I originally considered this short story, which has been gestating for a long time, as a full length novel. After messing around with it for a while and realizing there’d have to be a lot more meat on the bone than my brain could come up with, I abandoned ship and finally wrote it as a short story. Hope it works for you. Thanks for reading it.
Music of the Gods
by Mike Bockoven
I don’t like being looked at.
It goes back to when I was a little girl. Like, real little, two or three or whatever. My mom told me when I was a child I would shy away when adults were around. I was so good at hide and seek that it scared people. I know all the spots no one would look for me because I had already sought them out on my own – between the upside down couch in the garage, behind the toy chest in the living room – all those places. I knew where I could go so no one could or would find me. It made me feel safe which made me feel happy. I don’t think I was ever happier as a kid than when I was tucked away, knowing no one was going to find me for as long as I wanted to stay there.
I think that explains why I chose a life in the pit.
That sounds cooler than it is, don’t get excited. I’m not a dominatrix or anything. “The pit” is shorthand for the orchestra, right? When you “play in the pit” you’re providing live music for whatever is happening on stage. That’s what I chose to do with my life, quite consciously and I’m still glad I did, even with everything that happened. I don’t mean to sound arrogant but I was really, really good at it, I was making a living in the arts and music, doing good work, and literally no one would see me. Even if they were looking. It was perfect. The best chance an audience member had of seeing me was during the curtain call at the end when the lights were on full, but at that point no one was looking at the pit. All eyes were on the stage. Where they should be.
I was on my fifth production when it happened. I had done a bunch of touring shows, which is where you kind of start out. I’d been in the pit for “Book of Mormon” and “Waitress” and “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Phantom of the Opera”…Jesus Christ that show…when I got called up. I was asked to be on Broadway proper after being a road rat, for a new show. It was called “Music of the Gods”. If “Phantom” was nothing but spectacle, and trust me, as a musician it is nothing but spectacle, “Gods” was even worse. It was big, loud, bombastic, the music was kind of boring to play, to be honest, and featured to biggest special effects in the game at that point. It was worse than Les Mis.
But it had buzz and who was I to argue with a steady paycheck, a show with buzz and an indeterminate amount of time in New York City? I signed up willingly. I loved New York, especially in the fall. I would spend way too much time just walking in Central Park, feeling the cool air. I even met someone, which was rare for me. But while life was going great outside of the pit, it didn’t take long for the cracks to start to show in the production. They bring in the orchestra late into the process, when everything should be worked out and things were not worked out. Very far from worked out. Miles and miles from being worked out.
The producers of “Gods” were tech bros, loud and boisterous and new to the game and unwilling to grasp what it was they were trying to do. They were the kind of guys who threw around phrases like “‘no’ is just a word” and “there’s nothing we can’t do with time and money”. Well, my good bro, yes, there are things you can’t do, like safely set a stage on fire as a 30-foot-monstrosity built out of servos and metal stalks the stage. “No” isn’t “just a word” when what you’re doing is inherently dangerous. You can do a lot on the stage like build King Kong or recreate battles but at some point it goes too far. Hello, did these dudes not remember “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark”?
No one asked the opinion of the double reed player in the pit. If they had asked, I wouldn’t have given it to them. I was just watching, hitting my cues with mathematical accuracy, playing the notes as beautifully as I could. Any good double reed player will tell you that tone is everything and I had tone. Always did. Not so much anymore.
The show, itself, was this conceptual mish mash of Greek mythology and hip hop and Godzilla movies, all framed with this Lovecraftian monster nonsense. In theory it sounds very cool but from the standpoint of the pit, it was a lot of building quarter notes, a lot of set up for the people on stage, a lot of nothing. Not that I hadn’t been there before (hello, Phantom?!) but it’s one of those shows that was trying to be more grand and important than it was, trying to prove to the audience how “impressive” theater could be. At the end, as if two hours and fifteen minutes of stomping quarter notes hadn’t driven their point home, “Gods” ended with the reveal of “The Monster”, which was our 30-foot star made of metal and fire. It really was a technical marvel. The first time I saw The Monster, it legit scared me. It was huge, legit huge. In the pit, we started calling the monster “Liz”, which came from the fact that one time one of the stage techs uttered the word “Godzilla” and one of the tech bro producers screamed at him for 15 minutes. So “Godzilla” became “Zill” became “Liz” for some reason. It was a decent short hand, a fun inside joke and it stopped the screaming from the producers for a second.
Jesus Christ, those producers loved to yell. Despite all their talk about “vision” and “team” they were in charge and were anxious to let everyone know they were in charge at every opportunity. They screamed about things that went wrong, they screamed about things that went right, they burned through the best stage techs in town before previews, no pun intended. Once, one of the actors was in the middle of her solo before the end of Act I and the producer with the blonde hair flew out of his seat and screamed at her, literally screamed three inches from her face, until she broke down and cried and we had to shut everything down. Her sin was not showing enough passion and I guess he wanted to show the professional actress how to convey passion. Even though they weren’t yelling at me, it set a tone, clear as a bell.
Since it was a tense production, old habits kicked in. Before rehearsal one day, I started taking a good look at our space in the pit. We were in an older theater so things had been built and then rebuilt on top of that and then rebuilt on top of that. Nothing is ever good enough the way it is. I was looking around, scraping at one of the wooden panels that looked out of place behind where the conductor stands and the entire thing gave way. It made this huge noise, too, that made me concerned that I was going to get yelled at, but despite the monster noise, nobody seemed to notice or care if they did. I was glad because what the panel was hiding was a crawl space. It was this beautiful little cubby between the actual construction of the stage and the pit…it’s kind of hard to describe but I thought I could fit in it. I would have crawled in their, too, if other people hadn’t started showing up. I heard everyone coming so I was able to get the panel sort of back on before anyone noticed. I really wanted to crawl in there and see if I fit, but didn’t get the opportunity.
Of course, as we got closer to opening night, the screaming got worse. Particularly to backstage crew. It all came to a head a week before opening night when Liz came out for her big scene and the fire effects only about half worked. She was supposed to start as this crawling creature with tentacles flying all around the stage, and then the tentacles were supposed to lift her up and fire was supposed to rise from underneath her until she was standing in her full glory. It was super impressive and, even though we were below the action and heat rises, we always got a blast of pretty hot air in our faces during measures 165 and 180 of the title song. You just got to expect it. It’s weird what you get used to. That day, the blast wasn’t as hot and the producers and director, who was basically a puppet of the producers, shut the whole thing down, started screaming and didn’t stop for half an hour.
They were brutal. It wasn’t just “this didn’t work”, it was “you all don’t understand what we’re trying to do” and this time, the pit was brought to the party. He yelled at us for lack of “passion”. How was there supposed to be this impressive, paradigm smashing scene when the violins and percussionists were just going about their job, not caring how it sounded? Which was bullshit, of course. They were professionals and were doing their job as well as I’d ever heard it done. To be honest, there’s not that much of a difference between a pit on the road and a pit on Broadway, but these guys were good. I knew enough to know that.
While they were going on and on and on and on I fantasized about crawling into my little cubby hole I had discovered. I pictured the producer’s voice getting more and more muffled until I couldn’t hear it at all. That fantasy took me through his rant until he shut down the rehearsal. The next day more tech people had quit and one of our percussionists had as well. Can’t say I blame them, but the new guy they had found was solid. There are a lot of solid musicians in New York.
There’s not another meltdown like that before opening night but they never do a full rehearsal with Liz. The word around the campfire is they are working with that part of the show after everyone else goes home and to be prepared for a few new bells and whistles on opening night. Everyone talked about it with a mix of “this is a bad idea” and intense curiosity about just what the hell was going to happen. On the road, you may mix up the cast from night to night but every cue, every entrance and exit, every piece of music is scripted and practiced and executed with ruthless professionalism. There’s no room for error. What I’m getting at is this was weird. Super weird and, in an odd way, kind of exciting. Once I had drinks with a group of people including a backstage tech for “Spider-Man” who told the story of that guy breaking his leg or whatever it was and everything gathered around like he was a rock star. Part of me thought, if something goes horribly wrong I can be the poplar girl at the bar with the great story.
I remember opening night, vividly. The crowd was talking, which is a good sign. If people have to shout over others to be heard it means there’s excitement for the show. Electricity, right? The place had been spiffed up, all the smells of sweat and take out food and bodies had been scrubbed away and was replaced with disinfectant that smelled like chemical flowers. The producers gave us a “pep talk”, as it were, which basically consisted of their same yoga babble about how we were all in this together and how we were going to shift the paradigm and how this night was going to be remembered for years. Damn right it was, dude.
The first act goes off without a hitch. Better than “goes off”, I guess. The actors are really killing it. Our new percussionist, he’s not missed a step all night. Things are good. The loud talk is back after intermission, another good sign. I heard one girl in the front row, who came to opening night with this bright red dress and her hair up (which must have thrilled the people in the seat behind her), talking about “seeing the creature”. People knew Liz was coming out and they were ready to be wowed. I was even a little excited when were started the title song. “Music of the Gods” was in 4/4, hell, everything in this show was in 4/4 practically, and started from this slow little melody played by the violins and grew and grew into a giant wall of sound where everyone was just playing as hard as they could go. Then, Liz bursts through the wall of sound right at measure 165. That’s when her hot breath would hit us. It was easy to play but the effect must have been really something from an audience standpoint. From the pit, it was just hot wind. You can’t see much by way of what’s happening on stage from the pit which is why timing is so important.
Measure 160, everything is great. We hear Liz coming, as tons and tons of metal tends to make noise when you move it around. Measure 162 or so was when I got the first inkling something was wrong, because even through this wall of sound, I heard yelling. That’s not right. Not yelling. It wasn’t the sort of tone we’d heard from the producers. It was someone screaming because they were hurt, but I didn’t dare take my eyes of my music. Not for a second. My department was producing the wall of sound for Liz to bust through. The techs, they had their own thing they were doing and if one piece stopped for another piece’s problems, the whole thing would topple over. But I heard the screaming. Definitely. Then, measure 165.
It’s going to sound weird, but the first thing I noticed wasn’t the heat. It was my pages turning black. For just a moment before the fireball hit the pit, my pages started to curl and turn black and that’s the first thing I noticed. It didn’t even take a second but it was long enough for my brain to say “huh, that’s weird,” and then I remember my face feeling very hot before the fire got to me and everyone else.
I don’t know how to describe what being on fire is like other than it’s loud. I know, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but here’s what I mean – the pain isn’t what I remember. It was the screaming and the crackling and the roaring, all the sounds associated with what was happening. A second before I had been making sound, putting sound out and it was like all those sounds I was putting out had suddenly turned around and were desperate to get in, even if it meant destroying me along the way. Yes, there was pain but it was secondary to everything going wrong, both to me and around me and the noise. Jesus, the noise. I saw a violinist with her hands up in the air and so much fire and smoke that I couldn’t make out her face but I could hear the noises she was making. Not screams but cries and gurgles. I don’t know, to this day, who it was. There were 5 female violinists in black total and it could have been any one of them. I saw our conductor, who was closest to Liz, never had a chance. He had been knocked out or possibly…I don’t know…breathing in when the fire hit so he was face down, fully on fire. And I saw the skin on my arms starting to bubble. Again, it’s weird, but I wasn’t screaming in pain. My brain said to itself “huh, that’s weird.”
Then another part of my brain, the part beyond the screaming and the sounds of fire consuming everything, said “go, be safe” and I knew where I was headed. My fellow musicians were either completely panicking or trying to put themselves out, but the fire never stopped and they never had a chance to escape. It all happened to fast. None of that was occurring to me at the moment. I don’t know why, but my brain propelled me forward, to my little cubby hole I had discovered the previous week. It was primal, not strategic. Not at all, I wasn’t thinking about survival or stopping the pain or escaping. My brain just…moved my body forward. The panel had already fallen off because of the fire and I was able to pull myself inside, ducking low and then just falling back on my butt, my legs still outstretched. It was very snug, but I fit and by the time I pulled my legs in, I had a perfect view of my colleagues as they burned and screamed and died.
There was still fire, pouring from the stage above me into the pit and, to my horror, into the first few rows. I couldn’t see beyond the pit but the wall of flame would subside for a second or two and I would see there was another entire wall of fire projecting out into the audience. They had more room to maneuver and run but…yeah. It all happened so fast.
After, probably, 15 or 20 seconds in the cubby hole, I passed out. I don’t know if it was the lack of air or the horror or just my brain going “yep, we’re done” after witnessing my colleagues suffer the worst death imaginable in front of me, but I know I woke up to a world of pain. I had second and third degree burns over about 55 percent of my body, including my face. I woke up as firefighters were digging me out of the cubby hole and I didn’t realize what real pain was until they had to move me and parts of my skin that were charred to the wooden beams inside the cubby hole stayed while I moved. I screamed then. I screamed later during the various procedures where they had to scrub dead skin off my burned arms and face. I screamed and cried when I finally saw myself and realized that my hair was gone and my face was…burned. It would never be the same. I was always “cute”, you know? Enough to get by. Those days are done, I’ll never be the popular girl at the bar with the story. I screamed when I saw the footage of what happened for the first time, how they had tried to make Liz’s entrance even bigger to make the producer’s “vision” come true and how one of the tanks holding her fuel had exploded and set the others off, releasing about 20 minutes worth of fire meant for very specific cues into all directions all at once. That screaming I had heard backstage, that was one of 17 crew members killed that night. I screamed when someone showed me a YouTube video taken from the 25th row or so, showing that girl in the red dress and the big hair fun up the isle, on fire, one of 20 or so people in the same terrible situation. I screamed when my mother, who came to my side and helped me so much, read to me that the producers were being held civilly responsible but not criminally responsible because one of their father’s had contacts in the current Presidential Administration.
I screamed the most when I tried to play again. I tried. I swear to God, I tried, but my mouth my lips…they’re a different shape now. I’m trying a few things but that first time I tried…it feels like I screamed and cried for hours. I’m not giving up my pit just yet. There’s a music professor at NYU who is trying to train me to play again, post “Music of the Gods”. A local news station even wanted to come do a story on me.
I told them “no”. Like I said, I don’t like being looked at.