I almost stopped the show . . . three times.
When I was in sixth grade I had no idea that gays were “supposed” to be huge fans of Broadway shows. I just know that I adored Mary Martin and Ethel Merman and Julie Andrews. Rodgers and Hammerstein were gods. By the time I started high school I owned the cast albums of over a hundred shows. I saw every touring company that came to Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Naturally I was in the Thespian Club in high school and in all of the school plays. Well, all but one. My sophomore year, Miss Ledford, the drama coach, put on two plays at once: A Thurber Carnival and Spoon River Anthology. I was in the cast of Thurber and was the stage manager for Spoon River. Both shows were done “theater in the round” with the audience seated on the stage, rather than in the auditorium.
Debbie Haun, a beautiful girl who was a year ahead of me, was in Spoon River. She was very soft spoken. You had to strain to hear her. Miss Ledford tried and tried to get her to “project, Debbie! Speak from your diaphragm! It doesn’t matter that the audience is right up here with you, they still need to be able to hear you!” It didn’t matter. She still barely spoke above a whisper.
The night of the show when Debbie was giving one of her many monologs I walked behind the last row of chairs we’d set up for the audience to see if I could hear Debbie. All of the characters in Spoon River are dead. They speak from the cemetery. I love this play, and the songs that are part of it. This particular monolog was actually given by a character from whom you’d expect a quiet, mousy voice. The one character that Debbie’s sotto voce was perfect for. I walked quietly between the last row of chairs and the edge of the stage just as Debbie opened her mouth . . . and put Merman to shame.
She BOOMED out her monolog as if she were pealing the last cry of doom. People actually lept back in their chairs, they were so startled. I looked heavenward, asking the theatre gods, Why? Why now? Why THIS speech?
I should not have continued walking while I looked to the heavens, as I walked right off the stage. When my foot landed on air instead of the stage, I cried out, even louder than Debbie. My landing was none too quiet, accompanied by the kind of language tenth graders shouldn’t be using.
I lay on the ground, thinking it best to just stay there, hoping people would think they imagined the whole thing. I realized Debbie had stopped speaking. When I heard chairs scraping I worried people were coming to check on me. I didn’t want to disrupt the show (too late!) so I decided it would be best to let everyone know I was alive and well. I stood up.
Every face was turned my way. I gave a feeble wave and was met with applause from everyone except Debbie and Miss Ledford. What could I do, but bow?
Every few years I scrimp and save until I have enough in the Vacation Fund to do New York right. I had front row seats to two musicals and one straight play. My word, but front row seats are expensive on Broadway! I didn’t care. I’m a Broadway Baby. The Revival of West Side Story, Billy Elliot and The Glass Menagerie were all part of this trip. The two musicals were magic. I choked up at both of them, as I almost always do.
I’d never seen The Glass Menagerie. To be honest I only saw it because it was famous, and I thought It added a sense of erudition to my trip. I wanted people to think I was a highbrow.
I couldn’t get a front row seat to the Tennessee Williams play and had to settle for a second row center seat, which is still nothing to sneeze at. That’s a funny line. You’ll see why in a moment.
The playbill included a warning that clove cigarettes would be used in the play. Meh, who cares? The cast featured famous people that I recognized but I can’t for the life of me remember their names now. One of them was on the last season of Designing Women, I think. Anyway the actors on the stage aren’t as important as the actress who was sitting in front of me: Jennifer Anniston! The TV show Friends was still on and still a top ten hit. Having her sitting directly in front of me was a big deal.
I was trying to play it cool, giving her space, not wanting to intrude on her evening, yet also wondering if it would be okay if I asked her for an autograph or a selfie during intermission. The houselights dimmed and Act One started. I was torn between watching the stage and watching the back of her head.
One nice thing about being in the second row is you are so close to the performers you can see the veins in their hands.
One bad thing about being in the second row is you are so close to the performers that when one of them lights a clove cigarette you’re close enough to discover hitherto unknown allergies.
One horrible thing about being in the second row is when you sneeze the most violent, snot-flinging sneeze you have ever sneezed in your life, the spray lands on the back of Jennifer Anniston’s head, and is noticed not only by her, but by the performers on stage.
Who pause mid line.
And stare in morbid fascination as Jennifer Anniston turns around to glare at you.
All I could do was turn and glare at the person next to me. “Gesundheit!” I said just above a whisper.”
She didn’t believe me.
The gentleman caller on stage recovered and continued speaking, but after that, the magic of the fourth wall was gone. They were able to recover, but I almost ruined the show.
I bought season tickets to the Birmingham Broadway series. Second row center. Just a single seat. None of my friends are Broadway junkies like I am, and it was easier to get that golden center seat in the second row as a solo ticket holder.
The people to my left, right, and directly in front of me were also season ticket holders. I had the same seating companions for every show. The first show I saw was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It wasn’t the show I would have picked, perhaps, but it was part of the season, so what are you going to do? I’d seen The Lion King, not as a season ticket holder, but just buying a ticket, and it’s wonderful, so I had high hopes.
I have no problem with the suspension of disbelief. When I saw Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan when I was fifteen years old, during the curtain call she flew out over the audience, flinging fairy dust as she went. She flew right over me, and I stood on my seat, jumping in the air, determined to fly.
At forty something I wasn’t any smarter. Before the lights dimmed and the curtain went up, I introduced myself to the two little old ladies to my right and to the gay couple on my left. The little old ladies were very sweet. The gay couple wasn’t. They were mean gays. I felt betrayed by them, since I was part of their tribe.
Everything was fine until the [final] few minutes of the show. The beast is dying. Belle is grief stricken and she’s not alone. I’d felt the painful lump in my throat and was trying to keep it from escaping but it found it’s way out. Once it let loose as a single sob, there was no holding back the tears. Thankfully they were silent, but my sniffing gave me away.
The mean gays were aghast. They rolled their eyes and poked each other in the ribs and pointed.
The little old lady directly next to me leaned over and tapped me on the arm and said, “Dear, you do know it’s only make believe, don’t you?”
That was only the beginning. South Pacific, Billy Elliot, The Lion King, Wicked, it made no difference, before the final curtain Bob was weeping, the mean gays were mocking, and the little old ladies were consoling.
Then came Les Miserable.
I’d seen it before, In Miami Beach, soon after it opened on Broadway. I have the cast album as well as the 10th and 25th anniversary concert recordings, neither of which I can get through without falling apart.
I was worried, but prepared. I brought a little travel pack of Kleenex. It had ten tissues in it. This production was not like the one I’d seen many years before. The effects were incredible. Javert’s suicide made me gasp. But long before Javert jumped off the bridge, I had Fantine’s death to contend with. And “On My Own.” And Eponine’s death. And the battle at the barricade. I was long out of Kleenex when Val Jean sings, “on this page I write my last confession” and Fantine and Eponine show up to escort him to the afterlife.
That was it.
Forget silent weeping.
I tried, oh lord, how I tried. But I couldn’t hold it in.
I just knew I was going to ruin the show for everyone sitting around me.
I almost did, not because I disturbed them, but because I startled the guy conducting the musicians. No lie, he turned around to see who was caterwauling.
But with the first sob, two mean gays, two little old ladies, and the three people who always sat in front of me, all seven of them held out a full-sized box of Kleenex to me, first tissue already out, ready to be grabbed. One of the mean gays even put his arm around my shoulders.
Will wonders never cease?