Song of Life

On the 100th birthday of the Ivoryton Playhouse, a personal drama plays out.

 

Dressing rooms at the Ivoryton Playhouse have been beneath the proscenium since the theater opened in 1911. This is where Katharine Hepburn prepped for her first stage role (in 1931) and Marlon Brando for his last (in 1953). And where, in late May 2011, the actress Scotty Bloch took a dramatic turn.

She adjusted her costume—long-sleeved white blouse, tiered white skirt, red sash—all intended to suggest a Parisian matron, as she wondered what she had gotten herself into.  Though she had performed at the playhouse in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, and had starred on Broadway and played featured parts in films, she would be, in a sense, making her debut on this night.
The theater’s birthday bash would feature many actors in bits from classics staged over its 100 years. This included a scene from the musical Gigi, requiring Scotty to sing in a duet.   

In her eight decades in theater, from the day as a 5-year-old she was chosen for a school play, she had never sung on stage. She remembered how well her parents and brothers could carry off, say, “Coney Island Washboard,” but how musically inadequate she had always felt.
Even in Everyone Says I Love You, the Woody Allen film that featured singing actors, she was one of the cast members who never opened their mouths when the orchestra played. And now she was about to put her musical talent, such as it was, on the line. But more than that, she faced a more difficult challenge—a restoration of herself.  

A year earlier in her Chester home Scotty had gone to the basement to do a chore late at night, as her husband Danny lay asleep in their bedroom. When she reached the top of the steps she lost her balance and fell backward, tumbling down the stairwell and landing on her head. When she got up, she didn’t notice the bleeding, or that her left arm was hurt. She simply climbed back up the stairs and went to bed.
The next morning Danny noticed the red stains on the sheets and saw that his wife was not responsive. Later that day, the Blochs learned Scotty had suffered a broken arm, and much more worrisome, a severe concussion. As the days and weeks passed, it became clear just how serious the damage had been.

The actress who’d played in some of the great works of our time—among them The Lion in Winter and Long Day’s Journey Into Night—could remember almost none of it. Recently she told me, “Danny said I did a particular show, and I said, ‘Are you sure?’”  After a spring dinner party at the house, Danny had to explain to her who the guests were, and also how they knew them.
Neurologists said the accident had caused a disconnection between parts of her brain, greatly limiting memory. A full recovery, if it could be achieved, would take months or even years. Scotty was greatly discouraged—the loss of memory is not only the loss of livelihood but the loss of self—and nothing seemed to help, until her friend Peter Walker stepped in.
A fellow Broadway veteran and her co-star in Love Letters, Peter had a plan—she had to get back on stage. “Scotty needed to be in her element, to be believed in again, to trust herself,” he later told me. He thought, too, that singing would be a worthy goal— “trying something brand-new at her age.”

Peter had been asked by Jacqueline Hubbard, the executive director of the Ivoryton, to sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” from Gigi.  The actor, who’d lived five years in Paris, responded, “Mais oui,” and then suggested a scene extension featuring Scotty and the duet “I Remember It Well,” performed in the film version by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. Peter would write the segue dialogue.
It was only after he suggested it that Peter fully considered the ironies. Here was a scene about memory, which Scotty, under some duress, would have to memorize. Moreover, here was a song in which she would play a character who indeed remembered everything, while Peter would play the one who had trouble remembering.

At first Scotty objected—trotting out her long history as a nonsinger, and her fear that she couldn’t do it. He asked her to try.  When they ran through the song for the first time, Scotty did okay, using a speaking/singing technique à la Rex Harrison, and right on pitch. Peter said, “There, you see?” She replied, “I was only copying you.” Nevertheless, Peter could see that at long last something had changed, if slightly.
For the capacity crowd of 250, the night of the Ivoryton birthday celebration began with a champagne toast outside the entrance. Reference was made to so many of the famous performers who’d trod the playhouse’s historic stage—among them Ginger Rogers, June Allyson, Tallulah Bankhead, Paul Robeson, Betty Grable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Helen Hayes. And to the fact that, even after a century, the Ivoryton Playhouse still functions as a successful professional theater.

Yet I couldn’t help but think, as we lifted our glasses, of what Scotty must have been facing at that moment down in the dressing room.
The first part of the show featured scenes and songs from shows such as Harvey, Pal Joey, Sweet Charity and Follies (Peter was in the Broadway original). Finally, the two seasoned actors took their places on the set. Peter sang his solo about little girls. Then Scotty, playing an old lover seated with a parasol at a café table, inquired:
“Is that you, Honoré?”
 He turned and asked, “Mamita?”
 “You naughty boy,” she said. “Where have you been? Come over and sit with me.”
He: “You are still the most beautiful woman in Paris.”
She: “And you are still the most beautiful liar in Paris.”
Then came the song, of love so long ago, and of fading memory:
He: “We met at nine.”
She: “We met at eight.”
He: “I was on time.”
She: “No, you were late.”
He: “Ah yes, I remember it well.”
And so it went, all the way to the touching conclusion, with Scotty, more than holding her own as a singer and acting as if nothing untoward had happened to her, playing a woman with perfect recall. Peter, in his ascot and boater and with his cane, seemed the quintessential Frenchman. The audience knew it was in the hands of pros.
He: “You wore a gown of gold.”
She: “I was all in blue.”
He: “Am I getting old?”
She: “Oh no, not you. How strong you were, how young and gay, a prince of love in every way.”
He: “Ah yes, I remember it well.”

The house, as it were, came down, the audience wildly applauding not only what it saw on the stage, but also the heart of a performer.
At the reception afterward, Peter watched as fans mobbed Scotty. He told me, “That’s her profession tapping her on the shoulder. That’s Scotty—being wanted, being appreciated again.” Measures that, for actors and audience alike, can make the difference between despair and the road to recovery.

Song of Life

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