Dreyfus in Wichita

Christmas, 2011 / No. 27
Art by Matthew Daley
Matthew Daley

Michael Spearman, the music and science teacher at Beth Shalom Hebrew Day School, an institute located in a former Toronto car dealership, was reading while eating his lunch of cold leftover stir-fry when he came across the following sentence: “As a demonstration of its sympathy for the disgraced French captain Alfred Dreyfus, the citizens of Wichita, Kansas, elected Miss Sadie Joseph, a Jewess, as their Carnival Queen for the year 1899.”

The book was a cultural history of nineteenth-century travel, of no use to the students of Beth Shalom, which only went up to Grade 9. Like many books in the school library, it had been donated in a carton of garage-sale leftovers. The basement, which housed the library, the science lab, the music room, and the furnace, had a fur of mildew growing between the cinder blocks. But at least down here, Michael could think and dream and feel the quiet thrumming of disappointment in himself.

Reading the words again, he let the fork drop into the plastic tub. The thrumming became something else, louder, surged through his body, and roared into his ears. All he could do was stand up and begin to pace the room, manoeuvring around the battered music stands, the cellos abandoned on their sides. It was such a beautiful idea, what had come to him. Had he really stumbled upon the subject through which he might finally release his woefully wasted talent? For here, in this one sentence, was everything. A small town, during a period of tremendous change (the first motor cars, telephones, electric lights) and with brilliant period music to draw on. A story not of a great historic event itself, but a small side drama in a place far from the centres of power in which the largest themes might find expression. A heroine, hardly old or experienced enough to know herself, yet with intelligence and hidden resources, a girl on the verge of womanhood (with a marvellous soprano voice) who finds herself the sole focus of attention in the town that is her world.

And what a great name! Sadie Joseph. So lovely in its ordinariness. The roaring in Michael’s head quieted just enough to allow the ideas to come pelting down. Sadie would be the daughter of the proprietor of the local dry goods shop, the pivotal role around which circled equally important characters. The mayor looking for a way to survive a financial scandal. An idealistic Protestant schoolteacher who speaks out about the Dreyfus case and so becomes the catalyst for the unfolding events. The president of the Honorable Men of Kansas Society, Wichita chapter, with his racist grudge against Sadie’s father and secret lust for Sadie herself. The young Jewish store clerk who is Sadie’s unofficial fiancé and dismayed by her sudden celebrity. The mayor’s son, decent and handsome, home from Harvard Law School, whose love for his father conflicts with his hatred of injustice. (Naturally, he too must fall in love with Sadie.) The jealous rival, who had been previously assured of the Carnival Queen crown, and the mayor’s son, for herself. But the story would need somebody to tell it, an outsider, say a reporter from the big-city newspaper, who arrives with a pen dripping with cynicism but who discovers a chance at redemption for himself.

So much came to Michael during that lunch break that he could hardly record it all in the copybook he pulled from his desk. When the afternoon class stormed down the basement stairs, he was still scribbling frantically and did not even hear them.

Michael had grown up in the eighties, witness to the death of punk, the rise of the pop superstars, MTV. He’d played in garage bands with his friends, thrashing their way through covers of early Elvis Costello and the Clash. But he stuck with his conservatory piano studies and played the viola in the school orchestra. He had to keep secret his fascination for Broadway musicals, sneaking out to see the bus-and-truck shows that came to the Royal Alexandra Theatre, on King Street. At home he hunkered in the living room listening to his parents’ record collection: Show Boat, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Cabaret.

His garage-band friends went to work for law firms or studied internal medicine or joined the family condominium-development company. Michael’s music degree landed him only a job at Sam the Record Man, so he went back for a year of teachers’ college and spent nine months substitute teaching in the public school system before he got the job at Beth Shalom. He met a woman during the intermission of a local production of Company, a frizzy-haired animal-rights activist named Frida Yaffe, who spoke French, Hebrew, and German, baked bread, and played claw-hammer banjo. She disliked musicals but had won a free ticket while listening to CBC Radio. They lived together in her flat on Major Street and then bought the tiny house on Manning, near the cheap Korean restaurants. When medical tests finally revealed that her eggs were sterile, her melancholic nature deepened. Over the years they acquired two dogs, a cat, an African grey parrot, and a plastic bathtub of turtles, all of them rescued. The floorboards projected splinters into bare heels. Their second-hand furniture wore out and was replaced by more second-hand furniture. All the while, they held on stubbornly to a certain idea of living, like ever-aging students.

Michael worked on the score, or the lyrics, or the book, when he could—every holiday, including Yom Kippur, and, of course, during the summer months. Over time he conceived a three-act structure and settled on the more traditional Broadway approach of a book with dramatic songs rather than the pseudo-operatic sung-through show. The first number had to be muscular but lyrical, a hymn to the sweetness of a small-town life that was about to be turned upside down. Then the narrative would start without delay with a scene of Sadie’s boyfriend telling her she ought to enter this year’s contest for carnival queen because she was the prettiest girl in town and the most talented, with her nightingale voice. Of course she would resist: “You forget, Nathan, what we are and how this town sees us.” To which he would reply, “Ah, Sadie, that doesn’t matter. Don’t we have friends? Don’t people like us? Doesn’t the mayor himself shop at your father’s store? It’s almost the new century, Sadie. We’re part of this place now. We belong here as much as everybody else.”

The musical was more work than he had ever imagined. Nine ballads, seven rhythm numbers, three specialty songs. Solving one structural problem caused three more to spring up–solos running back to back, characters acting against their motivations, the first-act curtain closer requiring an overly complicated narrative set-up. If it hadn’t been for Frida he might have given up. She would bring him a mind-stimulating herbal infusion and, kissing him on the neck, say, “Drink up, Wolfgang. Nobody said it was easy to be a genius.” And after a week or two Michael would find another little revelation, a small breakthrough—the completion of a signature melody, a contrapuntal rhythm, a lyric that would say in five words what he’d been struggling to voice in pages of dramatic scene.

After eight months he could see the shape of the thing, and after another eight some genuine dramatic moments and real musicality. It took a year to get the rest up and ten months more of further discarding and ruthless revising. More polishing before he could score each of the orchestral parts—violins, violas, cellos, basses, the brass, woodwind, and percussion, and also mandolin, banjo, autoharp, and mouth organ.

Michael was now forty-two. He felt both relieved and humbled, but also twitching with anxiety. Now that the work was done, what was he supposed to do with it? It had been easy to daydream in the basement of Beth Shalom, but if there was one thing Michael knew about himself, it was that he had no entrepreneurial push.

Lying on their futon at night, Michael said into the dark, “What good is my musical if it never gets heard? It’s just paper. But I don’t seem to have the required ambition. I want it to be performed—on Broadway too. I just don’t seem to have the strength to do anything about it. Or even believe it could happen.”

“You give up too easily,” said Frida. Her frizzy hair had already begun to silver at the edges; she had map lines around her eyes. She’d grown thinner too, and had been shocked by the onset of diabetes. “Do some research, Michael,” she said. “Make a plan. You have to think of this as something to act on. Make some noise, sweetheart. Otherwise, nobody’s going to hear your songs.”

Michael mustered the energy to make a telephone call that, to his surprise, earned him a meeting with David Mirvish, in his office near the Royal Alexandra. Mr. Mirvish was attentive and sympathetic, but would not take the proffered copy of Dreyfus in Wichita. He spoke gloomily of the Canadian musicals that had failed—Napoleon, Duddy—and told Michael that he would only consider his show if it had already proved a success, like The Drowsy Chaperone.

Michael understood now how this daydream had tricked him into believing his life was more than the sum of its ordinary parts. He wished he’d never written the thing. When he arrived home he saw Frida standing in their tiny living room, one of the cats mewling against her ankles, holding a gift-wrapped present.

“Frida, why are you giving me something? I don’t deserve it.”

“Sha. You can be a pain in the ass, Michael. Just open it.”

He unwrapped the large book carefully, knowing that Frida reused the paper. How to Sell Your Musical to Broadway and Make it Big.

He turned it over. “You paid forty-two dollars for this? ”

“You’re welcome,” she said and headed up the stairs.

The book listed the names of one hundred and seventy-three agents and fifty-six producers working on Broadway. Over the next two weeks Michael composed a cover letter, made copies of the score, bought mailing envelopes. The enterprise cost him just under three thousand dollars.

A week. Two. Four.

“Well, of course,” Frida said. She was knitting a shawl while stroking their blind dog with her toes. “There’s an old boy’s system at work. And look who they hire these days—has-been rock stars. To write shows about superheroes. Something like Dreyfus, that finds relevance for our times, of course it’s going to be a tough sell.”

“Maybe the work’s not good enough.”

“It’s good,” she said.

“You don’t even like musicals.”

“That’s right, and I like yours.”

Michael noticed she was wearing her puff-sleeved top, with the lacing that criss-crossed the open bosom. She wore it when she wanted to have sex; she liked him to undo the lacing. But he felt no rise of desire. When she looked down at her knitting he put his hand over his groin to judge whether he might coax some life into the thing, so as not to disappoint her.

Arriving home the next day, he found Frida in the kitchen, adding beets to her vegetarian hotpot. “There’s a letter for you on the dining table.”

“What do you mean a letter? ”

He was already moving through the doorway, picking up the envelope, reading the return address: “Cohn Musical Entertainment, 107 Fourteenth Street, Suite 3B, New York, N.Y. 10375.”

His hands started to tremble. Frida came up beside him, licking the wooden stirring spoon.

“So? Open it.”

DEAR MR. SPEARMAN,

Dear? I ought to cry, Hail Spearman! For you are a true musical genius. Do you have any idea what your Dreyfus in Wichita means to a man like me? A producer can wait years, a whole lifetime even, and never make a discovery like this. Scores we get in the hundreds, thousands even. But to find one with such depth, such seriousness of intent, which manages nevertheless to entertain as it transforms its story into the idiom of the American musical—ah, how rare that is, Mr. Spearman, how rare!

Mr. Spearman—may I call you Michael?—I kiss your hands. Let me bring your masterpiece to the Broadway stage and the public it deserves. Please call me. Collect.

Yours in awe,
MORT COHN
President

They danced, they laughed, they declaimed the letter aloud, first Frida and then Michael, and carried it triumphantly over their heads. After they had collapsed onto the afghan-covered sofa, Frida said breathlessly, “Go… ahead… and… phone.”

“Phone? Now? ”

The smile evaporated from Michael’s face.

Frida just gave him a look. Then she reached over to the end table and handed him the phone.

Someone picked up at the first ring: “Cohn Entertainment Group.”

“Is Mr. Cohn available? ”

“Who is calling? ”

“Michael Spearman.”

“Michael! I can’t believe I am actually speaking to the composer of Dreyfus in Wichita. Let me assure you, I don’t usually answer the phones around here but the secretary’s got strep throat. My God, you should see me—I’ve got tears in my eyes. I haven’t cried like this since Lenny Bernstein died. Michael, listen to this—”

Michael heard the thin humming of Sadie’s theme. Just as abruptly, it stopped.

“You hear, Michael? Already seared in my memory.”

“Mr. Cohn, I’m amazed. I’m overwhelmed.”

“As soon as I’m off the phone I’m going to talk to Hal and see how his schedule looks.”

“Hal Prince? He’s still working? ”

“Hang on, Michael… Nancy, you’re back. Start working on that Spearman contract. We’ll FedEx it overnight. And make sure you get the names spelled right.”

The contract arrived, not by Federal Express, but regular mail. Along with the signature, it required a cheque for eight thousand dollars in U.S. funds.

“Absolutely standard practice for a first-time composer,” said Cohn, when Michael called. “Besides, read the whole clause. You become an investor in your own work. A percentage of the receipts goes to you, and not after we recoup but from Day 1. Everybody knows that Sondheim made almost nothing until he wised up. Do you want to be one of those schmucks who makes everybody rich except himself? You’re a long-term investment for me.”

For three days Michael dithered, but he knew he would send the cheque. Frida refused to help him decide, but she looked sorrowful.

“And not because of the money, honey,” she said.

He had to take out a loan against the equity in their house. Even as he slipped the envelope into the mailbox, he knew it was gone forever. Shortly after, he found Mort Cohn’s phone to be disconnected. Mail sent to Fourteenth Street was returned “ADDRESS UNKNOWN.”

In June, Frida got arrested at the G20 protests and spent a night in jail. Michael was at home at the time, sprawled on the sofa watching a DVD of Rent while absent-mindedly tossing grapes to the parrot. He didn’t watch the news and so missed seeing Frida get dragged into a police van.

In September the school year began, when most of the students had to be retaught the simplest fingerings of their instruments. Michael performed his teaching duties with grim conscientiousness.

“You know who I am in class? ” he said to Frida. “I’m the guy in that Edvard Munch painting The Scream.”

She was boiling up pectin-free rhubarb jam in a cast-iron pot. “Boy, are your students lucky to have you.”

“I don’t care about my students any more.”

“Then you’re in worse trouble than I thought,” she said, stirring with the wooden spoon. “Maybe you ought to quit.”

“We couldn’t afford it.”

“Yeah, well, your students can’t afford you being like this either. Now taste this and tell me if it’s too tart. You must be good for something.”

As sometimes happened, a new student enrolled in the school after the year had started. Laura Appelbaum, a first-rate violinist, had started on the Suzuki method at the age of four. She took to visiting Michael in the music room at lunch hour so they could play duets. She had a natural ear, a fluid bow, an excessive love for the romantics, premature acne, a retainer, and pigtails, but she didn’t seem to care about being considered a freak by her peers. At home, Frida became weirdly jealous, listening to Michael go on about his prize student, but she solved the problem by inviting Laura for dinner. The two hit it off instantly; they were, Michael could see, kindred spirits. They split their sides laughing over Laura’s imitations of the Beth Shalom teachers, sparing only Michael himself because, as Laura put it, “You’re not exactly the sort who can laugh at himself, are you, Mr. S.? ”

For a month he held off telling Laura about his musical. Naturally, she asked to see the score.

“I don’t think so,” Michael said gently. “I don’t feel like disappointing you.”

“Come on, Mr. S. I really, really want to see it. Pweeze?

He sighed and pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk. She pulled it from his hands, gave it a friendly pat, and ran out of the music room.

Michael could not sleep, because a twelve-year-old girl named Laura Appelbaum was reading Dreyfus in Wichita. He drove to school and sat in the music room limp with regret. It was three minutes to the bell when she slid through the doorway, the score under her arm.

“We’ve got to do it, Mr. S.!”

“Do it? ”

“You know what I mean. It’s great. It drags a little in the middle of the first act, and Sadie’s ballad in Act 3 is weak, but otherwise it’s amazing. We can do it here at Beth Shalom. We’ve got the orchestra. Miss Litvak can direct and you can conduct. I’ll be first violin, naturally.”

“Wait, wait. This isn’t a Garland and Rooney picture. First of all, it’s too musically sophisticated for kids. The syncopation, the minor keys, the harmonies—”

“O.K., so it’s not Grease. But they’ll get it. And if they get to skip some classes for rehearsals, everybody will want to be in it. All we’ve really got to do is convince the principal.”

“Yes, well, that ends it, doesn’t it. Rabbi Pinkofsky won’t possibly agree. He wants the school to concentrate on its academics and Jewish learning. He won’t even give me a cent for new strings.”

“Exactly. Which is why my dad’s idea is so good. He says that if we make the performance a fundraiser for the school, the rabbi will go for it. Dad says”—she lowered her voice to a whisper—“there’s asbestos under the ceiling tiles.”

“I don’t know, Laura.”

“You’re just like my little brother. You have to be asked ten times before you’ll agree to something you want.”

Rabbi Pinkofsky asked Michael to stand up in front of his fellow teachers and give a synopsis of the work. He was saved only by the intervention of Ellen Litvak, who’d been dying to put on a musical for years.

“In my view, there’s a real advantage in putting on Michael’s show. Sure, we could do Fiddler, but we’d have to pay for the rights, and they’re not cheap. We don’t have to pay Michael a dime.”

In the end, a majority of the faculty voted in favour, with only the gym, mathematics, and Halacha teachers against. At home, Michael tortured himself over the decision.

“My life’s turning into a parody,” he said to Frida.

“If you didn’t want it you could have said no,” Frida replied. “But I think you doth protest too much. You’re secretly thrilled.

“Do I look thrilled? ”

“You hide it. Disgust you’ll show. Annoyance, long-suffering weariness. Occasionally mild pleasure. But you never look thrilled, ecstatic, or blissful.”

“Are you serious? ”

“Oh yes, you can also look appalled, as you do now.”

To Michael, the next several weeks felt more like a caricature of the production process, a kid-sized version of The Producers. During the auditions he heard a dozen girls belt out “Over the Rainbow” or songs by Lady Gaga, whoever that was. In the end he chose thirteen-year-old Shoshona Zeiss, who had taken singing and tap lessons. In the first rehearsals, Miss Litvak had to simplify her choreographic ideas, especially for the boys, who could hardly tell their right feet from their left. Michael held separate orchestra rehearsals in the basement, halting every two bars. At least he didn’t have to worry about Laura’s violin solos, or the banjo, which Frida would play. Shoshona projected sincerity, but was rather one note and, of course, any underlying hint of sexual passion was lost entirely. The heavy boy cast as the mayor brought some energy but was a little too Guys and Dolls. Hardly their fault; they were modern kids, used to surfing Internet porn and listening to lectures about S.T.D.s. They weren’t so much mystified by the contradictory yearnings he had worked so hard to capture as they were simply unaware of them.

Michael arrived at school one morning to find the walls covered in posters.

WORLD PREMIERE!
ONE NIGHT ONLY!
Beth Shalom Day School Presents
DREYFUS IN WICHITA
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Michael Spearman
Directed by Ellen Litvak
Saturday, December 21, 8 P.M.
Tickets $10.
Available in Rabbi Pinkofsky’s Office

Three days later, the posters had red banners pasted across them: sold out. Shoshona Zeiss and the other leads were strutting around like celebrities. Laura Appelbaum reported that the stage crew had taken to eating in the cafeteria only amongst themselves and that at least two of the actors were planning to arrive on performance night in hired limousines. “O what hath thou wrought? ” Frida teased, but Michael didn’t find it funny.

Rabbi Pinkofsky himself came down to the music room to offer his congratulations. Michael had always been nervous around the rabbi, afraid (as he had been as a boy) to be asked a question or made to recite a passage he didn’t know. “Mazel tov,” the rabbi said to Michael. “You’ve given us a new roof. Now it doesn’t matter if it’s a hit or a miss.”

The morning of the performance found Michael retching into the toilet.

“Perfectly normal, honey,” said Frida, bringing him a wet cloth. “I hear Kaufman did it all the time. Or was it Hart? Anyway, it brings good luck.”

At school, Michael threw up in the staff washroom while Laura Appelbaum stood in the doorway with her violin case under her arm.

“You O.K., Mr. S.? ” she asked when he emerged, pale and trembling. “You want me to get Mrs. Kompert? ”

“No, I’m all right now. “There’s nothing left inside me.”

“The dry heaves, that’s the worst. I can’t wait for tonight!”

Somehow he held himself together through the teaching day. At two o’clock an announcement over the P.A. called the actors and crew from their classes for a final tech rehearsal. A rented Klieg light fell, missing the big-city reporter by inches and causing Shoshona Zeiss to burst into tears. The sets were taking an excruciatingly long time to change.

“I wanted Peter Pan,” said Ellen Litvak, “and you’ve given me The Ring of the Nibelung.”

Back at the house, Michael lay on the sofa as if it were a berth on the R.M.S. Mauretania in a heaving sea. What had he wanted from it all? He hoped it wasn’t a sick need for unconditional love, because he didn’t want it now, he didn’t want anything from anybody or anybody to want anything from him. He had, after all these years of teaching in a parochial school, no prayer on his lips.

He woke to the touch of Frida’s fingers caressing his face.

“Time to wake, maestro,” she said gently. “Come and see what I’ve got you. Ta-dah!”

It was a tuxedo. With tails.

“Frida, I can’t wear that. I’ll look ridiculous.”

“Of course you will. Make the most of it, Michael. Embrace the moment.”

She had to help him with the tie and cummerbund and drive the Tercel up to school, her old Stella banjo rattling in the back seat. It was already dark when they arrived and a light snow was falling into the glow of lamps surrounding the former car dealership. In the first classroom they passed, mothers serving as volunteers were powdering faces and applying rouge and eyeliner. Orchestra members were corralled in the teacher’s lounge; they gave a ragged cheer when Michael and Frida entered. He set to work tuning the instruments.

Ralphie Neugeboran, headset on, looked into the room. “O.K., orchestra. Follow me.”

“Showtime!” Laura said. She pulled Michael down by his tuxedo sleeve and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Good luck, Mr. S.”

They filed down the hallway to the rear door of the cafeteria, where the lunch tables had been converted to benches. One of the flute players knocked over a music stand, but somebody else caught it. In the audience there was a jostling for the last seats. The lights dimmed. A spotlight came up on the conductor’s stand and Michael began to walk up the aisle. The applause sounded muffled and far away. When Michael reached the stand he had a sudden moment of panic over his baton, but there it was in the inside pocket. He smiled gratefully at Frida, who winked at him. Now Laura played her A string and the other instruments pretended to tune up. He held out his hand for silence. He raised the baton, took a deep breath, and cut the air for the first, discordant burst from the brass section.

Three hours and fifteen minutes later the baton came down for the last time, drawing a fading note from the first violin. Onstage, frozen in their final poses against the background of the town square, were all the major characters: the mayor holding back his anguished son, the father clutching his heart, the jealous girl with her hands clenched as if in supplication to a higher power, the newspaperman with his notepad discarded at his feet; and young Sadie Joseph, collapsed in the arms of her fiancé, hair trailing down, eyes closed, face bloodless. The only figures moving were a ghostly chain of bearded men in hats and long, dark coats, and women in kerchiefs and shawls, prefigurations of the larger tragedy to come. They had been Ellen’s idea and he had argued against them, but their appearance had drawn gasps from the audience.

The stage went dark. He looked down at his exhausted musicians. Laura Appelbaum was visibly panting, her face glistening with perspiration. The applause had already begun. He turned to the audience—the fathers rising stiffly, the children sprawled asleep in their mothers’ arms—before turning back again. Only now did he look to Frida and her banjo, chagrined that he had not sought her out first, but there she was, smiling up at him, her eyes shining. Michael could not keep his eyes on her and looked upward toward the temporary grid of lights, feeling so bereft that he wondered if somebody close to him had died, somebody he could not at this moment remember. There were whistles and cheers in the audience, as if they were all at a ball game. He felt hungry and thought with a wolfish anticipation of the backstage boxes of limp kosher pizza and cans of ginger ale. His gaze descended to the actors bowing, standing in a row and holding hands, children again. Shoshona was motioning to the orchestra and, for some reason, to him. The applause swelled. He turned and smiled, touched his finger to his brow, and remembered who had died.

Cary Fagan lives in Dufferin Grove. His collection My Life Among the Apes was long-listed for the Giller Prize, and his short story “Shit Box,” from Taddle Creek’s summer, 2007, issue, was nominated for a National Magazine Award. His books for kids include The Boy in the Box, Mr. Zinger’s Hat, and I Wish I Could Draw. Last updated winter, 2014–2015.