My mother told me that, when she was twelve years old, she took part in a school show. By then she had grown to her full height of 4 foot 11½ inches and, for a brief time, was almost as round as she was tall. Having a fine singing voice, it was obvious that she should be given a solo part. Sadly the powers-that-were decided that she sounded very much better than she looked. She was cast as ‘The Moon’ and made to sing behind a screen.
In my school, it was also the custom for the Primary Seven classes to prepare a show for the delight of their parents and the rest of the school. It was performed in the drill-hall, half of which became the stage. The rest of the school watched the performance sitting cross-legged on the floor.
I must have been about eight years old the year that Cinderella was the chosen piece. No doubt the carriage bearing the heroine to the ball was a wooden desk covered in orange crêpe paper, but I know I saw the beautiful princess stepping daintily into her pumpkin conveyance, and I dreamt of it long after. I couldn’t wait for it to be our turn to create such a magical spectacle.
And indeed, the day arrived when, as the oldest children in the school, it was our turn to mount a production. Our show was to be Snow White and it was a little operetta. Playing in to my hands, I thought. Acting was maybe not my strongest suit, but singing! Why, everybody knew I sang all the time, anything, anywhere. The lead role was mine without a doubt.
Mr Bell, a music teacher from the ‘Big School’, came to our school weekly to play the piano while we sang such rousing numbers as Early one morning, Ho ro my nut-brown maiden, Sir Eglamore that valiant knight. He and our class teacher conferred over the show casting and announced their decisions. Lanky, red-haired Maureen was the wicked stepmother. Good choice, I conceded. The tall, well-favoured Gordon was to be the prince. Excellent decision. The lovely Carol of the ringlets was to be Snow White. I was incredulous as much as devastated. Pretty, Carol may have been, but she was no singer.
But wait, our teacher had more to say. It seemed that Mr Bell would not be coming for a few weeks and anyway once a week visits would not be nearly enough for us to learn the whole show. So they had hatched a plan. It seemed that I – yes you, Esther Cohen, that’s right – was to learn to play and sing the whole show and teach the songs to my class mates. Hmmm. Now I saw why I had been ‘overlooked’ for the part of Snow White. I was needed elsewhere. Hmmm. I was torn between pride at being assigned this task and disappointment at being denied the glory of treading the boards.
Dutifully, I took the score home, learned to sing and play all the songs, and taught them to my classmates. It was not a great work; perhaps the libretto was not the most accessible for twelve-year olds, even in that era. The first song formed an anthem of praise to the lovely heroine on her birthday:
Snow White, beautiful one,
We come with joy to greet thee
With strong hearts, loving and true,
On this, thy Natal Day.
Still, we persevered and Mr Bell was pleased with our efforts. In fact, he went so far as to declare that I should play for the actual performances. So I did.
In my mind, it became my show. I was desperate for it to be a success. But to my critical ears, the solo singers just weren’t up to it. They couldn’t be heard well enough and I feared that the audience would not be enchanted and beguiled by the spectacle.
I was behind the piano. Perhaps it was a memory of my mother singing behind a screen that gave me the idea of singing along with every soloist to amplify the sound. Anyway, that is what I did.
I can scarcely bear to think about it, let alone write about it. But there – I’ve said it now.
From Lying on the Bridge: Glimpses of Childhood by Esther Cohen (available on Amazon here)