Monday, September 23, 2013

Noel & Me: A Musical Journey

(always providing comfort, on stage and off.)

Last week, a great mentor of mine, and one to countless other artists who grew up on Long Island, passed away unexpectedly due to heart failure. Noel S. Ruiz had an impact on so many lives and shared so much love with everyone around him. For a man with such incredible influence and impact on the young people in his shows, he was never controlling of us. He was a great listener, teacher and guide. He was someone who treated people of all ages with respect and care. I can't really measure the impact of this man on my life. If you want to get an overview of who he was and how much he contributed to the community, please click the link here to get a nice glimpse into what Noel was all about.

What follows here is a personal recollection of the artistic journey we took together from the time when I was in kindergarten through my first year of college. I feel like I should preface all this by stating that there are many people that knew Noel better as a day-to-day person than I did. There are people I grew up with who spent much more time with him in their adult years and got to understand him better and can probably tell you better stories about him as a result. I moved to the city after college, and never really went back and never really developed a strong adult understanding of Noel. In my mind he looms as NOEL, a force of nature and the font of artistry who sits atop the pedestal in my mind (wearing a gold lamé Herod costume, naturally), than just Noel, the man who worked really hard to make his impossible dream possible and had a lot of love to share.

Still, as I have reflected over the lessons I've learned and the gifts I've received from Noel throughout my childhood, I felt moved to write about our relationship and our time together. I am almost overwhelmed with gratitude that I was able to grow up and play in his artistic sandbox with so many lifelong friends. What my life's journey would be like without him, I cannot imagine. I like to make people mix CD's, so as I go along, I'm dedicating a song from each show to him  as a little soundtrack to our lives. I'm not sure anyone is ever going to read all of this, but it felt right to express it. Off we go. This is the story of Noel and me.

To me, Noel was always old. This is because when I met him I was 3 or 4 and he was already technically an adult.  He was probably around 27 or 28 at the time. Now, I know that's not actually old. I know this because that's 6 years younger than I am as I write this and I'M NOT OLD. So let's say I met Noel at the beginning of his adult prime, but from my baby perspective, he was an adult in a position of authority so he might as well have been 80. You'd think that as time went on and I got older, I'd realize the gap between us was increasingly shrinking, and Noel was not in fact that old of a guy. You would be wrong. I've always had a very hard time breaking that little kid version of me in my mind that insisted Noel was miles away from me in terms of age. It wasn't until I heard he died that I finally heard myself saying, "But he's so young." 

My oldest memory of my life (that isn't aided by photographic evidence or family oral history) is going to see Jesus Christ Superstar at St. John's Nepomucene church in what I'll guess was either 1983 or 1984. I think it was in the Church school auditorium (that ceased to exist much longer after that when they remodeled the school). I remember the opening music of the prologue scared the hell out of me. And I remember seeing the tormentors and the Pharisees and priests and then that's it. I wonder now if I freaked out and was removed from the audience and that's why I don't remember anything else. Still that first glimpse of theater left a big impression. So I can thank Noel for that. The following year they did The Wiz. I was too young to be in it. My older sister was a munchkin. They got to ride around on these upside down milk crates with wheels screwed into the bottom. We rode around on that thing in the garage in our house for years afterwards. I was obsessed with being the tornado. I wanted to spin and spin and spin. The roof came off of Dorothy's house and went up into the flies. It was the most magical thing ever. I wanted to be on the stage so badly. That led us to the following summer...

Fiddler On The Roof: My first show was Fiddler in the summer of 1986. I was still six years old in between first and second grade. As the story goes, retold to me by mom many years ago went, I wanted to be in the show even though I was under the age limit, so I went up to Noel and asked him if I could be in the show and his response was, "How can I say no that face?" So I was in! I wonder now if it was actually as simple as that. I mean, I was still super young and l had to be at the children's chorus rehearsals and the show was not a short show and happened at night. I don't understand why Noel or my parents thought this was actually a sound idea. Why did these people trust that I would actually pay attention or do what I was supposed to when I was on stage? Kids are loose canons, folks. But Noel let me do it. And I LIVED for that dream sequence where Fruma Sarah has her big scary number. Noel also gave me a little walk-on in Act 2 Scene 7 as one of the potential matches for Tevye's youngest daughters. So that was my first taste of being on the stage. It was very tasty. I  revisited Fiddler with Noel later on when I was older and I was one of the bottle dancers during the wedding and it was the worst anxiety I ever had on stage. One time I was so sure the bottle was going to fall off my head I couldn't get my arms down from around my head. I've seen pictures. It was ridiculous. Thank God Noel happened to not be in the audience that night. I don't even want to know what that conversation would've been like. Lesson learned? You gotta let go and risk the bottle dropping or what's the point? My favorite song from the show is Sabbath Prayer which I sing to myself all the time when I want to be calm and centered. So, for that - Noel's Song: Sabbath Prayer.

A Christmas Carol: I got to be Tiny Tim! I shouldn't have been. Not really. I blew my first audition because I was too scared to do it. I got up to do it and I psyched myself out. I thought I'd mess up and they'd laugh at me. I was SURE this was going to happen. I blamed it on something my sister had said to me at the time, but it had nothing to do with sister. My bad, Nancy! I just couldn't own up to my own fears! Noel gave me another chance. I could go to the call-back. I did much better there and I got cast in the role. To this day singing "Gee up, Little Pony" is the favorite thing I've ever done in my parents' eyes. I set too a high a bar at age seven, folks. I could never top it. I remember Noel tried to teach me how to speak with a British accent for the part. We were in the basement of the youth rectory as he was trying to get me to sound out the words with an accent. He was very patient, but I failed. I was not good at it at all. Even at seven years old I could tell it wasn't going to cut it. My Tiny Tim stayed Americanized. They built me this amazing crutch for the production that I still have. It still looks great too. High quality props! Song for Noel: Very Long Ago.

Godspell: I think this was the last of Noel's musicals at St. John's. This was now 1987. I remember that we got out faces painted with little images each night of the show because we were all clowns. I drank a lot of black cherry soda and played a lot of spit in between scenes with the children's chorus. I remember there was one day at rehearsal I was being really annoying (again, forgive me, I was seven) and I was doing kicks when I should've been standing still and I remember Noel turned from where he was standing and said "Is that Owen Panettieri I see down there?" Oh my god the SHAME! The SHAME! He couldn't have said it any more matter-of-factly but the message was SO CLEAR. My behavior in that moment was a disappointment to him! I KNEW. God, even just thinking about it now makes me feel like I'm still there standing in that line. Lesson learned, you don't always know when you're acting like an asshole, but when you DO realize you're acting like an asshole, STOP. Also, you can make a clear point without raising your voice. Song for Noel: All Good Gifts.

Oliver!: This was the start of working with Noel at Creative Ministries for me. Back then they just had a small studio space on Knickerbocker Ave. It might not have been the first show they did, because it seems a sorta random choice, but I'm pretty sure it's the first one I did there. I wanted to be Oliver SO BAD. I did not get to play Oliver. It went to some other kid. I like to believe that Noel ultimately regretted the decision not to cast me in the role as well, as he took to constantly calling the kid who was cast in the role "Owen." Noel didn't always get people's names right, especially if calling you by the wrong name got stuck in his head. Also Oliver and Owen both start with O, so it could've been as simple as that. Noel did give me lots of little solo lines and bit moments in the show. It was probably best that I did not get cast as Oliver. My little kid ego would've become monstrous. Instead. it worked out to be a good lesson in the fact that you don't always get the part, you deal with it and you perform the role you're given to the best of your ability because you love to perform. Also I became life long friends with the "Strawberry Girl" who is now my Strawberry Goddess, and the lovely woman who took it upon herself to tell me that Noel had passed, so I didn't randomly read it online while making snarky comments about the Miss America pageant. I really appreciated that. Noel's Song: It's A Fine Life.

To See A Miracle: This was a show we toured to different churches for what seemed like three years, but was probably only 3 months or something when i was in elementary school. I know that it stopped and started a couple times though. It toured and then toured again and then again. If I remember correctly, the show was about this kid named Jason (that's who I played) whose dad (played by Noel!) was blind and who wanted to meet Jesus. Somehow we get separated and these other kids told me a bunch of cool things about Jesus until my Dad showed up again. When Dad comes back, he can see because he ran into Jesus along the way and got healed by him. Of course, I then want to thank Jesus, but I miss my chance because this just so happens to be right when he gets crucified. I'm really sad about it. But then Jesus gets resurrected and we're all happy in the end! By the time I'd done this show for the third time, I had the entire script so memorized I would just mouth along to other kids' lines until it got back to my time to talk. An amazing quality in an actor! i was SO present! But sharing the stage with Noel was special to me - it was both intimidating and hilarious. Intimidating because in my head it's NOEL, but hilarious because he wasn't always the best at remembering the actual lyrics to songs. He'd switch the order of verses, he'd sing some words that were close approximations of the real lyrics or at least started with the same letter as the word he was supposed to sing, but were not the right words. As kids, we hung on every mistake Noel made since he was always giving us notes. Each flub seemed like a personal victory. Did I mention that most churches we went to couldn't handle the sound and lighting requirements of the show and fuses were regularly blown and we'd have no music and had to just deal with it? Sometimes Noel and I would look at each other during a performance and smile, and if our age and power dynamic were a bit more balanced and I was a little older, the thought that would have been passed between us would've been, "OMG, this fucking show." But a year or so after it ended, I actually got noticed from it by a chaperon on a school trip, or someplace really random. And she told me how beautiful she thought the show was at the time and how talented we all were. Noel was always creating things that affected people, even when he was stretched thin and us kids acted like we were so over it.  Noel's Song: I Met Jesus Today.

Friends Forever: YOU GUYS, THIS SHOW!!! This is the premiere christian youth musical of it's TIME. It's all about young people's relationships to each other through God. It's not even an issue of subtext. There is NO SUBTEXT. It's all laid plainly on the top in amazing fashion. Everybody's singing about god, or praying to god or learning about god. It's amazing. What's even more amazing is that all the god stuff barely registered for me at the time. I just remember having a great time with everyone in the cast. I remember our actual parts being really fluid. Like there would be whole scenes of dialogue and songs that switched from one cast member to the next as the days passed. I wound up singing different songs than I'm listed as singing in the program. I actually found the script this morning it it's original neon green folder. The script is only 17 pages long and it's typed out with all of our actual names as to who says what lines. Who typed that whole thing out? So many people put so much time into these shows so that we could have awesome things to do during the summer. Lessons learned from this production: Show up to rehearsal or your part might get reassigned. There was also this prologue to the show, where this blob-shaped guy was looking for his match and there were all these other people dressed up like squares and triangles and they all had rhyming lines about who matched their shapes. One run though, Noel was NOT liking the energy the kids involved in this prologue were putting in and made them all stop. I believe he threatened to cut the whole thing if they didn't get it together. Eventually they did. OH. Noel had an amazing "HEEEEEYYY!!!!" yell when he wanted to get us focused. (I almost forgot to mention that! I only remembered as I was proofreading. "HEEEEEYYY!" was huge.)I also remember this one time toward the end of the rehearsal process when he and Cara our choreographer could not agree on the spacing of the dancers for the final number. We kept going through different formations. There were eight of us and Noel kept being like, "It's not even, Cara." And Cara was like "It IS even. 1-2-3-4! 1-2-3-4!"as she pointed to our two groups on stage. It wasn't always easy to figure out Noel's vision. In reality this probably went on for 5 minutes at most, but it's one of those things that sticks in my head as being a BIG DEAL. "1-2-3-4! 1-2-3-4!" Friends Forever toured around after it's initial summer run, but I was never in the touring cast. I actually never toured with Hi-Tops either which is crazy to me. I don't know how I missed that one, because Hi-Tops was another amazing christian youth show CM did for a long time. Friends Forever did have an anthem that stuck with CM and all of us who did the show. We call it "Friends Forever" but as I dedicate it as Noel's Song I believe it's actually just called "Friends." (I played my original cassette tape recording of this show until my tape deck ate it. I just found out I can order a CD on line for $15. YES.)

Grease: Grease came around at that weird awkward time just as I was starting Junior High.This was Noel's first show directing at our junior high as well. My favorite anecdote about this show was when the girl who played Miss Lynch exited the stage through the wrong curtain during our final performance and she then fell head over feet into the parked Greased Lightning car right before we did Summer Nights. YOU try stifling laughter under those conditions!  I also remember how quickly Noel tried to get my friend Jane who played Rizzo to not complete the line "What do you think this is - a gang bang?" during rehearsal. That line was cut from our Junior High production. Such a shame! I was cast as the Teen Angel in that production, and I got to were this gold lamé outfit that Noel once wore when he was playing Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. Clearly, alterations on the outfit needed to be made as I was still like 90 lbs and under five feet tall. I also couldn't really hit the starting note in "you're story's sad to tell..." because it was too low. I remember sharing another look with him, and again if our age and power dynamic were a bit more balanced and I was a little older, the thought that would have been passed between us would've been, "OMG, this fucking note." But that's how we wound up doing it - YOUR!!  and it was fine. Lesson learned? Make the song your own! Noel's Song: Beauty School Drop Out.

Runaways: his is the absolute craziest show ever, I have no idea why Noel wanted to do it for a summer production other than the cast was all kids and everyone wants to do a show in the summer, but I'm so glad he did because its impact on my life is really immeasurable. The show is really a bunch of monologues and  songs about runaway and throwaway children, drug dealers, drug users and teenage prostitutes. You know, standard summer musical fare! That was truly an amazing cast of beautiful friends that I loved. It was not easy material. Noel took us all on a trip to Covenant House in NYC so that we got a truer sense of what kids in this situation were actually going through and how they dealt with it. Also a portion of the ticket sales went to benefit different runaway shelters. Who takes the time to do these kind of things? Noel did. I remained fascinated with this show my whole adolescent life and directed my own production of it in college, which was another incredibly important experience on my life. I saw Noel the summer afterwards and it was the first thing he asked me about. He always remembered and cared. Noel's Song: We Are Not Strangers. "Blow thin winds across the pines. We have a fire to warm cold hands. Dusty boots, now rest awhile. We are not strangers. We are not strangers. We are not strangers. In fact, I know you well."

The Wiz: When I got to do The Wiz with Noel in 8th grade, I still did not get to be the Tornado. This was the start of me coming to terms with the fact that when it came to shows with Noel, I was going to be a utility player and not a star. I didn't get to be the Scarecrow or the Lion or whatever, but I'd be the munchkin with lines and the flying monkey with lines and whatever other random part that had lines and a solo would eventually come my way too. I HATED this at the time. I just wanted a part. A solid identity. I didn't want to wait until something went wrong and someone was needed to fill in a gap. I wanted to be a STAR. Did he somehow forget my epic turn as Tiny Tim in second grade? I could do this!! My perspective on it now, is different from what it was then. I was a solid chorus member. Every show needs solid chorus members. It's a credit to the actor if the director thinks you are reliable and turns to you when they need something covered. You don't always get to take the final bow. More often than not, it doesn't go to you. Invest in the opportunities to create that do come your way. Don't be an asshole about it. Noel's Song: Home.

42nd Street: Our first year at the high school was actually 10th grade and that was also the first year Noel directed our High School musical. Once again I was featured chorus. I'll take this opportunity to tell sort of an unflattering personal story. Going through puberty, I didn't smell very good. Now, most teenage boys don't have the best hygiene as it is, but that wasn't really my problem. I just smelled funky. I'd take a shower, and by the time I was drying off the odoriffic nature of my being would be back in full effect. Now as pheromones go, some people are not sensitive to them, some people smell you but it's not that big a deal, and some people CANNOT tolerate it. Noel was one of those people for whom it was a huge challenge. More than once I got a "Brother, I have to tell you. You really stink today. Did you put on deodorant? It's really strong right now." And I wanted to be like, "It's ME. There's nothing I can do!" but I could never bring myself to say that. Now, Noel was not trying to be mean. He was trying to be helpful. He didn't want me to smell for my own sake as much as he did not want to have to smell me. But I really couldn't help him out for a few years there. The show was still fun. So much tappa tappa tappa though. You always have to learn so many new skills on the spot with musicals. Noel's Song: About a Quarter to Nine.

Guys and Dolls: This was the second of the high school musicals Luis directed for us at Connetquot while I was there. I actually don't remember a lot about it on a surface level, besides that my friend Pat and I were kinda left to our own devices and cracked each other up during the Crap Shooter's Dance and did a bad job of hiding it. I think this was also the musical where I snapped at all the guys during vocal rehearsal because they weren't paying attention. I got really bothered by it. It also sticks out in my mind that during rehearsals Noel kept calling Nathan Detriot "Nathan New York" which again, at the time, was truly hilarious. Noel was also notorious during rehearsals for telling us all to "take it from...." and then reciting the most repeated lyric imaginable so we'd have no clue which time in the music he was referring to. This comes up a lot in musical theater. It's like saying "take it from 'we've got magic to do!'" in Pippin, or "Take it from 'Hosana!'" in Jesus Christ Superstar. In Guys and Dolls, Noel had several moments of just singing us the notes of where he wanted us to take it from, which really made it fantastically clear since it's not like a melody line ever gets repeated in a Frank Loesser song. In a household provided by Nathan New York.  Noel's Song: The Oldest Established.

West Side Story: Noel has revisited West Side a number of times, but this particular production was at LaSalle and what I remember most clearly about it was one time during the Somewhere Ballet the smoke machines set off the fire alarm and it rang pretty much all the way through the solo and the partner ballet and everyone stayed frozen and we got through the whole thing and when it was done the audience jumped up into a standing ovation with thunderous applause. I think the Fire department was not super-pleased with Noel for not evacuating the theater when the alarm went off, but if he had, we would've robbed everyone of that beautiful moment! Plus it was clearly just the smoke from the smoke machine causing the problem. It's not like we were doing Backdraft: The Musical. Another thing that happened during this show, was that several actors were involved in a car accident leaving rehearsal one day. This must've been when CM was operating out of its studio in Holbrook. Everyone walked away from it, but there were a few significant injuries that required some temporary recasting as people healed. That must've been a very difficult experience for Noel, to have kids in one of his shows injured even if it was out of his control. But he handled the situation with such calm in front of us. He kept all of us together and brought us through the hard times.  Noel's Song: Somewhere.

Journey: Journey, Cross and Crucifixion. The traveling show done every year at Lent showcasing the stations of the cross. This must have been such a monster to organize and schedule. I can't even imagine. There were multiple troupes going all over Long Island several times a week. As a cast, we never knew exactly what path we were going to have to take across the space until we got there. And getting there was always half the fun in carpools with different friends. It was also one of those experiences where before the show started we could be so unfocused and as soon as we got in there we took it very seriously. It was more than a show. It was really a service. It was at the heart of what Creative Ministries was trying to do. Over the years I played many different roles from a disciple, to John, to a liturgical dancer to a soloist. I haven't seen Journey in so many years. I'm sure it's evolved quite a bit from when we did it. But it always felt to me like the show that connected me most to Noel. I saw the most of him in it as I was experiencing it. I felt like I could connect to him most on a spiritual level there. Noel's Song: Lay Your Burden Down.

Jesus Christ Superstar: It's really known simply as JC at Creative Ministries. This was not my last CM show, but it was my last one I did that Noel directed. It seems fitting, since it was the first one I saw. It was also the first show I did in the new permanent home for CM at the renovated Oakdale movie theater, soon to be know as CMPAC - Creative Ministries Performing Arts Center. That was so exciting. Noel liked to take the Superstar number and put it at the beginning of the play instead of at the end. I didn't even realize it was supposed to go at the end! This production was very intense for me. This was the summer my mom was sick with advanced cancer as well. The summer before going to college. I remember we had so many crazy costume changes in a row thanks to a couple of the guys having to do the Herod Tap number right before being apostles again during "Could We Start Again Please?". Parts of this production are kind of a blur because of my mom being sick, but doing this musical did help keep me sane during those weeks of summer. And I bonded with some wonderful friends. OH. And I do remember one night after we as the apostles woke up after the resurrection, I just could not stop crying, but it was out of a sense of joy and release instead of sadness. It just really touched me one night. Noel's Song: Superstar.

As I mentioned, I don't go out to Long Island very often, so I haven't seen Noel in a while. We kept in contact via facebook as everyone pretty much does. I did go back to see Into The Woods there earlier this summer, and then again to see my nieces in Little Mermaid Jr. as part of the CM summer camp program. Both times I missed seeing Noel. He messaged me afterwards that he was sorry he wasn't around to see me, and suggested we should get together for drinks next time I was in town. The funny thing is that I felt like I was finally getting to the point where I could let go of my little kid image of NOEL in my mind and interact with him as Noel, the person. I would've enjoyed sharing this trip down memory lane with him and getting his perspective on the shows we did and what it was like running the theater and figuring out how he put up with everyone's drama for all of these years.

If I'm being honest, I think one of the other reasons I didn't go back that much is because I didn't view myself as enough of a success. I wanted to achieve some really great thing and go up to Noel and be like "look what I did!" and make him feel proud of me. I know that sounds silly, but it's probably no sillier than any of my other emotional reactions outlined here. I just assumed there'd be that occasion where I could come back with something to show for all the gifts he'd given me. It wasn't necessary to put that pressure on myself. Noel wouldn't have ever put that pressure on me. I just think sometimes we have trouble accepting ourselves where we are in our lives and letting people see us for who are and what we're dealing with. In reality, when it comes to old friends, we shouldn't wait for a time to come around when we feel we have something to show before reconnecting. Lesson learned. That talk over drinks for Noel and me was not meant to be. I'll have to be content to wonder and dream and reflect and share my memories with my friends about all the things we experienced thanks to Noel.

Noel not only dreamed the impossible dream, he made it possible. And after making it possible he sustained it for over 25 years. It's a remarkable loving gift he's left for us. Hopefully, I can pay even a small fraction of it forward. I have to keep the lessons I learned from him in my head and the songs we've sung in my heart. I'll close on two lyrics from Friends Forever that feels very true to me right now about Noel.

"And a friend's a friend forever. If the Lord's the lord of them. And a friend will not say "never" 'cause the welcome will not end. Thought it's hard to let you go, in the Father's hands we know, that a lifetime's not too long to live as friends."

"Thank you. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for all you have done. I could never be all I was meant to be if you hadn't given your love."

If you'd like to make a donation to CMPAC in Noel's memory so that his dream can continue to live on, you can do so here.

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