Melanie was a pop singer best remembered for radio-friendly pop hits such as “Brand New Key” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” I spent some time with her when she came to Rochester to debut a play about her life. She was a cool person. Melanie was 76 when she died Tuesday. This is the story I wrote when she was in Rochester, which appeared in the local daily newspaper. I left in the references to the show at Blackfriars Theatre, even though the show, and the interview, was more than a decade ago.
‘Brand New Key’ singer’s improbable journey to Rochester
By JEFF SPEVAK
The clerk at the Best Buy phone counter is helping out a 68-year-old man who, incomprehensibly in the 21st century, in November 2010, is asking the clerk if he’s ever heard of Melanie. The pop singer.
Then the older man leans on the counter and tells the clerk he’s not feeling well. The kid gets him a glass of water. It was Melanie who started the idea of people holding up lighters at concerts, the old guy is saying as he drinks the water, trying to compose himself. When she played Woodstock, in 1969. Of course now, in the 21st century, people hold up their cellphones at shows …
Then he slumps over, store employees ease him to the floor and call 911. He’s had a heart attack before. A year ago to that very day, in fact, during a plane flight from Germany. But Peter Schekeryk won’t survive this one at the Best Buy in Framingham, Mass. He’s apparently still trying to explain the lighters when he utters his last words. “It was Melanie…”
Not far away, a 63-year-old woman is sitting on a decorative haystack outside of the Whole Foods supermarket with her overloaded shopping cart, waiting for her husband to pick her up. He has been gone a long time. She calls his cellphone, but gets his voicemail. She’s annoyed, and also concerned. A police car pulls up and a cop gets out. “Are you Melanie Schekeryk?” he asks.
This is how pop stars who have sold more than 25 million albums get the news that their spouse of 45 years has died. The same as you or I.
That scene could have been the end of the story for Melanie. That much seems obvious, her eyes reddening and a catch in her voice betraying the heavy emotions she still carries when she talks about Schekeryk. However, the opposite has happened. It is the beginning of the story. Her husband’s death is the opening scene of the autobiographical musical Melanie and the Record Man. And his death has allowed the story to continue, in an improbable way.
Improbable because it is a small community theater group in Rochester, people she had never had contact with before, who pulled Melanie from a sidetrack of pop history, created a play from her blogs and journals and ultimately convinced Melanie that she must be a part of it, tell the story herself, write new songs and sing many of the old songs.
The play begins its world-premiere run from Friday through Oct. 28 at Blackfriars Theatre.
“It would be so much simpler if I were dead and they got some frumpy, gorgeous person to play me,” Melanie says, while sitting in the theater lobby on East Main St. “I have doubts and fears.”
Inside the theater itself, a small crew is pulling together the doubts and fears, assembling Melanie’s story. Tall ladders reach into the ceiling lights. Curtains are draped across the red-fabric chairs of the 126-seat theater. The high whine of electric drills will soon give way to songs such as “Beautiful People” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” inspired by what Melanie saw as she played Woodstock in 1969. Four-hundred thousand people, many with flickering lighters and candles, just as Peter Schekeryk described to the cellphone clerk.
Melanie’s biggest hit was “Brand New Key,” an air-light No. 1 record in 1971. It is what she is best known for. But she was not a one-hit wonder, releasing 35 albums, the latest in 2010.
Sure, she meditated with Indian yogis, but so did The Beatles. Melanie still has a little bit of mystic in her. Sometimes, she admits, she senses that Schekeryk is in the room with her, guiding her. She once wrote a song called “I Don’t Eat Animals.” The quintessential flower child, she was a reluctant celebrity, she says, who resented being cast as what she calls “a beautiful bliss ninny.”
And, Melanie now eats animals. Studies have shown, she says, you’ll live longer with a diet that includes meat and fish.
“A pretty girl is a target,” she says. “You can’t be very smart and beautiful at the same time. Rolling Stone waged a war against me. They always put me on the same page as Bobby Sherman. I was on the Buddha record label. That’s the same label that had The Archies. Leon Redbone and Captain Beefheart were on the label, too, but I guess that didn’t count.”
It’s as though those old hits don’t belong to her anymore, because Melanie hasn’t seen any royalties on them in years. “I’m a very wealthy woman,” she says. “I just don’t receive the wealth that I generate.”
Despite constant touring, her finances are no longer sound. “Peter made deals on a handshake,” she says, “and the handshakes fell through when he died.”
For years, John Haldoupis envisioned fashioning a story cycle from Melanie’s songs. He was a fan, he admits, and as a young man with artistic dreams, painted while listening to her music. Now, as a middle-aged artistic director at Blackfriars, he tried contacting Melanie through her website in spring 2010, never hearing back.
Then one day, he opened up the blog on her site and saw that Melanie had written that this would be her last entry for a while. He read about Schekeryk’s death, closed the computer and had himself a good cry.
The play Haldoupis had in mind now had a focus: a love story. He renewed his efforts to contact Melanie, finally tracking down her oldest daughter, who agreed to approach her mother about the idea. After a few more months, Melanie called. The collaboration was under way.
Schekeryk, an immigrant who fled the Soviet-dominated Ukraine as a child with his family, met Melanie in 1969. He became her producer, her manager and then her husband. She was his only client for the next 45 years. “His entire motivation,” Melanie says, “was to keep the creation going.”
Just as he was doing when he was talking to that clerk at the phone counter.
A young, slim, blonde woman walks by. She is Mandy Hassett, who will play the young Melanie. And also Melanie in her 60s, when the play circles back to the death of her husband. This was a conceptual staging issue that Haldoupis couldn’t solve until the solution came one night, almost as though had been whispered in his ear, and he awakened with the sudden thought that Melanie didn’t have to age at all. This was how Schekeryk always saw her, Haldoupis reasoned, and inserted a line in a play in which young Melanie is asked, “How is it you’re not getting any older?”
“When Jack told me that idea,” Melanie says, “I said to him, ‘Well, that’s how Peter always saw me in his eyes.’ ”
Melanie was at the first reading of the play. “Seeing someone who was going to play her husband speak the words, it was a really powerful evening for her,” Haldoupis says. “The actors who I brought in to read, they didn’t know the show was going to be such an emotional wallop. I think they thought they were just going to come in and sing some songs with Melanie. I think they thought the play itself was going to be a train wreck.”
The day after Schekeryk’s death, the Best Buy salesman met with Melanie. They hugged. “We were sobbing,” she says. “He said, ‘He loved you so much, all he could talk about was you.’ ”
“Sometimes you don’t know there’s a story,” Melanie says, “until it has an end.”
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