Main > Series > Chapters > Fame Annual 1985 > Leopardi and Macbest


Doris had said you could make a musical from any plot, even Macbeth - which was the play they were studying in Miss Sherwood's class. Chris had said that no way could you make a musical around Macbeth. Lydia had said that Verdi might have given him an argument about that, and then she had challenged them to try. Now she was standing at the front of the stage watching the results of their efforts with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. Amusement had started as the foremost of her emotions but now it was running a poor second.

     Elizabeth Sherwood stood beside Lydia and watched the performance, and in a seat at one side of the room, dressed in a loud seersucker coat and black shirt and slacks, was a man whom she did not recognise. She had arrived with a message for Lydia from Dave Reardon. The message had been a warning that Archie Graham was on his way. Lydia had pointed distastefully at the stranger in the corner and said that Archie Graham was already here. Then she had asked Elizabeth to stay and see what the kids had done to Macbeth.

     Macbeth had become, for some reason, Macbest, and the three witches had become one witch, Macbest's mother, who lived in a high-rise in Flatbush, whilst Dunsinane was a rooming house in Carnarsie where Macbest and his girl, Lady - a night club singer - had been holed up. Doris had played Macbest's mother with a flat, adenoidal Brooklyn delivery that turned the prophecies to an ambitious mother's worried warnings. Leroy had been Macbest, Coco his girl Lady. The two of them had been haunted by an up-front Banquo's gost on a unicycle, whilst Danny Amatullo had transformed the avenging MacDuff into Deaf Maxie, a grotesque, wine-bibbing parody bigshot who tied up his victims in loops of spaghetti and bored them to death by reciting the names of famous composers. As a character he owed more to Mack Sennet than Scottish history, more to the shark in Jaws than to Shakespeare.

     Lydia looked over at Elizabeth Sherwood and hoped she understood. If Romeo and Juliet could be turned into West Side Story, there was no reason why Macbeth couldn't come out as a murder mystery and the King of all Scotland turned out to be the best body popper and break dancer in all of Brooklyn.

     Holly, at the keyboard, was playing - or at least, had started by playing - musical counterpoint to the action. But then Archie Graham had arrived and things had started falling apart, and it was this, rather than the liberties they had taken with the text, which was the source of Lydia's exasperation.

     For a while they'd been as sharp as any troupe she'd seen for a long time. There work had been quick, light, tight, and coherent, coloured by fragments and bright splashes of vaudeville. Then, with the arrival of Archie Graham, they had become seven separate and conflicting egos, all dancing, singing, shouting, joking, tumbling, stamping, and clowning in competition for his attention.

     Archie Graham called himself an agent but he was the kind of agent whose only concern was percentages. Lydia knew how many kids' careers he had ruined by bringing them on too quickly and she considered him as fine a specimen of reptile as the city had to offer. They only reason he stayed in business was that every now and then he got lucky and one of the kinds on his books went all the way. Then the ones still waiting forgot they might get burned. They saw bright lights, heard endless applause beckoning them, and they forgot about the damage done along the way.

     The play closed with Macbest and Def Maxie trying to upstage one another in a fight that turned out funny where it should have been serious, and empty where it should have been funny. The music which had long ceased to have any connection to the action, strained out a couple more bars before coming to it's own uncertain close.

     “Okay,” shouted Lydia over the sound of loud, slow clapping, “let's talk about where it went wrong.”

     The clapping came from Archie Graham.

     “You liked us, Mister Graham?” asked Coco, ignoring her dance teacher.

     “Sure I liked you, sugar, and I liked the kid you were dancing with. The rest . . .” Graham paused, made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “The rest should just forget it.”

     “You mean me?” asked Chris, leaning against the wall and trying not to sound too eager as he hooked his arms over the unicycle on his shoulder in a manner he hoped was reminiscent of the late, great James Dean.

     “Nah, not you. Who needs cyclists? I mean the black kid. The dancer who got stabbed by the noodle doing the funny accents.” He turned toward Leroy and Coco and asked, “What do you say to the three of us getting together and talking about things?”

     “Not here, Mister Graham,” said Lydia, taking a step forward. “You're not going to talk to anyone of my kids here.”

     “It's the mother hen syndrome,” said Graham with a quick, unpleasant smile that managed somehow to be both bland and calculating at the same time. “What's the matter, Lydia? You been working in this funny factory so long you've forgotten what ambition is? When did you last work in a show? Those two kids are too talented to be stuck in a place like this, and if you really cared about their future you'd tell them that.”

     He started to leave, paused at the door to tell Leroy and Coco that they could find him in the directory if they wanted to talk and then he was gone. Lydia was left with her hands closing and unclosing angrily. Then she looked at Leroy and Coco and saw their own hurt, their own anger in their eyes. She felt Elizabeth's hand give her a reassuring touch upon the shoulder and she saw the others looking at her expectantly. She realised suddenly that they were all waiting for her to speak. They wanted justifications, explanations. Reasons for what she'd done.

     “All right then, since I finally have your undivided attention, let me say something about Mister Graham. Those of you who he's insulted will already have some idea of the kind of person he is. So they've no need to worry. But Leroy and Coco, Mister Graham was flattering you two - which means you have to worry. Whether you go to talk to him out of school hours is up to you, though personally I'd get more of a lift talking to my rent collector than I would from Mister Graham. Here inside the school things are different, though, here you're my responsibility - all of you  - and I have to act in what I think is your best interest.”

     “Our best interest,” repeated Leroy with a scornful incredulity. “If you ever knew what was best for us then you've forgotten. You herd the man, you heard what he said. Coco and me could be on our way.”

     “But where to, Leroy, where to? Pleas listen before you make up your mind about anything. I happen to think that you're two very talented young people. I also happen to think that maybe, just maybe, if you work hard enough at your craft you could go all the way to the top. That's what I thing, now let me tell you a couple of things that I KNOW. First I know, and I'm honest enough to tell you, that neither of you are that good yet. Second, I know Mister Archie Graham is creep enough to tell you that you are.”

     “Sure, Leroy,” said Danny, still stung at being dismissed as the noodle who did the funny accents, “the guy's a creep. He probably eats house flies for his breakfast save on his grocery bills.”

     “You're just jealous because you didn't even interest his little finger,” said Coco. “You know just like I know that we're all just looking for that one chance.”

     Lydia looked at the young people, arguing, angry, and confused, in front of her. “Look what's happening to you all. Listen to yourselves,” she said, her exasperation getting the better of her patience. “Half an hour ago everything was as sweet as a pickle.”

     “Half and hour ago Archie Graham hadn't been here,” said Leroy.

     “Exactly,” snapped Lyida and looked at Leroy, who tilted his head until his eyes were hidden beneath their lids. Lydia looked at Elizabeth helplessly.

     “Lydia's right, Leroy. You've all just finished acting out your own version of an old, old story. Didn't it tell you anything?”

     “What about?” asked Leroy.

     “About ambition. About what a double-edged quality it is. It can be admirable, but it can just as easily be treacherous.”

     “You talk like somebody out of that MacBeth story,” said Leroy.

     “Maybe I do. But since you've all seen fit to play so fast and loose with the original text, perhaps you could all write me eight hundred words on the play's treatment of the theme of ambition. By Monday please, and I don't want anybody late. The marks will count towards your final grades.”

     The class broke up amongst grumbling and muttered protests. Holly went back to a piece she was working on for Professor Shorofsky. Danny said he'd buy Chris a coke if he taught hom how to ride his unicycle. Leroy and Coco left together.

     Lydia wanted to ask them where they were going but then thought better of it. “Thanks, Elizabeth,” she said, turning to the school's English teacher. “I needed your support.”

     “That's okay. I just hope eight hundred words on the pitfalls of ambition is enough to take their minds off your friend Mister Graham.”

     “I hope so too, but Graham's planted doubts in all of them. Some of them are going to think they haven't got what it takes. Some of them - I mean Coco and Leroy - are going to begin doubting the school.”

     “I know,” said Elizabeth with a smile. “That's why I want you to come round to my place. We'll take a bottle of wine, cook some clam chowder, and try to figure out what we can do about it.
 

     Three days later Leroy and Coco were  having lunch together. Lunch was a shared carton of milk and a hot dog each from the stand on the corner of the block. The others were all having their lunch in the building. Since the visit from Archie graham they had all seemed to treat the two dancers differently, and though nothing was said openly both Leroy and Coco had been hurt enough to notice the difference.

     The air around them smelt of gasoline and autumn leaves. The sounds of the city, car horns and jackhammers, echoes, shouts, and whistles, rang between the walls of the buildings.

     On the corner opposite, an old woman who clutched the handle of a bag beneath bruised knuckles was arguing with the sky.

     “You know, Leroy, I've been thinking,” said Coco. “Maybe what Miss Sherwood and Miss Grant have been saying is right.”

     “You think I don't know that, Coco?” said Leroy, the faintest, saddest trace of a smile in his large, disconsolate eyes. “It's just that knowing that don't make things any better. You see, the other kids here have got something to lose if they quite school. For me it's different. I never had nothing I could lose to begin with.”

     “Of course you have, Leroy. Your friends are here,” said Coco as they made their way back to the school.

     “Have you seen the way our friends have been treating us recently?” asked Leroy as they passed through the front entrance and made their way towards one of the performance rooms from which the sound of a promising new student practising variations on a theme by Schumann was already emerging. “Or are you going to tell me you haven't noticed anything different?”

     When they went in Lydia was in deep conversation with a grey-haired man with a beard and sunglasses, who carried a homburg hat in his hand and an overcoat over his arm. Coco thought there was something familiar about him.

     “Since our two superstars have condescended to join us for our afternoon's practice,” said Lydia, “let me introduce Michael Melcher. He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. He's Dave Reardon's uncle and he works for a mid-town talent agency. And boy oh boy, has he got news for you.”

     “I fear that Miss Grant is exaggerating the importance of my visit,” said Mister Melcher, holding out his hand, “but I've been in contact with Leopardi recently . . .”

     “With who?” asked Leroy, looking blank.

     “Leopoldo Leopardi,” interrupted Chris excitedly. “Surely you've heard of him? The Italian movie producer. Mister Melcher has told us all about him and the musical he hopes to shoot here next summer.”

     “That's right,” said Doris, laughing at the surprised looks on Leroy and Coco's faces. “And he wants us all to audition for him next week.”

     “There's one thing,” said Mister Melcher. “When Mister Leopardi comes he'll want to see how you all work together. So when I come back next week you better have a show for me.”

     “No problem, Mister Melcher,” said Danny. “In a week we can have Ben Hur ready to go into production. Galley slaves, salt mines, chariot racing - the works.”

     “Don't worry, Mister Melcher,” said Leroy, finding himself smiling for the first time in a long time at one of Danny's jokes. “We'll have something for you in a week.”

     “A week it is, then,” said Mister Melcher, doffing his hat to them all from the door. “And then I shall be back with Signor Leopardi.”
 

     The week passed quickly. The show they worked up for the mysterious Mister Leopardi was the same one they had let fall when Archie Graham had visited the school. Coco and Leroy worked out new routines and had even gone down to the cafe and worked with Bruno to get the kind of score that would suit them. Danny, on Doris's advice, greased back his hair, painted on a mustache, and dropped the funny accent. Doris and Holly worked out a new role, a lady detective who struck up a friendship with Mrs. Macbest. The idea for the lady detective came from Chris, who decided to play the ghost without the unicycle. Then he decided not to play him as a ghost at all.

     There was argument, there was disagreement, there was discussion, but by the end of the week they had a show which had pace, wit, and humour. Lydia was pleased by its energy, surprised by its timing and control. She could see that the kids were pleased too, and as they waited in the lecture hall where they were to meet Mister Leopardi they were still talking excitedly about changes, alterations and improvements they could make to their material. The talk died down when Dave Reardon came in and said how pleased with themselves they all looked.

     “We're waiting for your uncle and this Leopardi. Is he on the level, or is he just like that Graham dude, promising what he can't deliver?” asked Leroy.

     “You can all judge that for yourselves,” said Dave Reardon and, reaching into an airline bag on the desk in front of him, he began to dust grey into his hair. With the addition of the beard, sunglasses and homburg hat the transformation was complete. Standing in front of them was Dave's Uncle Michael.

     For a moment there was silence and then Danny began to laugh. Coco looked around her and asked what was funny. Doris started to laugh.

     “But what about Leopardi . . . the movie producer . . . the audition?” asked Coco.

     Dave Reardon gave a half mischievous, half sheepish grin as he told her that Mister Leopardi was as real as his beard. Coco looked around once more, saw Holly and Chris had joined in the laughter and felt a smile beginning to tug at the corners of her mouth.

     “Man, this has to be the cheapest stunt,” Leroy burst out angrily. “You tell us Archie Graham is a creep and then you pull a trick like this. Don't you people know how much work I put in last week?”

     “Of course we do,” said Lydia. “I've watched how hard you've all worked. But you're not going to tell me you haven't enjoyed it, are you? I was watching, Leroy. I can't remember seeing you happier than you were last week.”

     “Maybe,” admitted Leroy grudgingly, then he scowled again when he heard Coco snigger behind him. “But that was when I thought I was working for something.”

     “You were working for something,” said Dave. “All of you were. You put together a show faster and better than I ever thought you could do. And now I've got somewhere for you to perform it.”

     “You have?” said Leroy, and the pleasure in his voice was unmistakable.

     “That's right,” said Dave. “Hollywood it isn't. Broadway it isn't. But believe me, the applause will sound just as sweet. You're booked at the lower east side's community centre. They're running a series of shows for underprivileged families. The curtain goes up in four and a half hours.”

     Leroy looked around the room at his friends. They were all smiling, and suddenly, so was he. “What are we waiting for?” he asked.

 

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