Today’s lesson: If you make silly faces for a photographer at a movie premiere, you might end up on the website for People Magazine.
On Saturday, Jill and Kate attended our niece Margaret’s graduation from American University. Due to ticket restrictions, the rest of us — Ben, Emma, Nick, Conner, and Ashley — could not go to the event. So we went to see Ben Platt, the Tony Award-winning star of “Dear Evan Hansen,” perform live at The Anthem. For once, I didn’t shoot the concert, but I did get these pics backstage.
Two photos taken during Ben’s final weekend of Mean Girls, a two-year journey that concluded on Sunday night. The photo on the left was taken by a fan (Lauren Smith) and posted to Flickr; the one on the right is of the men’s ensemble on stage. Look for an announcement soon about the boy’s next project.
On Saturday, Emma performed in her last show at Point Park before she graduates in three weeks. On Sunday, Ben finished his run in Mean Girls with two shows. Very proud of all my children but leave it to my twins to face large and yet different milestones on the same weekend.
The boy's next gig: A role as one of the Jets in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story.” With rehearsals underway and filming scheduled from June to September, that hould keep him out of trouble for the summer. The movie is scheduled to be released by 20th Century Fox on December 18, 2020.
The boy announced that he's leaving the show on April 7. On to new adventures!
File this under the miscellaneous people who walk into your life and (thankfully) stay there.
When Ben was in “Billy Elliot” on Broadway, one of his child wranglers was Todd Montgomery. Ben and Todd quickly bonded over music and the fact that our youngest son thought he was generally “pretty cool.” (He is, BTW.)
One night, Todd introduced me to his wife, Carole, and described her as the “funny one” in the family. Literally, because as it turns out, Carole has been a successful standup comedienne for decades.
In addition to being two of the best and kindest people I’ve come across, Todd and Carole are a great testimony to making marriage and a partnership work. They helped take care of our son as if he were their own at a time when we truly needed the help, and for that alone, I’m truly grateful. I’m also eternally thankful for their no b.s. approach to friendship and family as well.
At some point, Carole mentioned a project that she was working on, a show featuring women all over the age of 50. The project has taken off in comedy circles, and has resulted in a special being taped for Showtime. The special airs on March 23 (plus additional dates, I’m sure) and promises a full hour of honest and sincere belly laughs.
That it’s been made possible, and nurtured, by a person I’m proud to know makes it all the more special. So, to all my friends in their mid 50s, as well as those a decade younger and older, I hope you will take the time to watch “Funny Women of a Certain Age.”
Sometimes your children do things that make you swell with pride, with the realization that these humans you’ve known since they were in the womb have become mature, thoughtful and caring adults.
This is an example of that.
Emma graduates at the end of April from Point Park, finishing in three years (plus some summer work) with a double major in dance as well as sports and entertainment management. She submitted a concept to PPU's dance club and was chosen to choreograph it, on top of her already full course load.
The project, which she titled “Perpetual Mental Battle,” was inspired by Emma’s sister Kate, who struggled with bipolar throughout childhood and adolescence. Emma, in her description of the dance, admits that she “never really understood” what Kate goes through and notes the disorder is “often misinterpreted by others in society as well.”
“I created this work aiming to physicalize the feelings and emotions experienced by someone with bipolar when they are going through a manic- depressive episode,” Emma writes. “It is simply meant to shed light on the internal conflict occurring that others never see, and usually fail to address in an appropriate and healthy way.”
In developing the dance, Emma talked to Kate frequently to “ensure it was an accurate representation of her personal experiences.”
“This piece is very timely for Kate's journey as she is finally in a mentally stable place,” Emma writes. “She has a wonderful job working at a preschool and is thriving in other aspects of life. She has become one of my biggest supporters, and I only hope to be able to provide her with the same love and support.”
Wow. Just wow.
Thanks to the dancers who did such a lovely job of performing Emma’s piece on Saturday night at PPU, including two (Lauren Michaels and Kyra Smith) who she has known forever from her days at MSA. The other dancers are Mariah Barajas, Hanna Eidson and Sara Ekern.
So the Mathletes did a video for National School Counseling Week. When worlds collide…
So, "Rent: Live" ... (I promise this is not a rant.)
As with any live Broadway show on TV, things get lost in translation. The viewing audience is used to that, and it happened here.
The same viewing audience also is used to understudies going on in case one of the cast members can’t show up. Where are the understudies? "Rent: Tape Delayed" just doesn’t have the same effect.
Stunt casting? I get it. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. And if you watched it, you saw both. We can’t all win. Same goes for making cuts and tweaking the original text. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.
Chances are if you grew up on the OBC or the movie, you’re pissed about tonight. I get that too.
But think about this: For one night, Fox (of all networks) ran a show that focused on identity, gender, gentrification, tolerance, and the scourge that was AIDS. And the overall message was about the beauty of love amid life and death circumstances.
So yes, you can quibble about the quality (or lack thereof) of the performances or the cuts due to profanity, et al. They’re all legitimate complaints/critiques that — with exceptions — I shared up until the last 15 minutes.
And then I asked myself: “How do you measure a life in love?” And I was heartened that new generations will get to ask the same question.
Between my birthday, the crazy winter weather, the ongoing government shutdown, and the anger over students taunting and harrassing a Native American veteran who served in Vietnam, it’s been a heckuva a week. (And that’s not counting a trip to South Carolina and a shoot at the Library of Congress.)
• Monday: Dipping a toe into the Toddler in Chief cesspool that now has kept portions of the government closed for more than three weeks: HTF (TF being exactly what you'd expect) can he justify using the phrase "humanitarian crisis" to justify his call for a border wall? Especially when it relates to anyone who is disadvantaged? Come on, even my GOP friends can see the lack of sincerity in that.
I'll just leave it there. No further explanation necessary.
Pause. Pause. Beat. Beat.
Nah. Not worth it.
• Tuesday: Quote from Hayes Carll: “I take stock of myself and the world around me and write about it. ... I understand a lot of people look to music as an escape, and it can be really upsetting when it feels like that’s disrupted. But I have a really low tolerance for the people who say ‘shut up and sing.’ It minimizes everybody’s voice. We are citizens, and we are artists.”
• Wednesday: The Mathletes are at it again, this time at last weekend’s BroadwayCon.
• Thursday: I’m now 54. Great notes and posts from family and friends far and wide. It’s enough to make someone in his early 50s feel like the cool kid from elementary school.
• Friday: Reblogged from @alicexblog, on the topic of whether it’s OK to platonically say “I love you” to your friends: “I think it’s incredibly important to express when you love someone. Tell your parents if you love them. Tell your friend who helped you through every bad break up since you were 14. Tell your fat cat. Tell them.”
• Saturday: I hope the smug looks have been wiped off the faces of the students from a Catholic school in Northern Kentucky who verbally harassed a Native American elder and other activists at the Lincoln Memorial. The students, who were wearing red Make American Great Again hats, were shown in a video that went viral mocking the elder, a Vietnam War veteran who was chanting as part of the Indigenous Peoples March.
Postscript: As always, there are two sides ot every story, and additional video has been released that shows both adults and the youth did nothing to de-escalate the situation. It's sad all around, and yet another example of how divided we've become as a country. Everyone has a position and no one is willing to listen to the other side. That's difficult to swallow.
The cast of "Mean Girls" performed the song "Fearless" during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade amid record low temperatures — 17 degrees with a strong windchill, to be exact. Here is the performance.
And right after, we all found our way to a bar. Because, of course, this is how our family rolls on a frigid Thanksgiving morning.
I saw Billy Elliot last night at Signature Theatre to support some of my MSA friends who have kids in the show. (They were great, BTW, as was the production in a theatre one-fourth the size of the Imperial.)
Beforehand, we went to dinner and I was the only parent without a kid, which felt a little strange given how many times I was on the other side of the table. I shot this photo of the three kids and sent it to Ben, who quickly responded with "how full circle."
How full circle, indeed.
Oct. 3 is big in Mean Girls lore, so the show had a number of things lined up to celebrate the day, starting on Monday with the appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers and continuing with a supersized media blitz.
First up: My son can certainly tap a pencil.
A feature was posted on Broadway.com featuring photos and biographical information on the show's 15-member ensemble. The idea behind the feature was "a take on OG mean girl, Marie Antoinette."
Here is a behind-the-scenes video that includes a brief interview with the boy toward the end:
Meanwhile, another video from the MathLit trio was posted in honor of the Oct. 3 celebration, featuring a special guest appearance. It's hysterical.
And finally, before last night's show, the cast was joined by Tina Fey and Jonathan Bennett, who played Aaron Samuels in the 2004 movie to unveil West Fetch Street to the world.
A few notes from the weekend:
• Insomniac/DVR alert: Members of the Mean Girls cast are scheduled to be on Late Night with Seth Myers tonight. You might see someone you know...
• Thanks to Gary Vorwald for taking these photos at the Broadway Flea Market on Sunday. After shooting a festival at Forest Hills Stadium Saturday, I was there briefly before leaving for home.
• The Broadway Flea is an annual fall tradition that raises money for a wonderful cause — Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It also is, excuse the expression, the Stage Door from Hell. Ben and I spent 45 minutes walking to get coffee at a Starbucks that was just two blocks from the Mean Girls booth.
• Jill and I saw an early screening of “A Star is Born,” which will be released on Friday. Lady Gaga is a revelation and Bradley Cooper (writer/director/producer/actor/singer-songwriter) creates a work of Hollywood art. Wow. Highly recommended. (Small world bonus: Jason Isbell, the artist I primarily went to shoot at Saturday’s festival, has written one of the best songs in the film — the lovely ballad “Maybe It’s Time.”)
The Mathletes are at it again.
I loved watching Carole Shelley, in a single song, “give them the finger” and provide a master class in acting to a bunch of boys and girls every night in "Billy Elliot."
She died last night at age 79. RIP.
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.
As they were coming off stage at the Tony Awards, Ben photobombed Amy Schumer and Carey Mulligan with a "Hi, Mom" on our wedding anniversary. Surreal.
Happy anniversary to Jill, the love of my life. Had brunch at a winery and then have some appointment TV viewing this evening. It’s a little show called the Tony Awards.
Speaking of which, Mean Girls posted this video today about the show’s journey. Love it.
Four more photos from a remarkable weekend. Clockwise from bottom left: Ben at Sunday morning's rehearsal; Ben and Emma at the Tony Awards after-party; the Mean Girls performance; and with friends from Northern Virginia before the after-party.
I had the chance to watch the Tony Award nominations announcement with Ben and a group of his friends this morning in New York, where I spent the day doing a shoot. Leaving just before the show started, you could signage already being prepared to go up on the marquee. Congratulations to the cast and crew on this wonderful achievement!
Here's a screenshot from The Today Show, where the “Mean Girls” cast performed “Apex Predator” from the show today. Check out the performance below.
And things just keep getting more surreal. Congrats, son!
And in other family-related news, Jill co-hosted a Facebook live discussion today on the second season of "13 Reasons Why" for the American School Counselor Association. To see the video, go here.
I'm beginning to think "Our Reality Show" is a good name for this blog...
I’ve always said Emma is the best writer in the family, and her storytelling skills are in evidence both in this beautiful video and in the short blurb she posted tonight about her year as a resident educator (RE) at Point Park. Congratulations, sweetheart! Your mom and I are so proud of you!
One of my favorite songs from the show. Great performance. (And yes, you can raise your right finger on late night TV.)
Congratulations to the Mean Girls ensemble, which tied with Carousel for best on Broadway at last night's Chita Rivera Awards! We are so thrilled that all of you received this special recognition for your hard work.
In that vein, The Ensemblist, an online advocate for Broadway ensemble actors, is working with the Actors’ Equity Association’s #EveryoneOnStage campaign to petition for two new categories for the 2019 season: Best Chorus in a Musical or Play, and Best Ensemble in a Musical or Play.
Last week, Mo Brady posted The Ensemblist’s nominees for “Best Actors Not Eligible for a Tony Award This Season." And a certain child of ours was one of them.
“Nobody on Broadway moves with as much unbridled energy as Ben Cook,” Brady writes. “When he dances, it’s us if every limb is working in harmony, transmitting the choreographic intention not only from his core but from his guts. In what has become his calling card, Cook flawlessly executes the high-octane choreography of Mean Girls with reliability, slaying from ‘It Roars’ to ‘Apex Predator.’”
Seeing our 20-year-old twins in performances this weekend, with a 400-mile road trip in between, was a real treat.
First up was Emma's performance at Point Park Connections show at the Pittsburgh Playhouse on campus. (I took only one of these photos, and it's the one of the program no less.)
The next day, Jill and I had breakfast with Emma before driving to Manhattan, where we stayed up WAAAY past our bedtime to watch HBO's "Paterno" with Ben and a group of his friends after the "Mean Girls" performance. 3 a.m. was totally worth it, as was the early wakeup call to finish a freelance project.
Then, on Sunday, we went to the opening of "Mean Girls" and to the after-party in SoHo.
Attending one of Ben’s opening nights has gotten easier over the years — I no longer want to drink the entire bar to calm my nerves before the curtain — but each evening is special in its own way as you see the hard work of your son and his fellow cast members pay off.
Now it’s on to Boston to shoot another show at Wheelock Family Theatre!
#ProudStageDad #lucky #Coffeebythegallon #NottoooldforthisstuffyetIthink
April 6: Very proud of Emma and her fellow dancers who performed at the Point Park Connections show last night. Our youngest daughter was great!
April 7: “Paterno” airs at 8 p.m. EST tonight on HBO (with repeats throughout the month). It's a NY Times Critic's Pick with a certain young man name checked in the lead of the review, which you can see here.
April 8: At some point, I'll stop, but this weekend has been a little overwhelming as the "Mean Girls" opening approaches. For example, check out this interview with Tina Fey on CBS Sunday morning. You can see the boy in some of the “behind the scenes” clips toward the end.
A fun weekend, complete with a several state tour is ahead to watch our twins in their natural habitat: The stage.
Today, we drive from VIrginia to Pittsburgh to watch Emma dance in a show at Point Park. Then, tomorrow, we head to Manhattan, where we'll see HBO's "Paterno" with Ben and his friends, and then stick around Sunday for the "Mean Girls" opening night show/activities.
Looking forward to it!!
The promotional ramp up to the Mean Girls opening has been in full swing this week with the release of production photos as well as the video "B-roll" for the show. (Shhh... I think it’s gonna be a hit.)
First, here is one of the promotional photos, given the boy’s attested love for math during his K-12 years, is proof that he’s a fine actor. The photo, by Joan Marcus, appeared on Playbill.com today.
And here is the B-roll. Hope you enjoy it.
I've been in charge of magazine covers, have had photos I've taken on a couple, but never have I seen one of my kids on a cover — until now. Congratulations to Ben and the “Mean Girls” cast. You all deserve it!
Back to School: First day of rehearsals yesterday for Mean Girls. Previews begin March 12; show opens on April 8. Tickets selling fast. Very proud of the boy and his newest Broadway family.
Dance Spirit magazine is featuring ensemble members from the cast of Mean Girls in its current issue. In addition to the photos above, they also interviewed each cast member, including Ben. Here is what was published:
His dancing in three emojis: 🙆🕺🏿 🤸
Hidden talent: "I've loved photography since I was a little kid. My dad is a dance photographer himself, and he inspired me to pick up a camera when I was 10 years old. It's been one of my favorite hidden hobbies ever since."
If he were a superhero, his power would be: "Flying! Mainly so I wouldn't have to worry about the trains into midtown."
Dance idol: "Bob Fosse. I was initially inspired by the alley dance he did with Jack Lemmon in My Sister Eileen."
Weirdest thing in his dance bag: "My cupping set! It's a contraption designed to release the fascia around your muscles."
Favorite iconic Mean Girls quote: " 'She doesn't even go here!' "
Mean Girls character he most relates to: "Damian, because he's outgoing and positive and so genuine. I'd like to think I have some of those qualities, and I think we could all learn from Damian's positivity and open-mindedness."
Best cheese fries he's ever eaten: "I'd never eaten cheese fries until a press event we did last fall. I really liked them!"
Advice for kids dealing with bullying by their own "mean girls": "Know that whatever those bullies are saying to you is coming from their own insecurities. They feel the need to put others down because they're not comfortable in their own skin. Take whatever they say with a grain of salt and continue to be the beautiful person you are."
Also here's a behind-the-scenes video from the shoot.
Catch a brief glimpse of the boy in this trailer for HBO’s “Paterno,” and see him in a featured role when the movie airs this spring.
Start of something new — Washington, D.C., October 2017
Unexpected surprise: Ben scored two extra tickets to last night’s "Mean Girls" premiere, so I get to see it with Emma — who is on break from Point Park — as my seat partner and all of my girls here in D.C.
Four more from the Random Thoughts file:
• Remember the “Red Light! Green Light!” game we played as kids? NoVA engineers lost that game a bunch and are taking out their childhood frustrations on the drivers of today.
Of course, it doesn’t help that those who designed the roads apparently whistled “Over the river and through the woods...” while they worked. #dontwhistle #AMcommute #hateNoVAtraffic
• RIP, Joel Markowitz. Thank you for encouraging me to write for your website about the challenges of being a "Stage Dad." But, even more important, thank you for supporting so much of the region's theatre through your work. You are (and will be) missed.
• Post-election commentary: Hey, Virginia, what have I missed? Santa came early, and he's real?!?
• Saddest and truest line of the day, from a Facebook friend: We binge watch tragedy.
It’s gonna be fun…
Also, the boy has finally made it to Netflix. Catch it while you can.
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.”
After a day filled with depressing news (the shooting in Las Vegas, the death of Tom Petty), this was nice to see. The boy is taking over the @playbill Instagram account tomorrow.
And in other news, this announcement also came out today. Very proud of Ben, who has been cast in the Broadway-bound "Mean Girls," written by Tina Fey and produced by Lorne Michaels. The show opens on Oct. 31 at The National Theatre in Washington, D.C., with a run planned for New York in the spring.
Hard to believe, but it's been five years since Ben made his debut as Billy Elliot in the sweltering Louisville, Ky. Here he is after the show with Nicholas and Ginno.
Hello, New York. It’s been a while…
On my first trip to the city in several months, I had the opportunity to take dance photos in Washington Heights with my twins (Ben and Emma) and three alums from the “Newsies” tour cast (Josh Burrage, Kaitlyn Frank, and Iain Young).
A subway tunnel on 191st Street and Fort Tryon Park provided the backdrop for this latest set in the series.
For more photos, go to my Facebook album here. Click on the "Art & Dance" tab at the top of this page to see more galleries in the series.
The circle is complete, three years after Ben's first series of auditions. "Newsies" the movie is now available for purchase on iTunes and other digital services. (I'm waiting to see the trend post on the large number of musical theatre fans skipping school today...)
So, in addition to this being Valentine's Day, we are marking the official kickoff of "Ben Cook Week" in the family. Last night started with Emma accompanying the boy to the Newsies movie premiere in New York.
Tomorrow it's Law & Order: SVU (check local listings) and then Newsies opens in movie theaters. Jill, Kate and I will see the movie with a bunch of family, extended family and friends at the Regal Springfield Town Center. Nick and Conner will see it in Durham and the Cook/Ghirardi clan are going in Clear Lake.
The movie, which received great reviews from those who saw the New York premiere, also is showing on Saturday and next Wednesday. Hope you get to see it!
My son, Ben, is performing tonight and Saturday as "Older Billy" in a special guest appearance as part of Wheelock Family Theatre's regional production of "Billy Elliot: The Musical."
I went to Boston during Thursday's blizzard to spend time with my 19-year-old and took a few shots at this morning's rehearsal with Seth Judice, who is playing the title role.
With appearances in "Law & Order: SVU" and the "Newsies" movie next week, the boy is well on his way to an adult career. But for a brief time at least, it's nice to see Ben return to the show that dominated much of his childhood.
Bonus photos: I took the photo below of Ben and Salma Hayek after she saw the show in Boston during the national tour in 2012. Right: Caught this picture of the boy with the “Newsies” poster during a lunch break today in Boston.
Given our family’s lengthy history with “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” it felt a little strange to see — and photograph — the show after three-plus years away. But anyone who has read my blog knows that being part of a theatre community means you will inevitably encounter circle backs, in which a show returns to your life in an unexpected way.
Circle back is what I did for two nights last week, watching from behind the lens while shooting “Billy Elliot” production photos for Boston’s Wheelock Family Theatre. On Feb. 10 and 11, our son Ben will have a circle back of his own when he teaches master classes and plays the role of Older Billy.
Moving any large show into a smaller regional house can be a challenging logistical task, but the cast and crew have done a terrific job. Thanks to Linda Chin Workman for bringing me in to photograph the show — I also took headshots for several cast members — and to everyone for making me feel welcome.
Here’s a taste of what I saw — and shot — over the two nights. Some of these photos are being used in reviews in local newspapers and online, a nice bonus.
If you are in the Boston area, you can see the show through Feb. 26. Buy your tickets by visiting www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org. Ben will perform as Older Billy at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, and 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11. He also is teaching master classes for youth ages 8 to 16 at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 11.
Another video promoting the “Newsies” movie. Just three weeks until it lands in theaters!
This is cool. The movie will be shown in theatres on Feb. 16, 18 and 22. The list of places showing it has grown quite a bit, and you can get tickets now.
The boy singing "Top of the World" from Tuck last week at 54 Below. The "Not At This Performance" cabaret featured understudies who never had the chance to perform on stage.
Another promo for the movie: Two weeks away!
Meanwhile, it’s 8 days until showtime, folks…
Jill has long kidded that Ben would be a legitimate actor when he appears on an episode of "Law and Order." Well, at the end of tonight's episode, we finally got confirmation that next Wednesday is the date. (Check your local listings for air times.)
Last week, I posted photos shot during the final dress rehearsals for Wheelock Family Theatre's production of "Billy Elliot" in Boston. While there, I also took headshots of five cast members in a series of mini-sessions.
Tomorrow, I'm returning to Boston and Wheelock to take various photos and see our son, Ben, play Older Billy. If you've read my Stage Dad posts, you may recall the long journey that Ben took with the show on Broadway and the national tour. This weekend, he will play his fourth different role in the show.
If you're in the area and interested, go to www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org to get your tickets. Ben will perform as Older Billy at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, and 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11. He also is teaching master classes for youth ages 8 to 16 at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 11.
A personal invitation from Ben to the Newsies universe to see the movie starting tomorrow!
From Little Boy to the Big Screen: I was thrilled to be at the taping of the Newsies movie with my mom in Hollywood last September. Tonight, as #BenCookWeek — Nick gave him the hashtag — continues, I'm going with Jill, Kate, and a bunch of our extended family and friends to see it on the big screen. Congrats, son!
Photographer Lawrence Schiller took this lovely photo of 6-year-old Carrie Fisher watching her mother, Debbie Reynolds, perform at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas in 1963. The photo has received renewed attention after the deaths of Fisher and Reynolds a day apart, and prompted this fascinating New York Times story.
Also, the deaths of these two Hollywood legends reminded me that I've written a fan letter to two people — Fisher and Richard Nixon. (Note: I was 8 when I wrote to Nixon.) If you'd like to see the letter and the response, go to this blog entry from late 2010, and catch HBO's documentary of "Wishful Drinking" when it airs again next week.
To quote Jill, "Our son found a way to deal with his post-election angst."
Metropolitan Youth Theatre concluded its second year with a sold-out winter concert, “Let the Sunshine In: The Music of Hair,” Friday at MSA’s Alexandria studio. The show, directed by MYT co-founder Chad Vann, featured the work of 12 area high school and college students and a three-piece band led by MYT co-founder James Woods.
MYT was founded in 2015 by high school students Vann, Woods and Sam Cornbrooks (now in college in Manhattan) to give area youth the opportunity to create and perform in shows while learning all aspects of theater. The group, which has drawn student performers from both Northern Virginia and Maryland, has already done “The Last 5 Years,” “Rent,” “Songs for a New World,” and “Spring Awakening” in its brief existence.
Two more shows, including a production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Chicago,” are planned in 2017. For more information, visit www.metroyoutharts.org or follow the group on Twitter @metroyoutharts.
For more photos from the concert, visit my Facebook page here.
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.
A huge word of thanks to the students and staff at Academy of Dance in Reidsville, N.C., for bringing us in for a day of master classes, headshots and dance photography this past weekend.
My son, Ben, taught back-to-back classes and talked to students at the studio about his experiences as a working actor. I took headshots, did an "Art & Dance" session with several students, and talked to parents about challenges of raising a child in show business.
This is the second of these types of sessions we have done this fall. If you are interested in bringing us in for your studio, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ben and Josh Burrage performing "Unemployed" to the music of "I'm Alive" from Next to Normal during Sunday's variety show at 54 Below in New York. The boys, who are roommates, wrote the lyrics to the tune.
Take a look. You might see someone you know...
Less than a month out, here are a few more random thoughts about baseball, politics and other things…
• Is it flu season? Or is this feeling coming because I'm a Nationals fan during the playoffs? At least I can get a shot for the latter by walking to a nearby cabinet.
• In case you’re wondering what my qualifications are for that last statement, remember that my childhood was spent in the Houston area, where the playoffs and Rolaids marched in solidarity every fall.
• Dear Mr. Stump: Thank you for proving yet again that misogyny and vitriol are alive and well. I've never seen such anger and hatred in my life as I’m seeing in the days leading up to this election.
The GOP on November 9.
• On a somewhat related note, Mr. Obama’s approval rating is higher at this point in his term than any president since Ronald Reagan. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a turnaround.
• Having been to Pittsburgh twice in the past two weeks, I’m beginning to think Pennsylvania is one of those states where the red light and the orange cone should just hook up and call it a night.
• Speaking of travel, here’s an on-the-road question: Why do hotels that charge $200 a night leave you with single-ply toilet paper?
• Twitter is the new People Magazine. You can read all you need while sitting on the can.
• And the best news yet …. The boy has a job for the next couple of weeks!
In a post earlier this week, I mentioned our crazy travel schedule and how thankful I am to have so many friends and family (biological and extended) willing to spend a little time with us on this journey.
So here's a small photo summary of the last five weeks. (Roadmap not included.)
Congratulations to everyone involved with the national tour of "Newsies," which concludes its run today after 2 years and more than 750 performances on the road. Thanks to everyone who taught our son so much and for being so kind to us along the way. You are part of our hearts forever.
A huge thanks to the staff, students, and parents at Sonya's Dance Academy who took part in a weekend-long series of photo shoots, master classes, and workshops recently in Hickory, N.C.
My son, Ben, taught two hour-long dance classes and talked to the students about his evolution from child to adult actor/performer. Meanwhile, I scheduled a series of mini-sessions with students for headshots, and spent more than an hour with parents talking about raising a young professional in the performing arts. Finally, we did a series of "Art & Dance" shoots, for which the photos will be coming shortly.
If your studio or group is interested in putting together this type of package, please contact me via Facebook message or by email at email@example.com.
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.
I’ve been fortunate to know Zach Manske and his family for the past five years, ever since he and our son, Ben, shared the title role in the national tour of “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” Zach, who lives in Woodbury, Minn., was named “2016 National Senior Male Outstanding Dancer” last month by the New York City Dance Alliance.
A couple of weeks ago, Zach was completing a summer intensive at Julliard when I had the long-awaited opportunity to take his headshots and add to my “Art & Dance” portfolio. Ben, who is auditioning in New York, came along for the shoot, which took place in front of Lincoln Center and at Central Park.
As you might expect when you have not one, but two excellent dancers, the shoot was great fun. But the best part of the day was seeing these two young men, who became friends during a high pressure and intense time as kids, pick up right where they left off, urging each other on and enjoying a chance to perform.
For more photos, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/new-york-zach--ben.
At 17, Tade Biesinger already has lived a very interesting life, becoming one of the youngest boys to play "Billy Elliot" on Broadway and later reprising the role in London for several months.
Now a senior just outside Salt Lake City, this very talented young man is taking college dance classes as he finishes high school. We've known Tade and his wonderful family for six years, and I was fortunate to catch up with him on a recent trip to Utah.
To see more from this shoot, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/salt-lake-city-tade.
The boy is returning to the role of Race for a filmed version of “Newsies” that will feature original Broadway cast members Jeremy Jordan, Kara Lindsay, Ben Fankhauser and Andrew Keenan-Bulger.
Part of a joint effort between Disney Theatrical Productions and Fathom Events, the stage show will be filmed in Los Angeles in early September, with a one-night-only performance on Sept. 11 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The movie version will arrive in cinemas worldwide in early 2017.
Pretty cool if you ask me.
The cast of Metropolitan Youth Theatre's upcoming production of "Spring Awakening" performed in a fundraising cabaret and pot luck dinner Saturday in Alexandria. The cast showcased several group numbers from the Tony Award-winning show and several performed solo pop numbers.
The event, held at Metropolitan School of the Arts' studio in Alexandria, was a showcase for an incredibly talented ensemble of high school and college students ranging in age from 15 to 20.
"Spring Awakening" is the fourth MYT production since the student-run company was founded in 2014. Performances will be July 29-31 at 1st Stage Tysons in McLean, Va. (Note: The show has mature language and themes that are not suited for young audiences.)
Good big brother that he is, Nicholas surprised Emma following the matinee of "Alice in Wonderland" on Saturday. Nick had said he could not make it to the show, but he and Conner had been making plans all along to come from Durham to Northern Virginia for Emma's last recital performance.
And with Ben, Kate, and other family members supporting our youngest daughter, the end-of-high school cycle is almost complete.
Emma has danced with her siblings (“Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” — 2004), played an orphan (“Hard Knock Life” — 2009), and ends her time at Metroplitan School of the Arts this weekend with two performances as the March Hare in “Alice in Wonderland.”
At MSA, she is literally the last Cook standing, the only one of our kids to perform in every show since first grade.
Earlier this week, someone asked me if it was difficult to see our last child finish high school. And it’s not, not really. The harder part is watching Emma in her last role, because the studio has been (literally, it seems) her second home.
We love you, sweetheart, and are so proud of you! Break a leg!
Each year around this time, I spend hours shooting and editing photos of the Metropolitan School of the Arts spring show. I had other work commitments this year during the dress rehearsals for "Alice in Wonderland," so I was able to take photos of the Saturday and Sunday casts once.
The first set (above) is of the ensemble from the Saturday show. You can see more from this shoot by going to my Facebook album here.
The second set is of class dance photos taken, primarily, of the Saturday matinee cast. I was able to go to the dress rehearsal briefly for the evening cast and took a few from different angles. You can see the rest of the class dance photos on Facebook here.
As many of you know, I have taken photos of Metropolitan School of the Arts productions since my kids were little. It is always a challenge to find new ways to capture a live performance, but I think these offer a glimpse of the quality and commitment everyone had to the show.
BTW, the reason I’m calling these albums “Alternate” is because another photographer (Laura Mann) has been capturing rehearsals since they started. Typically, I shoot only the performances and the promo photos. This year, I did more than 140(!) headshots of the ensemble.
Photos of the ensemble and principal cast members from the final Sunday performance of Metropolitan School of the Arts' "Alice in Wonderland."
All of the photos were taken during the performance. Unllike previous years, I could not shoot all of the dress rehearsals, so this was my one and only take on the Sunday cast. It was made even more special because our daughter, Emma, finished her 13th and final MSA show on that day with a host of her fellow high school graduates.
To see more photos from this performance, go to my Facebook album here.
A final set of photos from Metropolitan School of the Arts' production of "Alice in Wonderland." These are of class dances and were taken during the Sunday evening show. For more, visit my Facebook album here.
Our last child graduated from high school today as Ben finished the online program he's been in for the past two years. Since there was no formal ceremony — just sighs of relief from parents, relatives, friends, casual acquaintances and others — I decided to post his other "graduation" photo. (Kindergarten, 2004)
Congrats, Ben! We are proud of you!
Need some headshots? Check out these, taken of Ben during a session in New York City earlier this month. The photos are up at http://glenncook.virb.com/ben-2016.
Twenty-one high school seniors affiliated with Metropolitan School of the Arts will graduate later this month. Most also will perform in a special senior showcase scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the MSA studio in Alexandria.
Our daughter, Emma, has been a part of the studio since early elementary school, so this will be one of the last opportunities she has to perform in a MSA show. As a parent, I’ve been fortunate to watch many of these kids — now young adults — grow up and flourish as performers and people. As a photographer, I’ve also been fortunate to take many of their headshots and senior pictures as they get ready to go to college.
Late last month, on a drizzly Saturday morning, we went out for a shoot with the seniors that will be featured in a video to start the show. You can see some here. Come back next week to look at what I take at the senior speeches scheduled after the showcase.
Photos from "Rhythm & Sole," the annual dance showcase featuring students from Fairfax Academy for Communications & the Arts. Our daughter, Emma, performed the dance she choreographed as a trio with her friends Georgia Monroe and Kelsey Kaufman. Congratulations to all the dancers, a number of whom had not performed on stage for an audience prior to the event.
For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
Emma is participating in her senior showcase from 4 to 6 p.m. today at MSA's Alexandria studio. Going through photos, I remembered this one from her second recital when she was 5. The kids didn't go to MSA until later that fall, but this remains one of my favorite photos, and a pretty nice summary of their relationship. We love you, Emma, and are very proud of you.
After Sunday's showcase featuring 16 high school seniors, Metropolitan School of the Arts hosted a reception for the soon-to-be graduates, a number of whom have been part of the studio for more than a decade.
Recognized were Ben Cherington, Sarah Christophersen, Emma Cook, Sam Cornbrooks, Nakya Fenderson, Sarah Kelly, Sophia Kleess, Biby Medrano, Georgia Monroe, Gabi Odom, Jeremiah Porter, Veronica Quezada, Lexi Rhem, Amber Supernor, Hank von Kolnitz, and Adia Walker.
To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
Emma and Sam Cornbrooks produced the showcase and developed, filmed and edited this video to introduce the event. Congratulations to both of these very talented kids and to all of the performers for their hard work.
The imminent closing of "Tuck" aside, this video featuring the boy shows there's nothing he can't do ... even with a bunch of marshmellows stuffed in his mouth.
After three postponements due to rain, the cast of "Tuck Everlasting" performed yesterday on the "Today Show." It was a long morning, but a great opportunity, as cast members arrived at 5:30 a.m. and ran through the difficult number several times before performing it live in front of the cameras.
Unfortunately, the performance and imminent release of the soundtrack to the show was not enough to save it, as the producers announced today that "Tuck" will close this weekend. So watch this and relive briefly what has been a wonderful experience for Ben.
“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.”
Post-New York randoms a week after Tuck Everlasting opened on Broadway:
• Master of the Obvious: Well, that was a trip I won’t soon forget.
• The best part of the trip was getting to spend some quality alone time with my boys. I don’t get to do that enough.
• The second best part was seeing my son do what he loves, and seeing his siblings happy to be part of the experience. We missed Kate not being there, though.
• Watching a friend tap dance while Jon Dee Graham played an instrumental in the basement of the Hill Country BBQ was NOT the most surreal part of the trip. Close, but not quite.
• When people are obviously trying to listen to acoustic music in a small venue, I don’t know why some feel an uncontrollable urge to turn up their inner frat-boy volume to 11.
• I've was in way too many photos last week and not behind the camera enough. There is something wrong with this picture...
• Things I thought I'd never say: I agree with John Boener on something. But then he had to bring up Ted Cruz.
• Riding a bus home is OK until you get stuck in traffic and someone decides to leave the spicy burrito they ate in the bathroom 3 rows back.
• People are bipolar. Mother Nature is not. Not sure what she is exactly, but that's a different story.
• NYC tourist tango: 1, 2, 3 ... GAWK! 1, 2, 3 ... GAWK!
Two more observations, all with accompanying art…
• If our cats could speak English, they'd say, "See? We told you, this stuff is real..."
• Kids, this is appropriate... (And yes, my mom did send it to me.)
"Tuck Everlasting" made its formal Broadway opening Tuesday at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Jill, Emma and I drove in from Virginia and Nicholas flew from Nashville to see Ben in his first "adult" role.
Here is a photo chronicle of our day and night, which included subway rides, a visit to Sardi's, the Gypsy Robe ceremony for the Tuck cast (covered by Broadway World), the show, the red carpet treatment, and a premiere party at Tavern on the Green. A memorable time was had by all, that's for sure.
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.
See the boy and a host of others in this video preview of Tuck Everlasting, which has its Broadway opening night tomorrow at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Congrats to Ben and the entire cast and creative team! Can't wait to be there...
From time to time, the stars align … literally.
As Tuck Everlasting started in previews on March 31, I posted a story about my friend's son who was killed in a car accident. Parker Leikam, who is Ben's age, was an aspiring musical theatre performer who had just done the lead in "Beauty and the Beast" earlier this month at his high school in Adams, N.Y.
Last week, after we asked Ben to take a picture for the #BowtiesforParkeronBroadway social media effort, Ben posted a photo to Facebook and Instagram with Terrence Mann, one of the stars of Tuck Everlasting. Mann, it just so happens, was the original Beast on Broadway.
Parker was killed March 23 when a driver crossed a double line to pass and struck him head on just two blocks from his home. In the days since, his friends and family have paid tribute by launching the #BowtiesforParker campaign; so far, members of the casts of Phantom, Les Miserables, and An American in Paris have participated. Several of our friends from the Newsies tour posted a picture last week as well after I sent them a note.
Then, Steve Blanchard and his wife, Meredith, posted a photo from Denver, where they were on the road with Newsies. Steve replaced Mann on Broadway and played the Beast for 11 years in New York and on various tours. Finally, our friend Tim Federle added another photo to the cause.
Using the hashtag #EllenforParker, the family also is asking Ellen DeGeneres to wear a bow tie on her show in tribute to Parker. His father, Chuck, has written a heartbreaking, emotional plea to DeGeneres that is guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.
“We want to spread the love and tolerance like Parker did,” Chuck wrote. “He was a straight A student, musician, singer, actor, theater geek and openly gay football player who could do the splits with his 6'3" 300-pound frame. He would dress as "Buddy the Elf" the last day before Christmas break and walk around school handing out candy canes. He would even go to the elementary schools for the kids there.”
Chuck, who has been in the military for 30 years, wrote that his children “have always paid the price of moving” but noted he had been able to keep them at Fort Drum for the past seven years. He said Parker “loved and looked up to” DeGeneres.
“I'm not asking for money or trips, just a bow tie and to tell his story … His mom and I need this. Please.”
I’m so glad our friends are honoring Parker and hope others will as well. Especially Ellen.
Tim Federle, whose young adult debut “The Great American Whatever” has been called “a Holden Caulfield for a new generation” by Kirkus Reviews, held a storytelling session and book signing Sunday at the McNally Jackson store in SoHo.
The multitasking author, who also is co-writer of the book for the new Broadway musical “Tuck Everlasting,” brought our son, Ben, as his special guest to read the first chapter of the book. Tim and Ben worked together on “Billy Elliot” in 2010-11 and have been reunited again on “Tuck Everlasting.”
Tim, who is one of the nicest people we know in the industry, was a Broadway performer prior to making his writing debut with “Better Nate Than Ever” and its sequel “Five, Six, Seven Nate!” His first novel was named a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” while its follow up won the Lambda Literary Award.
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).
I know why they call it March Madness, especially when March bleeds into April.
Yep, it must be spring, that great period in life when Mother Nature looks you square in the eye, laughs, and does whatever the heck she wants. Little winter here, little heat there, lots of pollen and watery eyes everywhere.
Why, you ask, can’t everything be spread out a little more instead of being bunched together and packed so tightly? I don’t really know. If I did, I’d bottle and sell it to you cheap.
I’m not complaining, especially on the business end, where thankfully things seem to be opening up in recent weeks. Also, my ability to write a cogent sentence that went beyond tweet-length seems to have returned, thank goodness. It’s nice that the muse has decided to push its way past whatever was blocking my crowded brain.
Here’s a brief summary of what’s happened over the past three weeks alone:
• Met a series of deadlines for freelance clients. More still to do, but getting there.
• Published the Q&A series I did with a teenager about photography.
• Saw Ben in a preview of Broadway’s “Tuck Everlasting” with Jill and then another show at NYU to support one of his “Billy Elliot” friends (the outstanding Casey Whyland).
• Embarked on a trip to Tampa to get Kate’s stuff from her apartment and truck it back to Northern Virginia.
• Celebrated as Emma was accepted into Point Park University in Pittsburgh for the dance program.
• Followed that up with headshots of a young girl and a family shoot in a neighboring county this past weekend.
• Written blogs on the trip, on the deaths of a childhood friend’s son, Merle Haggard, Patty Duke, and Ken Howard (too much of that this year). Also wrote about World Bipolar Day and the current political process (which seems to have its own hints of mental illness about it).
In many ways, Patty Duke could have been — and perhaps should have been — a child star statistic. The early rise to childhood fame, the alcoholic and mentally ill parents, the controlling and abusive managers led to an adulthood featuring multiple marriages and affairs, suicide attempts, and her own struggles with drugs and drink.
Despite a persistent feeling that “something was not right, or even more intensely, that there was something wrong with me,” Duke refused to get help until she was in her mid 30s, when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t need their help,” she said in a 2011 interview with the girlfriend of a writer I once supervised. “I was on an intimate basis with God. I told God what to do, and He did.”
Duke managed to survive, and ultimately thrive, in the second act of her life, which ended Tuesday at age 69. She started taking lithium, going to therapy and talking to anyone who would listen about mental health issues; Duke was a keynote speaker at Jill’s American School Counselor Association conference in 2011.
She attacked the stigma around mental health as fiercely as she attacked a script, writing two books and speaking across the country about her experiences.
“I’ve survived,” she wrote on her website. “I’ve beaten my own bad system and on some days, most days, that feels like a miracle.”
As our kids transition into adulthood, Patty Duke’s story resonates with our family. Now living in New York, our son is navigating the tricky move from child actor to adult actor. Back at home after a few months in Florida, our daughter is learning how to be an adult and trying to manage her bipolar disorder. Their siblings are dealing, in some ways, with the unintentional collateral damage caused by family circumstances.
The treacherous path that we call parenthood is littered with block after block of crossroads. Left, right or straight, many decisions feel like an endless game of second guessing. Did we do the right thing? Are we doing what’s best for everyone? Is that possible?
The answers are not clear cut, but we continue to try.
People are starting to talk more openly about "it."
Five years ago, when Ben was in the ensemble of “Billy Elliot” in New York, he met Jonathan Bucari, a French filmmaker who had moved to the U.S. and was starting work on a short film called “Illness.” The mother of one of Ben’s cast mates, Carina Rush, agreed to produce the movie, which looked at a family’s struggle to cope with the erratic behavior of their middle son and the discovery that he has a mental illness.
After winning multiple awards, “Illness” has been expanded to feature length and retitled “No Letting Go.” The 104-minute film, a labor of love for Carina, Jonathan and writer/producer Randi Silverman (who based the screenplay on her own life), has received strong reviews for its handling of the sensitive subject matter and performances.
“No Letting Go,” which was released in theaters this month in New York and Los Angeles, was made available on demand Wednesday for “World Bipolar Day.” An event created in 2014 to bring awareness to the disorder and to eliminate the ongoing stigmas surrounding mental illness, “World Bipolar Day” is held annually on the birthday of painter Vincent Van Gogh, who was believed to have suffered from the illness.
Also on Wednesday, a webcast held at the University of Michigan Depression Center featured a panel of experts and contributors to the upcoming PBS documentary, “Ride the Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain.” The webcast and the one-hour documentary, which focuses on cutting edge mental health research amid personal stories of people with mood disorders, are fascinating and worthwhile uses of your time. Both are available to stream now on the PBS website; the documentary premieres on PBS stations on April 13.
Throughout “Ride the Tiger,” which I watched after Jill alerted me to the webcast, those affected by the disorders talk about their journeys, what they’ve learned, and how they face the stigmas associated with mental illness.
The researchers discuss what they are doing to find out where biological breakdowns occur — bipolar is not, despite what some may think, behavioral. It is a medical diagnosis that affects the brain. The researchers show how they are trying to find ways to pre-empt, fix, or rewire the brain so the manic and depressive swings don’t take place.
One of the documentary’s contributors, author Melody Moezzi, recently wrote an excellent Huffington Post column that talks about “Thriving With Bipolar Disorder.” In it, she notes how it remains difficult for people to talk about mental illness.
“For God’s sake, we still call it “mental illness,” as though the brain weren’t a fundamental part of the physical body. Given the prevalence of this colossal oversight, not to mention a grossly underfunded mental health system that relies heavily on condescension, coercion and incarceration, it’s hard not to support any day that might bring more attention to brain disorders.”
The first person to appear in the documentary, somewhat ironically, is Patty Duke. It is her last screen appearance.
After her diagnosis, Duke did everything she could to promote awareness and eliminate stigmas as she brought stability to her own life. Her last marriage remained solid for 30 years. She managed to forge close relationships with her sons Sean and Mackenzie Astin, both of whom also became actors. In the 2011 interview with Elizabeth Zavala, almost 20 years after her diagnosis, her voice trembled as she described her sons’ upbringing.
“They never quite knew who was going to be on the other side of the door. It could be the nice mom or this raving, ranting, raging, out-of-control creature … It took a while for these little boys to trust me again. They do now. They have tremendous respect for my recovery and amazing generosity in their forgiveness of me, as long as I take my medicine.”
On Tuesday, Sean Astin published a note announcing the Patty Duke Health Project, a program that “will fuel a multi-level approach to achieving results for those suffering with mental illness and their families and communities.” You can make a donation to the initiative here.
“Her greatest achievement was confronting her mental illness and making her story public,” Astin wrote. “She crossed the nation speaking and campaigning and lobbying for mental health. My mom took her place as a mental health advocate in the greatest tradition of noble leadership.”
May her efforts not be in vain. We need all the advocates we can get. It’s just too important to rest on stigmas.
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.
Stage door entrance — New York City, February 2016
"Tuck Everlasting" held its press preview on Monday at New 42nd Street Studios as cast members performed a selection of numbers from the show, which opens in previews on March 31. The top photo is from Broadway.com, which has a 15-minute video clip in HD on its site. The other photos are by Playbill photographer Monica Simoes.
Also, here is a shorter clip from Playbill.com that I was able to embed. Enjoy...
Final bow — St. Louis, January 2016
Jordan Roth, CEO and founder of the Culturalist website and president of the Jujamcyn Theaters chain in New York, went behind the scenes for an hour to watch the creation of the opening number of “Tuck Everlasting.” You can watch the video here.
A bonus: A screenshot of the video makes it on to the Tony Awards Twitter feed, and look who's front and center...
This video was taped shortly before Ben left the "Newsies" tour last month. It asks the cast members to describe the show in 30 seconds. Worth the watch...
Seventeen months after Ben's journey in "Newsies" started, and more than a year after the first "Art & Dance" shoot in Charlotte, we embarked on one last try on the morning before his final performance.
With five fellow cast members, the shoot took place on the roof of the Fox Theatre, more than 12 stories up and with beautiful views of St. Louis in the background.
To get to the platform we used at the top of the theatre, we had to climb up a steep slope. The last few photos in this album were taken by Ben and his roommate, Josh Burrage, from the slope.
I may be brave, but I ain't balanced... Enjoy.
To see more photos from this shoot, go to my Facebook album here.
Jordan Samuels, one of the cast members of "Newsies," conducted his video "exit interview" with Ben prior to last show in St. Louis and posted it to his YouTube page. Both guys did a great job.
Most of the photos in the “Art & Dance” series are taken quickly. The shoots generally last no more than a couple of hours. But this particular series, captured in Central Park last weekend, was done in a hit-and-run fashion. We didn’t have much time — about 45 minutes to be exact — to take pictures of several iMpulse dancers. So we went to a section of the park near the entrance at Columbus Circle and got these.
There’s something to be said for working fast, I guess…
To see more from this shoot, go to my Facebook album here or check out the "Art & Dance" section on this website.
Congrats to Ben on his first day of “Tuck Everlasting” rehearsals. We’re so proud of you, son, and can’t wait to see the show.
Beginnings and endings make my stomach turn, especially since I became a parent. Every performance, every show, every game brings the same set of nerves and emotions, especially at the start and as the finish approaches.
Today brought me to St. Louis, the site of a beginning and — the reason I'm here now — an ending. More than four years ago, Ben started tour life in "Billy Elliot" at the Fox Theatre; today he ended his 17-month run in "Newsies" at the same venue.
The difference is striking, as any parent who watches their child grow up notices. At almost 14, he was already a theater veteran, but had never been farther from home than New York; now, at 18, he has spent multiple nights in more than 40 states and all five provinces of Canada.
Unlike when the "Billy Elliot" run ended in May 2013, Ben isn't facing the teenage "dead zone." Starting later this month, finally considered an adult in the industry, he will start work on a new Broadway musical while finishing his senior year in New York.
It's been a remarkable run, one filled with as many false starts as beginnings and endings. It's also a testament to the rare occurrence when desire and hope merge with opportunity. What I'm proudest of is when others tell me our son is still the boy we hoped to raise when he and Emma were born. That, despite having so many different experiences at a young age, he is still kind and grateful for the opportunity to do what he does.
I don't pretend to understand how or why this works the way it has. As parents, Jill and I have done our best to raise four very different children while maintaining our own careers, friendship, and marriage. I would be lying to say it's been an easy juggle, but can honestly say I would not have been able to survive it without her as a partner in this endeavor.
Over the past two-plus years, while trying to build a business and realizing that the career I worked for 30 years to build means little in life's grand scheme, I've been fortunate to spend quality time with each of my kids and help support Jill in her career as it has taken off. Although I wish (and hope) to build a new career as our children leave the nest this year, I would not trade that time for anything.
It's not the turn I would have expected my life to take four years ago when I first saw Ben in St. Louis. But that's the thing I've noticed repeatedly over time: Where you start is not necessarily where you end up.
No matter how nervous that makes me, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Here's to new beginnings.
A near airplane crash. A cross-country flight. Two college auditions. A son on Broadway. A wife working with the White House. And a drink with a Hall of Fame baseball player.
I can't say the final weekend of my 50th year on the planet was boring.
Coming in mid-January, my birthday always has felt like something of an afterthought, given the post-holiday hangover we all seem to feel post New Year's. Add four kids with birthdays in December and a January that is one of Jill's craziest months at work, and it's easy — and understandable — to see why. Hell, I'm usually not in the mood to celebrate, and it's my birthday.
Last year, for my 50th, Jill pulled off a wonderful surprise that had my mom coming in from Texas along with a gathering of many of our closest friends. This year, as my 51st approached, I decided the fewer surprises that life has to offer, the better.
It started Friday, when Emma and I embarked on another college audition trip. This one, which ultimately involved three auditions over a 24-hour period, was in California.
Leaving the anticipated wintery mix and snow behind in Virginia had lots of appeal, although two cross country flights over a four-day period had me anticipating feeling my age and then some. My body does not deal well with the winter weather whiplash we seem to be having around here, and I was still tired from the previous weekend when Jill and I went on a whirlwind trip to New York.
The New York trip (chronicled here and here via my iPhone) involved seeing Billy Joel and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time” (her Christmas present), having tea at the Plaza Hotel (a present to each other), and attending the engagement party for our “adopted” son, Ginno. The party also was a reunion of many of the kids and parents from “Billy Elliot,” sans Ben, who is on the road with “Newsies.”
After all that, I’m sure Jill welcomed our departure as she spent the weekend working with the ASCA staff on planning the School Counselor of the Year celebration, which includes a visit to the White House next week. We don't see her much during January because of SCOY and another major program she supervises, so I felt fortunate that we had the New York trip as a last hurrah.
Little did I know when boarding the plane how close to a last hurrah it really would be.
On the first leg, we were off to Chicago, a little late and flying low because of the bumpy air. We made it just fine, did the cross-country trek across O’Hare, and got ready to board our connection to L.A.
Checking my phone, I saw the first surprise. Late last year, Ben booked “Tuck Everlasting,” a new Broadway musical that opens in April. He’s leaving “Newsies” at the end of the month before starting rehearsals in mid-February, but no formal announcement had been made. Then, without warning, the press release went out.
We boarded the plane behind a large man, obviously an athlete. As he sat on the first row in first class, I recognized him as Frank Thomas, the Fox TV analyst who spent the majority of his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago White Sox.
After sitting on the runway for about 15 minutes, the plane started to take off. Two wheels lifted off the ground, and on Row 31 we felt the familiar surge from behind. But in a split second, the plane jerked back and the pilot ground it to a halt, fortunately taking advantage of O’Hare’s long runway.
The collective reaction was, “What the (insert expletive of choice)?!?” The fire department came out to cool off the smoking wheels as the pilot explained that a cargo door, one right under where we were sitting, had come open.
We were very lucky, even if Emma’s nap had been abruptly halted. We waited for some time until the wheels cooled enough to return to a gate (ironically the same one where our first plane landed in the nether regions of O'Hare), so we could catch another flight. I'm sure at least a couple of people also had to clean out their shorts.
It was that scary.
While Emma started on some homework, I went to the bar and saw Thomas. Figuring the night could not get more surreal, I mentioned that it must have been “interesting” to have been in the front row of the plane. He said “Cheers,” took a sip of his wine, and offered to let me sit.
We talked briefly about — what else? — airplanes and baseball, and he could not have been nicer. An hour later, steeled for the next leg of the flight, we boarded again for California.
The next day was filled with Emma’s auditions, followed by a nice dinner together. On Sunday, my birthday, Emma picked up Starbucks for me. We went to another audition and had lunch with some friends from Northern Virginia who also were in California.
At that point, we drove to Hollywood so we could be closer to the airport for our departure. In our three trips to L.A., I’ve learned to hate the traffic (worse than even Northern Virginia), love the climate (65 degrees in January) and embrace the kitsch.
Emma indulged me as we went to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (separate blog coming on that at some point) and to Amoeba Records, the second best in the U.S. after Austin’s Waterloo. We then had dinner with the Hetheringtons, longtime friends from Ben’s “Billy Elliot” days.
Coming on the heels of Ginno’s party the previous weekend, the West Coast reunion with the Hetheringtons was a nice capper to the California trip. We reminisced, we laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time, and looked to the future.
That future includes two more long-distance trips this month, one to North Carolina to see Nicholas and work on a freelance story, and Ben’s last “Newsies” performance in St. Louis. Ironically, that’s where he started tour life in “Billy Elliot,” more than four years ago.
Circle backs. Full circle. And around and around it goes.