We don’t know anybody who remembers the Old Days, when we had hearts and the hearts sang; they’re all dead, but they’ve left their cast albums behind, and we listen without being moved. We listen to learn, to rob.
Our hearts removed, we work in an industry that many say is so dependent on such that to pursue it, now, while heartless, is a fool’s errand, but we think otherwise, as there’s always money to be made.
Pickler is my lyricist, as she wants the easier job: push around a bunch of words and make them rhyme every now and then. Personally, I find the tunesmithing the easier of the two talents—fitting notes to words, plop plop plop. I’ve got a mere handful of notes at my disposal, while she has to deal with all of these words. While many of those words are no longer recognizable, there are still enough laying around to at least give her some options as long as she mines the past with an editor’s eye.
We listen to She Loves Me; we write the new, contemporary, appropriate version: Correspondence Between Two People, our tunestack stuffed with songs about unlocking a shop door, assessing surtax on beauty products, selecting postage, ordering dinner in a darkened restaurant, leaving jobs. We listen to The King and I; we crib its lessons of monarchy and colonialism, set the whole thing to music, and our score bubbles along in merry didacticism, the show repackaged as Hello, YoungStudents. We listen to everything from those gut-wrenching, unfathomable decades of passion and love and saccharine and wonder how they managed to live from day to day with all that emotion pressing on them from the inside. We are thankful that the days of getting accustomed to someone’s face are over. Rose no longer needs her turn. Life isn’t a cabaret. Nobody kisses in a shadow.
Physically, we heal. Our chests bear subtle central seams by the time we’ve finished our schooling. There is no emptiness—none we feel. Feeling, itself, is gone, and I only use the word because it is an old word and I know it.
Pickler shows me an ancient video of a live performance of Sweeney Todd. We are astounded by the audience, not the show. They laugh. They applaud.
I tell my students all about the applause. Aren’t we lucky? I ask them. We don’t have to deal with any of that clutter, not these days. I tell Pickler I find it all jarring, distracting, even impolite. The interruption of a narrative by reactions? What a discourtesy! She shows me another video of another show and another and another and every time it’s the same thing: hands banging together in a frenzy over a milkman wanting to be rich, a con artist defining trouble for townspeople, a couple of kids observing the time of night on a New York City fire escape.
Our work rolls right along in front of our stoic audiences. Our characters sing about local facts, weather forecasts, prices of goods, names and dates, addresses and directions. We experience some minor notoriety when one of our songs (from Very Little Night Music), “Send in the People Employed to Mimic Subjective Humor,” is taken up by a pop artist and spends several minutes on an Elevated Attention list.
“Sing something from before,” a young person says to me at a panel of songwriters.
“I can’t,” I say. This young person is actually standing, coming at me, holding something.
It’s a piece of sheet music. Old, amber, crumbling. This young person puts it on the piano’s music rack. “Please,” the young person says.
It’s been an awfully long time since I or any of the other songwriters on the panel have heard the word please.
“Can’t,” we say.
“Try,” says the young person. We crowd around the piano.
“Why do you want us to try?” I ask.
“I want to hear it,” is the response. “Live. I want to sing it, with somebody playing along.”
Murmurs from the crowd. Pickler steps forward. She lifts up the young person’s shirt. We see what we expected to see: the seam in the center of the chest. And then Pickler runs her thumb over the scar, and a portion of it crumbles away.
A false scar, mimicked with spirit gum. An old theatrical trick.
The young person yanks down the shirt and says, “And I’m not the only one.”
The young person runs from the room, leaving the decayed music on the piano. None of us touch it.
The panel continues. We answer questions. We talk about the length of time it took to write such-and-such. We talk about how much this-and-that cost to produce. We quote net gross. We report royalties.
The panel over, we prepare to go about our lives. My fellow songwriters make a tentative ring around the piano and stare at the song. “Which is it?” someone asks.
No one will look at it any closer. Stagehands arrive and roll the piano offstage. The song, a cobweb of a memory, drifts from the music rack in gossamer pieces and sprinkles itself at our feet.
Pickler and I return to work. She writes out some words, hands them to me, I look at them, find a couple of notes, plunk them out to the words, and we continue back and forth, she supplying any old words and I delivering any old notes. At one point, she lifts my shirt and runs her thumb over my scar. The scar remains. She rubs harder, longer. The scar regains some of its former lividity.
“You doubted?” I ask.
“I hoped,” she says.
About the Author: Jon Steinhagen is a Chicago-based author, actor, playwright, and songwriter, currently a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists. His many stories have appeared in print and online, recently in Midwestern Gothic; a collection of his stories, The Big Book of Sounds, is published by Black Lawrence Press. @JonSteinhagen.
Story Song: "Songsters" was inspired by a lyric in Benny Mardones' "Into the Night" ["It's like having a dream/Where nobody has a heart..."] although the song I had on loop while writing it was Reunion's "Life is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)." Happy 1974, folks!