Skip to main content

Gillian Deacon is an author and broadcaster based in Toronto.

Author Gillian Deacon with her father.COURTESY GILLIAN DEACON

The telephone in my student apartment in Montreal’s Plateau rang one early spring morning in the final year of my undergrad studies at McGill – and shockingly, given the midday prime-time long-distance rates, it was my dad.

He was calling from Quebec City, where he and my mother were touring an exchange student from Australia who was living with them on a three-month swap with my brother. Only two nights before, they had brought the young Aussie through Montreal where, in addition to the Notre Dame cathedral and Rue Saint-Denis, they had thought to feature the McGill theatre production of Godspell as a part of his Canadian cultural schooling. Each actor in that ensemble cast gets one solo number and sings chorus on all the others. My solo was Day by Day – one of the better-known numbers from the show, and easily the hokiest. But the corniness mattered not to my dad. What moved my father most was hearing his first-born child sing. “Made the long drive through a snowstorm feel worthwhile,” he told me.

This was not the first time my parents had driven a great distance to watch their daughter take the stage. One warm July evening of my 15th year I stepped out the side door of the log-and-timber lodge in which our summer-camp musical of Finian’s Rainbow had just been staged, my skin thick with crude stage makeup, to see my parents’ gleeful smiles surprising me, beaming in the dark evening, their eyes still misty with pride. It’s a moment my father loved to recount, the joy it brought him to sit in secret at the rear of the wooden lodge that night on the shore of a lake in Northern Ontario, watching his little girl sing show tunes written when he was a little boy.

My father never taught me to sing, not technically. He did pay for piano lessons until we both grew weary of him yelling in vain for me to practise. And he might’ve helped pick out the turquoise plastic portable record player on which I spun Terry Jacks 45s and Supertramp albums until I had committed every lyric and vocal harmony to memory.

What he did teach me was how to love music, melody and song. He showed me the ability of a lyric to entertain, the way rhythm rouses movement in the body and the spirit; he helped me learn how good it feels to sing.

At the end of a long working day, his necktie loosened and suit jacket damp with perspiration, my father would soothe himself with music. Before I was old enough to have formed my own record collection, he filled my head with Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez in the back seat on road trips. Our dashboard eight-track played the Beatles’ Lady Madonna on heavy rotation; singing along was encouraged. Fats Waller and Duke Ellington ruled the stereo after dinner. He would pore over the latest issue in the Time-Life jazz series with delight when it arrived in the mail, and offer brief lectures on the showmanship of his favourite performers. I remember little about a special family trip to visit an uncle in Prince Edward Island, other than the fun we had scanning through radio stations all through Nova Scotia searching for the hit of the summer of 1978, Olivia Newton-John’s Hopelessly Devoted to You – or, as my father liked to pretend he thought it was called, Violently In Love With You – so that I could sing along in the back seat.

But I grew increasingly uninterested in his musical taste in my teenage years, and I became embarrassed by my father’s vocalizing. When he broke into song at the dinner table or among friends, and expected command performances from me, I never obliged. Cheeks hot with the flush of shame, I would offer to clear the dishes, knowing I had disappointed him.

My dad was loud, funny, bright, bold, charming, kind and complicated. I need to include that word, complicated: It leaves room for you to imagine the range of emotions that were packed into our relationship, a neat and tidy nod to this particular father-daughter messiness.

But on the morning he called from Quebec City, nothing but encouragement came down the line.

“I’m going to read you something, are you ready?” he asked, with boyish pluck. Over his morning coffee he had caught sight of a small notice in The Globe and Mail, advertising auditions for an off-Broadway production, and his own sense of theatre was stirred. “It says, ‘Auditions for Godspell will be held at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, on March 23rd from ten until four. D. Scardino will direct.’ I want you to go down there and audition, Gilly.”

March 23 was the following Tuesday. I had exams and term papers to finish, no time (and no car) to drive to New York City. “I’ll underwrite the plane fare. You sing like a bird, my dear, go show Broadway what you’ve got. If you sing Day by Day for whoever this D. Scardino fella is, you’ll make his day and mine.”

It was a cockamamie scheme, with unlikely prospects. My guilt may have been part of what led me to indulge it, but only a part – I was a theatre and dramatic-arts major, after all. The dream of knockin’ ‘em dead at a Broadway audition wasn’t the furthest thing from my heart either.

I called the New York City directory and got the number for a D. Scardino, on whose answering machine I left one, and then, as the day drew closer, several more recorded messages regarding this non-Equity member’s interest in his upcoming audition. I never heard back, but I booked a flight anyway and decided to try my luck.

Self-esteem is the golden nectar every parent seeks for their child, hoping to squeeze droplets of it into their open beaks at the times they need it most. Like most parents, I struggle now to determine the right way to instill self-worth in my own children – how to encourage their passions and support them when they stumble. I hope that the number of times I have shown them unconditional love will outweigh the number of occasions when I lost my patience or failed to listen. But I always wonder if I’m doing it right, if they’ll be able to look back on an occasion when I poured that elixir down their gullets and let its radiance fill in the recesses of insecurity.

My father lost his patience with me plenty. His unwillingness to listen caused more tears and slammed doors than I care to remember. But the day he sent me to West 47th Street to strut the boards with the finest singers in the business was no small contribution to my confidence – his faith in me a lasting investment in my sense of fortitude and determination.

The call space at the Barrymore Theatre was lousy with triple threats that day. They paced in their professional stage shoes and did dancer-looking stretches all around the hall while I waited, in my tie-dyed T-shirt with a batik peace symbol and carrying my student’s backpack, to check myself in with the attendant.

After several minutes of feeling the back of my head bored through with galled stares from the more qualified candidates, I was finally told that members of the stage actors union would of course get priority, but that I was free to wait and potentially get squeezed in if there was a break during the day.

So I waited. As the hours ticked by, I watched an endless stream of regal, imperious singers warm up their vocal cords with well-practised professional-sounding exercises. They’d hear their name called, disappear up the stairs in their black tights and toe shoes, and reappear several minutes later trying to psych everyone out with their confident assessment of how it had gone. Then they would push open the door into the bright sunshine of a New York afternoon and head off to their professional singer lives.

Occasionally, I struck up a conversation with the less intimidating ones, which usually wound up in a monologue about how they were just coming off a crazy long run of Sweeney Todd, or perhaps I had seen them in Cats at the Gershwin? They all came and went but I remained, unable to leave to get food for fear of missing my opening. Whenever my spirits flagged on that long afternoon, I summoned my father’s enthusiasm, his belief that I had something special to offer the world’s most competitive theatre scene, his conviction that they hadn’t seen nothin’ until they’d heard me sing.

D. Scardino had sandy-red hair and a lanky frame. It was well past five o’clock as he pulled on his leather jacket and collected the papers from his table. That’s when I entered the audition space, the last of the scheduled auditions having come and gone. He smiled kindly as I fiddled with the hem of my tie-dyed T-shirt, explaining my peculiar situation.

“So you must be the young lady who left all those voice messages on my brother Dave’s answering machine.”


And then Don Scardino instructed his accompanist to sit back down at the piano. “What will you be singing for us?”

It’s always hard to tell during an audition whether the adjudicators mean what they say. But after I expressed my thanks for their kind words and bid them farewell, I walked into the late afternoon bustle of Times Square and actually kicked up my heels – just like in the movies.

I knew I wouldn’t get a callback. I knew I’d seen the last of D. Scardino with the unlisted phone number. But I had come to the precipice of a fear and jumped in with both feet.

And my father made it happen.

In the wee hours of Easter Sunday this year, my father’s heart stopped. He died on an emergency-room table, alone but for the hard-working doctors on the overnight shift trying to remedy his laboured breathing. Final curtain.

I never got to tell him how much that day meant to me, how hard I try to remember it amidst the grievances he knew I held about his other, much less supportive moments.

So I’m telling you. And myself. In the hopes that we can each summon more great acts of encouragement for our children, those bold gestures of faith. Whatever their effect might be, it will most certainly outlive us.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.