November 9, 2023
Meg Flather Brings Her Parental Journey to the Cabaret Stage with 'Hold On Tight'
John Amodeo READ TIME: 7 MIN.
"There was a moment when I had a wonderful experience with a pianist. He was so beautiful and so full of life, he was a warmhearted, vital man, and he took me under his wing," recalls two-time Bistro Award winner and four-time MAC Award winner Meg Flather about her singing career during Manhattan's cabaret heyday of the 1980s and early 1990s. "And then I remember that he died. I was invited to his memorial service, and I was so angry. I didn't understand why all these beautiful young men were dying. And nothing was being done. Thank you, Ronald Reagan."
Like many gay men and their allies in those days, Flather channeled that rage into action. "I reached out to St. Vincent's and went to an interview, and then began training," recounts Flather. "It was Sister Pat who trained us. Once again, the nuns were on the front lines. They were the ones organizing volunteers and sitting by the beds of so many of the boys whose parents wouldn't come visit them. Sister Pat said, "If you are all here for the client, you are also here because down the line in your personal lives, you will be called upon to be a caregiver."
"And I said 'No! No one in my life is going to die and my parents won't get ill,' and lo and behold, 10 years later, my father gets cancer, and I become his caregiver."
Her father's illness changed the dynamic with her mother, a Dedham, MA native, who was a caregiver herself, working, as she raised Flather, as a nurse at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA, but at the time Flather's dad fell ill, was a midwife in a NYC hospital. Living close by her parents in NYC, Flather helped her mother care for her father.Living close by her parents in NYC, Flather helped her mother care for her father.Her mother, who relieved her stress by continuing to work during the day, took the night shift to care for Flather's dad while Flather took the day shift. This intensive caregiving went on for nine months. During that time, Flather and her mom would let off steam by going to the movies and theater together, when Flather could get someone to watch her dad. It was a period of closeness with her mom she never had growing up, and she felt blessed for it.
Not long after Flather's father passed away, her mother was diagnosed with dementia, and she had to do it all over again. "I guided her through her disease, to make her feel safe enough to let me guide her through the disease, and to trust me and trust the disease," remembers Flather. "A diverse group of female caregivers helped me care for my mother in her home and taught me how to care for my mother. As a performer I thought I was only valuable when I was speaking. My mother taught me how to be valuable without speaking when she stopped speaking. We watched movies together, and she watched them until the end. We made her feel safe."
Flather chronicled her experience as a caregiver in her book, "Hold On Tight: a love story" which was released last year and is available in paperback on Amazon. Being someone who has made a career as a singer and songwriter who tells stories through song, Flather realized that this was also a story she could and needed to tell through song. After writing a collection of songs about this experience, Flather wove those song into a one-woman show based on the book and premiered "Hold On Tight: a love story" this past October 8 at United Solo Theatre Festival on New York's Theatre Row, where it won the award for Best Storytelling Show. Flather will bring this show to Josephine's Cabaret at the Club Café's Napoleon Room on Tuesday, November 14, with her pianist/musical director Tracy Stark.
"This show is a love letter to the people who are care givers and who taught me to be a care giver," Flather describes. "It's a practical show that touches upon enough of the challenges, blessings and the ultimate love story associated with care giving." In this journey, Flather admits that care giving is messy. "There is no perfect death, and no perfect care," explains Flather. "I help people forgive themselves, because we all feel inadequate, and that we've failed our loved ones by not doing enough or the right thing. So, this is for the care givers."
As an entertainer, Flather knows that a show like this can't wallow in pathos. "There's a lot of humor in it," adds Flather. "It's paced well."
Two people who helped Flather shape the show was her director, Lennie Watts, and her musical director/arranger Tracy Stark. Flather had already been working with Watts on earlier shows, and she knew he would be an asset. "He's not just a director, he's a teacher," Flather declares. "He began working with me on my show 'Portraits,' and I won the MAC award and the Bistro Award, and that's not a coincidence. He also knows what the audience needs, and helps you give that to them."
Flather had worked with other directors who brought their pre-conceived notions of what her performance should be, while Watts helped her find her true voice. "I had worked before with other directors, but I still felt I was too presentational, too 'actrressy,'" Flather bemoans. "A lot of it was not feeling that I was enough, and [Lennie] made me understand I was good enough to bring more of Meg into the show."
Flather also points out that Watts has no ego. He doesn't invest in his own interpretation of her shows, but instead helps her look at opposites. "He helped me find the humor in a ballad and the grit and authenticity in the comedy numbers," Flather notes. "He's the Mr. Grant to my Mary Tyler Moore."
Flather bonded with Stark back in 2016 when Flather was invited to sing her MAC Award-winning song she had written for "Hold On Tight" at an event featuring all MAC Award-winning songs. Watts was directing and had hired Stark to be the pianist. It was at this event that Stark and Flather became a match made in heaven. "She grew up listening to Janis Ian, Joan Armatrading and Rickie Lee Jones, and she knows the difference between showtunes and other types of songs," Flather elaborates, noting that her original was more of a folk-type story song than a Broadway showstopper. "She learned my song from 'Hold On Tight,' and she sang background, and I realized how well we meshed."
So many people might dread the notion of becoming caregivers to their parents for a host of reasons, but Flather found it to be a blessing. While her parents were good parents ("hardworking Geminis," describes Flather), they volunteered for everything and consequently weren't home much. "I'm grateful that I had the opportunity during caregiving to spend so much time with them," muses Flather. "It was all about giving myself to my mother. She was the love of my life."
The show's title "Hold On Tight" isn't a phrase that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of caregiving, but for Flather, it was based on a true experience, a vivid moment she had with her mother. In fact, the show's 11 o'clock number is a MAC Award-winning song she wrote after that experience that sums up the show's ultimate lesson. "I went into my mother's apartment, and she was very impaired at the time, and she knew I wasn't OK, and her caregiver said to me 'Window Open, Maggie,' which was our code phrase that meant my mom was OK. And I let my mom take care of me that day," Flather recalls. "When I went home, I wrote the song."
Flather learned that lesson observing all those beautiful boys with HIV who were still active, doing the only thing they could do to navigate through the challenges. "The ultimate lesson is to stay in the moment, and you get blessings in the moment," considers Flather. "If you look ahead you are anxious, and in the past, you are depressed. In the moment, you find joy, laughter."
Meg Flather will perform "Hold On Tight: a love story" on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, 6 PM at the Napoleon Room, Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. No cover, donations requested. For reservations, visit Club Café's website.
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.