“Wow! That must be so exciting!” people exclaimed when I told them I was going to be backing up Barbra Streisand for her Toronto appearance at the Air Canada Centre. I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of excitement – it was, after all, a job. And a “free” one at that! I was one of 60 “peons” in the Mendelssohn Singers (a faction of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir), who would be backing up Babs.
We rehearsed the music to be sung in the finale, the night before the October 23nd concert. During that rehearsal we were asked to sign a waiver that we would not speak to La Babs, or take any photos. I could understand that to a point. Barbra is known for being a very private person, and when she’s doing a number of shows, she deserves to have that privacy respected – at least for her voice’s sake. We were given our schedule, and were told that we would be fed a dinner after the sound check, AND we would receive free tickets to watch the first half of the show. (Last year, when the Mendelssohn Singers were invited to back up Andrea Boccelli, we were served a sumptuous banquet backstage – complete with multi courses, and desserts). To me, free tix, free food, and a chance to play a miniscule part in this huge show, backing up one of the world’s most celebrated singers, was reward in itself.
On the day of the concert, it was rainy, and the 60 singers gathered outside the stage door at the ACC for our 3:30 call, while people from the stage crew came out, and regaled us with their pungent emissions from their cigarettes. Many of us were wet, and coughing before we even began. Finally we were herded into the bowels of the building, down some stairs, through a few doors, down a hall, up more stairs to a big square windowless “bunker” which would be our holding spot for the next half a day. We found chairs, dumped our luggage, and waited for instructions, while our conductor made a chart of who should stand where, once we got onstage. In about half an hour, we were herded back down the stairs to line up backstage in our assigned orders. We were led to our spots – the area of the mammoth stage we were to be using was a horseshoe shaped “U” around the sides and back of the stage. There were microphones placed every ten feet, around which 4 or 5 singers gathered in groups. I was in one of the groups closest to the audience, and as we stood there awaiting our next instructions, I realized there were no chairs ANYWHERE for us to take while we were idle. I figured I (with my bad back) could take the standing for about 15 minutes max. After rehearsing our rather classy, choreographed entrance a couple of times, Barbra entered the stage, and we rehearsed with the orchestra, the two songs we’d be singing with her – “Make Your Garden Grow” by Bernstein, and “There’s a Place For Us”. Barbra was about half a block away from me, as I stood onstage. That’s about as close as I ever got! The rehearsal and soundcheck took 1 hour and 15 minutes, and my back was not happy (at one point, I sat on the floor in lotus position, which helped a bit.)
Back to our bunker, to behold stacks of pizza boxes on the tables, a couple of bowls of salad, some dressing, and some bananas, apples and oranges. THAT was our free food, and it was most disappointing. Pizza was cold, not quite enough to go around. By the time we finished our repast it was 6 o’clock – 2 more hours until the show started, and we were not allowed to leave the room, or the ACC. Some people read, some yakked, some did puzzles, some napped. It was a long 2 hours.
Finally it was time to take our tix, and find our seats for the first half of the show, up in the 300’s – the nosebleed section. Until you turn around and face the stage, you have no idea how high you are until you get to your seat. My friend, who I sing beside, began to freak out because of the height – it felt like it was straight down from where we were sitting. She ended up having to leave because of her vertigo – and was led down backwards by one of our kind tenors – and she missed the show. My seat was the most uncomfortable seat I’ve ever sat on. With legs bent to a perfect right angle, knees directly over ankles – the toes of my shoes were jammed against the seat in front of me, and the only way to get comfortable was to splay the knees in a most “unladylike fashion” into my neighbour’s territory – so we were playing kneezies throughout the first half of the concert.
All that discomfort disappeared, however, once Barbra entered the stage to a roaring full, adoring house! She had us in the palm of her hands the minute she began her songs. We were directly above stage right, so the pulldown screens, which were magnifying her face to the audience, were viewed by us from behind. Any printing on the screen was backwards. But we could clearly see her teleprompter, which rolled out the words for her intros and between songs “schtick”. Her voice was a tiny bit husky on the top notes – I believe she was dealing with the effects of a cold. But she carried it all through in a most beautiful manner. I felt so privileged to hear her stories about Marvin Hamlish and their great friendship, and to hear her sing some of my favourite tunes like “The Way We Were” and others, that I used to sing when I was singing with a Society Band.
Leaving the nosebleed section at the end of the first half, was an exercise in frustration, as a bunch of us from the choir, tried to find our way back to our bunker. We went through a few “Spinal Tap” moments as we tried to find our direction – weaving amongst the crowd of patrons, sometimes running into the same people, the same elevators – the wrong ones. Finally, we did find our way to our room, and en masse, changed into our gowns and tuxes – all together in the same room. Who cares if the guys see you in your underwear? Gotta do whatcha gotta do!
After more sitting around in the bunker, we were finally led to line up at the entrance to the stage. We could hear Babs singing one of my favourite songs (which I happen to sing myself) “Here’s to Life”, before we made our grand entry! “Here’s to Life” always makes me verklempt – so I walked to my place in front of our mic, with a few tears trying to dry in my eyes. After some talk, some thankyous – and a special moment where she thanked “The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir” for backing her (and made a gesture that indicated she admired our dresses with the white stripe across the top) – the orchestra fired up on “Make Your Garden Grow” and we sang our part. We couldn’t really hear ourselves, and don’t know how we sounded (except listening back on Youtube the next day – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKlwSAQbt64&playnext=1&list=PL-idGcVAYBqTnUn_heAjP0588XN35KOWG&feature=results_video ). We sang the finale – then made our exit – 5.5 minutes was the length of our moment of fame.
Back to the bunker to change quickly, and try to avoid the mobs racing for the subway.
I’m glad I was part of it – there were some lovely moments. But “exciting”? Nah. It was really just another gig (with no pay involved). 🙂
Great article Deb.
Thanks for sharing those behind-the-scenes details. Interesting!