01/18/2012 03:42 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

It's Scary As Hell to Sing Showtunes Sober

Seven months sober, I couldn't get over how good I was feeling on the first Friday night in January. In years past, so clobbered by the Holidaze, I limped through that first week back at work on fumes, but there I was at the Duplex piano bar at 2 in the morning. It was just like the old days -- minus one thing.

Feeling so well, I marched up to the stage and boldly requested "Meadowlark," the mother of all showtunes.

As soon as I started singing, I regretted it.  There were no jokes to play or funny characterizations to hide behind. The only way to sell this number was going to be for real. I don't do real. I can't. Short of breath, my throat tightened, and as I precariously leapt up the wide intervals, I trembled, unsure of what would come out. What was the note supposed to be, anyway? And what the hell were the next words?

My mind flashed back a few weeks to a karaoke room full of guys singing Christmas songs. It was my first time meeting some of them.  I might have felt comfortable with new friends doing a quirky comedy song from Guys and Dolls, but "O Holy Night"? I fled, spilling someone's drink and slamming an arm in the door as I ran out onto St. Mark's Place. Taxi!

Where is my bravado?

Sure, I got sober.  But I don't think that explains it.  Certainly, drinking is a major relaxer, but I can relax sober, too.  So, what, then? 

For one thing, environment.  Alone, in my apartment, I feel free to fail, take risks, experiment. This workshop environment extends to one-on-one karaoke time with close friends.  In groups of three or more, I refrain from experimentation, trotting out the best of the recent additions to my repertoire.

I don't do public karaoke, just the private rooms, but I do enjoy singing in a piano bar -- if I'm really confident I can sing the song in tune and I have something to do with the song where I can entertain the audience, since I never feel that my voice alone is enough.

Why such stagefright about my singing?  I don't consider myself a great actor, but I'm not at all shy jumping up to perform anything, anytime, anyplace.

As a kid, I sang around the house when there was a song in my heart, but I didn't spend any time pondering how I did it or how well, or what anyone else thought.  I have a particular memory of feeling my voice soar out above my classmates' on "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" in the third grade spring concert: "That's the song I heeeeeeeear..."  But it was almost unconscious.

When I started getting obsessed with musicals, my friends and family balked at my enthusiastic renditions from Evita, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd.  I think that was when I first realized that tune is a finite thing and that you are either in or you're out.  That simply hadn't been my approach to music.  I sang to emulate the dramatic climaxes and crescendos of the great voices.  Looking back, I see there was a different music I was singing, which unfortunately wasn't the melody of the songs.

I would be cast in the chorus and usually told to lip-synch.  I remember so much aggravation as they would bang out the notes on the piano. I couldn't hear it.  Everything I sang was wrong.

I resigned to describing myself as tone-deaf. I was going to be a director anyway.

Freshman year of college, I took the only musical theater class offered, a performance workshop, and Music 101a.  I wanted to direct musicals, so I figured I had some stuff to learn. All I remembered from early childhood piano lessons was "Every Good Boy Does Fine."  I was taught to count the intervals.  I would sit for hours at a piano in a practice room, plunking out 1, 3, 5, 3, 1, feeling the vibrations in my voice come into sync with the notes from the piano. I get it, people!

For my first piece in musical theater class, I chose "If I Were a Rich Man."  I would practice with my accompaniment tape over and over again, searching for the same synchronicity of my voice and the piano. It got easier, and eventually, I got it right more often than not. Once I locked in with a song, I'd be home free.  Even the tricky change to a minor key in "Rich Man" I modulated every time with aplomb.  Maybe it's just the klezmer in my soul.

It was shortly after that that I discovered karaoke rooms and piano bars.  I started out modestly, gradually building my confidence and repertoire over the last 15 years or so.  But I guess it's like anything: "progress, not perfection."

And so, although miserable and shaky onstage singing "Meadowlark," I soldiered through.  I thought of Michael Feinstein's words to Elaine Stritch before her first performance sober: "You'll stop shows again, Elaine. Not tonight. Tonight, just get through it."  And I did, promising myself I never had to sing again.

Then, as I scurried back to my seat, as if by some cruel joke, I was called back to the stage.  

"You have to do the end again with an arm gesture."  House rules.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I gave them arm gestures for days.

The night after the Duplex, I wound up with some friends back at my place.  Karaoke ensued. Up past 2 a.m. for the second night in a row, I was beat and announced my retirement for the evening.  My friend Dan wanted me to sing "If I Were a Rich Man."  How could I refuse? Kills 'em every time.