Melissa Etheridge was so young when she started playing the guitar that her fingers bled, but she kept at it, which seems a fitting start for her rocky road to rock star.
On her 17th birthday, Melissa Etheridge had a sleepover with a friend she calls only The Colonel’s Daughter, during which she had “a long deep passionate kiss full of teenage desire” – her first.
Her career as a rock star and her life as a lesbian form the two main poles that hold up the musical memoir by Melissa Etheridge, the husky voiced singer and confessional songwriter who joined her first professional band as a guitarist at the age of 12 in her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas. Now, exactly fifty years later, she is appearing as herself on Broadway, with tales to tell, and, guitar in hand, some two dozen songs to sing, mostly her own, but also, aptly, “On Broadway.” (See songlist below)
Written with her wife of nine years, Linda Wallem Etheridge, who is an experienced TV writer and showrunner, “Melissa Etheridge: My Window” moves chronologically from her birth (we see baby pictures!), offering some undeniably memorable moments, whether funny, touching, triumphant, charming, or sad:
How her father, a high school teacher, took her to the bars and clubs where she had her first gigs because she was a minor, and made a macrame strap for her guitar.
How, after her mother rejected her for her homosexuality, a local pastor told her: ““Some folks in this chapel might disagree with me, but I do not believe that God would create a love that was wrong.”
How, after record executives rejected her for five long years as she played clubs in L.A., one finally gave her contract saying: “I believe the future of rock and roll has a female face.”
The show tries to integrate the songs with the incidents from her life, indirectly and often effectively. When she visits a lesbian bar in Boston during her brief tenure as a student at Berklee School of Music, she launches into “Juliet” with the lyrics:
“They want to know
They want to know
Juliet, where’s your Romeo?”
“Open Your Mind,” with its suggestively psychedelic wailing and electric guitar licks, is woven into her description of her spiritual awakening after consuming some cannabis brownies.
For all the effort at integrating the stories with the songs, ultimately, “Melissa Etheridge: My Window” is best appreciated as a relatively intimate concert by a rock star who still has it thirty-five years after she first made it big. The music, in other words, likely works better than the memoir for most theatergoers who aren’t already the singer’s loyal fans.
There is a granular level of detail about Etheridge’s music career, starting from the age of three when she heard “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on a transistor radio, and going club by club, album by album; we even learn the specific make and model of some of her favorite guitars. Her recollections are augmented by projection designer Olivia Sebesky’s slides, making the show feel close at times to a home movie. At the same time, though, she is vague about the women she has loved and lost, none of whom are named, several of them given nicknames that hardly sound complimentary: Granola Hippy Chick, the Movie Star’s Wife, A Girl From Indiana – and she tells us even less about the four children she had with a couple of them.
This withholding is unlikely to bother her fans, who probably already know the details, and can chalk this vagueness up to discretion.
But it was difficult for me to ignore several moments in the show that suggested evidence of some unreconciled anger, and a disturbing tendency to show little interest in anybody besides herself. All we learn about her mother is her indifference to Melissa; her older sister fares even worse. Melissa tells us the sister resented her being born on the same date, depriving her of a birthday party, and “our relationship never got better after that.” The resentment seems to go in both directions, Melissa delivering what felt like a couple of gratuitous potshots about how her sister wound up. Only her father is shown in a positive light, and his life is presented almost entirely in terms of how lovingly he treated her. We learn of some tragedies in her life, most terribly the death of her son Beckett, at the age of 21, connected to an opioid addiction. But we were told nothing of his life, other than his birth, before the moment when she tells us of his death.
She spends much more time with us detailing her pursuit of fame. When she wins a Grammy and then again when she wins an Oscar, the “roadie” (Kate Owens) comes out with the trophy, and shoots a little cannon of confetti over it. When Etheridge tells us she hit the big time — her “Yes I Am” selling over 6 million records, shortly after (coincidentally or not) she came out publicly at the first ever gay Inaugural ball, held by newly elected President Bill Clinton — the roadie helps her put on a Fame jacket. “There it was,” Etheridge exclaims. “There was the fame I was looking for. I was on the cover of magazines. This was it. FAME”
She implies it was a hollow experience, and she turned to spirituality instead, helped by the tragedies in her life, and also the drugs she took.
I don’t feel I have a right to judge anybody’s life, even somebody who is depicting it for me on stage. This is doubly so because I doubt the full measure of Melissa Etheridge is revealed in the monologues in-between the music of “Melissa Etheridge: My Window.” In any case, it is the music that most matters, and, at 62, Melisssa Etheridge still rocks.
Melissa Etheridge: My Window
Circle in the Square through November 19, 2023
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $115 to $219. Digital rush (Telecharge Lottery and Rush): $44.50
Written by Melissa Etheridge with Linda Wallem Etheridge
Directed by Amy Tinkham
Scenic design by Bruce Rodgers, projection design by Olivia Sebesky, lighting design by Abigail Rosen Holmes, costume design by Andrea Lauer, sound design by Shannon Slaton
Cast: Melissa Etheridge, and Kate Owens as The Roadie
Like The Way I Do
Ready to Love
Twisted Off to Paradise
Nowhere to Go
Meet Me in the Back
Bring Me Some Water
I Want to Come Over
Talking To My Angel
I’m The Only One
Open Your Mind
Piece of My Heart
This War Is Over
Here Comes The Pain
Here I Am Again
Come to My Window