met Milton the first day of rehearsal for the musical Carousel.
I was 19 years old. This was my first professional job. I'd only
done two musicals before, and they were at my synagogue when I was
11; they were Fiddler On The Roof and Milk And Honey,
and we stood on stage mouthing the words to the albums.
elevator door to the rehearsal studio opened and someone pushed
past me, knocking my dance bag to the floor. As I bent down to pick
it up, I heard, "Maybe standing in front of the elevator isn't
such a good idea." I looked up into the sparkling eyes of a
heavyset man with gray, unkempt hair and a white goatee. "Oh
I'm so sorry," I said standing up.
"Don't worry about it, are you in the show?" he asked.
I am," I said proudly. "I'm a dancer -- my name is Cheryl
Movitz, I mean Montelle, I just changed it and I keep forgetting.
You see, I've never heard Jewish names in the chorus, and my grandfather,
Sam Movitz, wanted to be a tap dancer instead of a butcher, which
he ended up being anyway, but he was going to call himself Ronnie
Montelle -- so I kept it all in the family." God I was nervous.
to meet you Miss Montelle, my name is Milton Rosenstien, and I didn't
change my name."
that's my dad's name, you know there aren't that many Miltons around."
He laughed and said, "You know, you're right."
he walked away, I noticed a thick bundle of music under his arm.
I thought he was one of the character actors, but as we started
rehearsal, he took a seat behind the table next to the director,
and I discovered that he was actually the musical director of the
show. He caught my look of embarrassment, raised his eyebrows, then
gave me a wink.
then on, Milton looked out for me. Once, when I kept shifting off
my alto line back to the melody line over and over again, he took
me aside after the rehearsal and whispered, "Sing the melody.
In fact, just sing the melody whenever you feel the need to, but
don't tell anyone I said so."
walked away with his wife, Sally. They were newlyweds and she was
a singer in the chorus. I always sat next to her in the dressing
room and she taught me how to put on stage makeup because, as she
put it, "God knows, I've slapped on enough of this shit!"
A buxom blonde, she reminded me of Mae West, only sweeter. Sally
was about 40 to Milton's 65, and she loved taking care of him. On
tour, they'd rent rooms with kitchens so that she could cook all
his favorite foods. She even converted to Judaism, calling herself
"the Jewish shiksa."
at rehearsal breaks, Milton would sit down next to me, and just
talk. He'd tell me about growing up in Brooklyn, and how he delivered
groceries to pay for his piano lessons and trips to the Yiddish
theater. He said his parents were poor, but had a great love of
music and wanted him to become a concert pianist. "Yeah, well,
I tried that route, but my real calling was interpreting a score,
not necessarily playing it. Besides, I liked to watch all the pretty
girls dance by me in the shows."
talked about the shows too, like Funny Girl; he was assistant
conductor on that one. "She was just a kid when she started,
but I watched Streisand bloom into a real talent. Her voice was
pure; not like now, always sliding up to hit the notes, singing
pop music no less. And let's not forget Merman, what a gal, what
a love of the theater that woman had." He'd worked with her
on Gypsy. I thanked Milton for sharing his stories and he
shrugged, "I gotta tell somebody, and I knew you'd get a kick
out of 'em. Besides, I like you kid."
Indiana, a couple of weeks into the tour, I knew he really did like
me when he found me alone in the dressing room crying over a recent
ex-boyfriend. I'd lifted my soggy head off my folded arms to find
a tissue, and there, past my own reflection in the mirror, was Milton's.
He was standing in the doorway, wearing a frown and a soiled T-shirt,
his large belly protruding over his pants, held up by a pair of
suspenders. His eyes were moist, and I wondered how long he'd been
watching me cry. I turned around, still heaving, unable to catch
yes. How did he know that?
there anything I can do?"
my head no.
was thoughtful for a moment, then brightened, "Well, cheer
up kid, it only gets worse." He disappeared down the cement
hallway, chuckling. Something in his delivery made me stop crying
and start chuckling, too.
it was time to start the show, I took my place on a little platform
along with two other girls. We played kooch dancers, hired to lure
men into a girlie show at the carnival. I wore an exotic costume
and played the castanets. The music was strange, dreamlike, and
the choreography, sensual. I watched Milton for our cue, and as
he brought down the baton he looked right at me and nodded. I began
dancing. I took my arms over my head Spanish-style and turned slowly
around swinging my hips. I caught Milton's eye again, and he was
grinning ear to ear.
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