Too shy to be on stage, but happy to watch and dream.
”I got a feeling there’s a miracle due gonna come true, coming to me. Could it be? Yes it could. Something’s coming. Something good, if I can wait.” – West Side Story
I was watching an interview with Dame Judi Dench, an actor for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration. She was asked about her favorite medium and she replied, “The stage.” When pressed for a reason, she explained that it meant a great deal to her that in order to see her perform on stage, people had to actually go out and purchase a ticket and then they have to actually go to the theatre. She wanted to perform her best for these people because they truly made an effort — makes a great deal of sense to me. Watch Dame Judi perform “Send in the Clowns,” and you’ll see and hear why she’s a national treasure.
The Impact Theatre Had on My Development
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York with Broadway as my playground. My father was an Italian immigrant with a blue collar job, but he loved the theatre. My mother, on the other hand, barely tolerated it. Her indifference made no difference to me.
There was a time when I would have chalked my infatuation with Broadway up to my sexuality — that was societal brainwashing. Obviously, people of all sexual orientations, ages, races, and cultures have an equal love of the theatre and for good reason.
My first Broadway show was The Wiz. It is an all black version of the Wizard of Oz. My father took me to see it for my ninth birthday. Stephanie Mills played the lead and she was brilliant — a performance I still consider to be one of the best I have ever seen. The show blew me away; over 50 years later and I still hear the songs in my head. I believe my life lessons mainly came from theatre. The visual spectacle helped me to escape the reality of my own unfortunate childhood.
The second play I went to see was A Chorus Line. There are a dozen themes in this play and each of them spoke to me. I may have been 12 years old when my father took me. I remember my father wiping tears from my eyes during the performance. He had huge, strong hands and I loved when he did that. “At the Ballet” hit me hard and I was never good at holding back my feelings. I wonder to this day if my dad realized I knew I was gay and how ashamed I had been; I hope he knew.
Dozens of shows seemed to have been written with me in mind; at least that what I thought. What it said to me was simply that there were more like me out there and for that I was and am, grateful. It was a lonely world, but at the theatre I felt safe and understood; I still do.
While other teens were saving their money for clothes, video or baseball games, I saved for the theatre. Back then TKTS was a real bargain. I recall seeing Broadway plays for less than $10. It’s unfortunate that young people today, for the most part, cannot afford Broadway theatre tickets. I know there are programs designed to expose young people to the theatre; however, like most things these days, theatre is big business and only the elite can afford it. Fortunately, there are regional theatres all over the States that are much more affordable than the Great White Way (Broadway). —
In my early twenties I met a New York City couple who attended Broadway shows weekly. They were members of the Theatre Development Fund (TDF). As educators, Ann and Aaron were able to purchase a group of ten tickets at a large discount. Their circle of friends included dozens of people who would buy tickets from them on a first-come first-served basis. It took a lot of time and energy to organize the selling of these tickets and they did it without taking a dime for themselves. We had mutual friends who brought us together often and over the years we became very close. Aaron passed away at age 95 not too long ago. Ann has dementia, but we had a Skype call a few months ago and there were moments where she was her old self; funny and smart. My friendship with Ann and Aaron started at the theatre, however, it extended far beyond that for over 30 years. The common denominator was our love of the theatre; for a long time our lives revolved around shows and eating out. I’m fairly certain I would have only seen a fraction of the shows I saw had it not been for Ann and Aaron; two of the loveliest people I have ever known.
Times Square in the 70s and 80s
The Theatre District (Times Square) in the 70s and 80s was a pretty scary place. In fact, when I was a teenager, a stranger pulled a knife on me only because I was walking in his path. There were sex shops everywhere and drugs sold on every corner. However, that’s where the Broadway theatres were and nothing could keep me away. I would get a ticket for a show and tell my mother I was going to a friend’s house for dinner. It was a secret world I was reluctant to share. I worked hard for spending money and I didn’t want my mother to know where my money was going; unfortunately, she often took money from me, charging me for room and board when I was a teen. I guess it taught me to be fiercely independent and for that I am grateful.
Times Square today is not what it once was, it has lost it’s grit and unique appeal. I’m afraid Disney has cleaned it up and made it shiney and safe for middle America. It’s probably for the better, but I can’t help being nostalgic. It’s become overcrowded and commercial and no longer appealing to me.
Meeting a Famous Composer
The following is a secret I’m not sure I have ever told. I haven’t shared this because I was closeted for many years and I was ashamed of the life I lived prior to coming out. Today, I am way past worrying about being judged.
When I was a young man I went out on several dates with a Catholic priest named Peter — I often wonder what became of Peter. I was a minor, but I knew exactly what I was doing at the time. There may have been an element of the forbidden fruit, but I’ll leave that for another blog. This priest led a double life in New York City and some of his friends were famous in the theatre world. Peter was young, attractive, and flirtatious. He knew how much I loved Broadway musicals and he surprised me by taking me to the home of a world-renowned, Greenwich Village composer. I remember walking down to this composer’s sub-street level apartment and shivering from head-to-toe. I knew at the time that this would be a memory I would hold onto for life. There is a part of me that would like to be more innocent and less jaded.
Peter knocked on the door and this larger than life man invited us in. I recall a large piano in the center of a small living room. There were Broadway show posters everywhere and most of them were his shows. I’ve had natural highs many times throughout my life, however this one, sent me soaring. I could not speak for fear of saying something stupid. I accepted a glass of wine and blushed over his shameless petting. Up to that evening I had never had a stranger show me that much attention, let alone someone famous. Peter knew it was harmless and he knew that he was the one who’d be taking me home.
And Then There Was This:
I had the great pleasure of meeting Stephen Sondheim when I was working in Student Affairs at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. He is, hands down, my favorite composer. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without his music and lyrics. This is not hyperbole, I mean every word of it, he is like no other songwriter alive or dead. The MMC theatre department brought him in for a Master Class. I normally do not approach celebrities because I know that no matter what I say, I’m going to sound stupid and behave badly. But in Sondheim’s case I made an exception because of the direct impact he had had on my life.
I asked one of our professor’s to introduce me and she said she’d be delighted. I shook his hand and I said, “Thank you for the many times your music has spoken to me and brought me joy.” Sondheim held my gaze for a moment and said, “It’s been my pleasure.” If there is a God, he resides inside the heart of that man.
Many songs featured in musicals were moving and played a role in my life; however, none as much as “Being Alive.” Raul Esparza played the role of Bobby and sang it in the 2007 Broadway production of Company. These are the lyrics:
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Somebody know me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.
Mock me with praise.
Let me be used.
Vary my days.
Coincidentally, a 90th birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim aired a couple of days ago. What a gift to all of us; you can watch it on Youtube: #Sondheim90Concert
Theatre’s Impact on Me Today
Broadway and the West End, by way of musicals and dramatic productions, will a destination for me for as long as I can travel. It’s like a dangling carrot I can never imagine going away. These plays speak to me in ways no one can. It’s as if the writers are inside my head and my heart. Whether it is a time of happiness or sadness, I turn to lyrics and dialogue for hope and consolation. It seems unfair that there are many people in the world who will never experience Broadway the way I have. I have to assume that people in other parts of the world have their own Broadway; it is in that truth, I find pleasure.
www.astep.org — A not-for-profit organization designed to introduce and connect underserved children to the arts.
“So much of me Is made of what I learned from you. You’ll be with me Like a handprint on my heart.” — Wicked
A Wicked Story
A number of years ago I was in a relationship with a Spaniard living in Zaragoza, Spain. Alejandro would travel to New York to see me as often as he could. Alex’s plan was to move to New York to be with me when he finished med school. We shared many things in common, however, one of the many things we joked about was his disdain for musical theatre. I would tell him that I was seeing a musical and he would just laugh and tell me to have fun. I have a good friend who invested in Wicked and she invited me to the opening on Broadway; certainly one of the most exciting nights of my life. We attended the after party at Tavern On The Green in Central Park and I got to sit alongside Sarah Jessica Parker, Carol Burnett, Michael Hall and many other big stars. I was euphoric, star struck, and in many ways it felt magical.
I called Alex to share the experience and he said, “Honey, if it’s that good, you have to take me.”
A couple of months later, Alex told me he’d be coming to New York for his birthday and to spend some time with me. I was able to get center orchestra seats for Wicked on his birthday. I made a reservation at a restaurant I knew he would enjoy and kept it from me until the day of the show.
When I told him over dinner, Alex was excited because he’d heard a lot about the show and he knew how much I had enjoyed it. I was fully conscious of his feelings about musicals, but in my heart-of-hearts, I knew this musical would bring him over to my side. Throughout the performance I would glance over and see Alex smiling from ear-to-ear and every so often he’d squeeze my hand or bump knee. His tears and laughter throughout made it even more special for me. During a long standing ovation, Alex whispered in my ear that this was the best birthday of his life. He grabbed my head, turned it with both hands and planted a big kiss on my lips. I was out of my mind elated.
As we continued to stand and applaud, a woman sitting behind me with her ten year old daughter, tapped me on the shoulder and screamed above the applause, “My daughter did not have to see that.”
Of course I knew she was referring to the kiss. Understandably curious, Alex asked me what she’d said. I told him and that’s when I saw his Latin temper unleashed. He held nothing back; letting this woman know what he thought of her and her biased, toxic rage over a kiss. I said nothing. I watched and listened to this man defend our love to this vile stranger. I knew that I loved Alex, but that moment, that night, that unbridled valour, sealed the deal forever.