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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A Sports-obsessed Toronto-area Actor and Singer, Teacher and Writer, Jeff Madden starred as "Frankie Valli" in both the Toronto and Australian productions of JERSEY BOYS. In 2009, he won Toronto's DORA award for outstanding performance in a musical by a male actor.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Fallen Angel

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.

8 comments:

jody madden said...

Through my tears, my heart swells with love and pride for you.
Mom.

Aunt Chelley said...

From one of your boppin' aunts who was in the audience on Sept 9, having seen the show with Pep the night he saw it and I knew Fallen Angel was approaching, I had no idea how you were going to get through it, the first time after the "Going-away" weekend. It didn't surprise me that the whole emotional soup spilled over with that song. I'm sure the audience near enough to see your raw emotions thought you certainly were a hell of an actor ('hey, he didn't win a Dora for nothing!')but from where I was in the first row of the balcony, it deeply affected me because I knew your circumstances, I knew your pain but how you managed to emerge from your painful place and carry on was truly amazing to observe. When we spoke after the show and you were so down on yourself for your 'mistake', I was hoping that time and reflective insight would give you permission to forgive yourself and see that moment for what it was...a connection, not a gap. I'm so glad to hear how you now feel about the experience, it wasn't a mistake by any stretch of the imagination, it was a gift.

Sylvia said...

Jeff, we already had tickets (3rd row, left side (your right) of centre orchestra) for Sept. 9, 2009 and knew this would be your first performance after the funeral for your beloved and dear grandfather as we had received postings through your facebook page.

We have seen the show many, many times and had sincere concern for you in how you would be able to handle and get through this very emotional scene as your own personal loss was still so raw and fresh. Our hearts truly ached for you when you stopped singing as we could only assume that the emotion and circumstances of this scene just overwhelmed you personally at that moment. From where we were sitting you are turned toward us during this scene and we could see and feel the real raw emotion and anguish you were feeling. Jeff, you always convey through your acting in this scene so much raw emotion and anguish in every performance that bring tears to many audience attendees, however, on this night this was not acting, but, so genuinely real. What we found so truly touching, remarkable and amazing was how you pulled yourself together and just so smoothly started to begin singing again like you say as if you had never missed a note and continued on with the song. I really don't think too many people, if any at all, in the audience other than people who have seen the show several times and know what to expect and your family members that attended that night realized what was really happening and just thought it was how it was supposed to be. At least no one anywhere near us commented or said anything or looked puzzled when it happened.

Jeff, don't ever doubt your professionalism in this instance. You are only human with emotions and feelings. Grieve and mourning does leave a person emotionally fragile and I really doubt many people would have been able to get through that scene unscathed or at all so soon after.

My father passed away thirteen years ago and, on occasion, even after all this time some object, place, memory etc. connected to him can still trigger me emotionally.

I feel this is all part of experiencing and dealing with life and, hopefully, learning and growing through it.

My sincere sympathy to you and your family over the passing of your grandfather. I hope, in time, only fond memories of him will prevail. He was a big part of your life and, it seems, he passed on a lot of himself to you.

Stephanie Ciccarelli said...

Hi Jeff,

I just finished reading this blog posting after receiving your email and think what you've experienced is amazing.

As a singer, I've had similar moments and can relate to what you've shared. One is affected to the core! It is difficult to sing when you are struck by emotion, especially in the midst of grief.

God bless you. Continue to use your gift and cherish that moment with your Pepe :)

Stephanie

Jeff Madden said...

Thanks Everybody. I'm so glad you have shared your thoughts with me. Four of you here and about a dozen of you on Facebook. That's great.

Sharon M said...

Jeff: First let me tell you how sorry I am to hear about the loss of your grandfather. Just remember fond memories of him will always keep the two of you close.
I wasn't at the Sept. 9 performance but I'm sure most people didn't even notice the tiny blip in the show. You always play that scene so dramatically every night. Everytime you play that scene you make me tear up so there is a lot of emotion coming from you in that scene anyway.
I'm one of those fans of JB that have attended many, many times and have really enjoyed every performance. Before JB opened in Toronto I lost my mother and going to the JB shows seemed to be the only thing that I did that helped me through. I already have my next ticket and hope to see it many more times.

David said...

Great touching, moving story. I had the pleasure to see you perform this past Oct. 30, on my
4th wedding anniversary with my wife, Nancee. You were AWESOME! You were so great, I researched about you and found this blog and post. Once again, you and the whole company were great. It's sparked my interest further in Four Seasons music. Rock on man!

Anonymous said...

Jeff this post is extremely emotional for me to read, please do t ever doubt your professionalism, this just shows you are human and it takes time to mourn as well.