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Twenty-two-year-old Karla is thrilled to be hired as an entertainer on the Sound of Music cruise ship—where the rum punch is 80 percent Kool-Aid, the ice sculp- tures are plastic, and her "fake it till you make it" M.O. seems adventuresome. Karla is less thrilled when her new boyfriend, Jack, suggests that they form a singing duo on land, but by now faking enthusiasm has become a way of life. She and Jack buy backing tracks, crib lyrics from the radio, and embark on a not-as-glamorous-as-it-should-be career ...
Twenty-two-year-old Karla is thrilled to be hired as an entertainer on the Sound of Music cruise ship—where the rum punch is 80 percent Kool-Aid, the ice sculp- tures are plastic, and her "fake it till you make it" M.O. seems adventuresome. Karla is less thrilled when her new boyfriend, Jack, suggests that they form a singing duo on land, but by now faking enthusiasm has become a way of life. She and Jack buy backing tracks, crib lyrics from the radio, and embark on a not-as-glamorous-as-it-should-be career performing in the luxury hotel bars of the Middle East and China. But after a thousand and one nights on the road, Karla and Jack find themselves struggling to keep their act—both personal and professional—together.
Funny, fast-paced, and incisive, A Thousand and One Nights captures the performances, large and small, we use to make it through life.
ONE Rodgers and Hammerstein
IT STARTED ON A CRUISE SHIP, where nothing was exactly real. The brass railings of the lobby staircase were molded industrial plastic, liberally coated with copper-colored paint. The ship’s largest funnel, visible from up to ten nautical miles, bore the company insignia in gleaming white and blue; it led nowhere, funneled nothing. The pool, deemed “refreshing” in the travel agent brochure, was waist-deep, heavily chlorinated, and too cold even for children. In a pinch, plastic ice sculptures were used for the Midnight Buffet. Stored in freezers and splashed with ice water to simulate melting drips, the statuettes (dolphin, starfish, palm tree) were appropriately cold to the touch. The slot machines were fixed to a timer; the bingo numbers were decided well in advance of the daily call. The rum punch was 80 percent Kool-Aid. And the surly pop duo in the Tally-Ho Lounge played to synthesized backing tracks.
AT THE TIME OF her Boston audition for Dancers Who Sing and Singers Who Move Well, Karla, who considered herself the latter, was three months out of music school and still living with her college roommate in Somerville, Massachusetts. The summer run of temping and tryouts had been humbling, until the cruise ship auditions began. The cruise reps seemed to care less about Karla’s dance experience and more about her “people skills.” They asked if she’d ever worked in the service industry, and Karla certainly had. Her three summers as Head Waitress at Cabbage Island Clambakes were suddenly three summers well spent.
Karla got a callback, her first ever, and then another. She had to give a quiz to imaginary poolside guests, using a microphone. She had to lead her fellow auditionees in an impromptu aerobics class. She had to fend off an angry passenger, played by the choreographer, who demanded a pillow made of goose down rather than foam.
She got it. She would be an Entertainer, according to her contract. She was hired to sing and dance and travel—she was going to be paid for this. She was twenty-two years old.
As it turned out, and as she might have guessed from the audition, Karla was required to sing and dance at night and to host Ping-Pong and Shuffleboard tournaments during the day. She didn’t actually know how to keep score for Ping-Pong, but the passengers were drunk, merry, forgiving. Their first cruise! Karla usually nominated a teenage boy to keep track, and then gave him a rum punch as reward. It was that kind of ship: bang for the buck, affordable for families, nothing too exotic in the way of itineraries—Mediterranean in the summer, Caribbean in the winter. It was a British cruise line, and she was the only American to accept the contract. The main show, Hound Doggin’, a thinly veiled Grease, required at least one genuine American accent. The showstopper was an ensemble number set to “Baby You Can Drive My Car.”
Karla had to wake early in her tiny cabin (an inside room, no porthole, shared with Holly, the Second Female Vocalist), but she didn’t mind getting up. On her narrow portion of desk, her music books—The Best of Carole King, A Chorus Line, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables, Little Shop of Horrors—were lined up and alphabetized. Her mini-Casio was stashed under the bottom bunk, which Holly had claimed, and on it she could plunk out her parts for the Happy Sails Review. The Cruise Director had chosen Karla as featured soloist, which meant she would sing one song each week, any song she wanted, just as long as it was ship-appropriate—something familiar and upbeat, nothing with swearwords or overt religious references, which meant Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were out. She would get to rehearse with the band. She would wear her best and brightest dresses. She would have to think of a few lines of preceding witty repartee.
Each morning Karla slipped on her uniform and adjusted her name tag. She marched upstairs to the Main Deck to begin her day (Library Duty, followed by Mensa Hour) thinking of lyrics, thinking of opening lines. (“Good evening! Welcome aboard!” Would that be enough?) She marveled at where she was: at sea.
THE ENTERTAINERS were backed by the Tally-Ho Orchestra, which was not an orchestra, Karla discovered, but a four-piece band from Brighton. The guitarist sometimes kept a flask on his music stand. The drummer’s bass drum had cracked weeks ago. “Humidity,” he’d reported to the Cruise Director, when in fact the guitarist had done it, keeling over postshow. The drum had yet to be repaired.
The guitarist, Rod, admitted this quickly during Karla’s very first band rehearsal for “I Feel the Earth Move,” her upbeat choice. Rod drank from a tiny paper cup of coffee (free on the Pool Deck) and with his other hand thumped enthused Carole King rhythms on his blue-jeaned knee. Then they sat in silence and waited for the others to show up.
Karla counted the days since her arrival. Only six?
There were six ships in the Rodgers and Hammerstein fleet, one for each of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals made into films. Her ship (already she thought of it as hers), the MS Sound of Music, did the Canary Islands and the Western European itinerary—Barcelona, Nice, Naples—in homage to ecstatic singing from Alpine heights much farther inland. The winter Caribbean itinerary didn’t have much to do with Julie Andrews at all.
Rod was out of coffee, so she asked him about the rest of the fleet.
The MS State Fair did the Eastern Mediterranean itinerary (he tried not to yawn)—Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt. This was the R and H movie musical no one had heard of, and, Greece aside, the Eastern Med was not the most popular destination for cruisers. So they were underappreciated jewels, both the show and the places.
Karla waited for him to crack a smile. He didn’t.
The Persian Gulf itinerary went to the MS Oklahoma. “Persian Gulf” sounded better than “Middle East.” Oklahoma (hokey, benign) was meant to put passengers at ease.
“That makes sense,” said Karla, although it didn’t.
The MS King and I. Pretty obvious: Far Eastern itinerary, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Hong Kong.
This one Karla had heard about from Holly. The Entertainers were required to sing “Getting to Know You” as each new batch of cruisers marched up the gangway.
“Poor sods,” said Rod. Meaning the passengers, Karla guessed.
The MS South Pacific was another obvious one: South Pacific, featuring Bora-Bora and Tahiti.
And finally, the MS Carousel. Here Karla took over: New York, New England, and Nova Scotia—the ship Karla’s parents wished she’d been sent to,the one plowing through the cold, rough Atlantic. The movie had been filmed in her very own hometown in the fifties. Karla remembered the horrendous Maine accents and “A Real Nice Clambake,” a song she knew well from her waitressing job. The MS Carousel was competitive, she told her folks. The Entertainers were recruited from New York, some between off-off-Broadway shows.
This information came out quickly. Rod gazed above her at the maroon stage curtains.
The others were called “sister ships,” he concluded. Karla could see them in the shiny brochures at the Purser’s Desk if she wanted. He peered again into his empty coffee cup.
The sister ships. Karla wondered if there was a way to jump from one to another—from the Med to the Middle East to Far East to South Pacific and then to Maine, the longest possible route home.
Then the orchestra showed up. The drummer carried a plastic tray of steaming paper cups. The keyboard player carried a handful of dairy creamers. The bassist yawned.
“Morning,” said Rod, although it wasn’t, and they nodded to him, then Karla, soberly.
KARLA MET THE ship duo, Zak and Macy, who hailed from the Isle of Wight and announced this nightly to guests. They called themselves Wight Nights and, like the rest of the musicians onboard, were free to play tourist by day as long as they were well-groomed and ready to go by dusk. Zak and Macy worked six nights per week, four hours per night, in the Anchor Lounge, the predinner set to the pre-DJ set. At 10:30 P.M., the Anchor became the Ship Disco. The rotating mirror ball descended, and the resident DJ, Mack, played the first of many Robbie Williams songs. The fog machine sprayed a fine chemical mist.
Copyright © 2007 by Lara Tupper All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 20, 2007
This is a witty and poignant look at the life of a traveling lounge singer, much less glamorous than you might imagine. The book examines the facades we all put up to get thrugh the day, the job, the relationship and the toll that exacts. This was a pleasure to read and I look forward to the next book by this author.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 19, 2007
This is a witty and poignant look at the life of a traveling lounge singer, much less glamorous than you might imagine. The book examines the facades we all put up to get through the day, the job, the relationship and the toll that exacts. This was a pleasure to read and I look forward to the next book by this author.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 22, 2009
No text was provided for this review.