January 1 2009 — Hugo & A NYE Kiss
Updated: Feb 23
She was definitely wondrously beautiful. The only slightly critical thing you could say perhaps was that the contradiction between her gaze, which was sad, and her smile, which was jubilant, gave her face a somewhat wild look, which meant that at times that sweet face became strange without ceasing to be lovely.
- Victor Hugo, Marius meeting Cosette in Les Misérables
(Modern Library, translated by Julie Rose)
On the subway, we giggled like popular girls in a teen drama on the Family channel. We thought we were soooo cool. I was not often on the TTC as I was studying Music at Western in London, Ontario. Over the holiday break, I’d made NYE plans with three friends to go to a Rolling Stones theme bar called The Stones Place in Parkdale.
When we got to the bar, it was empty because we were so excited we were way too early. But the place filled up like my friends assured me it would and my black tutu was suddenly on point. Sometime in the last hours of 2008, a man in a grey suit with blonde hair and blue eyes approached me on the dance floor. He started telling the stupidest jokes I’d ever heard. There is often no greater service than to make someone laugh, so when a person does that for me, I tend to forget how pushy time can be. That night I also let loose.
My gaze narrowed and I lost sight of the people around us. When I felt like we were being pulled back inside the bustling room, David would say something hilarious and I would stick around for one more song. At midnight we kissed. My friends thought my choice was bizarre because anyone who wore a full suit to a bar was old to them. I let them pull me away, but not before David added me as a friend on Facebook. As soon as I stepped into the cab my friends had hailed, the car skidded away, and I looked at the blue windows of the bar shrinking into a pixelated speck through the driver’s rearview mirror.
Half a year passed. I saw an article in the Business section of the Globe and Mail that referenced something David said. The article brought me back to the sense of abandon I’d felt dancing with him. I posted the link on his Facebook timeline, and we messaged back and forth. This culminated in a reunion in High Park. On our next date, he watched me getting off the subway and waved from his balcony, which was in a remodelled Scientology building that overlooked the exit. We were an unlikely pair, but we dated for years. He seemed to accept my ambitions along with the inhibitions that distressed me. David was a talent agent, but he was never really mine. In 2012, he received an email about an open call for a Toronto Mirvish production of Les Mis. He forwarded it to me and asked if I wanted to go for fun under his agency.
I was working at the Royal Conservatory of Music on Bloor at the time answering phones, so I spoke with my two bosses, and they let me take an extended lunch. There were at least twenty other young sopranos in line. It was the first time I’d ever auditioned for anything professional so I didn’t have great expectations. I wasn’t even worried, which was very uncharacteristic. At the audition, I sang “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady and then the panel gave me some sides with music by the character Cosette. I hit the high C three times in a row, and I think that was most of what they were looking for.
I got called back several times after that and then David told me he thought the production had folded. We went on a trip that year to London, England, where we saw Les Mis. Even though it was looking like I wouldn’t get another chance to go for the Cosette part, I didn’t feel disappointed after seeing the musical. Just like the rotating stage in the London production, the universe had its way of revealing familiar scenes in different slants of light. I would get one more audition when we returned from the trip — this time at the Winter Garden Theatre.
I arose very early and warmed up before taking the GO train downtown. It wasn’t my voice I was worried about. It was the sadness I felt looking in the mirror every week, after my teacher at Western would nit pick every breath I released. It was the weight of small missteps that felt enormous to me. I'd put on a yellow dress with a wide crinoline skirt I bought in London. I wore blush the colour of my cheeks the night I was running out of The Stones Place.
When I entered the theatre, I imagined I was already in costume and felt my body relax. I transported back to NYE 2009 and walked into the room as if something extraordinary was already in progress. After I finished Cosette’s song, there was a long silence and everyone at the table burst into roaring laughter. I still don’t know why, but maybe I had her “wild look" for a split second. I booked the part as an understudy. The day I got the call, I IMed my best friend at work, Laura, and we met up in the bathroom, staggering our exits from the shared office space. When we got there, we jumped up and down screaming incomprehensible words. Then we walked back into the quiet office of phones at separate times as if nothing had happened.
After the show ended, David and I broke up. I still think of him when I play his grandfather Ross’s piano, which I acquired after Ross's death. I met Ross once in his 90s and sang “Saper vorreste” from Un ballo in maschera in his living room over a cup of tea. He was a stern man, but he'd smiled wide and laughed hearing it.
Every realistic character carries their uneven contradictions, just like people do. I love the way Cosette wore sadness and jubilance simultaneously on her face under Hugo’s pen. If there is a spark in an actor, it’s often when they invest a genuine feeling into something artificial or surrender to the unpredictable tension of life with conviction. Those are the most memorable strokes of time. As my high school piano teacher used to say, they don’t award 90+ percent in piano exams for simple textbook perfection. That mark is for the kind of honest spontaneity in performance that can make a juror forget what perfection even is.
Almost like little inside jokes, some days have led me to people I’ve been unknowingly poised and privileged to encounter. I’ll be writing about a few of my favourites over the next couple months in this blog, as well as publishing some special features on the topic of fate vs. coincidence. Thanks for reading along and I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!