I wanted to share with you, Dear Readers, the details of an interesting experience I had last month. Something unusual happened to me in the middle of a show that I'd never experienced before.
As a bit of back-story, this past August 31st, my grandfather Larry Bensette ('Pepe' to the family) passed away, at the vibrant young age of 92. He was a pretty amazing man, having lived the last 10 years of his life independently in his own home, driving himself around, playing the odd piano gig, and going on dates with his lady friends. We should all be so lucky, really.
Nonetheless, his death was unexpected. He suffered a fall down exactly 2 steps, breaking a hip. The resulting surgery and therapy ended up being too much for his body to recover from.
I have always felt a deep bond with Pep. We saw so much of him throughout the various stages of my life, and aside from bearing his name as my middle name, I felt that he gave me an awful lot of the musical talent I have. Surely, the style that I play jazz piano is almost exactly his.
Barely one week before his fall, Pep had made the trip to Toronto to see Jersey Boys. It was a special occasion to be sure. My Mom and her two sisters were all there, with their husbands in tow, and it had the air of a real special event for everyone. The show was great that night, and when I met them in the lobby after the show, my mom and two Aunts were singing along to the Four Seasons music being pumped through the speakers, as loud as could be!
As they sang and bopped along, Pep just beamed, ever the proud father and grandfather. Later, over a drink, he asked me many probing questions about the show, especially how the music was played, who played live onstage, where the microphones were positioned, how the sound was mixed, etc... I answered the best I could, marveling at how sharp he was at his age. I felt proud, as I often do when large groups of family come together to see a show of mine, that I was the reason for this reunion and these great memories.
When I heard about his fall and subsequent heart attacks, I grew weary. I tried not to think about his plight as I carried on to do my show night after night, figuring he'd make a recovery. But it was business as usual for me.
Two weeks after the fall, he finally passed away peacefully with my mother there at his side.
I was graciously given Saturday and Sunday September 5th and 6th off from Jersey Boys, and with the extended two-day break for Labour Day, I had four days off in a row. Everyone gathered together in Windsor to attend the funeral proceedings. My brother Chris and his family flew in from Japan, some Aunts, Uncles and cousins flew in from Michigan, Calgary, and Northern BC, and friends and family all came too.
Everyone gathered at his house. It turned out to be a great family reunion, in spite of these sad times. The funeral was touching, the reception heart-warming, the burial beautiful. I sang a few songs in the proceedings, and was glad to do so.
Now, to the point of this blog post:
On September 9th, I was back to work. My body was rested, my brain was sharp, and I was eager to be back at work. I was excited to have a few family members in the house that night too. In my dressing room at the places call I dedicated the show to Pep. Although I had my normal pre-show routine and felt great, the show that night became particularly hard for me.
Although my brain was focused and the lines were exactly right, my voice tired unusually fast that night. I was getting raspy and battling the falsetto from the middle of Act 1 right through to the end of the show. When I began to sing "Fallen Angel", something occurred that has never happened to me before. Tears welled up in my eyes almost immediately. Only seconds later, after singing the first few lines of the song, I simply lost my breath. I mean, I literally could not take a breath. I was completely overwhelmed.
Now, as most of you know, the scene preceding "Fallen Angel" is when Frankie learns that his daughter Francine has died. And during the song, while Frankie sings the words he would say to Francine if she could come back to life, her ghost visits him for a moment.
Well, there I was. Sitting on the bench. Tears in my eyes, without a breath of air, in a tight spotlight on a bare stage with almost 1700 people staring at me. I clearly heard the band continuing to play, I could see the conductor waving her arms on the TV monitor, yet I still couldn't make a sound. It was the strangest thing.
On one hand, it felt like an eternity, and under normal circumstances something like this would make any actor freak out. But surprisingly, I wasn't nervous. I never felt scared or worried. In fact, I felt unusually calm.
I think the silence lasted exactly four bars, or about 12 seconds. Then all of a sudden -- like literally in one millisecond -- I just started singing, as though I had never missed a note, right at the top of the second verse. I finished the song without incident and carried on through the rest of the show -- a bit shell-shocked, but otherwise without a word out of place.
After the show, I was initially disappointed in myself. I'm a perfectionist, so I hate making mistakes, and was embarrassed that I made made such an obvious error. I felt as though I been unprofessional by letting my personal life interfere with the show too much.
Well, upon much reflection, I learned a few things about that night. First, I learned that grieving and mourning are incredibly powerful states of being. Without you even noticing, they can profoundly zap you of your vitality, leaving you emotionally fragile. Second, I discovered just how strongly the act of singing taps into your emotional core. And lastly, although I will never be able to prove it, and as kooky as it may sound, I believe that my Pepe visited me on that bench that night.
Oh, and I'm not embarrassed or disappointed anymore for 'forgetting' to sing those four bars. I've come to the realization that this event was an important life lesson that I was fortunate enough to learn. In that moment, I gained wisdom and clarity; about myself, about the nature of emotion, and the mystery of death. I mean, isn't that the goal of living? To learn? To make progress? To feel, and comprehend and grow?
I won't soon forget this lesson. I have the memory imprinted on my soul now. Forever.
I'm curious - I wonder, did any of you happen to have been in the audience that night? If you were, I would love to hear from you. I know some of you have seen the show many, many times and would notice a moment like this as being unique. And, anyone else who'd like to share some of their thoughts and experiences in relation to this, feel free to do so. I know we often don't talk about these things because it can be a bit uncomfortable... but it could be really neat to share on this topic.
Thanks for listening, everyone.
- Jeff Madden
- Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- A long-time Toronto-area Actor and Singer, Jeff Madden is now focusing on Teaching acting and singing in the GTA. Jeff starred as "Frankie Valli" in both the Toronto and Australian productions of JERSEY BOYS, winning the DORA award for outstanding performance in a musical by a male actor. Jeff is busy back at school, getting his MEd at U of T's OISE.