Today's Reading

According to the reviews in the New York Times, which she had to drive ten miles to buy whenever he had a musical opening, his scenes were as good as the score. Mannheim was one of the few writers around who penned the music, lyrics, and all the lines. But Eleanor had only ever heard the soundtracks.

She fell in love with his works as she discovered them. First Pat introduced her to Fifth Avenue, Mannheim's debut, with a second act not quite as good as the first but still precious, in its own way. Then there was The Birds and the Bees, which according to the Times was Don's "attempt to rival Ziegfeld." He didn't venture back.

Charades was his fifth musical and her favorite. It was still running on Broadway after six years. Mannheim spun together seven characters' stories with finesse that took her breath away and assured his genius status. The whole score sounded like the city—heavy brass instruments, tinny percussion, strings that made her think of the sun glinting off skyscrapers. It wasn't typical material for a musical—a pregnancy, a dying woman searching for a last affair—which made her love it all the more. No one in her town talked about those things.

Don Mannheim wrote about the peculiarity of being surrounded by family and friends and feeling unknown. So often, Eleanor felt her love of musicals overflowing, bursting within her, and when she expressed it to her mother and father, they said something like, "What a fun little song." When she saw other young people, apart from Rosie, she was sneered at or ignored; they didn't know what to do with her. These dismissals broke her heart a thousand tiny times. She was off, but couldn't help it. Her obsession lifted her from the group. Though she had an escape with Pat, Eleanor often felt strangled in the daily battle of suppressing herself. Don Mannheim turned the feelings in her soul into lyrics. That meant he felt them, too, and understood this particular loneliness well enough to finesse it into a useful, beautiful line. When listening to his music, she heard her own pain echoed.

She'd torn through his remaining works—Pillow Talk, The Ladies of Sheridan Road, Candy Apple—and loved everything he made, like unique children. Mannheim blended commercialism with the catharsis of classic dramas and the wit of a French salon. He wrote with the snap of Porter and Hammerstein's sensitivity. Eleanor clipped every review and hung them on her wall. She ran her hands over his picture until the pads of her fingers were inky. He was forty-one, a hulking, virile man with shiny black hair, a self-made musician who'd composed his way out of a factory town and made it to New York on scholarship. He was a veteran who'd fought in Japan in World War II. He had a brilliant smile, and in her favorite picture, he grinned open-mouthed, hands spread across the piano keys, mid-laugh. Eleanor adored him.

Once Pat and Eleanor reached the song where Eliza Doolittle mastered her speech, singing in a clear soprano about rain in Spain, Pat lifted the pin on the record. His eyes were wet.

"You are the rightful owner." Pat slid the record back into the sleeve and presented it to her with pride. "And now for your real present." Pat reached under the desk and produced a page from a newspaper, folded over. "Look there, honey."

She leaned over the counter and read.

MANNHEIM/FLYNN DUO TURN TO PUBLIC FOR NEW LEADING LADY

Eleanor's face went hot before she read the rest.

"What's this?" Her hands shook, so she hid them under the counter.

Eleanor didn't want to read more. She knew what an open call was: a way for ordinary girls to get on Broadway. Already, she felt jealous, excited, terrified, as she read the article. The number of girls would be staggering. The back of her neck started to sweat. Hordes of girls would line up in character shoes. Gorgeous girls, girls who'd had dance lessons. Her chance, and it was a thousand miles away. She wanted to vomit.

She tried to keep her cool. "That theater will be a madhouse."

A quote from Don followed the announcement of the audition: "We've had a string of wonderful young starlets in the role but Harry [Flynn, Mannheim's creative partner and the director of Charades] and I want to take this opportunity to find someone fresh."

Pat stared at her. Blood rushed to her ears.

"Guess they ran through everyone good." She squared her shoulders and slipped the article across the counter.

Pat pushed it back. "You should go."

She made herself laugh, though her heart pounded.

"Eleanor, you're good." His voice was energetic—he believed she could get the part. When it was too cold to practice in the barn, Pat lent her his store after closing; he'd heard her practice for years, noticed her improvement, her dedication. But that didn't mean he was right.

"Every girl with a smidge of talent hears that," she said. "Especially in small towns. I've heard enough musicals. They're fantasies, not real."

"It's a cliché because it happens. Not every star is born in New York."

"It won't happen to me."

"Don himself is from Indiana."

"Don studied music at Juilliard."

"That was his ticket out. This is yours. Eleanor, your voice is special."


This excerpt ends on page 13 the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler.
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