"Deep in December our hearts should remember and follow..."


3:01 AM
I've been trying to figure out why the death of Jerry Orbach makes me cry. It's not that I'm a huge Law & Order fan. I'm not that attached. Well, maybe it's partly that. He's been on the show for a long time. But I'm not sad that Tom Brokaw is leaving NBC - and he's been around longer on TV. And I understand that there are over 80,000 dead in southeast asia. But that, perhaps, is too big to make me cry. And this has been a brutal year for family and close family friends passing. So why Jerry Orbach?
I remember him from Prince of the City. And Crimes and Misdemeanors. And Dirty Dancing. But even though those were good performances, they weren't etched in my soul or anything. He was solid, low-key. Kind of goofy. His schtick on Law & Order - the dry wit - seemed forced at times. But that was often the writing. So, what is it? Did he remind me of my father? No. Not really, Maybe the same generation. But he was even younger than my mom. Slightly different generation.
There was one episode where the new guy, Jesse Martin, (I looked it up) was having problems with the Orbach character. And at one point he referred to Orbach as "Old Spice." I don't know how many people got or caught that. But it struck a nerve. Or chord. I still use Old Spice. My dad used Old Spice. Definitely old school.
There was the ex-alcoholic thing with the character. And the fatal accident he had because he broke down and got drunk one night. Adios, Jill Hennessy. There was the story line with the daughter who won't speak to him. And the daughter who died from drugs - I missed that episode, I think. But those were the character, not the guy. Not the man.

When I read the headline on cnn.com, I clicked on it. I had choices, but I was saddened and curious. He had been sick, but hadn't stopped working. He was doing a spin-off. The words about him were all very nice. And then later in the day, I heard a news report several times on NPR. They mentioned his Broadway background. Oh, yeah. Theater. A song and dance man. Musical Theater. Not my favorite seated experience. But I could appreciate the effort and the skill. The understanding he must have had about acting and responsibility and the work involved. Lots of my good friends are from the theater years. I haven't seen most of these people in maybe twenty or twenty five or twenty nine years. But the friendships forged there lasted and last. It was family. So, there's the theater thing.
And then they kept playing snippets of him from "The Fantasticks." He was the guy who sang "Try to Remember." The NPR reporter kept calling his character "El Gal-low," as if he were some sort of hearty burgundy. "El Gallo." The Rooster. How could a Los Angeles newscaster-- oh! Maybe it was a story from the East Coast. Not L.A. That would explain the lack of understanding spanish.

"try to remember"

Okay, so there was a production of "The Fantasticks" at Carleton. One of the few productions I wasn't in there. And one of the ones I wish I had been in. It was such an odd play. Fun. Performed by "Miles of Smiles" Don Styles and Max Carlson? Is that right? Max? And then, of course, the two clowns (as I recall) - played by David Flood and Richard Armstrong. They died in the show. Two very big, funny deaths. Or they had some schtick about dying. Anyway, it looked like a lot of fun. I am not a song and dance guy. I've been in a couple of musicals. Even though I can't sing or dance. But that show at school was fun.
The reporter went on. Off-Broadway, it was the longest running musical ever. And Jerry Orbach had created the role of El Gallo. There's something so cool about that. And the reporter would speed through his history And then they'd play the song. "Try to remember a kind of september..." I know that song. Sort of a guilty pleasure for a guy who's taken a blood oath not to see another musical. (That oath was taken about five minutes into a production of Sondheim's Assassins.) Maybe I was going back to simpler (hah!) times in college. Maybe the familiarity of the song. But that wasn't it. What was catching me was the voice. Jerry Orbach on Law & Order sounded like an old cigarette smoker. Deep voice, raspy. Gravelly. Not musical. But that voice singing "Try to Remember!" Not the greatest singing voice I ever heard. But he was good. Spirited? Enthusiastic. Character-y. Solid. A performer. And young. He was so young. 1960 is when The Fantasticks opened. He was about 25. A punk. Cocky actor. And all we've seen recently is an old guy in a trenchcoat wisecracking. But there he was. Youth. Theater. A tough commitment. And he made it. The young guy changed, but he made it.
That wasn't what I was thinking when I started this. I've been thinking "What happened to the sweet kid?" Why did that have to die? The loss of youth, innocence. The loss of hair, hearing, and movement. I wanted that kid working in the Fantasticks to be alive. To come back. But he grew up.

In a very typical move, I went to a record store and bought what I could find. The Fantasticks soundtrack CD was sold out. But people had forgotten to check out the LPs. I bought both copies of the original soundtrack LP. Less than two bucks each. $1.99 and one $1.95. I can't see the four-cent difference. But now I have the record. But even faster than clearing off my record player was to download an mp3 of the song. And I found it.

So, all night and afternoon I have been listening to "Try to Remember." And being extremely sad about Jerry Orbach. Good guy gone? Memories of theater? Memories of a life? Of youth? Carleton? Armstrong? Acting? Maybe.
There was something straight about the guy. Trust. A guy you could trust. A litle square, maybe. But then, who isn't? But you felt you'd like the guy and he'd be honest. Maybe I've just bought in to Law & Order and television and it's seductive powers. Maybe I'm an entertainment tonight freak at heart. Or maybe not.

Maybe it was that young voice.


Try To Remember
(Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt)

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember and if you remember
then follow

Try to remember when life was so tender
When noone wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
When dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
When love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember and if you remember
then follow

Deep in December it's nice to remember
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December it's nice to remember
Without a hurt the heart will hollow.
Deep in December
it's nice to remember
The fire of September that made you mellow.
Deep in December our hearts should remember and follow
did you miss something?

sob - the beginning

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all material © 2004 james frank dean