I made the mistake of seeing the Broadway production of “Billy Elliot” while helping my eight-year-old plan her act for the annual elementary school Variety Show. No matter how self-righteously I deride those theater parents for pushing their children too hard, those kids are still amazing and my daughter is performing in a production that’s no longer even called a “Talent Show.” Back when I was in elementary school, that’s what it was: a competition with a clear winner. I know, because I didn’t win. A boy named Tommy, who happened to be an outstanding tap dancer, beat out my guitar-picking, country-twanged version of that perennial Helen Reddy favorite, “Keep on Singing,” which I don’t believe has been played on the radio since 1973. Was I scarred for life? No–but clearly I haven’t forgotten it, either.
My little one need not suffer so. No one loses in the modern-day Variety Show, except maybe the parents who have to sit through the interminable rehearsals and pay Express Delivery for the costumes they forgot to order. Or maybe I’m projecting. It reminds me of one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, which shows a kid bursting through his apartment door, bearing a smile and a giant trophy. “We lost!” reads the caption.
In any case, I wasn’t initially in favor of my daughter appearing in the Variety Show. I have endured these things before and there isn’t even much variety: it’s mostly groups of little girls dancing clumsily to inappropriate songs by Madonna or Shakira or Rihanna or one of those other one-named phenoms. Plus the show is about four hours long, mainly because the kids are allowed to perform in as many acts as they want, and it’s often hard to see the stage over the giant 800 mm zoom lenses the other parents have trained on their superstars. Last year, luckily, my daughter was part of a school-organized group of Hip Hop Jumpropers, which I liked because it was cute and athletic and I didn’t have to do anything. (Though I did balk when she wanted to be part of a “commercial break” for Nair, singing “Who Wears Short Shorts?” Call me a spoilsport, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of seven-year-olds touting the benefits of a hair-free bikini line.)
So when my daughter said she didn’t want to be in the Variety Show this year, I happily deposited the sign-up form in the recycling bin. Then I overheard her singing a catchy tune called The Water Cycle by Stevesongs. Before I could stop the words from leaving my mouth, I said, “Hey, you should do that song for the Variety Show!” Don’t ask me why; I found the song funny and educational, and it required no belly shirts or gyrating of any kind. Plus, it perfectly fit this year’s theme: “Schoolhouse Rock,” no doubt intended to inspire parental nostalgia for the old pre-Cartoon-Network days of “Conjunction Junction” and “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Amazingly, my daughter agreed, and before I could kick myself, she had organized two friends and a rehearsal schedule at our house.
For the first two rehearsals, they mostly ate crackers, chased the dogs and shot down any suggestion I made for their act. So I hooked them up with the show’s organizer, a saintly woman with enviable reserves of patience, and her 12-year-old daughter, a theater kid who could certainly act in any local production of “Billy Elliot.” They demonstrated all kinds of dance steps and gestures, a few of which the girls may have adopted. I wouldn’t know, because they are no longer letting me watch them practice. We shall see soon enough; the dress rehearsal is tomorrow. At least the costumes–oversized black t-shirts bearing rain clouds–arrived in time. Well worth the $15.99.
Kids are allowed to perform as many acts as they want? 4 hours? Ay, yi, yi. It’s time to go Old School. We need to bring back the Talent Show of the 70’s. First of all, back then, the teachers and the parents would never have allowed such nonsense as letting kids entering as many acts as they want. Second, the kids wouldn’t have dreamed of entering more than once. It was everything you could do back then not to barf on stage. (Especially if you were in a leotard doing a gymnastic/dance routine to Caroline in the Pines by Michael Martin Murphy). Because our parents weren’t filming our every move or giving us reassurances 24/7, it was a pretty big deal to go up on stage and be judged. No one was going to do it more than once. I say bring back the Talent (not Variety) Show and include a Simon Cowell like judge to make the kids think twice before entering multiple times. Or even once.
Hmmm, my daughter happens to be a casting assistant for Billy Elliot …