It was the first day of class and I was terrified. I was 22 years old and in New York and his class had three openings left. I auditioned with a monologue from some book I found in a used book store, and I sang: "I Don't Know How To Love Him", from Jesus Christ Superstar. I have no idea how I actually got it. No one I knew was at the auditions...maybe it was pity.
"Take the shaky Transexxual, she looks sad."
I sat in the back row of a 30 people classroom in a drafty theatre somewhere in the village. Everyone was chatting and turning to their partners whispering and shifting in their seats, and I tried to the best of my ability to disappear. I didn't know what I was doing there. I didn't belong there and I didn't deserve this. I was still in shock I'd be let in, and the only thing I prayed for was to be mercifully set on fire by someone.
As 9am finally hit, in flew our teacher. He wore a bright yellow scarf that almost reached the floor, silver rimmed glasses, and seemed to be dressed in a suit that was one size too big. He exploded into the room with a fire and a blaze so hot, I found myself giggling...as did the rest of us. He gestured madly, and his topography took him from one side of the floor to the other without hesitation. His voice was clear and vibrant and every once in a while, he'd let go with a closed mouth guffaw that made me so happy, I actually applauded when it happened.
He spoke about truth and theatre. He spoke about laughter and joy. He spoke about what it meant to work and starve and be with other people on the planet and share each other and what we are able to do, and what we talk ourselves out of. It's a speech I've used ever since, to my own students. He was thrilled to be there and we knew that. His heart was full and rich and filled to the brim with Art. And when he was done, he spoke eloquently and quietly about music, we had to hold onto each other.
And that speech changed me forever.
And then later on, we all got up and did one song we were to prepare for the first day. And as much as we already loved him, and wanted to please him, our teacher was honest. He could be ruthless and catty and hilarious.
Towards the end, I finally got up the courage to sing. I was awful. I was too excited and too nervous and my voice was everywhere but near the song. I also decided, for reasons which elude me to this day, to sing: "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No."
I honestly don't know.
As I began, as I revved up and the song got more and more off track and I lost my words and I couldn't find my way back, and at one point I just kept singing "I'm just a girl who can't say no I'm just a girl who can't say no I'm just a girl..."
From the back of the house, in a huge voice that shook the roof, I heard:
"No, Darling! You're NOT!"
We laughed. All of us. Including him.
And in that room, of which I remember almost every day, Charles Nelson Reilley taught me about music. He didn't teach people how to sing. In fact, he couldn't care less what anyone sounded like. It wasn't about that. He didn't care about that. That had nothing to do with music. He taught me how to Release. And in the beginning of my transition, as my parents left me and my life shot through a completely new portal, I was in desperate need of release.
And that man was my guide.
I'll never forget him. And I'll always be his.