Bohemian Rhapsody

This past week, the blossoming of some sunflowers planted at the edge of my

Bohemian Rhapsody

garden bed brought to mind a landmark event in my life, one I hadn’t thought about for years.

As you can see from the accompanying photo, these sunflowers are a bit more exotic than the usual yellow-on-yellow sunflowers immortalized by Van Gogh and others. When I spoke with Jim on the phone, I excitedly informed him of the new ornament to our garden.

He replied, “Those are the Bohemian Rhapsody variety, right? I can’t wait to see them when I get home.”

We moved on to other topics, but after I hung up the phone and was going about my chores, I heard myself singing, “Mama, just killed a man…” Suddenly, I swirled back through time. I was seventeen years old, a senior in high school. For the first and only time, I was taking center stage voluntarily in front of a rather large crowd.

The event was Immaculata Preparatory High School’s annual variety show. Although I loved to sing, I’d never participated in the variety show before. I was just too shy. Even sitting in the front row of the orchestra (wherein I played violin, I fear not very well) made my feet tingle and my heart thump.

However, earlier that year, my best friend Anna Cooke, had tossed out the idea that we should do a sketch based on the band Queen’s song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s a great piece, a mini-drama centered around a murder trial.

Well, somehow in the flash of this idea, my usual shyness vanished. Not only did I want to do the sketch, I really wanted to sing lead. Anna seemed to think this was a good idea – although as I recall we also considered roping in a girl named Terri and there was some question as to what part she’d take.

Anyhow, we went to Sister Annette Cecile, one of the members of the music staff and the director of the orchestra in which Anna and I both played. (Anna’s a flautist). We ran our idea by Sister Annette, since, as far as either Anna or I knew, this was the first time anyone had done a rock piece rather than something taken from a musical or light pop. To our surprise, Sister Annette agreed we should give it a try, but insisted we look up every strange word in the piece and make certain we knew what each one meant.

Off Anna and I went to the library. “Bohemian Rhapsody” certainly does invoke more than a few strange images. I remember two in particular we were a little concerned about. First, there’s a line where the lead sings “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me!” We weren’t sure how the reference to devils would go over in our very Catholic context. The other part was in the chorus: “Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Can you do the fandango?”

However, when we came back with our definitions, Sister Annette Cecile passed us to audition. Now we needed a chorus. We roped in my sister Ann (then a sophomore), two freshmen, and the aforementioned Terri.

Anna took over as director. Terri would play both the judge and the mother – a bit of moral ambiguity we were all very proud of, since justice is supposed to be unbiased. Our four choristers would dress as stylized puppets. I don’t remember the full costume, but I remember that brightly colored leg-warmers were involved. By contrast, I would wear all black.

Of course, we didn’t have all the costuming together for the audition, nor did we have the elaborate musical accompaniment from the album. Like everyone else, we would need to make do with Sister Annette Cecile on piano and Sister Mary Ann on drums. No one used recorded accompaniment or the like in those days.

Anyhow, our act was accepted. Rehearsals are a blur in my mind, but I suspect I drove anyone even remotely nearby crazy with my going through the song over and over.

Then the big night. My parents had given me the black jeans I needed, for Christmas, I think. I’d found a black tee-shirt and turned it inside out to hide the logo. I even found more or less black sneakers. (Budget was tight in those years and I didn’t own a lot of black).

No make-up, I think. Hair loose (and a lot darker than it is now, although more red-brown than black). When the skit starts, I’m sitting on the floor of the stage, bent over, head down, arms folded so no skin will show.

In my huddle I hear the chorus begin with the eerie words: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

The light’s on me now – or that was the plan – and I unfold myself, coming to my feet so I’m standing for my opening line: “I’m just a poor boy. I need no sympathy…”

Anna’s direction is inspired. Terri sits on a stool to one side of the stage, chatting animately into a phone. I come over to her, my confession of murder begging for attention she can’t be bothered to give.

As I move to center for the second part of the song, Terri quietly crosses to the other side of the stage. She’ll be the judge for the final part. We move through confession, to pleading, to despair, into defiance, and finally fury and resignation. Sister Annette Cecile and Sister Mary Ann are – as Anna put it years later – “rocking out” on their limited instruments, doing us all proud.

Yet for my “poor boy,” there is no escape. As he/me tries to get “just out of here” the formerly passive puppets of the chorus provide an unbreakable line. Finally, I move to the front center again singing, “Nothing really matters, anyone can see…”

And on the final line, I fold myself back into a ball on the floor. Behind me, the puppets sing, “Any way the wind blows,” and drop limp, strings cut.

Lights go down. We’re met with complete silence, followed by that incredible pounding applause that comes when you’ve shocked everyone and done it just right.

The variety show goes on, but for me it’s over and gloriously done. We join the rest of the cast for the closing number, I think we did “One” from A Chorus Line, but I couldn’t swear to it.

When the show is over, we go out to meet friends and family. I know we had lots of compliments, but two remain vivid in memory. A young man – I think his name was David Barber – comes rushing up, his expression glowing, “Oh, wow! Surrealism, man!”

Then there was my dad shaking his head, looking amazed and joyful as he says, “It was all the same old stuff and then you guys just took over and lit up the place.”

I’m not going to tell you how long ago all this was, but a lot of you reading this probably weren’t even born. All I know is that something changed for me that day. I didn’t become less shy all at once or anything. I didn’t win any leads. (My sister, Ann, did, though, later on). But I knew I had found something that grabbed hold of my deepest heart – I believe it was the joy of making a story come alive.

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9 Responses to “Bohemian Rhapsody”

  1. Emily Says:

    I happen to love that song! I would’ve loved to see that show. It sounds amazing!

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Someday you may have to do a reprieve just for the heck of it. Hehehe.

    Though it is interesting when that first moment happens. That first step toward where we’re going to end up. Thanks for sharing yours. It’s a great story.

  3. CBI Says:

    I was in college at the time, but the song is definitely a memorable favorite. It had another run of popularity a few years back in our kids’ high school. Sounds like your performance was absolutely outstanding.

    I would’ve thought that the “Bismillah” would’ve been more problematic at a Roman Catholic school than would “Beelzebub”, but perhaps not back then. OTOH, you could’ve pointed out that Arab Christians use the same phrase to begin the Trinitarian invocation.

  4. Paul Says:

    Based on having been in a few high school plays, each one makes for a memorable experience. No matter how they turn out, you are associated with the same group of people over an intense period of (rehearsal) time and, when it comes to an end, it’s really sad, like a little community breaking up each time.

  5. Rowan Says:

    I did tech for our high school variety show for three out of four years. It was always the most demanding technical production of the year, even more so than the musicals, because it always involved so many acts with so many different setups. There was also a grand piano that needed to be moved in and out at high speeds through doors it would barely fit through.

    There was a point to this when I started typing my comment, but I left the computer and came back much later. I think it’s that even from the invisible side of the story, there’s still that sense of being the ones making it live and breathe.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Actually, Rowan’s comment is interesting…

    Authors are like stage crew. Unless they’re writing autobiography (or fiction thinly disguised as such), they’re on the Invisible Side of the Story.

    Makes me wonder why anyone wants autographs. After all, no one hangs around the theater hoping to get the Stage Manager’s autograph!

  7. Other Jane Says:

    Great story! Thanks for telling it. Are you a Queen fan? Do you still listen to their music?

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