It’s never too early for a young boy to start appreciating the music of Marvin Hamlisch. I was nine years old when my mother took me to see A Chorus Line on Broadway, and it’s been 46 years since I sat in the Shubert Theatre, bound up in a wool blazer, starched shirt, pressed slacks, and a clip-on tie – straight or bow, I had both – and my sweaty Sunday shoes. I recall nothing about the production, but I vividly remember the ice cream sundae at the rundown Howard Johnson’s, just a few blocks up Broadway and below walk-up theatres where naked people starred in their own shows.
My mother is prouder of her attendance at more elevated art forms and boasts of Verdi operas and Prokofiev ballets in elegant neighborhoods. I only agreed to those sleep-inducing foreign productions in exchange for foreign pastries. Cafe La Fortuna was a cozy gathering place for performers, artists, and post-show attendees from nearby Lincoln Center. The nicotine-stained brick walls were dotted with black and white photos of deceased composers and divas. Opera played above the din of artsy conversations, collisions of cups and plates on small tables, and the espresso machine hissing like a steam locomotive departing for Milan. On warm nights, we sat in the garden drinking cappuccinos, my new favorite beverage. The foamy milk stuck to my nose as I ate ricotta cheesecake splashed with rum.
We also attended performances at Carnegie Hall. Ivo Pogorelić, a Yugoslav pianist with a shock of rock star black hair, received standing ovations as my mother cheered, “Bravo, Ivo, Bravo!!!” Unfortunately, we did not go to the Russian Tea Room afterward. No amount of mid-Chopin sighing, shifting, and groaning gained me entry into the place where I imagined furry-hat Cossacks with swords pouring tea from samovars. Instead, we ended up at the Horn & Hardart automat, over by Grand Central Station. A piece of banana cream pie is infinitely more seductive when framed by the glass of a small metal door that unlocks after inserting enough coins.The Russian Tea Room, a favored hangout of Carnegie Hall attendees, in 2009. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Rubenstein.
At Radio City Music Hall, my mother and I saw Fiddler on the Roof and several Christmas extravaganzas, complete with dirty street pretzels, chestnuts, and hotdogs that relieved the misery of impossibly long lines on winter sidewalks. The last show we saw together was Bring Back Birdie (1981), featuring Chita Rivera and vaudevillian Donald O’Connor at the old Martin Beck Theatre. It was an ill-fated sequel to Bye Bye Birdie that closed almost immediately, thus heralding the end of our mother-and-son theatre run.
My high school years were spent at rock shows in the wide-open spaces of Madison Square Garden. Expansive and unrestricted, mayhem regularly ensued when the Garden lights went out. Understandably, there was a bit more violence at a Ted Nugent show than at La Traviata, but I was willing to trade safety for freedom. As alpha males fought for spaces near the stage, I moved to less-crowded sections. I once spent a whole show sitting in a roomy friends and family box, cheering along when anyone in Anthrax waved to us, “Yo, Scotty!!!” “Yo, Danny!!!” “Yeah, Joey’s hot tonight!” Even in a secluded balcony seat, there’s nothing better than peacefully smoking joints while contemplating the darker themes explored by Iron Maiden or Judas Priest.
At school, I avoided productions and even found a way out of a class trip to Dustin Hoffman in Death of a Salesman, one of my favorite plays to read, second only to Macbeth. I sold my ticket to a classmate and disappeared with my money into the miasma of 1980s Times Square. (As a side note, I have since seen Death of a Salesman, live and filmed, starring Dustin Hoffman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Brian Dennehy. Of all the Willy Lomans, Dennehy, with his truck driver’s physique gradually slumping and deflating, best communicated the essence of a broken man.)Shubert Alley plaque. Courtesy of Pixabay.com/Mary Bettini Blank.
After high school, the colleges I applied to decided I should take a few years off to find myself. With no marketable skills or talents – except my youthful energy and charm – I began waiting tables at Diane’s Uptown, a burger joint on 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue. Not much older than me, nearly every one of my coworkers was an actor, dancer, or singer, usually all three, hoping to land a lead part in the next Hal Prince production.
Before our brutally long shifts from 6:00 pm to 2:00 am, we servers sat at our usual booth for a feast of giant burgers and cheese fries – if tips were bad, this was the only meal for some. I listened to discussions of auditions and resumes and budgeting money for classes and headshots. One girl had a side job cleaning a nearby dance studio in exchange for rehearsal space between midnight and 6:00 am. Others lived at home or with roommates in Hell’s Kitchen apartments as they waited for show-tune revues on Caribbean cruises, a national tour of Camelot, or, better yet, a European tour of Hair. While I slept late into the day, they attended voice, speech, and dance lessons. As I watched TV before work, they’d been on subways all day, scouring weekly trade papers for cattle calls. The money I splurged on three-course lunches from Hunan Balcony, they saved for sheet music and dance shoes. They devoted their entire lives to memorizing cast albums, learning scripts, and preparing for stardom, but to my accounting, only a single alumna of Diane’s Uptown, Sandra Bullock, made it big. Even if most moved back to home towns and community theatres, found spouses and “real” jobs, or pursued careers on the periphery of the stage, they possessed more tenacity, courage, and optimism than I ever had.
Hanging around with actors did wonders for my social life. Still, one hazard was the constant invitations to every interpretive dance, presentation of Our Town, and singer showcase at dingy lounges with minimums of two weak drinks. I even went on a floating cabaret aboard a boat that pitched and rolled on the choppy waters of Lower Manhattan. With crispy high hair, wide-eyed innocence, and showgirl makeup, Annabelle from Muskegon, Michigan sang her heart out as waiters stumbled through her spotlight with plates of chicken marsala and broiled fish filet. Afterward, I gave my standard compliment, “Your performance was very dynamic.” I wish I had more to offer to people who took such joy in their art and just wanted to share it.
But there’s something I would never tell my friends: I cannot stand musical theatre – from Aladdin to Zorba and everything in between, and, as a metal head, I dislike the so-called rock musicals even more. There’s just something about the combination of jazz dance, busy lyrics, and semi-operetta scores that drives me insane. I try to sit patiently for dramatic plays, but I can barely even do that. On top of my other lifelong anxieties, I have severe claustrophobia.
For decades, I was free from Broadway, but then I married a woman who once trained as an actress and who adores taking in a show – the more hoofing and belting, the more she likes it. I don’t think there’s any reason to see a play more than once, maybe twice, but seven times for Kinky Boots?! I love Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein as much as the next guy, but that’s a little much. On top of all that, she’s also a Fanilow (a fan of Barry Manilow). Fanilows are a bit like the Juggalos you find at Insane Clown Posse gatherings. Instead of camping out in muddy fields, eating lunch meat, and using porta potties, Fanilows are middle aged folks who meet up pre-show at moderately priced chain restaurants with proper bathroom facilities and tasty dessert options. Nevertheless, they’re just as devoted with their glow sticks, Manilow coffee mugs, and roomy concert tees. My wife and her crew have seen Barry more times than she can count. Add to that Moulin Rouge, Les Misérables, and, of course, Hamilton. Throw in Grease, and this should give everyone a sense of her commuting soundtracks blaring from our SUV. (An interesting note: while Hamilton won the most Tony nominations of all time, it did not win the most awards. Mel Brooks’ The Producers (2001) surpassed Hamilton by one Tony.)
My most horrifying theatre experience was Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory. This production had an immersive set design with an earthen battlefield and sprinklers for rain. The way my wife described it, I expected a cross between Medieval Times and the Renaissance Faire with summer-stock knights, bodiced fair maidens, and tankards of margaritas. But there was none of that: not a drop of mead, roasted turkey leg, nor craft tent selling magickal Celtic jewelry. Then, as if devised by the three witches themselves, came the announcement that there would be no intermission –just five consecutive acts over 120 minutes. An anxiety attack was ignited.
My knees went weak, and I huffed as we were escorted into the recesses of the darkened hall by torchlight. With each step deeper into the armory, I wanted to run back. I climbed the three flights of noisy scaffolding as if I were going to my beheading. As I searched for exit signs and escape routes, I located an emergency exit to the rear of the hall and tried to envision reaching it as a last resort. If I absolutely have to, I thought, if I really have a heart attack this time, I can climb down the back of the scaffolding to our seats and walk along the sidewall, make my way to a door, and finish out the show in the lobby as I had done many times before. With my strategy in place, I counted each breath, line, and minute until Macbeth’s candle was snuffed out. All hail Malcolm, the new King of Scotland! Order was restored, and I was finally outside, slowly revived by the air of Lexington Avenue.
Despite all my neuroses, I am a theatre nerd. I love everything about Broadway, the productions, actors, playwrights, and history. I love the process, and I’m jealous of the camaraderie shared by actors rehearsing around an upright piano. I’ll watch the extended version of the Tonys with all the technical awards and any documentary or theatre-geek talk shows on PBS. No one was more thrilled than me when Fiddler on the Roof was mounted in Yiddish, and no one was happier to learn that Mart Crowley was reviving his 1968 Off-Broadway play Boys in the Band. Whenever a show opens, I think of the performers I’ve worked with over the years and the new crop of talented hopeful kids who renew the grand traditions of theatre.
As Broadway re-opens, my wife is excited to get back to her shows. The first in two years will likely be The Lion King. She says I would probably love it too. Why would I love a Disney musical with puppets? “Ugh, it’s so much more than that! The ending is so beautiful. Everyone sobs when the baby lion is born in the end.” She’s adorable, but how does she know why people are weeping? Yes, there’s the whole “circle of life” thing for some, and many of the older gents with prostate issues will have needed to pee since the beginning of Act II, but the rest are terrified children who slowly realized The Lion King at the Minskoff Theatre is not a 150-minute cartoon with popcorn but an endless live musical with a single bathroom break. I will not be attending the show, but I appreciate Broadway through her. I can’t wait to read the next Playbill and hear about her experiences, and I’m sure if Kinky Boots were still running, it would be just as fabulous for the eighth time.
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/Zeeshaan Shabbir.