The Second Option – Maddie’s First Experience in Theatre
February 2022. So the other day my daughter comes into my office asking for help putting the final touches on her first ever theatrical audition. Little did I suspect that she had just raised the curtain on one of the defining moments of her young life. A moment that would also bring the family together in a sweet experience of communion.
Maddie’s task, she informed me, was to present a monologue from the Broadway play Annie and a rendition of Cosette’s Castle on a Cloud from Les Mis. This was her first ever audition. I dropped what I was doing and dove in to my assignment.
Maddie was reserved. She was rushing her lines. Trying to get through them. Not tapping fully into the heart dimension of each piece.
“Sweetie, try to imagine: you are not Maddie,” I told her. “You are Annie. And I am not Dad. I am Mr. Warbucks. You are singing to me, pouring out your heart. And I love you. I love listening to you. I have all the time in the world for you. And I have the power to help you. So take your time. Say what is on your heart. Say it to me. Relax. I have time and so do you.”
She slowed down a little. She was saying the lines “It’s really a swell locket, Mr. Warbucks. But if it’s the same to you, I’d like to keep my own locket.” She was explaining that her real parents had given her this locket. That they kept the other half of it. That they would bring that other half to the orphanage some day. That this would let Annie know that they were her real parents. Annie believed in this. Hoped for this.
Maddie continued: “I’m going to find them one day, Mr. Warbucks. I’m going to have a regular mom and a regular dad like a regular kid. I am!”
She tells him she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. That he has been nicer to her than anyone in the whole word.
“But I’ve been DREAMING about my parents for as long as I can remember. I just GOTTA find them. . . I DO!”
I taught Maddie how to put emotion and heart in the words dreaming, gotta and I do! Those were the high points of the whole piece, I told her. You are Annie. Put your heart in it.
She did. Many times she practiced and polished those lines. The heart of an orphan. The heart of a child that yearns for a parent’s love. It was a beautiful moment.
We practiced her song. That song is also the song of an orphan’s heart. It tells of Cosette’s yearning for an experience of home. It was lovely to see Maddie’s little heart flowering before me. My eyes even watered a bit.
This was the dawn before the storm.
Because the next night, when she stood before a panel of judges in a closed off room, me waiting outside with all the other parents, she ran into a disaster. The singing portion came first. Children had to download and play the instrumental music from their phones. Maddie was less confident about the music. In general, she is frail emotionally. Prone to self-doubt. To floods of “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” She stood up there, ready to sing, for the first time in her life, before a room of singers and actors, before a panel of judges. Her knees, she told me later, began to wobble, to shake. Emotion flooded her.
She pushed play on her phone. The music started. She began to sing. She noticed (she told me all this later) that her voice was wobbling too. The shaking of her knees dinged her confidence. This showed up in her voice, which was not full and strong as it is when she is free. She pushed through it. Then her phone shut off. The timer we established for screen time limits for the day had been reached. We forgot to disarm it. This was her first audition. The idea of disarming screen limits had slipped all our minds.
Maddie froze. Horrified. Now all the worst things had happened. She was able to hit override on the phone but her mojo was wrecked. She lost the flow, the pulse of the music. She wasn’t allowed to go back and start over. She struggled to find the rhythm again. Her spirit was broken. She limped to the finish line of the piece. Then half-heartedly presented her lines from Annie. With no confidence. With a broken heart.
After all the kids came out from their auditions, about 40 minutes later, I looked at her face, to read how it went. She was stoic. She was standing next to a friend. But she said little. I suspected something had gone wrong because there were no bubbles in her personality. Maddie usually has bubbles.
She turned and walked first, ahead of me to the car. I followed. She got into the passenger seat. I slid into the driver’s seat. I looked over.
Her head was turned toward the window, facing down. Her hair fell over her face. I began to hear sobs.
“Sweetie, what happened?” I said. “What happened? Can you tell me?”
“My phone timed out. It shut off in the middle of my song. I couldn’t go back and start over. I had to hit override and sing from there. But I couldn’t do it.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
I was like a boat at sea, with no oars and no engine. I had no idea how to respond. What a disaster. For a child as fragile as Maddie this could be devastating. I was inexperienced in theater. Didn’t know when the next chance would or could come. Didn’t know what to say. I personally had had a miserable day that day. Was stressed about work. Had been time starved. Was emotionally spent myself. Felt I had no bandwidth to handle this moment with grace. I was flailing. I couldn’t be what I knew Maddie needed. I didn’t even know what she needed.
In general, when Maddie is in this kind of emotional state she is not reachable. I felt helpless as a Dad.
I told her I was proud of her. That she did have an audition, yesterday and earlier today, with me. That she did great. That I loved it. That she had talent. That it was normal to have a set back on the first big audition. That it’s hard. Scary. Nerve wracking. That this was her first time and that there would be others, if she wanted them, if this was really important to her.
Nothing worked. She hung her head down and to the right, away from me. Her hair over her face. She wouldn’t look at me.
We drove home, largely in silence. We called my wife. She couldn’t break through either. I felt so sad. So helpless.
When we got home, my wife gave Maddie a big hug. Maddie wept softly against her mother’s breast. She then went silently up stairs. Devastated. Too sad even to cry loudly or be mad or throw things. I had never seen her so low.
Later, before bed, I cupped her head in my hands, as I gave her a good night blessing. I told her again how proud I was of her. How much I loved the work she had done. I told her of a line from the psalms: that God keeps a record of our tears. That he is close to the broken hearted.
Still no light of hope in her sad eyes.
Morning came and mourning remained.
Maddie’s spirit was broken. She went off to school sad and dejected. Come afternoon I was working at my desk in my home office. Again I was under a lot of strain. Still feeling stressed. But I had come to realize that yesterday I had largely missed the moment because I carried too much of my work and life stress within me when Maddie needed a tender Dad. So today, when she came home, I decided it would be different. The rest of my afternoon’s work could wait till evening.
I had no plan. I was just winging it. I just knew something was needed. I had to help reach her. Had to help this situation not defeat her spirit. Had to show her a different way to respond.
She went upstairs. Slouched in her little bean bag chair. Eyes on a screen. Spirit low.
I followed her. Approached. Reached out my hand.
“Remember last week when we said next time you were feeling down, I would come reach out my hand and invite you on a Coke date?”
No response. We had said that. But now it didn’t seem to her to be such a good idea.
“We did say that, Maddie. We promised. Let’s keep the promise. Let’s try it.”
I held out my hand. I gently grabbed hers. I tried to pull. She did not budge. Slumped in the bean bag chair. I got down on a knee.
“Sweetie, you went through a disappointment yesterday,” I began, touching on a point I had discussed with my wife. Katie and I had discussed how this experience might teach Maddie how to work through a deep disappointment. That this was the goal and the blessing here.
“You are not alone in that. We all have disappointments sometimes. I have had a few lately. They happen. Annie had a big disappointment. So did Cosette. They were orphans.”
Now I was getting an idea…
“Yeah, Annie had some deep disappointments. All those years waiting for her parents and they never came. But I have an idea. Let’s try what Annie used to do. Come on. I have an idea. Grab my hand, let’s get up, grab a coke and go for a ride. I have something to show you. I have an idea of what might help.”
She got up. We grabbed two cokes, reserved for just such an occasion. Hopped in the car and drove to one of our favorite spots: a lake by a nearby golf course. We parked. We looked at the water. We have had many special dates near the water. I dialed up “Tomorrow” from the Annie soundtrack on my phone. I prefaced it for Maddie. Told her how Annie used to sing this song to make herself feel better when she was down.
“When I’m stuck with a day, that’s grey and lonely!” I sang along with the early words.
“I just pick up my chin and grin and say, O, the sun’ll come out tomorrow, tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun!”
I look over. Slumped shoulders. Sad eyes. Looking away. Not singing. Not drinking her Coke.
I tried a few phrases. I sang some more. Nothing landed.
In lame Dad fashion, I lost heart. “I left my work for this,” I thought. “And she can’t even respond at all?
“OK, Maddie,” I say. “I give up.”
I start the car, turn out of the parking area, ease back onto the road toward our house. “I can’t help you if you won’t let me. But I can tell you, if you let this sadness beat you, it will. If you let this disappointment discourage you, it will. If you give up now, and don’t pick up your chin, like Annie, and get out there and sing again, you might not get another chance.”
“I’m driving home now,” I continue, in an effort to balance firmness with gentleness. “Take a few minutes and think about it. When we get to the lake right near our house, I’m going to give you two choices. The first option is: say nothing. In that case, I will keep driving home. I will go back to work. And you can go do whatever you want to do.”
“The second option is: tell me you’re willing to try. Then we’ll try something together. We’ll try again.”
I drove off. 5 minutes later, I was turning into our neighborhood. We neared the small lake 4 blocks from our house. (The one we had just come from was a larger one we like to visit.) Maddie’s head was still down, her shoulders still slumped.
But I heard something. A voice. A soft voice. Ever so soft.
“I choose the second option.”
My heart skipped. I reached out my hand. I grabbed hers. Then some kind of spirit came over me. Some kind of fatherly spirit. Some kind of spring of living water bubbled up from beneath that moving car, from beneath that concrete street. It flowed into me.
“OK, Maddie.” I now held her hand in my mine. I was looking ahead on the road.
“Then I will pray, with every fiber of authority, with all the power and love that is in me as a father on this earth. Father in heaven, I pray to you for my daughter. I ask you to look down on her broken heart. You say you are close to broken hearts. I ask you to be close to her broken heart. You say you send your Holy Spirit to be with us always. I ask you to send that Spirit today. Now. Right here. We need you. Maddie needs you. I ask you to help us find a way out of this sadness. I remember one day when Peter was in a great storm. Jesus came to him walking on the water. Peter wanted to reach Jesus. Wanted to know that it was him. Asked that if it was him, present in that storm, that he would give him the grace to walk on that water. I ask for that grace for Maddie….”
By this time we had rounded a corner in our neighborhood and we were headed back to the small lake we had just passed. I pulled into the parking lot. Car facing the water.
“Jesus, I ask you now, I beg you now, give Maddie this same grace. Give her the grace to step out into the storms of her heart right now and to walk on that water.” We were looking across the water as I spoke. “Give her the courage to face this fear, this sadness, this disappointment. To stand up against it, with you by her side. And to try again.”
Tears filled my eyes. What I could not give my daughter I was begging God to give her. I was poor and I was broken. But I was a father praying in faith to the Father of us both.
I remembered a song that Maddie once sang with her music teacher. It’s called Burn. It’s the song Eliza Hamilton sang when she discovered Hamilton had cheated on her. It’s kind of dark song for a child to sing. But Maddie found it. She probably didn’t fully understand it. She asked her music teacher if she could learn it. We decided it would be OK.
I recalled that song. I dialed it up on my apple music. We listened.
I spoke. I intro’ed the song. “Remember Eliza? Maddie? She too lived through a great disappointment. Her husband hurt her very badly. He lied to her. Then he made the whole matter public. She thought she would never recover from it. She wanted him to burn. She wanted their memories together to burn. She wanted it all to be over.
I quoted the song: “You have torn my heart all apart,” Eliza mourns. “I’m watching it burn.”
I wanted Maddie to understand that disappointments happen in life. She was not alone if she was feeling devastated, bereft. I wanted to teach her that there was a way out of that feeling. We listened to that song together. We felt Eliza’s pain together. We felt that pain, that sense that there was no tomorrow.
Maddie sat up just a little taller, her head not quite so down. She was not alone. She sensed it.
I thought. I searched my fatherhood file of ideas of what to do next. I remembered another Hamilton song. “It’s Quiet Uptown.” My personal favorite. The song where Eliza and Hamilton work through another great sadness. The loss of their son, killed in a duel.
I dialed that up next on the playlist.
“There are moments that the words don’t reach,” Eliza sings sorrowfully, “There is suffering too terrible to name. You hold your child as tight as you can and push away the unimaginable.”
These lines hit home with Maddie. “See,” I said, “Eliza had to experience an unimaginable sadness too. These things happen in life. You’re not alone.”
We kept listening.
“The moments when you’re in so deep. It feels easier to just swim down. The Hamiltons move uptown and learn to live with the unimaginable.”
I hit pause: “The moments when you’re in so deep,” I repeated it for Maddie: “It feels easier to just swim down.”
“Wow, can you see that? Eliza lived with a sorrow was so deep she just wanted to keep sinking lower and lower in her sadness. Can you relate to that?”
She shook her head, gently, up and down. She was listening. She was beginning to see.
“But look, they learn to live with unimaginable. Eliza finds a way. She stops swimming down in her sadness and learns to live with it.”
We talked through the rest of the song; we went over the parts that she could relate to. We saw Hamilton’s suffering as a father and his plea that Eliza let him stay by her side. We saw the dawning of grace in the song, “a grace too powerful to name,” a grace that gave Eliza the capacity to forgive her husband, there, in the garden.
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?
Forgiveness. It was the resolution of all the tension in the song.
“This was living with the unimaginable,” I tell Maddie. “Eliza lived through the pain of her husband’s hurting her, then the pain of the loss of her son and now she found the grace to forgive Hamilton and to continue living. Living with the unimaginable.”
We sang parts of the song together, Maddie with her soft, still sorrowful voice. We especially sang the first stanza.
I realized that Maddie needed to sing this song, to connect with the emotional arc of Eliza, just as yesterday she had learned to connect with the orphans Annie and Cosette.
I had an idea. I blurted it out.
“Maddie, how about if we stage another audition? Your second audition. You can do it in front of the whole family. Gwen (her brother’s girlfriend) is coming over tonight. We can call this a practice audition. Gwen makes this a public audition, not just family. You can learn the first stanza of “It’s Quiet Uptown” (this was the second Hamilton song we had just listened to). It will be your way of learning to live with the unimaginable. Of pressing on with your life like Eliza did. It will be your way of showing yourself that you are good at theatre. That you can do this. You just need a second chance.”
She agreed. Already her spirit had picked up a little.
We drove home. She copied out the first stanza, she practiced it in her room. 45 minutes later she came down and said: I’m ready.
I recruited her brother to learn the piano accompaniment. He graciously agreed. He took the time that afternoon to learn it.
Dinner time came. We were all together as a family. JP’s girlfriend Gwen was with us. We made the announcement that Maddie had a new piece she wished to present, as a special audition, after dinner, to make up for the one that didn’t go so well.
Dinner passed quickly. We moved to the music room. Alexander sat at the piano. The family sat in a circle around it. Maddie stood at the top of the circle.
The opening notes tickled the keys: two cascading little moves then a chord. This was Maddie’s cue:
“There are moments that the words don’t reach,” she sang out, her little soul not trembling. Her little soul was standing. She was standing again. She was performing.
“There is suffering too terrible to name,” she continued.
She was singing with heart. The kind of heart I had to teach her to sing yesterday. Now she was inhabiting the piece she was singing.
“You hold your child as tight as you can. And push away the UNIMAGINABLE.”
She dug deep on the word unimaginable. That’s why I’ve capitalized it. She paused on it, pushed the pedals of emotion close to the floor, said it with emphasis. I was watching my daughter sing with greater soul than she had before, because now she had a deeper human experience. She had encountered a deep sadness and knew what it felt like.
“The moments when you’re in SO deep, it feels easier to just swim down. The Hamiltons move uptown and learn to live with the UNIMAGINABLE.”
Maddie was now putting the emphasis in all the right spots and I didn’t even need to teach it to her. She knew it from the inside. Better still, her brother made a few timing mistakes in his playing and she knew it; she just patiently waited for him to catch up to her, then she continued on with her singing. I thought, isn’t this progress from yesterday, when an iphone glitch derailed her concentration?
We finished up. Next we sang the song straight through, together, with iphone accompaniment. I sang the part of Alexander Hamilton. The family applauded warmly. Gwen congratulated Maddie and let her know that once she too wanted to win the lead role in her grade school play but she only got a bit part instead.
Maddie liked that. She smiled. She felt understood. She was learning that no, she was not alone. She was learning to live with the unimaginable.
She would also learn about second chances. For, as it turned out, Maddie didn’t receive a lead role in that play. But she did get a part in the ensemble. A modest but challenging and meaningful role, that would teach her to sing and dance before crowds in excess of 1000 people. She flowered in the role, learning grit, endurance, attention to detail, confidence and assurance along the way. She also discovered the joy of theatre – where one child discovers her meaningful role in a great ensemble. And where the journey of a human soul dances across the stage, echoing, in well-rehearsed voices, throughout the grand hall.
What a beautiful experience to witness. One that almost wasn’t.