What If No One Knows Your Greatness?

What If No One Knows Your Greatness?

What If No One Knows Your Greatness?

This weekend the hubs and I flew to New York City, my old stomping grounds, for a getaway weekend. We wallowed in Broadway shows every day of our trip, but the tickets I was most excited about were for a preview performance of Sean Hayes’s brand-new play, Good Night, Oscar.

Like many of you, perhaps, I know Hayes best from his iconic role as Jack McFarland on Will & Grace, and have refreshed my fandom of him on the Smartless podcast. But the Sean Hayes I know from those venues is hilarious, warm, and sunny.

I’m an enormous fan of his seemingly bottomless, inspired talent for comedy, but in this show Hayes plays Oscar Levant, a notoriously dry, hangdog composer, brilliant concert pianist, and wit—and a man who suffered from a staggering array of mental illness, including OCD, bipolar disorder, and possibly schizophrenia, plus a dazzling pharmaceutical addiction.

Friends, as the Chicago Tribune said in a review of the Chicago run of the show, Hayes is a revelation in this role. Very quickly I forgot I was watching the Sean Hayes I thought I knew so well—he disappeared into the character. He was hilarious in a completely different way, heartbreaking, and utterly, poignantly convincing as a man in enormous emotional and mental pain who used his intellect and quick wit to demean and mock himself before anyone else could do it.

And then in act two, on top of this bravura performance, Hayes plays a breathtaking rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with a fluidity and musical grace in sharp counterpoint to the anguished physicality he brings to Levant, contorted over the keys like a man in both agony and artistic ecstasy. He brought down the house in standing ovations, both then and at the final curtain.

I haven’t stopped thinking about the show since—and I haven’t stopped thinking about Hayes, and about Levant too.

Levant eventually became known more widely as an author, a sought-after guest on talk shows and game shows, and a font of scathingly clever bon mots than for his genius as a musician and composer—a fact that, according to his family, pained him. He was widely regarded as the top concert pianist of his time, but I had never heard of him until this show, and his name has fallen out of the pantheon. He retreated from public performance in the final decade of his life and died at age 65.

Hayes, too, has become known for his work as Jack and as host of the top comedy podcast in the world. What must it be like, I asked my husband after the show, to know you are capable of the kind of performance he gave in the show and yet most people know you as the goofy sidekick? What does that mean for you—and to you—as an artist if you are never recognized for the full talent you possess?

Read more: “Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?”

Giving Your All for the Few

What does it mean for you—and to you—as an artist if you are never recognized for the full talent you possess?

We spent a lot of time talking about this, and whether it diminished a creative soul or freed them. Hayes has turned his gift for slapstick and comedy and farce into the kind of fame and fortune many actors only dream of. As a host of Smartless he has grown only more well-known and beloved.

His reputation, résumé, and position allow him to pursue projects like this play, which he co-created with the playwright Doug Wright. It’s part of what made Smartless possible and so popular. It is enabling what seem to be pet projects like his upcoming podcast with Will McCormack, Just Jack and Will, where they tell behind-the-scenes stories about the wildly popular sitcom, and an upcoming docuseries about Smartless.

My husband, who leans more techie than creative, thought it sounded ideal: Hayes has made his money, is richly rewarded for his work in the number of fans who adore him, and now has the freedom to work or not work as he pleases, including to create his own projects.

Levant was never known for his original compositions, but he wrote bestselling books, was a highly sought after guest on TV shows, and even had his own show briefly.

Both men were capable of reaches of genius that were largely unknown to their fans.

Is it enough for an artist to be aware of their own gifts and have the freedom to express themselves artistically, creatively on their own terms, whether or not most people recognize those gifts? Or is it a constant source of disappointment or pain to know how much deeper your talent and skill run than what you are known for? Is it rewarding to know your name is known and your legacy will endure, even if it is not for the full spectrum of your gifts, for what you would like to be appreciated for?

Read more: “When Will You Be a Success?

A Rational Antidote for Emotional Thinking

I don’t know the answer, and as I often do I can see both sides. If your creativity buys you the freedom to do what you like, including fully expressing your gifts even if only to a relatively small segment of your fan base, as in a Broadway show or in Levant’s case his live performances—then what a fortunate position to be in.

And yet…to forever feel unseen or underrecognized for the true breadth of your abilities. To never find an audience for everything you are capable of.

In an ideal world maybe the work itself is enough and the artist doesn’t need the acclaim for it, but most of us don’t live in that world, and it means something to us for our work to land with others, to move them and affect them.

I stood to applaud Hayes and the cast at the end of the show with my face wet from tears, profoundly moved by both the story itself and his performance of it.

I’ve told the story here before about one of the most rewarding moments of my life as an actor being looking out at the crowd and seeing one person similarly deeply affected by the performance.

I hope Hayes looked out that night, and night after night, and sees an ocean of them.

Addendum: I don’t know whether it answers the questions I pose above, but since I wrote this Hayes has been getting the recognition he deserves. Since the play opened on Monday, his performance has been noted by reviewers as “stunning,” “a bravura performance,” “a tour de force,” and “a miracle.”

14 Comments. Leave new

  • Thank you for posting this. I’ve been struggling with this question myself, as story after story I write gets rejected. I try to write for the joy of writing, and I do, but I can’t deny that I want my stories to move others! There’s a certain emptiness about creating content for oneself. Stories are meant to be read and shared, and I think we as a species are hard-wired to want to be appreciated. It’s a tough situation to be in.

    • It’s a tough question, and one I think most artists have to consider, judging by the wee little percentage of artists in any field who truly achieve the levels of acclaim and fortune I think many of us dream of. I’m writing a keynote speech about this very thing right now, and I don’t know the answer, except that I think the key to a fulfilling artistic life is considering it for ourselves–knowing, as I say, not “what makes you happy” as an artist, but what can you be happy with. What would make this artistic life feel satisfying and fulfilling when you reach the end of your ride? Or as I used to ask myself (and still do when I need to): What if someone told you right now you would never achieve the greatness in your field that you may dream of? Would it still feel worth doing? When I asked myself that as an actor, the answer became no at a certain point. But for my current work it’s still yes, day after day. So that’s the overall answer for me right now.

      Meanwhile I look for ways to cope with those moments you’re describing–which are fairly universal, I think, for many of us. I wrote a little about one way to do that in this article, and I write about the topic a lot. It seems this is a big part of the creative life, at least in my view!

      I hope things feel a little better for you soon, Anne. For what it’s worth, I’ve found it’s a cycle from low to high, and it can help to remind myself in the low periods that it’s not forever and a high one will come.

  • Why do women who act try to negate their femaleness by calling themselves “actors”? Is “actress” somehow less-than?

    • For me it’s because it’s a verb describing my actions: I act; therefore I am an actor. When I waited tables I considered myself a waiter. And also, for me, because no one refers to a doctress or a surgeoness or an editrix (though I may instigate that one, now that I think of it). The job is the job, regardless of where you fall on the gender spectrum.

      But of course to each his (or her…or their…) own! I have no issue with people who wish to call themselves actresses, or actors, or whatever they like. I just prefer actor.

  • I think focusing on what we don’t have can diminish (in our eyes) what we do have. That longing to be recognized for “more than” can spur us to take chances when the stars align but should not replace our gratitude for what has already happened. We might wind up defining ourselves as, in the example of Sean Hayes, the actor who never rose above comedy rather than the actor who entertained millions with his talent for humor, and that would be a shame. IMHO 🙂

    • That resonates, Jackie. For me it falls into that comparison mindset that can be so poisonous to our own confidence and satisfaction with our own work and lives. I’m a big “striver”–meaning I seem to always be working to grow and expand my skills and my reach–but it’s a good reminder periodically to revel in and be grateful for what we have already accomplished, and for the pleasure of doing the work itself. Thanks for the food for thought!

  • Wonderful essay! I have always loved Oscar Levant, and his performance in the Fred Astaire musical, “The Bandwagon,” is fabulous and worth a watch. Ditto for Sean Hayes, who also is forever in my heart as co-producer of one of my favorite series, “Hot in Cleveland.” Finally, love the themes worth contemplating here, as well as the thoughtful responses from readers. May I add this: Making people laugh is an irresistible, incredible and often underappreciated gift, and possibly why it overtakes the other incredible talents of both Levant and Hayes. Hope the Hayes show gets streamed so I can see it.

    • I had never heard of Levant, but the show made me so curious, and I’ve read a lot about him since. I want to rewatch An American in Paris now, and watch The Bandwagon. I read in this article this morning that so many of his appearances on the Jack Parr show were taped over (AGH), but I looked up one that was fascinating to watch, especially in light of Hayes’s performance of him.

      And I didn’t know about Hot in Cleveland, regarding Hayes–I’ll look it up too.

      I agree about laughter–humor is a high value for me. Levant’s broke my heart, because so much of it makes himself the butt of it. But the show actually talks about this topic–that jokes often come at someone’s expense, and that humor requires taking on sacred cows, and the moral implications of that. It’s a main theme, and part of what made the show stick with me so much. I recommend it so highly–it would be great if it were streamed, but if your travels take you to NYC I can’t recommend it highly enough! Hayes runs in it through August 27. Thanks for the comment, Renee.

  • Britta Jensen
    April 27, 2023 3:27 pm

    Hi Tiffany! These are really important questions for all artists to mull over as we transition through multiple gestation periods. Do we believe that our work is only worthy if others deem it important? Or, is there a way to enjoy the work for what it is, absent praise, publicity and monetary compensation? Because so little is in our control (regarding how the public view our work), I’m searching for that healthy balance in my writing. I’m aiming for the balance between acknowledging I’ve done my best work in a particular moment and also championing it in the most healthy way possible. What if we can work toward feeling our greatness and anything beyond that is just the extra whip cream on top?

    • Great questions, Britta. And I think every creative has to consider them, or we may always be striving for some brass ring that keeps us from enjoying the here-and-now of our creative efforts–or even pulls us off course from what truly nourishes our creative souls.

      I’ve been thinking about this–and the control issue you mention–a lot, not least as I write a keynote speech about this very topic. Because there is so little we do control in any artistic business, I think it’s crucial to consider what we can control: our reasons for creating, what we get out of that process, how we approach our careers, etc. I love your take on working on feeling our greatness for ourselves, and letting that be “enough”–anything else is just a bonus. I strive for that–but easier said than done sometimes. 🙂

      Thanks–lovely to see you here!

  • Hi Tiffany,

    Sounds like a great trip, and as usual I think, you got a lot out of it.

    If the customer is always right, can the audience ever be wrong? I don’t know, but it upsets me when work I esteem is bypassed or undervalued while work I deem lesser is praised and rewarded. I think that’s at or near the heart of what you’re writing about.

    To assume that I’m right and they’re wrong is among the most arrogant things I can think of doing. It’s the imposition of my standards and values on others. But I do have my own values and standards, and I must respect them. I think with each endeavor, I must decide, whom I am doing this for. If it’s for me (and I’ve yet to do anything that wasn’t) I can only hope that some part of my audience will find value in it too. That leaves me plenty of room to envy those to whom the audience gives greater response and reward. I’m sure there’s an important life lesson in there somewhere.

    Your posts so often provoke me to the point of insight. Thank you.

    • I think about this a lot too, Bob. I used to be an entertainment reviewer and it taught me viscerally how subjective a field art is–one man’s trash, you know? That’s the beauty of it–we can all find “the music that moves us,” as they say in Awakenings. But it also be frustrating–for artists seeking an audience, and for consumers trying to find something they might vibe with. To your point, The New York Times was just about the only media outlet that didn’t praise Hayes and this show to the skies, and I was affronted on his behalf. 🙂

      I can see how assumptions of “greatness” fall into that subjective category, and my assessment isn’t everyone’s. (Everyone’s but the bitchy NYTimes, apparently… 😉 ) But what struck me more was the idea of great depths of talent in people that may never be fully recognized–they may become known for one type of art or skill, when they’re capable of so much more. I think a lot of “journeyman actors” are that way–the stalwart supporting players you may see in countless movies yet never know their names–and they rarely have those meaty roles the stars get.

      Last night we watched a Ted Lasso episode with Cam Cole, a staggeringly talented street musician (apparently in real life as well as the show) I’d never heard of before. If this hit show hadn’t featured him, would anyone know him? Was it a chance encounter that resulted in his getting that kind of exposure? If he hadn’t, would it have been enough for him to know of his own gifts, even if so few others ever did?

      I don’t know. But it all makes me think about these things, and the meaning of what we do, and how we create a fulfilling career and life from such a mercurial pursuit.

      So…thanks for your comment, which also provoked similar insight-searching in me. 🙂

  • What a fantastic post!! Thank you.

    I very much feel in this boat and while I am recognised for some of my writing, the bit I really wish I could get a spotlight on, remains still in the shadows. However, like many, I have hope and I turn up every day.

    Today I read a scene I’d written and it made me laugh so much. That to me is the complete beauty of writing.

    I can entertain myself for hours. I can make my heart sing, I can make myself cry, I can make myself laugh so hard my cheeks are raw.

    Maybe one day more people will also feel the same, but if it only ever gets to be about me, well, at least I’ve had fun.

    • I love hearing you say you let yourself enjoy your own writing, Syl. So often I think we can be our own worst critics. And it’s great you enjoy the process too–I think that’s the main ingredient for creating a successful, fulfilling long-term writing career. Thanks for sharing.


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