If you’re not part of the Sondheim crowd, you may want to skip this one.

      Those who’ve known me any length of time have probably noticed three things: that I think life would be much more fun if people burst into song now and then, the way they do in Broadway musicals; that my all-time favorite musical is Stephen Sondheim and  Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music”; and that I’ve often said, “I don’t want to play Desiree; I want to be Desiree.” For normal people who’ve made it this far, Desiree is the show’s leading lady, a turn-of-the-last-century Swedish actress who, in middle age, rekindles a romance with an old flame who is now encumbered with a young wife. (“I suppose that could be considered a snag.”) As created by the Tony Award-winning Glynis Johns in 1973, “the one and only Desiree Armfeldt” was the epitome of elegance and grace; she wafted across the stage in “the most glamorous costumes,” as the young wife says, and eventually got her man in a happy ending for all concerned. In a recent issue of The Sondheim Review, Angela Lansbury, who plays Desiree’s mother in the current Broadway revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, is quoted as saying: “Desiree isn’t a very good actress, obviously, because she’s always touring . . . any actor who has to be on the road constantly is not going to be considered among the best.” Both Rick Pender, managing editor of the Review, and I would beg to differ, Rick because “The fact that Desiree is recognized in each village and town where she tours suggests that she’s an actress of some repute,” and I because, well, that’s what I need to believe. (Though the abysmal movie starring Elizabeth Taylor would tend to make one see Lansbury’s point.)

    Here in China, it’s occurred to me that I’ve finally turned into  Desiree, or at least her entrance number, “The Glamorous Life.” With her daughter, her mother and the Quintet of singers who provide running commentary throughout the show, Desiree sings (and depending on the actress playing her, I use that term loosely) of the reality of her life on the road.

Unpack the luggage, la la la, 
Pack up the luggage, la la la, 
Unpack the luggage, la la la, 
Hi-ho, the glamorous life!

      Given the amount of traveling I’ve done these last two years, the lyrics have started to sound eerily accurate. Last summer, as I prepared to leave the Baltic beach resort of Heringsdorf, Germany, for my annual teaching gig in southwest Poland, I found myself singing the song – but the words coming out of my mouth were “Pack up the laptop, la la, la.” That chorus has been reprised in from Shanghai to Xiangtan and back, and, I hope, will be again and again as I finish my time here with two or three weeks of travel. 

      Like Desiree, I’m doing eight performances a week – not Hedda in Helsingbord, but four classes of sophomores, two of juniors, one of postgraduates and one mixed audience. In both our cases, the most important thing is that “mother’s surviving . . . leading the glamorous life.” And really, how different from Rottvik can Xiangtan be?  

     Ice in the basin, la la la brings back those March mornings when, instead washing my face in freezing-cold water at the open-air kitchen sink (since there’s none in the “bathroom”), I settled for moisturizing  towelettes.  
 
     Cracks in the plaster, la la la. You should see the spot just over my left shoulder on the living room ceiling. And the mustard-yellow paint keeps peeling off the toilet/shower door.

     Run for the carriage, la la la. That would be the campus shuttle on Thursday mornings at 7:30  – not my best time of day, and probably not Desiree’s. During the ride I usually wolf down not a sandwich, but a bao zi, one of those soft steamed buns filled with anything from savory minced pork to red bean paste to sugar and sesame seeds.

     Half-empty houses, la la la. My Tuesday postgrad class, where 56 people are registered and this week only 9 appeared, and they all expect to pass the final exam.

     Cultural lunches, la la la? The Monday gathering of four foreign teachers who have classes in the same building that morning, when we compare notes and whine and laugh about what we see as the utter chaos in our working environment, which the Chinese consider perfectly normal.

     Youngish admirers, la la la! I have to admit that I’m attracting my share, but “youngish” is an understatement: they’re in their early 20s. Which one is that one, la la la? Well, there’s Stephen, my  Friday night garden date, who seems to have a crush on me. Stevie Nicks writes me introspective e-mail during the week between our classes. Kang, a postgrad computer major who is not enrolled in any of my classes, sometimes attends two a week, walks me to the North Gate or rides the shuttle with me afterwards, and insists on holding his umbrella over my head if a single drop of rain falls, even if I’m covered with my waterproof poncho. Pam says that they have no way of knowing how old we are and that we should enjoy it, because we’re not likely to get that kind of attention again.

       There’s another version of “The Glamorous Life,” written for the film, that that lay dormant until it emerged on the concert circuit a few years ago. In this version, Desiree’s young daughter sings in greater depth about what she imagines her mother’s life on the road to be.  “Sandwiches only, but she eats what she wants when she wants”? Here I do eat what I want — mostly peerless fried rice, fiery-hot vegetable plates, noodles stir-fried with chicken and cabbage, fresh fruit several times a day – and when I want, despite the Chinese conviction that it’s vital to eat at regular mealtimes. Still, there are days when I’d kill for a sandwich. (In an emergency, I can always go Changsha and eat at Subway, where I had something approximating a cheesesteak last weekend.)

      And “What if her what if her coach is/Second-class, she at least gets to travel”? This weekend I expect to make my maiden voyage on the Chinese railroads. If all goes to according to plan, it won’t be second class: Pam and I are taking the sleek new high-speed line to Wuhan, five hours away by regular train, reduced to one. So in the end, who cares about the plaster, the basin, the half-empty houses? She at least gets to travel. 

     Update:  I just saw the first, and I hope last, of the mice in the hallway, or rather, on the staircase landing outside my door. La . . . la . . . la. 

One thought on “Desiree at last

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