Such a beautiful song. I will never forget seeing Christiane Noll and Robert Petkoff perform this the night that Ben made his Broadway debut in the Ragtime revival. It brought — and still brings — tears to my eyes. Wish I had seen Marin Mazzie and Peter Friedman do this in the original production. RIP, Ms. Mazzie.
Ben made his Broadway debut in “Ragtime” at the Neil Simon Theatre in November 2009. On Monday, his roommate and fellow "Newsies" cast member, Josh Burrage, makes his Broadway debut in “Cats” at the same theatre. Adding to the small world aspect of professional theatre, the marquee for “Mean Girls” — Ben’s next show — went up today across the street at the August Wilson.
As Ben said when he posted this photo, “Honored to walk to work with my roommate and see this. Lots of love for 52nd Street.”
In just under the wire, here's a video I made 7 years ago to commemorate Ben's Broadway debut in Ragtime. Ahh, the memories.
Flying home yesterday from LA, with a brief stop to drop off my mom in Houston, I realized yet again how wonderful it is to have so many special friends and extended family members as a result of the boy's adventures. I saw people who have been part of our lives for the past eight or nine years and just shook my head in wonder at the community that surrounds him and us.
Watching the filming of "Newsies" could have been better only if Jill was there. It truly was a remarkable evening filled with memories and hope. Now, after a frenetic past few weeks of work and wonder, things briefly slow down to "normal."
Whatever that is.
Several years ago, Ben and I attended the Helen Hayes Awards, where the Kennedy Center’s production of “Ragtime” was up for multiple honors and legendary playwright Edward Albee was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. If was an opportunity — a year after the Kennedy Center run ended and four months after “Ragtime” on Broadway closed — for Ben to briefly reunite with the theatre family he had come to love.
Terrence McNally (author of the book for “Ragtime”) introduced Albee, a longtime friend and writer of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “A Delicate Balance,” among other classic shows. At the after party, we were celebrating with “Ragtime” alums Sarah Rosenthal and Laurie Ascoli when I noticed Terrence and Albee talking.
Not wanting to miss out on a chance to have Ben’s picture taken with two of the great playwrights of the 20th century, I convinced him to ask Terrence, an incredibly kind man who generously agreed. Laurie, Sarah and some unidentified woman (unceremoniously excised from this photo during the editing) joined in and we got this.
Upon hearing of Albee’s death last night, I immediately thought of this special moment as well as one dating back to my time at University of Houston, where he taught playwriting starting in the late 1980s. I was taking an acting class in pursuit of a minor for my long-gestating degree, and we were asked to read some of the students’ work for Albee.
The character I read was the villain of this noir-ish piece, which needed some work, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. (I am not, repeat NOT, an actor.) I remember only one part of the scene, where my character asks a prospective victim, “Do you know how long it takes to watch a person drown? … Seven minutes … I timed it on my watch.”
At that point, Albee nodded, looked at the writer and us, and said, “Thank you. Not bad.”
Best review of my life.
“Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” the first number in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate,” is a famous show business anthem. Performed by the ensemble, the self-referential song is “a chance for stage folks to say hello” while also conveying the uncertainty that comes with opening a new show in front of an audience.
“Another job that you hope will last/Will make your future forget your past/Another pain where the ulcers grow/Another op’nin of another show.”
Just over a month ago, as “Tuck Everlasting” opened on Broadway, I found myself humming that song and wondering how long this small, family-friendly story would last in a crowded New York marketplace. It was the first time Ben had been in the opening of a Broadway show since “Ragtime” in November 2009, but the circumstances were much different then.
At the time, our son was just 11 (he turned 12 during the run). We had to get an apartment in the city and soon found our lives turned upside down in one of the most thrilling, confounding and, at times, scary periods we would have as a family.
With “Tuck,” Ben was 18 and striking out as a true — at least in the legal sense — adult for the first time.
The whispers started within a few days after “Tuck” opened to largely positive reviews, including a rave in the New York Times. The box office was not good. Ticket sales were stagnant. Expenses were high with the recording of the show’s soundtrack — due out June 3 on iTunes — and the creation of a video B-roll to promote “Tuck.” A decision to rely on social media and avoid print advertising almost entirely did not make sense, but I attributed that to being an old print guy.
The bump you’d expect in the first week after opening never happened, and a disappointing showing when the Tony nominations were announced did not bode well.
Three weeks of steady drizzle did not help either, forcing the postponement of a potential buzz-generating “Today Show” appearance three times. In one of the busiest seasons for new musicals in years, one that is nonetheless dominated by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, much-beloved “Hamilton,” it was proving to be a harsh uphill climb.
The day after the “Today Show” appearance, the producers decided to pull the plug. “Tuck,” the little show that could — and did — make it to Broadway, would not last until Memorial Day.
Why do shows that are so good, so rich and thought-provoking in their themes and execution, seem doomed to short runs?
It’s an age-old question that is answered, simply, with the phrase: “Broadway is a business.” And any business that doesn’t make money can run for only so long before it closes. When you’re looking at a show that spends hundreds of thousands a week just to keep the doors open, the risk/reward ratio makes even investing in such a proposition a daunting prospect. Just ask the producers of “American Psycho” or “Disaster,” two other new musicals that have met similar fates within the past month.
“Tuck’s” brief life was not due to a tainted spring or a man in a yellow suit, but to a fate that was an all-too-familiar flashback to “Ragtime.” No matter how entertaining the show was, how noble its themes and intent, the money talked.
On its final weekend, Emma and several of Ben’s friends from Northern Virginia went to New York to see "Tuck" while Jill and I went to the graduation events for our niece, Margaret, in North Carolina. Jill and I had a lovely time, but I kept thinking back to the days leading up to the “Ragtime” closing.
I remembered following Ben from our apartment on West 54th to the Neil Simon Theater just a few blocks away. It was a bright, sunny, and not horribly cold January Sunday. I took a picture of him walking down Broadway with tears in my eyes, feeling lost for my son. No one in our family knew what would happen next.
It has been a fascinating ride since then. Still, when something like this — such a heady, overwhelming mix of euphoria, sadness, joy and confusion — happens to your child, you can’t help but be touched by it. And each subsequent time it occurs touches you in some different way.
The same could be said for parenting. It never gets easier, just different. Your hopes and dreams for your children don’t evaporate even as they evolve with each experience. And they are still capable of bringing tears to your eyes at a moment’s notice.
On our way home from North Carolina, I found the picture I took on the day “Ragtime” closed and noted how things have changed over the past six-plus years.
“Today,” the Facebook/Instagram post read, “he made a similar trip for the final performance of ‘Tuck Everlasting,’ this time from his apartment and for the first time as an adult. We love you, son, and just like that day when I followed you as a 12-year-old into an uncertain future, I can't wait to see what happens for you next.”
Opening night for "Tuck Everlasting" is finally (almost) here, the culmination of almost three months filled with firsts for the boy.
Tomorrow, we have the chance to see Ben perform during the opening of an original Broadway musical. At 18, he also is making his “adult” debut in the ensemble at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City.
What makes this a unique experience for Ben, besides the "adult" part and living on his own in the city, is this is the first time he has been part of the cast of an original musical in New York. "Ragtime," in 2009, was a revival. "Billy Elliot" had already been running for more than a year on Broadway when he joined the ensemble. On the "Billy" and "Newsies" tours, he went through the tech process, but both of those shows were already established and much of the music/script/choreography had been locked in by the creative team.
A new musical, even one that had been performed out of town, is much different.
Five weeks of rehearsals were followed by almost a month of previews as the creative team continued to tweak and polish “Tuck,” which is based on the acclaimed children’s novel by Natalie Babbitt. Tim Federle, a wonderful writer and family friend who was one of Ben's mentors on "Billy," was brought in to contribute to the book. Music has been added, polished, and cut. Much of the choreography is new.
That’s the reason the preview process is so important, because it gives the show a chance to be performed for audiences to see what works and what doesn’t before it is formally locked in.
Chances are that if you saw “Tuck” in the first week or two of previews that what you’ll see now is different. It’s certainly been different for Ben, who is on stage quite a bit as an ensemble member and had not gone through one of those periods as a performer. (He was an understudy during the “Ragtime” revival.)
What makes this period so grueling for the actors, creatives, and crew is that you are essentially doing two shows a day, six days a week. During the preview period, “Tuck” has been running on a nontraditional schedule, with Sundays instead of Mondays off.
On single performance days, you typically arrive around noon to make adjustments and run through the show, take a break around 5 and then return two hours later to do it again for the preview audience. (Wednesdays and Saturdays are two show days.) Meanwhile, Ben is understudying two roles — Jesse Tuck and Hugo — and is learning their parts on stage.
Also over the past month, the show has hosted legendary theatre photographer Joan Marcus, who captured the in-performance images that are at the top of this piece, and shot performance footage for a “B-roll” that will be used for promotion purposes.
Finally, on Sunday, the cast gathered in a recording studio to record the score’s soundtrack, which will be available digitally on June 10 and in stores on July 1. That was another first for the boy.
And so now it’s almost time. Another opening, another show. Proud family members in the audience. Others rooting for Ben from close and afar.
There’s a certain “déjà vu all over again” feeling … and we couldn’t be more proud.
Break a leg, son.
A couple of additional things to note:
• It has been so wonderful to see the large number of friends and extended family who’ve come to see the show during the preview period. Cast members from “Billy Elliot” and “Newsies,” as well as friends from Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan, already have seen “Tuck.” I hope you’ll consider a trip, too.
• Dave Mack, a New York-based photographer, videographer and musician, is working at the Broadhurst Theatre and has been taking a series of beautiful portraits backstage. Here are a couple.
Proud parents with Ben after his performances in his first-ever Broadway show (Ragtime, November 2009) and his first show as an adult (Tuck Everlasting, April 2016).
Ben is featured in a wide-ranging interview on Broadway World, looking ahead to “Tuck Everlasting” and back at “Newsies.” In some ways, our high school senior is starting to sound like the theatre veteran that he is.
• The hardest part of performing professionally at such a young age was definitely being away from my family. I moved to New York when I was eleven and my parents had to switch off taking care of me until we could find a permanent solution. And being on the road [with “Billy Elliot”] when I was 13, and then once again when I was 16 with “Newsies”, was really hard. I was on my own, away from my family, and barely ever got to see them.
• I would say the hardest thing I've had to learn is that your body is not indestructible. I remember when I was younger, I wouldn't stretch very often and would go from zero to a hundred without really thinking about it. And that's okay when you're really young, but the older you get, the more your body needs to be taken care of. I remember I suffered a heel injury when I was in “Billy Elliot” and was out of the show for about four months, and that was really hard; I never stretched and that was definitely a wake up call for me, having to make sure I kept my body warmed up and healthy.
• In this business, unfortunately, there are hundreds of no's to one yes, and it can be really hard. But if you know this is what you want to do with your life, never give up. I know, personally, it's something I have always had a passion for and have longed to do, and everyone in this business is in it, not for the job security or the paycheck, but because it's what they love.
The boy is growing up. To see the rest of the interview by Gianluca Russo, click on the link here.
Six years ago tonight, the boy made his Broadway debut. Amazing how time flies, how much our lives have changed over that time, and how much all of my children have grown up.
Congrats to Nick and the fellow members of his Vital Signs group on the release of their second EP. Especially check out my oldest singing "In Your Arms" with Marty Lucero. You can get the EP on iTunes by clicking here.
Yep, I know I'm saying it again, but I'm a proud dad...
Few things are sadder than seeing a stage, full of such life and vibrancy just a few days ago, empty except for the crew loading out.
But that’s what happens when a show closes. For those not familiar with the lingo, it’s called the “strike.” (Ironically appropriate, in this case…)
This morning, after dropping Ben off for school, I walked past the Neil Simon for the first time since Sunday’s closing performance, seeing the crates and the crew working in what seemed like organized chaos to me. It’s yet another difference between community and professional theatre; in this case, you have a lot of people who are paid good money to clean up afterward.
It’s still sad, however. And it made me do my own version of a circle back.
I circled back to last week, when suddenly people who thought the show would run for a lot longer raced to the theatre to see “Ragtime.” Several times, waiting after the show, I looked at the crowd standing outside in the frigid cold to get autographs and wondered: WHY?
In the short, three-plus block walk from the theatre to our apartment, I also thought of Alejando Escovedo’s song “The End,” written about the dissolution of a relationship. As the guitars build, Escovedo almost shouts, “Is this really the end?” repeatedly during the chorus.
I use music (along with writing) to process my thoughts and this was the song I played walking around the hospital in the final night before my father passed away. Sadly, the feelings were the same.
This show is not coming back; it really is the end.
If you have the time, take a look at this video of “Gene” the puppet, a creation by cast member Benjamin Schrader, talking to cast members about the show’s closing. It will make you smile.
The final week of "Ragtime" included Ben's fourth and fifth performances as Little Boy, with friends from Virginia's Metropolitan Fine Arts Center in attendance. Also, below are photos of the show's last day, including an after party attended by the cast, crew, and producers.
D.C.'s answer to the Tony Awards recognized Ragtime's terrific showing with four awards: Best Resident Musical, Best Actress (Christiane Noll), Best Director (Marcia Milgrom Dodge) and Best Costume Design (Santo Loquesto and Jimm Halliday). It also was an opportunity for Ben to reunite with a number of his friends (and there are quite a few) from the various shows he has done here.
Five years ago, on the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, I was in New York with Ben, who was about to start rehearsals for Ragtime. Because we were trying to work out the rehearsal schedule and how he would acclimate to his new surroundings, I got to know the assistant principal/dean of students on a first-name basis. This is what I witnessed that day.
This morning, I was sitting in the assistant principal’s office at my son’s new school when the principal walked in and asked, “Do you think we should have a moment of silence? There are four times we could do it.”
They proceeded to go down the list: 8:45 a.m., 9:03 a.m., 10:05 a.m., 10:29 a.m. The times were etched in both men’s memory.
“The last one is during lunch,” the assistant principal said. “Too noisy,” the principal said. “I don’t think we should do it then.”
At that point, they agreed to two, one-minute moments of silence — marking the times that the planes struck the south and then the north towers of the World Trade Center.
This low-key approach, coming on the eighth anniversary of 9/11, was refreshing, especially given that my son is now in a New York City public school just 5 miles from the Twin Towers site. No extremist hyperbole, no talk of terrorists, just two short moments to pause and reflect on a day that changed our world.
Just down the street, at the corner of 8th Avenue and West 48th, a group of firefighters from the Engine 54 station gathered on this drizzly morning. Together, they walked across the street to a short memorial service honoring the 15 firemen from Engine 54/Ladder 4/Battalion 9 who were killed on 9/11.
Another Anniversary Story
On a related note, I was in Chester, Pa., when 9/11 occurred, reporting on a story for my former magazine about the takeover of the state’s lowest performing school district by a private education management company — Edison Schools. Five years later, I went back to see what had happened to Chester and Edison in the interim. The resulting story, “Failing District, Failed Reform,” can be accessed here.
What a night. The 2nd Annual Born for Broadway benefit also served as a mini-Ragtime reunion, with performances by Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert, Stephanie Umoh, and Leigh Ann Larkin (from the D.C. cast), plus Ben and the other kids from the show.
The kids performed “Alone in the Universe” from “Seussical.” The video combines footage from the rehearsal and performance.
Directed by Ragtime's Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the evening of pop songs, showtunes, and standards also featured Lesley Gore, Glee's Jenna Ushkowitz, Memphis' Chad Kimball, Malcolm Gets, Jim Brochu and many, many more. Thanks to Marcia and organizer/event founder Sarah Galli for allowing me to take pictures.
So Whoopi Goldberg saw “Ragtime” last night and posed for a photo with the cast, including a young boy who wasn’t in costume.
Pretty cool if you ask me, although I’m still a little freaked that my 11-year-old son did a waltz with Chita Rivera earlier this year, and that I have photos and video to prove it.
On Halloween, the kids from the casts of "Ragtime," "Finian's Rainbow," "Mary Poppins," "Shrek," and "West Side Story" went trick or treating at the various theaters in Manhattan. It was definitely a different Halloween this year.
Santa came to visit the kids of "Ragtime" backstage this year, thanks to the efforts of wrangler John Mara. Great time for everyone involved.
Now this is a way to start the new year. Here are Ben and Chris singing "Bad Romance" during a dinner break between shows, with a short cameo from Josh Walden. Enjoy...
Ben is used to performing, so serving as an understudy was a bit of a challenge at first when he started work on Ragtime at the Kennedy Center several months ago.
Also, given that he is in fifth grade, he had to do something to show his teachers at Lorton Station what he was learning during the experience. So why not combine the two?
The result is this 17-minute video, which includes audio interviews Ben did with members of the cast of "Ragtime." The interviews are accompanied by stills from the show. Special thanks to Eric Jordan Young, Quentin Earl Darrington, Bobby Steggert, Sumayya Ali, Dan Manning, and Manoel Felciano for participating.
(Also, look for video at the end of Ben dancing with Chita Rivera...!)
Despite the uncertainty we face following the upcoming closing of "Ragtime" — it's been extended to Jan. 10 — we took advantage of our apartment's location (and roof) to celebrate the start of 2010 with the McFarlands and the rest of the universe that invaded Times Square. Another thing to scratch off the bucket list...
Attending the Tony Awards was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We attended a brunch sponsored by the Kennedy Center to recognize the show's six nominations, walked through Times Square (where the show was aired live) and then dressed up for the ceremonies at Radio City Music Hall. A great, great evening...
Look at what was on the cover of the Washington Post’s Weekend section — the picture of Ben dancing in “Newsies.” In the other photo, the boy is shown with Mark Aldrich, another D.C. area native who performed in “Ragtime” with Ben and has been in “Newsies” since it started at Paper Mill Playhouse three years ago.
As the D.C. run of Newsies begins, the boy has been doing a great deal of press for the show. He’s featured in a Washington Times interview with other cast members as well as a Fairfax Times piece that focuses on Ben and Mark. Another story, written for Northern Virginia magazine, also is expected the next week.
The best of the interviews, though, is this Q&A on the D.C. Metro Theater Arts website. It delves extensively into the boy’s background in D.C. theater, alludes to the Stage Dad column I wrote during his Billy Elliot days, and compares that show’s dancing to what you can see on stage in "Newsies." Check it out.
I'm constantly tweaking and changing my website to better communicate the variety of photography, writing, and consulting services I provide. The most recent change: A new section devoted to various professional and amateur shows and performances I've photographed.
Take a look: http://glenncook.virb.com/performances.
I call them "circle backs," because in theatre, everything seems intertwined. You constantly experience situations where past meets present, whether it's the people, the show or the venue.
Today represents a big circle back for Ben. Five years ago tonight, he made his Broadway debut in "Ragtime." Today, he's performing in Louisville, Ky., with "Newsies," in the same theater where he debuted in "Billy Elliot."
It's a small, small world...
Tonight, Nicholas is performing in his final fall concert with Vital Signs at Elon University. Due to conflicts here, I'm not able to attend this one, but can't wait to see him perform again in the spring. Break a leg, son! We are extremely, extremely proud of you and all you have accomplished!
And to complete my trio of male performers — Emma and Kate are sitting this weekend out by comparison — we also have to say another "Break a Leg" to our "adopted" child Jeremiah, who is playing the Mouse King and understudying the Nutcracker in MSA's annual production this weekend.
For someone who hasn't been performing long, Jeremiah has made remarkable strides over the past several months. It's remarkable that when he came down here last year to see the show, he had not given thought to moving at all.
Congrats... and can't wait to see you (and Emma) in Frosty Follies starting next week!
Chance encounter: Ben and I went to a tribute to Terrence McNally in New York a few years ago, hosted by Angela Lansbury with performances by a who's who in New York. I felt lucky to sit high up in the balcony.
Ben, who has been fortunate to perform in two of Terrence's shows (Ragtime and Golden Age), decided to run downstairs and say "Hi" to Terrence and Tom Kirdahy before the show started. Gracious as always, Tom introduced Ben to the woman he was talking to, an older woman with an elegant stature. As I walked down to get my then 12-year-old son to return to our seats, the woman gave him a hug and extended her hand to me.
"She was very nice," Ben said. "She asked me all about acting."
"Do you know who that is?" I asked.
"She said her name was Marian. She said I could call her Marian."
RIP, Marian Seldes. Thank you for being nice to my son.
"Ragtime" kids at the Tony Awards — New York City, June 2010
Fond memories, four years and one day after Ben's Broadway debut — Times Square in New York, November 2009
Ben's performing life in a 2-minute video (my present to him for his Broadway debut). It should be obvious quickly why he's here — performing is in his DNA.
Ron Bohmer, Born for Broadway — New York City, May 2012
This photo means a lot to me for a host of reasons.
I have served as a photographer for “Born for Broadway” for the past two years, and in the process learned a great deal about the need to raise money for paralysis-based organizations such as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. It gave me a chance to meet some wonderful people, among them Sarah Galli, who created the show as a student-sponsored cabaret at Marymount Manhattan College. She started the program after her brother sustained a spinal cord injury in a 1998 diving accident.
The gala, performed in New York, also has served as a mini-reunion for my son, Ben. He has performed in the show under the direction of his “Ragtime” director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and reunited — albeit briefly — with a number of his fellow cast members from the production.
The first time, in 2010, was emotional because “Ragtime” had closed prematurely in January of that year. “Born for Broadway” served as an opportunity to reunite the four kids — Little Boy and Little Girl and their understudies (one of whom was Ben) — who had performed in the show. It also gave audience members a chance to hear Christiane Noll and Robert Petkoff perform “Our Children” — a song that still brings a tear to my eye.
The second show came as Ben was rehearsing in New York, five weeks before he finally became “Billy Elliot.” He was the youngest entertainer to solo in the event, and performed “I Can Do That” from “A Chorus Line,” bringing his career at that point full circle.
I distinctly remember him auditioning for his manager with a dance to “I Can Do That” when he was 9. Seeing him perform it for an audience that had come to see Broadway and TV stars donating their time and talent, with absolute self confidence after a long day of rehearsals on a rainy New York evening, was both gratifying and fulfilling.
That I managed to get this picture of Ron Bohmer, who starred as Father in “Ragtime,” performing the show’s “Journey On” at the conclusion of the event is just a bonus.
I picked this photo today because the fourth annual cabaret was announced this week. It will be performed at 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 30 at 54 Below, less than a block from our old apartment on West 54th Street. And I’m planning to take pictures again.
Kennedy Center, April 2009: One of my favorite pictures from the "Ragtime" era, this is of Ben and Christopher Cox walking back to the theatre following a dinner break.
The sign for our child's first Broadway show — on Broadway in Times Square, no less.
Baseball is known for its superstitions: Always respect a streak. Never talk to the pitcher who's throwing a no-hitter. There is some logic to them, even though superstitions can stray toward the weird sometimes. To quote a player trying to stop a hitting slump in "Bull Durham": Anyone have a live chicken?
Theatre, as I've learned, also has its share of superstitions. Did you know that saying "Macbeth" aloud in a theater is the same as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie? (It is referred to, simply, as "The Scottish Play.") Or that actors do not, I repeat do not, discuss the show's reviews or their individual performances. (I'm pretty sure some read them, though...)
Baseball and theatre share a single moment in "Ragtime," in which Father takes his Little Boy out to watch a game rather than talk to him. Baseball is, Father says, a "civilized" sport.
Then, in the Act II number "What A Game!" Father finds that the other fans are less than proper and certainly not civilized, even as his son Edgar learns how the other half of a divided America lives. (Even though the play is set in New York, the fans act more like they're from Philadelphia.) It's a light moment in what becomes a progressively somber second act, and one of the play's many tips of the hat to America's greatest icons.
Theatre, like baseball, also is full of traditions, some of which are better known to the general public than others. As rehearsals have moved to performances, I've learned about two such traditions that are just fascinating.
One is the "sitzprobe," in which cast members sing through the show with the orchestra in a rehearsal hall without blocking, costume, or staging. The focus is on merging the two groups and in the case of "Ragtime," which integrated a 28-piece orchestra with a 40-member cast, it was quite the experience for all concerned.
The other is the "Gypsy Robe" ceremony. Held an hour before curtain on Opening Night, it started in 1950 when Bill Bradley, a chorus member in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," persuaded a chorus girl to give him her dressing gown. According to the Actors' Equity website, Bradley sent the gown to a friend on opening night of "Call Me Madam," who then sent it to another chorus member on the next opening night. The tradition, which has continued nonstop for almost 60 years, now has official rules; for example, the robe is given to the most experienced chorus member, who then parades around the stage counterclockwise and slaps the hand of each person in the cast.
Fortunately, Ben has participated in both events as part of the "Ragtime" company. This Saturday, when he goes on stage for the first time, he will sing "What A Game!" in the role of Little Boy. And as he learns more about the history and traditions of theatre, he flinches when I mention the word "Macbeth" in his presence.
As long as he doesn't go on the hunt for a live chicken, I guess we'll be OK.
“In 1902, Father built a house on the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill. ... And all our family's days would be warm and fair.” — The Little Boy, opening lines of “Ragtime.”
The curtain opened and there stood my son, opening the first Saturday night performance — not counting previews — of Broadway’s new revival of “Ragtime.”
It had been a long journey to this point, and as Jill and I sat on the 7th row in the orchestra section, we were more nervous than Ben was.
Arms interlocked, fingers crossed, tears filling our eyes, we watched as he maneuvered across the stage in the show’s stirring opening number. And just like you see in the movies, I found myself flashing back to that day in March when I took him to the understudy audition at the Kennedy Center.
“And there was distant music…”
At the time, we didn’t know if he had the vocal chops for the part, especially since the role called for performing with a 28-piece orchestra. And precedent was working against him; he had what he thought was a Kennedy Center jinx because some of his worst auditions had occurred there.
“Do your best,” I told him, as we do at every audition. “As long as you do your best, everything else will take care of itself.” I recognize those are clichés, but we say them with all due sincerity, because that’s all we require of him as we make this journey.
That day, we also came up with a new, more straightforward motto: “Kick ass. Take names. Have fun.” Perhaps not the most politically correct thing to say to an 11-year-old, but we say it anyway. And he did and does to this day.
For all of the hard work and sacrifice that this requires on the part of everyone in our family, you have to keep the “fun” part in perspective. After all, he’s still a kid, and this is an adventure equal to any rollercoaster ride you can find in any theme park.
Or, as he says, “You know what the worst part about boredom is? It’s boring.”
This has been anything but boring.
Ben takes his first bow on Broadway after performing as "Little Boy" in the revival of "Ragtime." (Photo by John Mara)
In my 20s, a car pulled out in front of me on Christmas Eve, totaling the first new vehicle I ever had. Then my second car, a used battleship that would not/could not be destroyed, was stolen the next holiday season.
A few months later, I got married, picking a safe, middle-of-the-year month — May — to avoid any potential mishaps. Within two years, my first child — Nicholas — was born (of course) in December, tying the fate of my parenting skill (or lack thereof) to the emotion-laden holiday season.
Two years later, during my parents’ Christmas visit to North Carolina, my dad and I went to see two movies on the same day. Movies were one way my father and I bonded, and it didn’t hurt that I managed to escape what was an increasingly untenable situation at home.
On the way back to Reidsville from Greensboro, I asked him: “Why, given everything you’ve been through, are you and mom still together? How have you made it work?”
He paused for a long time, then said, “When I look at your mother, I see the same person I fell in love with. Of course, she has changed, physically, and so have I, but I still see the same person.”
For me, there was — and is — no simpler definition of love.
I could not say the same, and within a month, I had left the marriage. I wanted the chance to be like my dad.
Within two years, I had divorced, remarried, changed jobs, and bought a house. As Christmas 1996 approached, Jill and I were ready to mark the birth of our first child, Katharine. She was born two days after Christmas.
Little did we know that before the next Christmas we would have two more children. Ben and Emma were born Dec. 11, 1997, giving us three kids who are the same age for 16 days each year and four children born in a single month.
Christmas had moved from a season of endings to a season of beginnings — albeit one that has us running around constantly and trying to hold on to our remaining shreds of sanity.
But the spectre of loss has continued to loom.
Last weekend, I looked around the table at a birthday celebration for Ben and Emma in New York. Earlier, Ben had performed for the second time in “Ragtime,” and we went to a restaurant with family and friends to share some cake and have a late dinner.
My mom was there, as was Nicholas (thanks to my mother’s generosity in paying for his plane ticket). Emma and Kate watched Ben perform for the first time, and we had dear friends and family also in the audience.
As we lit the cake, I looked around and thought briefly of the people who weren’t there — my dad, Jill’s mom, Fran and Bill — and would have given anything to join us. Just as I had done at Thanksgiving (also a dinner in New York), I thought of the holidays we shared as a family, how the chaos of growing up amid illness had given way to the chaos of raising our own children.
And, despite my need (and ability at times) to cling to the holiday humbug that looms over my past, I realized how truly lucky I am.
Nine days ago, Emma and I shoveled a path for the car. Two neighborhood girls came over and helped us clear the driveway while Kate started making her Christmas presents in every possible room of the house. As the night ended, we plodded to a hotel near the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, knowing that Jill would not make it from New York as we had planned due to the weather.
Eight days ago, at 5 a.m., we boarded a flight for Orlando and the land of the Mouse. The girls bickered. Kate twitched while Emma made her version of snark angels. It was colder than I anticipated, but we braved Magic Mountain.
Seven days ago, Jill made it! Forty minutes before the girls went on stage for Frosty Follies — the 22-minute holiday revue that is the only reason we were at Disney the week of Christmas — she arrived at the hotel, exhausted from an all-night trip of planes, trains and taxicabs. Later, we had drinks in the bar and shook our heads in amazement at the year almost behind us. I couldn’t sleep as I worked on the first draft of this entry, but the words weren’t there.
Six days ago, on three hours sleep, I left Orlando for New York. There, Ben was obsessing about “Billy Elliot,” wondering if he would have a chance to do that show, too. Ten minutes before curtain, he was on; I ran five blocks and saw my Little Boy on stage for the third time. He was terrific.
Five days ago, on Christmas Eve, I started writing this again, trying to find a way to meld the various emotions of seeing my girls on stage in Florida and my son on Broadway. But I couldn’t put the words on paper. After Ben’s matinee, we headed home on the train for Christmas in Virginia. The phone rang; it was Jill. Kate was in distress. They went to the hospital ER. We got off the train and cabbed to Springfield to meet them; Ben performed in the room while Emma laughed hysterically.
Four days ago, at the start of Christmas Day, we arrived at home with Kate. The diagnosis was a panic attack, but a neurologist now needs to be called ASAP. The ER doctor started off defensive, then realized what he — and we — faced. The kids slept until almost 8, when it was time to open presents. All the kids were extremely grateful for their gifts, a first I think, and it was a very nice and quiet day. Ben, grateful to be home, called it the “best Christmas ever.”
Three days ago, I drove to Ellicott City to drop off Ben, who had to be in New York for a matinee and rode back with members of the “Ragtime” cast. An article in the New York Times noted that Internet rumors were surrounding the show, but it looked like “Ragtime” would survive through January. Traffic was a bear, but I managed to get home and work some on the house, addressing long-awaited issues on the to-do list. Then Emma and I picked up Nicholas to head to New York, where we picked up Ben that night. I fell into bed.
Two days ago, it was Kate’s 13th birthday, and she celebrated with a low-key shopping excursion with her mom and a friend. Meanwhile, Ben and Emma bickered as all good married couples — and opposite sex twins — do. After lunch, I stood in the TKTS line for 45 minutes, only to be told at the gate that “Next to Normal” had sold out. Sadness turned to euphoria when I won the lottery and Nicholas and Emma got in to see the story of a bipolar housewife and the effect that the illness has on her family. Meanwhile, vendors stood at TKTS with “Ragtime” fliers in hand, getting few takers.
Yesterday, Dec. 28, we went our separate ways. Nicholas met up with some of his friends from school. Ben, Emma, and I arranged to go to Mars 2112, a bizarre little “Chuck E. Cheese Goes to Outer Space” restaurant on 51st Street, with a girl from “South Pacific” and her mom. It was a nice day.
Then, a series of omens — a picture frame broken, problems with Ben’s camera. Jill was returning to New York with Kate, which made Emma nervous. I was heading back to Virginia to work before the New Year’s holiday, but a few minutes after dropping Ben off, he called. I thought it was to tell me to have a good trip, or perhaps to apologize for the camera incident.
“We’re closing,” he sobbed, “on Jan. 3.”
Almost 10 months ago, our son joined a group of actors, singers, and dancers in a rehearsal hall at The Kennedy Center. Usually one or both parents accompany Ben to the meet and greets, whereupon we get to talk to some of the actors before we’re restricted to the stage door or green room to sit and wait.
Jill and I both attended this meet and greet because it was Ben’s first Kennedy Center show, his first Equity production, and his first time working as an understudy. He had just finished two Ford’s Theatre shows — “A Christmas Carol” and “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” — and was nervous but confident as this next journey started.
Little did we know what this journey would bring.
Ten months later, as I write this on a late Sunday in early January, I’m sitting on my bed in a New York apartment three blocks from the Neil Simon Theater. It’s quiet, although the 30 mph wind that has dropped temperatures into the low double digits continues to whip in and around our building. Ben is asleep in the top bunk near me, restlessly waiting for his return to school and to a life that in short time will be more unfamiliar than ever.
Because, one week from tonight, he bids farewell to “Ragtime” and to the extended family he has known for these past 10 months. It has been a time that has changed his life — and our lives — forever.
If this were an awards show, the list of people we need to thank would go far past the 45-second allotment that you get before they cut to a commercial. I would have to start with Ben’s siblings — Emma, Kate, and Nicholas — who have seen their lives turned upside down by all of this and proven to be remarkably resilient. Jill and I would have to give a special shout out to our employers and the people who work with us, for their patience and help as we juggle schedules. And we could not have done this without Laurie and John, the child helpers, or “wranglers” as they are known.
“Ragtime,” for those who haven’t seen it, has a 40-person cast and a 28-piece orchestra, plus a large crew that works behind the scenes. Almost half of the cast transferred with the show from the Kennedy Center, which means that Ben has spent the better part of a year with a core group of actors who have greatly influenced his life: Bobby, Dan, Quentin, Josh, Eric, Christiane, Sumayya, Ron, Mark, Donna, Aaron, Jonathan, Tracy, Bryonha, Corey, and Jim.
And of course I have to thank the kids, from mighty Miss Sarah and Christopher to Kaylie, Ben’s fellow understudy who joined the cast with 21 others from the New York area in September. And of those who joined the show in New York, I also have to give shout outs to Robert, Stephanie, Terence, and Carly. There are many, many more that I wish I had gotten to know better who also helped influence and support Ben.
Before my time at the podium runs out, I must move over to the creative team — especially Marcia the director and Jim and Jamie, the show’s musical backbone — that decided our son could be successful on the large stage. You have changed his life for all time.
And to Terrence, Lynn, and Stephen, as well as Tom and Michael, thank you for creating and nurturing such a wonderful piece of theater and allowing Ben to be part of that process.
We must also thank the crew from both companies, among them Peter, Shari, Brandon, and Kate, the stage managers who have been so supportive; John, Sunshine, and Roeya, the business folks behind the scenes; Rachel the dresser; and Errollyn the elevator operator, just to name a few.
As parents, we have learned to appreciate the people and what goes into the process of moving from page to stage, from creation to evolution as your work grows and changes over time. From our vantage point, somewhere on the distant periphery, we have witnessed the highs, the smiles, the lows, the tears, the questions of what happens next.
The reason “Ragtime” isn’t running for much, much longer will be one of many questions and much debate in the weeks, months, and years ahead. But we are so blessed to have had it be part of our lives for this past year.
Thank you again, from the parents of a Little Boy…
As a writer, I pride myself on transitions, leading the reader in the process from one thought to the next. As an editor, there is nothing worse than reading a story where the transitions are the equivalent of shifting from fifth to first without hitting the clutch.
Transitions are part of life, the chapter breaks in our story. Sometimes they make sense, a natural progression. Others come all too abruptly, with little rhyme or reason.
For the past month, I have mulled this entry over in my mind, as our family embarks on yet another in a series of never ending transitions. And every time I have sat to write it, the words just don’t seem to come.
One reason I hesitated in starting this blog was that I didn’t know if I would have enough material to write on a regular basis, knowing full well that the fall of every year brings so much to light that I could chronicle things by the hour without a loss for words.
There’s something about winter, however, that makes us burrow under. The post-traumatic stress disorder of the holidays is followed by the cold snap — some would say slap — that January and February bring. In our Virginia subdivision, we rarely discover our neighbors until the spring, or so it seems.
One month ago today, “Ragtime” closed. Instead of pulling up stakes and heading home, we decided to stay with the back-and-forth commute so Ben could finish the school year in New York. It just made sense, although the wear and tear on us has only been exacerbated by work and family demands and a climate shift that has left us buried by record snowfall.
As I posted to Facebook earlier this week, Mother Nature definitely needs some Depends.
The little bullets you see above this paragraph are another form of transition. Perhaps I’m taking the easy way out this time, but a random thought crossed my mind that I’ve wanted to write about for some time, so why not do it now?
Recently I started a blog entry titled “Creation vs. Evolution.” (No, it wasn’t my attempt to wade into that debate, although anyone who knows me — and my politics — would know which side I come down on without giving it too much thought.) But like several entries I’ve started and aborted recently, I just couldn’t get it out.
“Creation vs. Evolution” was talking about the process of working in an art form. In this case, and this one only, I definitely come down on the creation side. There is something about making something out of nothing that always has fascinated me, whether it’s the process of reporting and writing a story, putting out a magazine, or putting on a show.
To me, creating is the fun part; I’ve always said that rehearsal is much more fun than performance. Once the paper is put to bed, or the show is up and running, it’s time to move on to the next challenge/project/ thing.
For the first 13 or 14 years of my career, I never stayed in one job more than 36 months. I went into each new position determined to learn as much as I could, knowing I would give it everything I could. (It’s one reason I call myself a workaholic in a 12-step program.)
Once I mastered the task or the job, it was on to the next. For me, boredom was (and still is to large degree) the equivalent of a slow death. It represents a life without fun and interesting challenges.
When I left newspapers in 1996, I changed careers and went into communications. It was time for a change, and the 4½ years I spent in that job definitely set me up for the position I’m in now.
I didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into when we moved to Northern Virginia in 2001. I certainly didn’t think I would be at the same company almost nine years later.
But fate, combined with some fortuitous timing, intervened. And over time, I’ve been lucky enough to move from one position to the next to the next, each one presenting me with enough challenges to keep that dreaded boredom at bay.
Also, as I’ve gotten older, patience has slowly come to be a word I use without rolling my eyes. Mature, I know, but I prefer to think of it as appreciating the nuance of evolution. Over time, I’ve learned that if you’re patient enough, you can watch the arc of your personal or professional life extend beyond the immediate gratification we all desire.
As much as I love theater, I never understood how some actors could go to work and do the same thing day after day after day. It wasn’t until I saw “Ragtime” over a period of months that I realized the actors’ performances were slowly, subtly evolving into something far deeper and more satisfying. It’s a shame that the evolution can’t continue.
So here we are in a state of transition again, not just for the purposes of this entry but as a family. Sadly, we won’t get to see Nicholas this weekend due to the weather that has buried the Mid-Atlantic region, making the roads treacherous from here to there and points beyond.
Things do seem to come full circle in our little world, however. Nicholas is trying out for “South Pacific” this weekend at his school; ironically, Ben went to see his good friend in the show here in New York tonight. (See the Musical Obsessions and Circle Backs entry I wrote on this for more instances of irony.)
And, thanks to a break in New York City’s school schedule, we do get to spend the weekend and all of next week together as a family in Virginia. I have a new employee coming into work next week, and it’s less than a month from now that Ben starts rehearsals on a show at The Kennedy Center. (Another circle back.) Things are evolving amid our transitions.
Now that my writer’s block has ended, I pledge to return to this space more often as well. Creating a blog, I’ve discovered, was fun. The challenge, I’m learning, is how it will evolve over time.
I'll never forget the first time I took my son to a movie.
It was Thanksgiving Day in 1999. We were living in North Carolina, and my family was visiting from Texas. On a whim, we decided to take the foursome to Toy Story 2, even though Ben and Emma weren’t yet 2.
We knew it would be a challenge, and true to form, Emma and Kate decided to check out every seat, and lap, in our row. Nicholas kicked back amid the madness and feigned moderate interest; he had already seen the movie.
Ben sat in his chair, riveted, the entire time, eating his popcorn by the kernel and taking occasional sips from his Sierra Mist. His feet extended barely past the seat cushion.
We should have known something was different then.
Parents of child actors are on the periphery. You observe, evaluate, question, and wonder. You pursue PhDs in personal and professional juggling, trying to strike the balance between the actor, your other children, and your respective careers.
And you schlep — a lot.
At age 9, Ben decided he wanted to pursue this as a profession, with the encouragement of his dance teacher and a couple of others who had spotted his talent — and, more important, his presence — on stage. Talent is something you can nurture and teach; presence is innate. You either have it or you don’t.
Making this level of commitment was something Jill and I were willing to do, but we agreed in advance to several rules that we would not bend. Among them:
• He has to maintain good grades; none of this matters if he ends up flunking out of school.
• He has to be professional when he’s on the job.
• He has to be a kid when he’s not.
We also decided that we would make a conscious effort not to be your stereotypical stage parents, those who constantly criticize and critique everyone else’s work while extolling the virtues of their “perfect child.” You see these parents over and over at tryouts, acting/dance classes, and other informal gatherings rife with politics that could rival any legislature or Congress. (Suburban PTA meetings have nothing on a professional audition.)
Some parents want to sit and watch auditions and rehearsals and are shocked when they can’t, not realizing that this is work. (After all, would you want to accompany your teenage child to a job in a fast food restaurant? “Hey, Mom, can you please move? I’ve got to get this customer their fries.”)
That, of course, is a bit of an exaggeration. Many parents, like us, are making tremendous sacrifices for their children. But, just as in any competitive sport, we've seen some kids that are either coddled or pressured to such an extreme that you wonder how they will survive it. And sadly, tabloids have been littered with those who ultimately didn't.
Our philosophy always has been to be as unobtrusive as possible. We are there for support, not to interfere, which largely translates into a lot of picking up and dropping off. Our big questions are of the “Is he doing OK?” and “How can he improve?” variety. It’s the same approach we use with Ben and his other siblings with regard to school. While we have opinions, we’re not the professionals at this, and far be it for us to tell professionals how to do their jobs.
Most important is this simple fact: Our personal success is not rooted in Ben’s professional success. Instead, it’s rooted in whether we help our good, talented children become good, talented adults.
Today, at 12, Ben has worked more than some adults I know. Over the past year, he has been in four productions — two of the "Ragtime" revival and two world premieres ("The Heavens Are Hung in Black" and "Golden Age").
In many ways, this is his golden age.
Two years ago tonight, he finished a role as Young McDuff in the Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Macbeth.” It was a spectacular show, filled with magic, illusion, special effects, and buckets (yes, buckets) of blood. Pretty cool for a then-10-year-old, eh?
As parents, we were initially queasy about our son dying on stage 53 times, and watching him be stabbed and then carted off by his shirt (he had to wear a harness underneath) was shocking the first time.
But as the play’s run progressed, it started becoming routine.
“So how was the death scene tonight, son?”
“Pretty cool. I made a lady scream from the balcony.”
Theater is filled with these types of situations, populated as it is by exquisitely talented people who are wonderful characters in their own lives as well as on stage. Few are anarchists about earning “a decent wage,” but they are willing to do whatever it takes in exchange for the love their craft provides.
By and large, the people Ben has met in the professional world are not your stereotypical divas and jerks, although we know those folks are out there. In his case, it’s been exactly the opposite; people have been extremely supportive of him as a child actor navigating his way. They see his joy for the stage, his genuine love for the craft, and they see someone who — no matter what happens down the line professionally — is a lifer. And they have responded to that.
As much as Ben deals with the actors, most of our interaction on a show is with the “handler” — also known as a “wrangler” — who is hired to follow the child around and make sure that he/she is on time, always safe, and ready for his/her cues. (They also serve as big brother/big sister, psychiatrist, watchdog, and gentle chastiser.)
In many ways, it’s a thankless job, but one for which we are grateful. Ben has formed many deep, wonderful relationships with the people who were assigned to watch over him. We don’t know what we — or he — would do without them.
Two years ago, when “Macbeth” ended, Ben was extremely down, having come face to face with the reality that his life would be a series of meeting and making miniature families that would disintegrate when the curtain fell one last time.
Unfortunately, that’s the business piece of the art, which he also has learned the hard way in a short period of time. The closing of “Ragtime” remains something he doesn’t emotionally grasp, although he accepts with dismay the practical reality of it.
All of this has had an impact on his family, too. Emma, his twin sister, has learned to become more independent without him around. She no longer trails in his shadow. Nicholas is learning to appreciate the talent that his “little brother” has in addition to the opportunities he has not received.
Jill and I are learning to endure time apart, which makes our time together that much more precious. (Look up the clichés on absence and hearts and you’ll get my drift.) In life’s grand scheme (hey, I was in the cliché dictionary just a second ago), we realize our time doing this is relatively (and blessedly) short.
If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s how to become a cheerleader for my children. In addition to providing me with rafts of great material — this blog for example — they also bring me great joy. Having watched my own father struggle just to stay afloat, I realize how blessed I am to have the good health (as well as a good job) that allows me to give this back to my children.
I am proud to be a stage dad; in many respects it’s the best job I’ll ever have.
One thing we learned early on is that Ben feels lost without having a show to do. He is relentlessly creative, and at an age in which he is a sponge for knowledge, but having the structure of a regular schedule comforts him. This is the same child who, at age 3, wondered aloud what the schedule was, and was visibly upset that we had nothing planned on a Saturday.
“Dad,” Ben proclaimed recently (at 12 he is prone to proclamations), “I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m enjoying being around adults. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a kid, and I like kids. It’s just that kids are… so limited. I think adults are much more interesting.”
After the premature demise of “Ragtime,” we were fortunate that Ben was back on the job within a few weeks. This time, it was a new play — Terrence McNally’s “Golden Age” — at the Kennedy Center.
Ben was the only child in “Golden Age,” which was set backstage at the premiere of an opera in 1835. It’s not your typical topic for a 12-year-old who is content to make nerf gun videos during his time off. (As if to rub his still somewhat analog father’s nose in it, he announced today that he has more than 1,000 subscribers to his bentwins10097 YouTube channel)
But remember, this is the child who didn’t like to read, then found himself doing Dickens and Shakespeare in his first two plays. Whether he realizes it or not, the training he is receiving is in the work of some of the greatest playwrights of all time, and he gets to work with top-of-the-line actors, directors, and others as well.
“Golden Age” was presented as part of a trilogy of McNally’s plays devoted to opera; the others were the Tony Award-winning “Master Class” and the superb “Lisbon Traviata.” Like many new plays, it is a work in progress, but the writing is often funny, thought provoking, and in many instances for me, very profound. It is the work of a true artist, a combination of thoughts and perspectives on critics, commerce, and the joys and fears of creating something new and different, something the world needs but hasn’t yet seen.
Now “Golden Age” has ended, and the five-week DC to New York respite we received has ended, too. We’re back in the land of “Who knows what’s next?” again, facing a variety of new and sure-to-be interesting transitions.
And with that coda, I have only one last thing to say: Run like the wind, Bullseye.
Just after Ragtime’s stirring opening number, Father says something to Mother as he leaves on his year-long journey: Nothing much happens in a year.
In many ways, this is a typical Saturday morning. I’m writing this and procrastinating. On the agenda is grocery shopping, doing laundry, running a few errands, cleaning up the apartment, and muddling through some leftover work tasks. Ben is sound asleep on the couch, not yet stirring, and anxious to go to his dance classes. Tonight, Jill will arrive, and we will have a rare weekend together in New York.
But this weekend, like much of this past year, also is atypical. Tomorrow, we head to a brunch that will have the feel of an extended family reunion, and then we will go to (eek!) the Tony Awards.
It’s something I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime, and only fantasized about in the broadest terms a year ago. But in a rare moment of wisdom, the nominating committee recognized Ragtime with six nominations — an amazing feat for a show that closed five months ago.
In many ways, the nominations bring a bittersweet sense of closure to a show that many feel should still be running. They represent long-deserved acknowledgement for people who have toiled in the business for decades, an affirmation of some whose careers are just starting to explode, and recognition of a production that forever changed the lives of everyone involved with it.
And a year ago, it had only just begun.
Ben was the last person from the original D.C. cast to perform, and his debut was on Broadway. Closing for him, and for everyone involved, represented a huge transition into the unknown.
Journalists are trained to work with the 5Ws and an H. The lasting lesson from my college training is to ask two more questions: “So what?” and “What’s next?”
In this case, the answer to the “So what?” is obvious. This experience has changed our lives for good. And fortunately, after months of uncertainty, we now know what’s next.
But for one last weekend, we can remember, recognize and reflect.
From closing to closure, we have a chance to celebrate. And we will.
Note: Sunday marks a year since Ben’s Broadway debut in “Ragtime.” This week, Ben’s grandmother saw him in “Billy Elliot,” which made me wonder again how my beloved grandmother would have reacted to the craziness of our lives. This is a true story, with more than a little irony.
My grandmother sat in the dark auditorium and dozed to the ragtime music.
I ate my popcorn and glanced at her. Occasionally she would wake and look at the screen.
The movie was long, so she had a good long doze. She didn’t drink the Coke I had bought her with money she had given me earlier in the day, so the ice melted and left it flat.
I wished I knew what she was thinking.
Maybe it was relief. Maybe it was sorrow. Maybe grief. I really wasn’t sure. After all, he had been her husband for more than 50 years, the last five in and out of hospitals. They argued and fought. They kissed and made up. He was cantankerous, a do-it-my-way man’s man who really wasn’t.
She was an independent sort, a flapper in Louisiana who told stories — true ones at that — of getting rides to work with Huey Long. She was married eight years before her first child was born. Her second, my father, came two years later. She listened to music and cooked in the kitchen. She would slice raw tomatoes she bought from the nigra woman with the big garden down the street.
The lights came up. Now she would have to go back and visit the mourners.
“Thanks,” she said, as we walked to the parking lot. I drove, back then it was an adventure because I was only 16 and they had a big Buick that was almost impossible to park. As we walked out of the theatre she squeezed my hand, nearly cutting me with her wedding band. I knew her thank you was genuine.
I also knew no one would understand what I had done. Kidnapping my grandmother, to anyone on the outside, was not a great idea. Taking her to a movie I wanted to see was a selfish act.
We held hands as we went out to the parking lot on that drizzly December day. I steeled myself for the drive home and hoped I could back out of the parking lot in the big silver Buick without hitting someone. It was a 50-50 shot at best.
Grandmama had never driven a car. She was 76 now and not about to start, so asking her was out of the question. But as she looked at me with her eyes so tired, a washed out look that took me back to the first time my grandfather was in the hospital, she smiled and squeezed my hand again.
The wipers streaked the windshield; they hadn’t been changed. All I could be was critical, because I didn’t know how to change them. Still wouldn’t, if forced. I’m not mechanical.
She didn’t care. I was her only grandson, and she knew how to spoil me. It was the same technique she had used with my father and it worked. She came from an era that “respected” men for being “men,” even if it meant muttering the word “bastard” under her breath.
We drove in absolute silence for a mile, which was odd because we were both talkers. Some say I got it from her; my mom has got it, too, even though the two weren’t blood. Grandmama was one of the ones I could talk to about anything and not be scared.
The wipers muddied the windshield. They weren’t much help at all. We drove across town, probably too fast if my mom had been in the car. But my grandmother didn’t care.
“It was a good movie,” she said.
We got home and the family was there. No one said a word. They didn’t know what to say. My aunt (dad’s sister) and uncle scowled at me and shook their heads. I knew I would get a talking to later.
Soon I could smell the food. My grandmother was doing what she did best, cooking for the family. It was December, so there were no tomatoes this time. She served a thin flank steak, deep fried and battered. Coffee from that morning remained on the stove.
She didn’t talk much that week or next. It was the Christmas season 1981, and she didn’t think it was appropriate to ruin the holiday season for others. She didn’t cry, at least not in front of me. The only time I saw her do that was when she missed me leading a youth prayer at church because she got there too late.
I got my talking to from the people who didn’t understand my motive behind the kidnapping. They didn’t really care what I thought.
Over the passing months, as she dwindled in size and moved slowly toward the plot next to her husband, my grandmother never brought up that day. Six years later, in the middle of the night, I sat on the floor next to her as she lay on the couch. My father was calling for an ambulance.
I held her hand again. The wedding ring cut into it some more.
“Do you remember ‘Ragtime’?” I asked.
She nodded. I could barely see her in the dim light.
“Yes, it was a good movie.”
Not too long ago, I bumped into Jim Moore, the musical director for “Ragtime,” while Ben was in a ballet class.
“Did you realize what we were getting you into?” he asked.
We laughed for a moment — fleeting moments are all you seem to get when one show ends and the search for another begins — and soon parted ways.
This is one of theatre’s little oddities that no one prepares a parent for — watching your child have extremely intense, fulfilling relationships with people whose talents far outnumber yours, then seeing those relationships evaporate or be forever altered within moments or days. The boomerang of emotions your child feels is sometimes more dramatic than what you see on stage.
Fortunately, as we’ve learned, the theatre community in general is small and close knit. Chances are, if you go from show to show, you’ll always meet someone with a connection to someone you know. And, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll work with people you like (and who you hope feel the same about you) more than once.
Ben has been extremely fortunate to work with a variety of interesting, creative people over the past four-plus years he has been doing this. When each show has ended, he has mourned its loss, and wondered if he would ever see those people again. We try to reassure him, and let him know that he will, just in a different context.
Perspective is a funny thing, and in many ways, it’s only gained by experience and the passage of time. Little things — fragments of memory — that seemed insignificant in the moment take on greater resonance with perspective. Things that once seemed huge shrink and drift away when new memories or experiences are added.
As parents, this is something we try to teach our kids, that perspective and context do matter. It’s hard for kids — and in some cases, adults — to understand that a break up, or a show closing, or a high school sporting event that didn’t end well is not the end of the world. It’s even tougher to comprehend that something you cared so passionately about is but a memory.
That last sentence applies to parents, too. When you see your child immersed and psyched about an activity, no matter what it is, the end and subsequent transition always is a bit of a shock to the system. You’ve juggled and scrambled and rescheduled to successfully achieve the impossible, and then it’s done and over in a flash. Yes, inevitably we are relieved to get our lives back — until the next thing comes along, that is — but we often miss it, too.
Ben’s run in “Billy Elliot” — he marked 10 months in the show last week — has been a fascinating experience for a number of reasons. And even though it is a long-running show with no chance of closing any time soon, it has presented a number of challenges on the transition front. Ben has seen a number of kids — castmates and peers — leave as their voices change and contracts end.
The reality of the business — that nothing is ever permanent — regularly hits home.
Almost two years ago, I had no way of realizing the impact that “Ragtime” would have on the lives of everyone in our family. The show’s abrupt end caught all of us off guard, and it took a while to bounce back. It was such a close-knit group of people, which is something I’m reminded of every time we see someone from the show on the street.
I can see now, far more clearly, why people try to work with the same folks over and over. The ability to collaborate and create is made far easier when you have people you know who are just as passionate as you about a particular project. Ben is extremely fortunate to have known so many kind people who have that ongoing passion.
Two years ago, taking that leap into the unknown — a leap of faith without a bungee cord attached — was exciting, thrilling, exhausting and scary as hell for everyone in our family. And it remains just as exciting, thrilling, and yes, exhausting and scary today.
No matter what happens next, it’s been one heckuva ride.
I still get nervous when I see my children perform. It’s almost a reflex, a parent’s prayer to a higher being that they will enjoy it, that they will do their best, that nothing will go wrong and, if it does, that they’ll get out of it unscathed.
Over the past several years, I’ve seen my four kids perform in school plays, dance recitals, in college concerts, at venues across the country, and on Broadway. The same reflex kicks in every time.
But on June 30, after a tumultuous 18-hour period, storms on the runway flying to Louisville, Ky., four hours of sleep, and 4½ years of waiting/hoping/praying, I was almost too numb to be nervous.
Ben was finally going to be Billy Elliot.
My wife, Jill, and son, Nicholas, were sitting with me in the center orchestra section in The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Ben’s manager, Linda Townsend, and her companion were on the same row. Also in the theatre were Ben’s road guardian, Ginno Murphy, his tutors, several cast members’ parents, and a number of Billy “super fans” who traveled long distances to see the show.
The night before, Jill and I sat on the runway at National Airport as the huge storm whipped through the greater Washington, D.C. area, leaving 1.2 million people in the area without power and forcing the cancellation of our daughter’s dance recital that was scheduled for that weekend. We took off after sitting on the small USAirways jet for two hours, and did not arrive in Kentucky until almost 2 a.m.
As we were catching a cab to the hotel, my phone rang. It was Ben. He could not sleep. He was nervous. Could I stop in his room when I got there?
I dropped off Jill, who had just finished an 80-hour work week and was at the end of a 20-hour day, in our room and knocked on his door. There was my little boy, now 14 and about to embark on a journey few have dreamed. He wanted to talk – something he shares in common with his dad – and he wanted me to rub his back like I have done thousands of times before when he could not sleep. I happily obliged.
Ben asked which number I was looking forward to the most. I said the finale, when Billy leads the cast in a fabulous tap curtain call. He asked why and I told him simply, “because then you’ll be done.”
After 15 minutes or so, I left and saw Nicholas, Ben’s older half-brother who served as his guardian during the final two weeks of tech rehearsals. Nicholas, now in college and also a talented performer in his own right, did a great job of taking care of his younger brother. The two discovered a deep bond during that two-week period, developing a new-found appreciation for each other.
Flash forward 11 hours. Bleary eyed, we’re sitting in the audience, the resident director has introduced Ben and our family, and the curtain comes up.
Almost three years before, Jill and I sat in the Neil Simon Theater in New York, with tears in our eyes as the curtain came up in “Ragtime.” Ben was the understudy to Little Boy, a principal character who opens and closes the show, and was performing on the first Saturday night of the Tony-nominated (though much too short-lived) revival.
We held on to each other through every scene, and I don’t think I exhaled until the cast took its final bow. There have been lots of curtain calls since, a few disappointments, and some trying times for our family as we juggle parenting, jobs, and the dreams, hopes, and setbacks of our children.
While he was training, Jill said she would not believe Ben was Billy until she saw it with her own eyes. Now, there he was on stage.
For the Billy character, the first act is relentless as he has some role in every number – “The Stars Look Down,” “Shine,” “Grandma’s Song,” “Solidarity,” “Expressing Yourself,” “The Letter,” “Born to Boogie,” and “Angry Dance.” Act II has fewer numbers but is no less strenuous for Billy, with the “Swan Lake” ballet sequence and the show’s finale, “Electricity.”
I teared up twice. The first time was at the end of “Solidarity,” when the audience sees Billy discovering his talent for dance. After a full day of school and a performance in the “Billy” Broadway company, where he played Tall Boy and understudied Michael, Ben performed the turns endless times in the middle of the night in our New York apartment. Despite our orders to go to bed, he kept pushing himself, working on the perfect turn.
The second was during “Electricity,” the show stopping number at the end of Act II. It was the first song Ben learned from the show and one he practiced relentlessly. He had failed with the song and he had succeeded, and there he was performing it on stage.
In January, when the show closed on Broadway, I stood in the balcony and watched as the four Billys performed the number. At some point, I looked to my left and there stood Stephen Daldry, the show’s original director, a person I met twice. He patted me on the shoulder and winked before leaving. I wonder if he had something in his eye.
As a parent, there is no prouder moment than seeing your child work toward something and succeed. At the end of “Electricity,” Ben received a standing ovation, an amazing show of support from the crowd. We had come full circle.
It was time for the finale, an appropriate end to a perfect beginning. And I wasn’t nervous any more.