He soars through the air, with the greatest of ease. That daring young man on the flying trapeze.
It would be a stretch to say I “soared”. I was indeed a "young" man, but I was less “daring” than “desperate”. The year was 1980 and I had been cast in the 1st National Tour of the Tony Award winning musical “Barnum”. They cast performers who could act, sing, dance, and play an instrument. And if that wasn’t enough, they were also hoping you had some circus skills in your pocket – like juggling, tumbling, aerial work, unicycle, stilts, etc. The celebrated director, Joe Layton, had created the show around an amazing cast that included Jim Dale, Glenn Close, Terrance Mann and Terri White. He was going to stage the tour as well, and was smart enough to know he wouldn’t get the exact skill sets he had found in his original cast of triple threats. He set out to stage the show, showcasing the variety of skills they had found for the National Tour cast. However, some of the skills from the Broadway version simply had to be duplicated for the tour. So, the cast was sent to train with the Big Apple Circus for a month, under the capable tutelage of founder Paul Binder and Circus Master Alexandre Sacha Pavlata. We all gave our best try at learning each of the specific skills required in the show – Still Trapeze, Flying Web, Rolling Globe, Tight Rope, Teeter Board and the dreaded Flying Trapeze
Some of the cast had a lot of experience with gymnastics, so they took to these apparatuses like monkeys to a tree. Some of us however took to them like a monkey to a spelling bee – a lot of enthusiasm but not results. But the director wanted everyone to try everything before they made their decision as to who would do it in the show. Now, ever since the audition process started for this production, and it was a long one (seven callbacks over two months), I had been traveling to Hoboken twice a week to train at Nina & Gregory Fedin’s circus school. I worked on the tight rope brushed up my tumbling and unicycle, and by the time we got to The Big Apple Circus I was pretty strong on those. But to my utter amazement I did pretty well on the Teeter Board as well. This is the see-saw thing where you stand on one side and two other cast members run and jump on the other side – sending you 15 feet into the air. I learned to do a back somersault and was even working on a back layout (tumbling aficionados know what I’m talking about).
Then the day came when we all had to start on the Flying Trapeze. Imagine, if you will, you are standing on a wire mesh platform thirty feet off of the ground, and you have to take hold of a trapeze that is trying to pull you off of that platform. Then all you have to do is jump up and back, in a pike position, and grab the bar with both hands. Then you hold the pike position until the force on your body is about six or seven G’s. You then deftly arch your body backwards and then snap it forwards towards the platform 60 feet away. Piece of cake! Each one of us, except the ridiculously fearless Gordon Weiss, shook so severely as we held the trapeze waiting to jump, that you could see the shaking from across the gymnasium. Really!!! Meanwhile, Sacha Pavlata, who could curse in every language known to man, was cursing and threatening each of us in the particular language of our European ancestors. I never quite got the knack of the flying trapeze, but I learned a valuable lesson that day: I was willing to try some crazy-ass stuff to have a life in the theater.