thing to hear from your boyfriend who, three years your junior, was doing the exact thing you wanted to be doing. But when James and I began attending auditions together, I’d pray that if his name weren’t called to be kept, than mine wouldn’t be either. I didn’t need to worry, however, because whatever audition skills I had honed in order to book Chicago seemed to have slackened, then vanished, and James and I were both consistently cut at audition after audition. We’d both skulk to the sides of the dance studios, pack our dance shoes into our backpacks, then James would say, “At least you have a job to go to tonight.” I couldn’t deny that he had a point. Being cut from an audition never felt good, but knowing I had a stage door to walk through that night did do a lot to alleviate the serious ego blow and the idea that if I couldn’t book another gig, it might be time to leave show business altogether.
Even after a year in Chicago, I didn’t feel like I had settled into a consistent routine. Not only did I never know whether I’d be performing in the show or watching from the wings, but any time I did perform, I would receive a string of notes from the dance captain, notes that I found hard not to take as personal attacks. The notes were constant reminders that I had been hired as the antidote to Mark Anthony—hired for my youth and easily molded inexperience—and if, like Mark Anthony, I displeased the higher-ups, I’d soon find myself with a cleared off station and a FedEx package at my door.
The show was difficult in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. I hadn’t realized, for example, that my work life would become inextricable from my social life. Whether I was performing at night or not, the thirty minutes from call time to places never failed to give me the anxious, desperately self-conscious feeling of being the new kid in middle school, navigating a treacherous social structure between classes. I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t onstage regularly and therefore not part of the immediate familiarity that performing with the same people night after night guarantees, or if I was just much, much younger than I thought I was. Whatever the case, I believed I had absolutely nothing to contribute to the dressing room conversations, so I began to focus on the one thing I knew I had over everyone else; I was fresh meat, the youngest member of the company, and, in many ways, was an unknown entity to these Broadway veterans. They didn’t know my boyfriends, past or present, they didn’t know my sexual history or lack thereof. I was all projection to them; I was whatever they wanted me to be. And I got it into my head that what they wanted me to be was a sex fantasy. I was wrong, it turned out. They actually wanted me to be funny and fun and easygoing; they actually just wanted someone who could help make coming to that dark, dingy theater every night a more pleasant experience. But I didn’t know that then. I was consumed with the novel idea that had first been planted in my head when I was cast in the show: the idea that I could be an object of desire. It was a thrilling idea, and seeing how I had fooled the casting agent and director into believing I was desirable, I was curious to see what else I could achieve by convincing other people of the same thing. So while James and I were discussing where we would live, how much we could afford to pay, and how we’d decorate the home we’d create together, I was doing everything I could to make the boys in my show—and all the boys I was meeting in all the other Broadway shows—believe that I would sleep with them if only I wasn’t already tied to someone else. It all seemed harmless—a close talk here, a batted eyelash there—until the beginning of August, just weeks before James and I were planning to choose and move into our first apartment.
James and I were with my parents, my brother and my sister, an hour into the eight hour car ride that would take us to upstate New York for the annual Spitulnik family reunion (a situation that, looking back, was just begging for conflict, but at the time seemed completely innocuous). In the car, James asked to use my phone to write an email—he still had a flip phone—and after he’d been using my phone for what seemed like forty-five minutes, I asked him if he needed help figuring out how to use the mail function. His skin, ordinarily a creamy alabaster, had turned a puke-green. He handed the phone back to me, and was silent for the remainder of the car trip while my family and I sang seven and a half hours worth of camp songs and show tunes.
Because he is a good, decent man who understands the importance of family time, James waited until we had returned to Astoria from our two days with my family to tell me calmly, with an understanding smile, that he had read the text messages on my phone. The text messages, to and from various guys I knew, ranged from discussions of threesomes to descriptions of dance belts to declarations of love, none of which I took to be anything more than backstage banter and natural extensions of my growing feeling that all I had to offer anyone was the impression that sex with me was an imminent possibility.
My reaction to James’s very measured approach to my very real breach of trust was to become defensive and furious. How dare he look at my text messages, how dare he judge me for getting through the hours at work the only way I had figured out? But amid my indignation, I threw in pleas for forgiveness; I swore I’d stop flirting at work and at parties and via text; I swore I wouldn’t socialize after work and instead do nothing but come home to him after the show; I swore I’d recommit myself to him and our relationship and to finding our perfect apartment. And I did all those things, but it was too late. It had been too late for months, but still, I buckled down to being the ultimate boyfriend with a manic, teeth-grinding determination. James endured my efforts for about two months, then took my hand, looked me in the eye, and told me he felt like we had done all we could do, and that we just didn’t fit together anymore. I knew he was right, but still, my eyes became bloodshot, my breathing became quick and shallow, and I realized my primary emotion was not sadness, but fury. Fury because now we would break up and James would get to spend time with James, which was, I discovered, all I wanted to do. I, on the other hand, had to go spend time with no one but the narcissistic, deceitful person who, deluded, imagined himself to be the new sexpot of the Broadway chorus boys.
Rage seeped into my days, saturating my interactions with friends and my view of work. I stopped trying so hard to be part of the socializing that went on at the Ambassador, I became terse and condescending when the dance captain gave me notes, and at a brush up rehearsal with the associate choreographer, I found myself fuming in the corner (I stopped short of wearing sunglasses inside), pissed at having to learn new choreography.
Another birthday celebrated with cake in the basement of the Ambassador. Another Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s Day spent at the theater with the cast, the pervasive feeling one of melancholic acquiescence as we collectively remember that we are the thing other families are doing as a special, bonding holiday experience.
I found that the longer I was in the show, the more I enjoyed being on stage. I stopped having to think about what came next or where I was supposed to be, regardless of what track I was performing, and there was a kind of freedom from the anxiety I felt in my day-to-day life. But most nights, I wasn’t onstage. Nearly all of the men over forty who had been in the ensemble when I joined the company had left the show, and newer, younger boys, boys who didn’t yet miss work for weddings, births, and funerals, were now populating the top-floor dressing rooms. I spent the shows I wasn’t onstage reading, doing crossword puzzles, things that would keep my mind limber, but soon I began to consider other options. First it was a flat screen TV, then the idea of a DVD player. Then I heard about how Mark Anthony used to open up the hatch door that led to the roof of the building and spend the show smoking a joint or sharing cigarettes with the strippers from the Bare Elegance Lounge on 50th Street, whose roof abutted ours. I could see the appeal of getting out onto the roof while the show was in progress below. I could understand the need to get some air and some space and the longing for a temporary escape from a dream job that had become a grind. But the cigarettes and the occasional joint had escalated during Mark Anthony’s final months as the Chicago swing, and he had begun showing up to the theater drunk from 9th Avenue happy hours or still tweaked out from snorting and pill-popping the night before. The longer I sat at that dressing room station, the more I understood how Mark Anthony had slid so quickly from being right where I was in J8 to having his toothpaste and photos packed up and shipped out.
I had been in the show for two and a half years by then. Some nights, I would look up from a book to stare at my face in the mirror and be surprised to see, instead of the fresh-faced twenty-four year old I had been when I was cast, a person whose hair had begun to gray at the temples, who had deep, expanding lines around his mouth and across his forehead, whose costume, hanging limp on the metal rack, had faded and stretched to a form no longer flattering. I wasn’t drinking or getting stoned at work, but I could see that it was becoming necessary to have a distraction, any distraction, from watching time flaunt its progress across my face through a light bulb lined mirror in a moldy, overcrowded dressing room on 49th Street.
So I found a distraction. He was gorgeous, he was talented, and there was something about his meaty, capable hands that seemed to promise protection, though I’m not sure from what I thought I needed protection. His name was Trent. Trent felt that I would be perfect if only I were more considerate, if only I’d learn to open up, if only I’d get angry instead of hurt. I felt that we would be happy if only Trent didn’t expect so much, if only he accepted the flaws I found unacceptable about myself, if only he had a steady job. But Trent and I looked great together in pictures and the smell of his skin was enough to get my blood surging; we had post-show cocktails at the trendiest bars and dinners at Zagat’s top-rated restaurants; he became my boyfriend and I stopped thinking about the fact that I was growing old at Chicago and started concentrating on growing old with him.
Then, one night, I was coming off stage after another show spent talking my cast mates’ ears off about the positive and negative aspects of my relationship, when Ned, the stage manager, stopped the entire company from proceeding up the stairs to the dressing room.
“Company,” Ned said. “Not all of you knew him, but we thought you should hear it from us. After having gone missing two months ago, Mark Anthony Taylor’s body was found last night, washed ashore on the Jersey side of the Hudson.”
A few people gasped. Hands flew to cover mouths, some people sat down on the steps, and everyone else seemed to back against the wall, as if trying to distance themselves from the facts.
“We’ll have a card to sign for Mark Anthony’s mother, and we’ll let you know about the memorial service as soon as we have more information.”
Up in the dressing room, speculations began to swirl; it was suicide, someone was sure; a drug overdose, perhaps murder, someone else said; perhaps an accident, a drunken fall. All I could think was that Mark Anthony had run out of things with which to distract himself. I wondered if Chicago—the show and the theater it was housed in and the people who populated its strange world—had in fact been the one thing holding him together, the only thing in his life to which he had responsibility, though he had begun drinking and partying as hard as he had to make his life at the Ambassador somewhat bearable. I wondered if once that had been taken away—once I had taken that job away from him—he had felt there was no reason to keep from plunging himself deeper into drugs and alcohol, and permanently into the Hudson.
That night, I went to Trent’s apartment, shaken and wanting a distraction from my overwhelming sense that I had killed a man I’d never met.
“Life’s so funny,” Trent said when I told him. “You have to make the most of every… Hey, I’ve been thinking. I love you. Let’s move in together.”
I had once listened to a series of interviews with people who had attempted suicide by jumping from a bridge. The interesting thing about the interviews was that every one of the people who had jumped swore to having the same experience: the moment their feet left the bridge or their hands let go of the ledge, the minute it was too late to undo what they had done, their thought had been, Wait. Uniformly, these people who had progressed from contemplating the taking of their own life, to planning the steps that would get them to a body of water, to actually giving up and letting go, had still wanted the life back, the life that had seemed so unbearable, the life they had no doubts about wanting to escape.
“Yes,” I said to Trent. “I think we should move in together.”
And I waited for it. I expected the moment to hit where I’d regret the decision and want back the life of living independently that I’d just given up. But it didn’t come. Instead, I felt I’d been saved. I felt I had avoided, just narrowly, the death Mark Anthony had suffered. I also felt I had side-stepped the fate of watching myself grow old, alone, in front of the cracked, light bulb lined mirrors in the Ambassador Theater. Instead, I would have a beautiful man and a new apartment and, at least while it lasted, a distraction.
END OF PART ONE