All That Jazz
"He had it coming. He had it coming."
One of the merry murderesses was strolling along past the door, getting every part of a strident voice properly tuned up for the dress rehearsal. "If you'd have been there, if you'd have seen it..." The song faded as the singer turned one of the corners of the labyrinthine backstage corridor, heading for the communal homicidal dressing room.
Velma Kelly made a miniscule adjustment to her eyeliner, emphasising her naturally dark blue eyes and creating an effect which was seductive as well as overtly theatrical. Getting the right effect, one which reached to the back row of the circle but didn't make the people in the front row of the stalls think you were made up with oil paint, was an art in itself. Juliet had the knack and Velma was grateful to have her skills to call on. Juliet had been a dresser and make-up artist for twenty years, having amassed a fund of wisdom and risque stories. She plied everyone with anecdotes of the great, mediocre and downright useless. And she wielded a mean panstick-the company had been lucky to get hold of someone so capable.
"When you're good to Mama..." A higher pitched voice went past the dressing room door, slightly croaking and subtly out of tune. Not one of the cast this time. Maybe a stagehand putting on the falsetto, or even the doorman, who was built like the side of a barn and probably sang counter tenor.
Velma considered her reflection again. Luscious waves of hair from the black Louise Brooks style wig framed her heart shaped face-it was a decent black wig, to boot, not something that looked like it had come off a dead cat. That sweet face would be vying with the slightly more lantern-jawed features of Roxie Hart for the hearts of the audience in only a few evenings' time. Opening night seemed to have been a bloody long time coming, the traumas of auditions rounding the corner into the mixed excitement and ennui of rehearsal, then going into the home straight of being in a real theatre rather than just a church hall.
Sorting the technical stuff seemed to have taken forever. Velma knew she should be more patient, should be taking more of an interest in that side of things. The guys on the team worked their backsides off getting the practical aspects right and there were plenty of them in this show. Somehow thinking about the nuts and bolts just seemed to get in the way of what she felt was real theatre. People with their feet on a stage, reaching out to those with their bums on the seats. Strip all the lights and sound equipment and props away, and it was as simple as that.
A small tattoo on the door brought Velma's thoughts back from performance to reality. "Come in."
"Just wanted to say ‘break a leg.'" Freddie Wright, the director, put his head round the door, his usual smile not entirely hiding his nerves. There was a lot riding on this production, for all of them. Musicals had a habit of failing, even productions of something as seemingly gilt-edged as this one.
"I'll ignore the cliche and take all the good wishes lying behind it." Velma smiled. A lot of affection existed between director and star. They'd known each other since University days, when third year Freddie had taken this seemingly innocent young fresher under his wing. A lot of water had passed under the bridge-or been passed over the parapet on drunken nights-since then.
"You'll be swell." Freddie grinned.
"I'll be great. I'll have the whole world on a plate." Velma resisted putting the tune to the words. "Maybe."
"No time for doubts. Or if it is, they have to be gone for the preview night. Brighton expects and so do I." Freddie gave a mock salute. "Just off to give Roxie the pep talk as well."
"Not one for Billy Flynn?" Velma returned the salute by rising and giving a deep curtsey, one that would probably mean readjusting her tights afterwards. Bloody stupid things, seams.
"Nah. He's the least worried of the lot of you. Done the role four times, amateur through to pro. Could do it in his sleep."
"Sometimes it seems that's just how he is doing it..." Velma's voice followed the director out into the corridor. She'd just got the left seam to a ramrod straight perfection on her left calf when the stage manager's runner came along, knocking on the door.
"Five minutes, Mr. Yardley."
"Thank you." For a moment, a dreadfully long vulnerable moment, Francis Yardley remembered who he really was. Not Liza Minnelli or Chita Rivera, just a bloke from Stoke Newington who happened to have both a brain and a pair of pins to match Cyd Charisse's. One who'd talked his way into a university production of Oklahoma during his fresher year, and had turned out to be a more than acceptable Curly McLain to an utterly appalling Laurey Williams. It had been a modest start, but a start nonetheless.
Curly McLain had led to Billy Flynn in Chicago-yeah, he'd played that part as well, second year at university. By the time he'd finished, the passable second class degree under his belt had been joined by a range of amateur roles. Freddie was starting to fly by then, getting his directorial feet under the table in the provinces. He'd taken Francis along with him, bypassing back and even front rows of the chorus, and heading straight for Evelyn Oakleigh. You rarely got a better start, even if Evelyn Oakleigh, Billy Crocker, Velma Kelly, wasn't a natural progression.
"Overture and beginners." The disembodied voice moved around backstage, hollering the lines which got the adrenaline flowing, penetrating to the most meagre of the dressing rooms and fading away into the depths of the labyrinth. "Overture and beginners." It came through the crack where the door wasn't quite closed and brought Francis back to the present with a bump. That was his call and he needed to get his arse in gear.
Another glance in the mirror and a last deep breath. Off with Francis, on with Velma, and off to the wings.