I cannot claim that I was completely surprised. By the same token, I didn’t know exactly what to expect.
A press release first made me aware of Diva: Live From Hell, and I lingered on it longer than most I receive. The plot synopsis, of a high school drama kid doomed to Hell for his thespian transgressions while alive, ticked off some of the boxes that usually interest me, school theatre in particular. But thinking about the already heavy theatergoing schedule I keep in late March and April, I decided I’d better give it a pass. So many shows, so little time.
That was that, until a Facebook message popped up from Morgan Jenness, the highly regarded dramaturg, agent, teacher, literary manager, activist, advisor, artist advocate and so much more. Was I planning to see Diva: Live From Hell, she wondered, because she thought I should see it. I replied, explaining that I’d thought about it, but decided to forego it. She wrote back to say I really should see it, and when Morgan gets emphatic like that, I know I’d be foolish not to take heed. I said that if she felt so strongly, I’d go. So while I began to ponder exactly what the deal was, I made a mental note to look to see when it was playing, having already deleted the press release.
When I awoke Monday morning to a Facebook wall post from Daniel Goldstein, who was directing the show, saying that I “may or may not be name-checked” in Diva: Live From Hell, I understood why Morgan was being so insistent. After all, Daniel couldn’t be posting versions of that message on the pages of all of his Facebook friends as a marketing ruse to sell tickets to the show, could he?
That’s how I found myself at Theatre for the New City on Monday night, with less than eight hours planning, having discovered that given my aforementioned busy schedule and the limited run of Diva, the only possible time I could attend was that same day. Normally, my theatergoing is planned out weeks in advance. Moviegoing is more spur of the moment for me.
So I might get some manner of shout out during the show, but of course I didn’t know when, and I didn’t know what it would be. It’s actually a terrible way to watch a show, waiting for a very specific yet indeterminate moment, but I tried to just relax and enjoy the proceedings. I settled in for the saga of Desmond Channing, played by Sean Patrick Monahan, who had also devised the show and written the book (music and lyrics are by Alexander Sage Oyen). Damned to recount his sordid tale of high school theatre rivalry, Desmond’s eternal cabaret is playing a lounge in the fiery pit; Roy Cohn, he tells us, is playing the big room.
(At this point I should give a lackadaisical spoiler alert, for those who find the prospect of hearing my name in a theatre production utterly thrilling. I imagine that if such a community exists, it’s extremely small, and perhaps might want to seek professional help.)
It wasn’t very far into the show, as Desmond relived his triumphant high school theatre career, that my name came up.
“I mean, I’m sure we all remember last year’s stunning production of “Flower Drum Song.” And not because of the controversy surrounding the casting! I’m still very hurt by Howard Sherman’s letter-writing campaign vilifying me for my portrayal of Wang Chi-Yang.”
OK, there it was. A good-natured ribbing of my advocacy regarding authenticity in racial casting and against practices such as yellowface. The audience laughed, but so far as I could tell, it was with the punchline, not at the mere mention of my name. I settled in to watch the rest of the show.
So imagine my surprise when only a bit later, I heard Desmond say the following:
“Auditions for the Fall Musicale are tomorrow. You just have to sing a Gilbert and Sullivan song. Wait a minute! What should I sing? Maybe “He is an Englishman.” No, everyone’ll do that… Or maybe something from “The Mikado”… No, can’t. Damn that Howard Sherman.”
Wow, I’m a recurring joke, albeit a highly esoteric one. But Monahan wasn’t quite done with me, as I discovered later in the show with the following interjection:
DALLAS: Alright, don’t make a big show. You know you’re the only student I let in the faculty room. Don’t abuse the privilege. Nice Louis Armstrong, by the way. If we hadn’t gotten in so much trouble for “Flower Drum Song,” next year I could’ve cast you as Porgy.
DESMOND: (Under his breath, furious) Sherman…
Because I was engaged in the show itself, my thoughts about these mentions didn’t really come until the lights went out and the curtain call began.
First thought: well, I guess people are registering the kind of advocacy I’ve been doing if it rises to the level of lampooning in an Off-Off-Broadway showcase.
Second thought: I would never, NEVER, lead a campaign against any high school student. At the high school level, I try to be supportive. I might have had a few words for a teacher so clueless as Mr. Dallas.
Third thought: Wow, I got name-checked alongside Kevin Kline, Tovah Feldshuh and Patti LuPone, among many others. Of course, Seth Rudetsky appeared as himself via recording, a more prominent inclusion in Monahan’s imagined world. (Under my breath, furious) Rudetsky!
As I exited the theatre, I encountered Morgan Jenness, grinning widely, eager to hear what I thought. I said I’d had a good time and was amused to be part of the show. “But, I confided to Morgan, “I don’t think anyone in that theatre had any idea that I’m a real person. I’m just a fictional nemesis invented by Sean along with the other characters.”
“Oh, Howard,” she replied, “People know who you are. And after all, it’s a pretty insider show.”
“Insiders enjoy LuPone and Kline jokes,” I countered. “Mentions of me are downright obscure. As far as this audience knows, I’m a fiction.”
And so, for the next week and half at least, I will have my own form of immortality, embedded in the pages of a theatrical script and spoken aloud for presumably unwitting audiences. This joins my other brushes with exceedingly minor fame, including my guest appearance as a Cupcake Wars judge and my three-sentence role on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
But I thank Sean Monahan for giving me this little gift of recognition, and perhaps someone will see Diva: Live From Hell and laugh spontaneously and knowingly at the mention of my name (if I haven’t already spoiled the moment for those most likely to do so with this essay). And while my next two weeks are completely committed, perhaps I’ll have the chance to encounter Desmond Channing once again, be it in this life, or the afterlife.