"So amidst all these highlights, why did I experience such a nagging sense of malaise?"
I was only able to answer this question once we reached intermission. The lights came up, people exited the theater to buy Mood Pies from the snack-stand, and suddenly I saw that my favorite performers of "Pop Show" yesteryear were in attendance, all sitting together in the first row, center-- amongst them Caitlin, who I'd been marveling over for years, having instantly recognized her star power (she's like what Melissa Joan Hart used to be on "Clarissa Explains It All") emanating even from the very back riser.
And upon seeing these "triple threat" ghosts of "Pop Show" Past just hanging out, I realized that what I'd been missing from the current cast was a sense of interconnectivity. In previous years I had been able to piece together alliances, romances, and resulting identities from apparent chemistries, which coated the production with the luster of narrative. In previous years the show had the power of my favorite form, the soap opera, behind it.
When I was a TA for "Intro To Television" at Brown, the professor asked me to draw up a chart explaining how the characters on "One Life to Live" were related-- not only by marriage or blood, but through shared plots and history, too. She wanted a guide to "make things clearer" for those students who had never seen the show before she screened an episode. When I finished with the chart, it was so indecipherable that it resembled a schizophrenic's doodling, lines and arrows and circles cutting across one another, jerking back, and then shooting off in new directions. I thought I had never seen such a thing of beauty, but after distributing the handout to the class, the resulting sound was the equivalent of a collective, "Hoooooooly fuck, do we really have to sit through an hour of this tonight?"
"Pop Show" used to feel to me like this chart. In observing who chose to duet with whom, who gave ebullient shout-outs to whom in the program's "Senior Statements," and in simply absorbing some kind of shimmering camaraderie, the source of which remained as mysterious as the very nature of friendship itself, I was able to put together a whole canvas. A soap opera town up there on the stage, complete with heroines, villains, and my all-time favorite: unrequited, long-suffering love.
But this year, not so much. I mean, one of the seniors felt okay leaving this as his final statement: "As I tried to sum up the last 4 years in 50 words or less I decided not to. Thank you to all of you who have shared this wonderful experience with me." I wanted to find the dude and shout the same thing I shout at so many of my novel writing students, "Specificity!!! Your story is nothing without specificity!" The relationships under the changing lights and costumes had the same generic quality. Sometimes I wondered if a trio of girls had opted to sing a song together simply because...no one else had been around that day after school. And had they worn those skirts and those tops just because they happened to be on sale at Burbank's Target Greatland? Were decisions entirely without meaning?
Yet I have to acknowledge the two performers continuing to weave plot through performance, shouldering the story upon their gentle frames. The first I refer to as "the adorable redheaded boy," possessed of his own Americana sparkle, but also connected to that front row of former cast members-- a link, of course, further entrenching him in my nostalgic heart. As he sang his numbers, whether swoony or defiant, he kept directing his intentions toward a blond "Pop Show" alumni below him, who would bunch her knees to her chest and violently shake her head. I couldn't tell if the adorable redheaded boy was embarrassing her or delighting her (even if he was embarrassing her, she seemed to be delighted in that high-school "Stop it! (But don't stop it)" way), but either worked. They were dating; they had dated; he wanted to date her; they were best friends who'd wrestled with increasing sexual tension for years; they were something.
The second was a performer I wrote about two years ago, when her Queen's "Find Me Somebody To Love" solo made the rest of her singing group magically disappear behind her, sequins included. I know her name is Leatrice Innocent (fantastic for showbiz!) because her mom emailed me after my post, telling me that her daughter was only a freshman but slowly coming out of her shell. And so when a new Leatrice appeared this year, beginning the Journey medley by ripping off one dress to reveal another, standing alone on a dark stage and pausing the breath of the entire auditorium, I was filled with the same thrill I used to experience watching a seminal film of my youth, Tony Danza's She's Out Of Control, in which his daughter, played by Ami Dolenz (incidentally, Monkee Mickey Dolenz's kid) transforms from invisible girl-next-door into that chick you pray you'll grow up to be before you're old enough to realize that being her won't solve anything. There was Leatrice, glasses gone, hair longer and more Veronica Lakey. Posture improved and persona expanded. Like a gift, a coming-of-age tale in only a few bars of an 80's song.
This month I found out I'll be teaching fiction for a certain Southern Californian liberal arts university in the fall, and when I told the news to my author/teacher friend, he wrote that my students will "be smart and motivated (though most of their stories will likely concern Greek life and vomiting)." And I wrote him back, oh my god, I can only hope. I can only hope that my students will start running together, developing crushes on one another, meeting up for dinner after class, creating interpersonal dramas on the weekends so that every story turned in overflows with vectors of personal significance, bringing our tiny room closer to the epic. I mean, my UCLA Extension students are talented and everything, but they're already way too established in their lives to get caught up in this shit. But I'm still always looking to go backwards for another layer of examination.