There’s No Business Like Show Business

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

For my tenth birthday, I begged my parents for a copy of the 1950 musical film “Annie Get Your Gun”; just one of several clues I left them over the years of my inevitable affinity for chest hair and non-functional nipples. Twenty minutes into the film, after parades of MGM extras flounce about in cow print and headdresses, Betty Hutton is serenaded by a trio of men with Irving Berlin’s hit tune, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Drenched in vaudevillian theatrics, the performers end by obliterating the fourth wall, staring into the audience’s very souls, and instructing “Let’s go on with the show!” as if asking “Which of you wants to come along and be a disappointment to your father, just like us?” 

Me, my exploding pre-pubescent heart cried out. Pick me! I fantasized about being plucked from obscurity like Annie Oakley and thrust into stardom by the film’s male star, Howard Keel. I also fantasized about being sodomized by him, but those dreams were crumpled when I discovered he was already dead and I had no talent for necromancy.

In a way, I did fulfill the destiny this song lays out for young performers, having toured the country for five non-stop years, four of which with an immensely popular Broadway National Tour. But I can confidently tell you that the lyrics of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” adequately prepared me for life on the road about as well as Army recruitment videos, whose country music anthems attempt rhyming “America” with “proud o’ ya”, adequately prepared soldiers for being dropped into Fallujah.

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Berlin’s lyrics paint a picture of deliriously optimistic actors on an odyssey around the country enjoying artistic fulfillment. Although I’ve stumbled into some success, performed on Broadway, and worked my way up into management positions, my greatest fulfillment on the road was learning to eat grocery store sheet cake off a tissue in my hotel bed without making a mess.

There’s nothing wrong with a little optimism, but is the ghost of Irving Berlin prepared to take responsibility for the consequences of his misleading lyrics which have led harems of adolescent, sentient limp-wrists joyously flitting toward a life in theatre?

“Everything about it is appealing.” Really, Irving? Spend seven hours on a bus with your coworkers only to have your destination be Orange, Texas, and talk to me about “appealing.” 

“Nowhere could you get that happy feeling when you are stealing that extra bow.” I’ll take a good lay, thank you. I’ll take the assurance that someone in a city I’m working in knows how to kiss without attacking the inside of my mouth like a bingeing anteater. Never again having to increase Tinder’s distance settings to find a companion with a reasonable number of teeth would give me a very happy feeling. 

In Berlin’s musical, only the two main characters find partnership while touring. What about the others? Do they find a different derriere in each town, or do they pick from the produce at work? To whom does Chief Sitting Bull turn when he catches a glimpse of side-boob in the dressing room and must return to the La Quinta, alone and horny? 

Where was the verse about scheduling coital appointments in between shows on a Saturday and returning to work still slathered in Swiss Navy? Or having to retrieve sexual strangers from the hotel lobby at 2am because the elevators at the Hilton Garden Inn require a key card to get up to the rooms? Or a warning of the devastation felt after a strikingly handsome older gentleman (with an ideal Grindr handle like “doesn’tneedtocuddleafterward”) solicits me while I’m boarding a plane bound for the next work destination? Tragic.

Illustration by Ryan Bauer-Walsh

Perhaps I wouldn’t need an “audience that lifts [me] when I’m down” if I could complete a night’s sleep without Housekeeper Bethany in Wichita knocking on my door every morning—in diametric opposition to the instructions on my hotel-provided door sign (“I’m A-Sleepin’, Don’t Come Sweepin’.”) Rather than a “sheriff who escorts [me] out of town,” could the sheriff kindly incarcerate each front desk attendant who insipidly reminds me that if I simply keep my room key away from my cell phone and credit cards then perhaps it won’t deactivate? The truest quip in the piece references “the towel you’ve taken from the last hotel.” Along with several towels, I’ve personally amassed an entire cutlery set, removing one piece at a time from every Residence Inn I’ve stayed in for the last half-decade.

But where am I supposed to eat all my meals in towns that have never heard of a chickpea? How am I to ever hope for a satisfying bowel movement when the only groceries I have access to are unripe bananas, beef jerky, and Mentos from the Sonoco station? The song told me all about “the cowboys, the wrestlers, the tumblers, the clowns” but nothing about the “sandwich artists” whose prowess in the art of sandwich-making rivals mine in levitation. If one more imbecilic 15-year-old constructs me a sandwich like it’s a goddamned hotdog, I’m going to replace their prescription acne medication with all the mayonnaise I received, which I did not ask for.

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Long before the “Annie Get Your Gun” VHS first breached the socket beneath our 32-inch screen in the living room, I first heard “There’s No Business Like Show Business” when I was six years old at my premier dance recital. My class’ number was choreographed to Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” in a style not even vaguely reminiscent of jazz. Wearing black jeans, a yellow T-shirt, and sequined suspenders, I stood in the wings before the show to catch a glimpse of the big kids’ opening number. 

I still cling to these moments, where life feels full of grandeur even in mundane circumstances.

Young women in mass-produced black and gold leotards, faux-silk elbow-length gloves, and fascinators claimed their places behind the auditorium’s fading cerise curtain, repeating grande battements, tightening straps on low-heeled tap shoes, checking friends for both camel-toes and wedgies like monkeys of the Serengeti picking bugs off one another. An announcement played, informing patrons where they’d escape to in the event of a fire, thus relieving the fathers in attendance from their parental penance.

Then it began. A canned overture. The lights dimmed and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” blared over the murmurs of suburban excitement as frantic mothers double checked the battery life of their camcorders. As the number reached its climax, a grandiose “Let’s go on with the show!” accompanied by timpani and horns, the curtain raised; first revealing beveled ankles, then slim legs yearning for hips, then shimmering costumes, and finally gleaming, Vaselined smiles. But I wouldn’t be revealed yet. I could only watch from the wings. Unable to participate. Unable to look away.

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My life on the road has perpetuated that brand of anxiety, anticipation, and, frankly, ennui. Entombed in a plexiglass box of my own creation, I’ve observed my own life from the wings. Allowing myself minimal participation, but unable to ignore the fact that it is going on without me. 

I’m not alone in the self-sabotage. Chances are if you’ve toured, you’ve experienced something similar. Your non-touring friends go out together, developing stronger bonds. You long to reinforce, but sometimes all you feel you can do is retreat. The little lies you and your long-distance partner share fester beneath the surface where you’ve both comfortably nestled them. You find secret lovers; they find secret lovers. They leave you for someone else, but all your someone elses are in cities you’ve already left. Joys are celebrated, losses mourned. You’re a phone call away, but what good does that do when you long to be held?

So, you watch. It’s all you can do. No electronic communiqué will ever replace physical attendance. 

Even upon returning to the world of the living, it can be hard to connect again. Like the fictional inhabitants of the island from “Lost,” you were desperate to get back to your old life but find it frustrating that no one can adequately appreciate what you’ve experienced. “The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops.” Irving left out the restlessness, the addictions and dependencies you never saw coming, the loneliness, the manifestations of self-harm (surely those were all in a cut verse that resides at the bottom of a trunk at the Berlin estate).

But regardless, we venture forth with what little strength we have left and all the pride we can muster because we are fulfilling our dream. Aren’t we? We watch with anticipation from the wings, at work and in life, waiting for our moment to “take stage.” Either to break the proscenium and perform or to return home and be an active participant in life again.

“There’s no people like show people, they smile when they are low.”

I wish we had any other option. It’s why we work four jobs while auditioning and covet contracts where free time is spent traveling from one city to the next. Any vacancies in our schedule could allow time to recognize the loneliness, jealousy, dissatisfaction, regret. All the holidays missed, the relationships withered, the bills deferred. And while the world and the business may be cruel to us, our minds are a far more visceral enemy. But by charging onward, we can try to enjoy what remains of that artistic spark living within us and delay the rest. 

We are reminded by loved ones, bosses, and little kids making up dances in their basements that we are living a dream. And this is the dream we set out to fulfill. In honor of those who aren’t afforded our luck, we force an environment upon ourselves of ceaseless gratitude; blind and without exception. Luck is great. Happiness is better. Having spent too much time working to make a career out of a dream, many spend too little time considering whether the realities of that dream are bearable. So, we hustle because we have to. We are taught that to sit still is to concede. We must move. We must “go on with the show.”

I once interpreted those final lines as an invitation. Now, I acknowledge them as a plea. Irving Berlin was right after all. For the love of Christ, let’s go on with the show.