If one believes in numerology, there is a lot to be said about the date May 29, 1961, when Melissa Etheridge was born. First, her sister was born on May 29, 1957, so on the sister’s 4th birthday, rather than having a party, she was subjected to everyone ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the new baby. According to Melissa, their relationship was all downhill after that. Fast forward to when Melissa marries her co-author of this show, Melissa Etheridge Off Broadway: My Window – A Journey Through Life, actress-writer-producer Linda Wallem-Etheridge in 2014 – Linda was also born May 29, 1961. It is a journey of life, love, and music for one of rock music’s most respected heroines.
Etheridge wins us over with her honesty and playfulness. In speaking about her first taking notice of music, she confesses an addiction to The Archies – “love me some Betty & Veronica, but I wanted to be Reggie…and date Veronica.” After she selects drums for her instrument of choice in school, she is told that girls don’t play drums and is handed a clarinet – “Clarinet is not nearly as butch as the drums.” A first exposure to performing, the Leavenworth Plaza Talent Show is hosted by Bob Hamill, a ventriloquist – “Ooh, a little creepy!” At a regular gig, the Kansas State Men’s Prison, she sang Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” to a “captive” audience…a tongue-in-cheek selection she performs at a Parents Without Partners gig: “Stand By Your Man.”
While her father was totally supportive of Melissa’s yearning to be a performer, driving and chaperoning her, by the time she turned 14, her mother had stopped speaking to her. One of the many lump-in-your-throat moments finds Melissa showing off the macramé guitar strap her father made for her when she was 16, a gift she still uses on stage. In telling us about joining the band for a production of Godspell at the neighboring Fort Leavenworth YOC, she shares her awakening to having feelings for another girl for the first time. She becomes best friends with the Colonel’s daughter – her sexual awakening is during a sleepover. As so much of this show is about how music plays a significant role in her life, this particular scene is punctuated by the touching “Ready To Love” sung at the piano.
On to Berklee College of Music in Boston as a guitar major, she finds her milieu at Prelude, a lesbian bar…and quits school, citing that, like loving yourself first, true music is something that can’t be taught, but it must be learned. She discovers mescaline: “Even the cigarette machine was changing colors.” The song “Nowhere To Go” underlines the story of having received a letter from her mother detailing how she no longer cared for any of the choices that her daughter was making, particularly with regard to her career, the drugs and the women. Melissa visits her friend the Chaplain at the YOC who comforts her with “I do not believe that God would create love that was wrong,” providing another one of those lump-in your-throat moments in the show. Getting pretty skilled at finding women’s bars, she gets a regular gig at Executive Suite in Long Beach, where she is discovered by Chris Blackwell, a legendary producer at Island Records. It’s 1988 and his thought upon hearing Melissa live was “The future of rock and roll has a female face.”
Etheridge must subscribe to the adage, ”What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” A survivor of breast cancer, she became a role model and advocate for social awareness and change. At the 2005 Grammy telecast, she appeared to sing “Piece of My Heart” in a Janis Joplin tribute having lost all her hair to chemotherapy. Her courageous performance gave hope to many women afflicted with the same disease. Because her success positioned her for it, she was one of the first prominent faces in the gay rights movement to push the issue of the AIDS crisis, and further on, when she had a family of her own, became a symbol for gay couples with children everywhere.
A very emotional moment in the show is when she learns that her father is near death from cancer. She brings him to live with her in California as her career is thriving. The song “Talking to My Angel” is a vocal keepsake of this life episode – ”Don’t be afraid/ Close your eyes/ Lay it all down/ Don’t you cry/ Can’t you see I’m going/ Where I can see the sun rise/ I’ve been talking to my angel/ And he said that it’s alright.” Etheridge ends this to audible sobbing throughout the house.
Etheridge does not do this show alone, by any means. Her story, told casually as if at a party (which is not that far from the truth), is guided by a gentle directorial hand, Amy Tinkham. Bruce Rodgers’ spare set design is meant to create the vastness of a rock concert setting in a theatre of only 500 seats. That, coupled with Abigail Rosen Holmes’ bravura lighting choice and the vibrant use of Olivia Sebesky’s projections (from photographs to kaleidoscope innards to evaporating lyrics as the song is placed in Grandma’s casket for the singing of “The Good Little Sheep”) combine for a thoroughly engaging production. Colle Bustin’s superb sound design doesn’t drown out the lyrics like one endures at most rock concerts – it is sensitive to the size of the auditorium and the intimate nature of the material. Extra special mention to Kate Owens as the often on-stage roadie. Her extended twerking session as an enamored Melissa groupie is one of the truly comedic highlights of the evening. And if not for Owens’ many subtle outfit changes, and delivery of new rock star jackets for Etheridge, we wouldn’t get to see the wit of Andrea Lauer’s costume design.
Etheridge may be 61, but she sounds just as she did when she first came on the American rock scene in 1988: full-throated emotion and raspy vocals that bring honesty and pathos to intensely personal and confessional lyrics. The accomplishment in Melissa Etheridge Off Broadway: My Window – A Journey Through Life is not in the many scenes of heartache and a dense song list, but in the strength and the resilience that carries her to artistry that she shares so unselfishly and unselfconsciously to speak to and heal a legion of fans.
Melissa Etheridge Off Broadway: My Window – A Journey Through Life (through October 29, 2022)
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.mtc.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes, with one ten-minute intermission