Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Lullaby of Broadway: My best (weirdest) moments of theater-going

Being a theater geek is part of my genetic make-up. My dad grew up going to the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall and musicals on Broadway as a youngster, my mom played The Phantom of the Opera on tape in the car whenever she got a chance and my sister starred in productions in high school and college like Pirated Penzance and The Mikado.

It became almost a necessity for me to at least appreciate the craft of play-going, and more specifically musical-going. But I didn't just appreciate it, I embraced it. I attacked it head on.

I became infatuated.

And over the years I've accumulated some favorite moments of my theater-going experiences, some of which I will make you privy to today - regardless of how weird they make me sound. Then maybe I will stop having friends ask me why I enjoy going to shows so much and instead get them to dish out at least $5 to partake in some of the most fun and worthwhile entertainment that we have available to us.

1. Spring Awakening - The girl who knew too much

Spring Awakening at the Novello Theatre in London.
I have seen Spring Awakening many times since first catching it in London. On visiting Chicago for the first time, I decided that in between interviewing at and touring various schools, I'd take an evening off with a friend and her family to watch this musical that I'd grown passionate (and obsessive) about.

Sitting in the theater waiting for the show to start, my friend and I struck up a conversation with a girl seated in the row in front of us. "I've seen this show 17 times," she said. I looked at her incredulously, wondering how someone could see a show more than a dozen times. Then I realized, I've seen Wicked at least a dozen times, occasionally with multiple viewings in the same week. And the craziness didn't seem so outrageous to me anymore.

A great musical is one that you want to explore in depth - to see a million times over so you can learn the intricacies, recite the lines, know the lyrics by heart and feel like you're among the characters.

I went on to see Spring Awakening nearly seven or so times myself - tomorrow making it eight or so - and now 17 doesn't seem like an unrealistic number. An amazing musical is like a wonderful song or a terrific movie - recurrence is a luxury that you just can't resist.

2. Aladdin - Have I seen you before?

Hello there, Al.
Over the last several years, I've seen Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular at California Adventure at least 50 times with no exaggeration. My friends and I, in the eternal quest to see our favorite Aladdin perform the role (they juggle times among at least three or four different actors), would attend several shows a day, waiting until that fateful moment when the spotlight shone on Aladdin - up in a window above the stage - and we could either grunt like disappointed children waiting for their turn at the water fountain or squeal like those same children during snack-time.

One day we managed to grab great seats (thanks to my running skills) at Aladdin. An employee came up to us and asked "Hey, have I seen you around here before?" That's when we realized we had a problem.

Sometimes theater can go from hobby to insanity, and sometimes it takes an usher to remind you that seeing the same show 100 times won't make the actors fall madly in love with you. We learned our lesson, yet we still see the show every few Disney visits.

3. Xanadu - I don't need your breath in my ear

It may sound strange, but some of the fondest memories are also the weirdest experiences I've had as a theater attendee. A couple of years ago, my dad and I bought tickets to see Xanadu from stage seats (a group of seats located on the sides of the stage that are slightly lower priced than regular seats). We became part of the show, given glowsticks and instructions about how to behave during the performance.

But leave it to the actors themselves to fudge things up. As one roller-skating ensemble member made his way onto the stage, he very coyly whispered in my ear. To this day, I could not tell you what he said, but I can very accurately explain the feeling of having warm air blown into my ear.

I couldn't help but react viscerally. Jumping from the surprise and disgust at having some stranger's mouth so close to my ear, I likely grimaced for the entire audience to see. Strange as the experience was, it was a highlight of what was already a pretty zany and amazing show - and it was also proof why being an active member of the on-stage audience is much more entertaining than being static in the floor seats.

4. Jersey Boys - Thank you for leaning

The worst thing about theater-going is tall people. While I know genetics are uncontrollable and therefore extend my apologies to incredibly tall individuals, this doesn't lessen the fact that in the theater they are the absolute bane of my existence.

When I saw Jersey Boys in London with my dad a few years ago, we were sitting within the first ten rows. Typically, these seats can't be defeated - even if Bigfoot himself decided to plop himself down in the seat in front of us. But leave it to the Gods of theater-going to send me the tallest of all tall people to sit in front of me on that fateful rainy London afternoon.

He was a teenager, probably about the same age as I was at the time. As he sat I made a disappointed face to my dad, but said nothing. But unlike many before him, this boy was the most considerate person ever in the world. Sincerely.

As soon as the show began, he ducked down in his seat - making himself even smaller than the very short people around him. He remained that way for the entirety of the performance and during the bows and standing ovations at the very end - when he saw he was blocking my view behind him - he leaned down again in his seat.

Rarely do you find someone who, even without rude prompting, is willing to put themselves in an awkward, even seemingly uncomfortable position to improve your situation. So whoever you were, tall boy, I thank you.

5. Billy Elliot - Merry kinship, Maggie Thatcher

My final favorite moment also occurred in London a few years ago, when I saw Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre. My dad and I scored second row aisle seats to this show, some of the best seats that I've ever had (in a small theater too)!

Sitting in orchestra (or the stalls, as the English call it) is something I've always preferred when going to see plays. Though prices run high, the value of being more involved in the action and story can be worth the extra money.

In Billy Elliot there is a song that the protesting coal miners sing called "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher." The song is accompanied by giant demonic puppets depicting the widely hated (at least among Labour & Lib Dems) Conservative Prime Minister. And the audience, whom I guess were primarily liberal, were in a tizzy over the spectacle.

It was one of the most significant moments of theater for me - being among people who shared a cultural identity and getting to enjoy and laugh with them, falling into the themes of the show as if they were part of true life instead of in a separate reality on the stage.

A couple of years down the road, I went to see Billy Elliot in Chicago with my dad. As we sat in the balcony, I could not wait for "Maggie Thatcher" to come on and get the entire audience laughing and clapping. Maybe it was the historical illiteracy of the audience or maybe it was the higher seats, but for some reason the reaction just wasn't the same. Maggie was met with little to no laughter and polite, but not appreciative, applause.

The greatest part about theater is feeling like you're part of a community of people who are as impassioned by the medium as you are. I've been to plenty of shows where even sitting in the audience felt painful because the audience reaction was so sub-par. I could feel the audience judging, but not treating the cast well.Yet when I have found myself amidst a group of people who love theater like I do, or at least understand its purpose, I've come to love going to shows even more than I already do.

The joys of omnipresence

I'm incredibly lucky to go to a university with one of the best theater programs in the country. I attend shows regularly, increasing my knowledge of musical and play history to an extent that I had not nearly reached in high school.

Though my favorite moments in the theater have all occurred in professional productions around the world, some of the best experiences have been getting to enjoy the work of budding young actors at only $5 a ticket.

I was raised in a family that coveted art and live entertainment. I attended my first musicals before I was even enrolled in elementary school. This was a plan set out for me 15 years ago and I've never looked back. I've never felt that the hours I've spent sitting in a theater have been a waste.

If it is right to ascribe meaning to anything in life, then the enjoyment of certain mediums is certainly a deserving aspect. A decade and a half will tell that theater-going really can be one of the most amazing experiences, from acquainting you with other fanatics around the country to finding the good in strangers to feeling a part of a community of people who have like interests.

And to anyone who still doesn't understand, well that's your loss.

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