I’ve been putting off writing the final installment of the Madrigal Chronicles for a while now, because my favorite Madrigal memory makes for a rather long story that’s hilarious when told right and slightly less than hilarious if the details get mixed up. I had the pleasure recently of recounting it for a good friend, though, and that’s given me the energy to finally commit it to (virtual) paper.
This story almost always comes up when people start discussing the famous people they’ve met/seen/made a fool of themselves in front of, and always begins with me saying, “I met Diane Sawyer.”
Someone inevitably replies, “Really? How did that happen?” and I’m forced to admit,
“Well, this one time…I was on Good Morning, America.” And of course, there’s no coming back from that statement. Details must be divulged. So I usually start at the beginning.
My senior year of high school went by as a blur of college applications, AP exams, dances and performances. Among the senior Madrigals, there was that bittersweet emotion of impending nostalgia with the realization that this would be our last time grudgingly performing at the Renaissance Festival or Christmas caroling at the local outdoor shopping center. Each spring, the group would take an exciting trip to a place of historical significance with some sort of vocal performance scheduled. In previous years, we had visited Washington, DC to sing in the National Cathedral on Easter Sunday, and traveled along the coasts of Ireland for a performance at Yorkminster Abbey. Both of those trips were full of awe-inspiring displays of famous monuments, architecture, and culture. This year, the National Youth Choir had been scheduled to convene in New York City at Carnegie Hall, under the leadership of a famous African-American musician known for leading his choir in powerful renditions of Negro spirituals. Hearing a gaggle of primarily classically trained, middle class white kids belting out My Soul is a Witness proved entertaining in perhaps a different way than the organizers had planned, but I digress.
Being 18 and visiting New York for the first time with a group of people your own age is nothing short of pure joy. Having always lived in a rural area (we didn’t have neighbors or street lights), I thought of myself as a country girl and was delighted to discover the crush of the city as a welcome change from the slowness of everyday life in North Carolina. When we weren’t rehearsing, the Madrigals roamed the streets in small groups. There were famous places to be seen, delicious foods to be eaten, kitschy souvenirs to be bought. We rode to the top of the Empire State building and rushed, giggling, through Times Square. One evening, I was walking with a few other girls when we saw, coming out of an inconspicuous building, two of the stars of the (then very popular) HBO series OZ. Apparently, it’s atypical for teenaged girls to be fans of hyper realistic prison dramas, because I was the only one to recognize them. Still, I was totally starstruck. I had always imagined breezing through my first celebrity encounter, maybe making a joke or silently nodding in the celebrity’s direction, acknowledging his or her existence, but respectful of his or her right to privacy. The real way it went down was this: I stopped short, and stared. Then I exclaimed, a little too loudly, “Hi!” The two men look at me, and one of them smiled politely and returned the greeting as their limousine pulled up to the curb. Mildly embarrassed, I mumbled, “Sorry,” and rushed to catch up with my friends. Going over the event later in my mind, I resolved that next time, I would do better. In New York City, there was no telling when you might run into someone famous; you had to be prepared at all times. In my next brush with fame, I resolved, I would maintain dignity at any cost.
On one of our final nights in the city, the Madrigal choir leader gathered us all in the lobby of our hotel to announce that we should be prepared to awake by 5 the next morning and be ready to walk across the neighborhood by 5:30. “We are,” she explained, “going to be on television. Oh, and you should wear your costumes.” She said this almost as an afterthought, as though the prospect of pilgriming across Times Square dressed in clothing from the sixteenth century was no big deal. Apprehensively, we climbed into bed hours earlier than usual, dreaming of the embarrassment that surely awaited us when we woke.
The next morning, it was cold and dark, but the bright lights of the city raised our spirits. We chatted cheerfully through breakfast and our stroll through the Square. Such was the strangeness and anonymity of this town that only a few of the people we passed even gave us a second look. I took this a good sign. When we arrived at the tall, glass front of ABC News headquarters, it was already mobbed by hundreds of eager fans and tourists with signs, costumes and gimmicks designed to attract the attention of cameras and casting agents. Surely we won’t get in, I thought, optimistically. We waited, huddling together, sleepy and cold (grateful for once for our woolen capes and hats) and took in the madness. The choir director suddenly appeared in front of us, her face lit with the glow of triumph. “We’re on!” She said. Glancing nervously at one another, we filed through the entrance of the studio into a green room for briefing.
A snappily dressed young casting agent in a headset approached us, smiling. “OK,” he explained, “here’s the deal. We have you booked for a two-minute interval in between our regular segments. Do you have something prepared that you could use to fill that time?” We looked at each other, nodding. Years of performing on cue and with a moment’s notice, like little dancing monkeys, had endowed us with a spectacular ability to improvise. We decided on a short but melodic piece from the 1600s that would show America our skill and what the Madrigals were all about. The staff bustled us into the main taping room, where Diane Sawyer was discussing the latest pop culture stories with her cohosts and doling out 15 minutes of fame like lollipops to enthusiastic guests. Our group tittered, simultaneously excited and dreading our national television debut. As time wore on, it became obvious that the show was running behind script. Our agent returned again and again, each time looking a little more disheveled, his headset slightly more tilted atop his carefully groomed coiffe. Two minutes, we’re on for two minutes in twelve, he mouthed at us, then, signaling from across the room, One thirty, one minute and thirty seconds, one minute, definitely the full minute, how about half a minute, can we do that? Finally, he marched our way, obviously miffed by at having to appease a group of teenagers from one of the bumpkin states south of his own city’s border. “We’re out of time,” he said, bluntly. “I’ve tried everything, but we just can’t make it happen. Unless…. would you be willing to hum behind the weatherman?” he asked, mostly joking.
A devilish smile crossed our choir director’s face. “I have just the thing,” she exclaimed, reaching into her bag and producing a large sack of kazoos we had used as part of a performance of Seaside Rendezvous (always a crowd favorite). My stomach dropped. Apparently our foray into the national entertainment circuit would be neither a reflection of our special talents, nor the least bit dignified. I could have walked away then; I’m sure we all thought about it. But when you get the opportunity to do something you’ve never done before, something that will get you noticed in the short term and be a great story for years to come, you do it. Even if that something is kazooing a Freddy Mercury song in a medieval costume behind a nationally recognized weatherman. We buzzed and smiled and hammed it up for the cameras like the good natured, attention craving performance artists we really were.
After the broadcast, my parents’ phone started ringing like crazy. “I saw Emily on TV!” said cousins and teachers and friends from church. None of the other students at our high school had seen it (they weren’t up that early), so the buzz we created was mild, brief and contained. As for the footage, I’m sure it’s laying around the studio somewhere, just another goofy footnote in the archives of a day within a month within a year. Any time I think about the experience, I sigh with relief that YouTube hadn’t been invented yet.
This is the last story I want to write about my time with the Madrigals, and I think it’s an appropriate one. We had begun to arrange our trip in early 2001. No one could have anticipated the events of September 11th. When the time for our trip came in February of 2002, we decided to go ahead with our plans in the Big Apple, despite having to make several adjustments, including finding a hotel that hadn’t been destroyed by the attacks. I recall driving up the highways of the East Coast, seeing the crumbled, blackened walls of the Pentagon from behind the windows of our tour bus and, later, standing somberly in front of the chain link fence, covered with teddy bears and flowers that marked the tragedy at Ground Zero. I felt something that I could hardly describe, sensing a new phase of American history that just happened to coincide with my generation’s entrance into adulthood. Only two years later, I remembered that feeling, lighting candles at a memorial in Madrid the week after the March 11th train bombing. Today, and especially in light of recent events across the globe, that atmosphere of precariousness, of the vulnerability of our society and the fragility of human life, is all too familiar. How much we have all learned since then about death, terror, globalization and the politics of oppression. For memories like these happy moments with my peers and teachers, where we laughed and enjoyed ourselves, even in the shadow of such devastation, and when the promise of our own potential seemed stronger than any foreign or domestic threat, I am particularly grateful. The Madrigals taught me as much as any other force in my life about community, humility, compassion and hope for the future.
Also, I just happen to have found a video of the King’s Singers performing a great version of Seaside Rendezvous. Lyrics are below. Enjoy!
Seaside – whenever you stroll along with me I’m merely contemplating what
you feel inside meanwhile I ask you to be my Clementine –
You say you will if you could but you can’t – I love you madly –
Let my imagination run away with you gladly –
A brand new angle – highly commendable – Seaside Rendezvous –
I feel so romantic – can we do it again
Can we do it again sometime,
Fantastic, c’est la vie mesdames et messieurs
And at the peak of the season, the
Mediterranean -, this time of year, it’s so fashionable,
I feel like dancing – in the rain,
Can I have a volunteer –
Dancing – what a damn jolly good idea –
It’s such a jollification – as a matter of fact, so tres charmant my dear –
Underneath the moonlight – together we’ll sail across the sea –
Reminiscing every night
Meantime – I ask you to be my valentine
You said you’d have to tell your daddy you can I’ll be your Valentino –
We’ll ride upon an omnibus and then the casino –
Get a new facial – start a sensational –
Seaside Rendezvous – so adorable,
Seaside Rendezvous – ooooOOO
Seaside Rendezvous -give us a kiss.. oooo ooooo!!