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.
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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!
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.’”
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.
Wow. "Paterno" premieres on HBO on April 7 and the Mean Girls formal Broadway opening is on April 8. The boy’s gonna have a big week. Check out this trailer.
An early Christmas present from the kids resulted in a great dinner and 4th row seats to "Dear Evan Hansen" on Broadway!
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.”
I've been trying to refrain from entering the Trump fray on Facebook, knowing that saying anything about the current shit show we live in will both alienate and embolden people. But this column by David Brooks — someone I don't always agree with, BTW — nails it on the head.
On a related note, I was fortunate to see "Come From Away" last week in New York. It tells the story of how a small Newfoundland community bound together to help airline passengers stranded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Without being overly political, the show is beautiful, a salve on the wounds of history and a temporary respite from our current situation. It is a ray of hope in increasingly dark times.
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.
Reunions that include all four kids are far too rare these days, so it was great to come together briefly in New York this past weekend. Ostensibly, the reason was to formally (and belatedly) celebrate Ben’s high school graduation, which we did with a small gathering of family (biological, extended, extensions of extended) on Saturday evening.
Nick and Conner came from Durham on Thursday night and, given that she had only visited the city a couple of times, we hit the sites hard on Friday. Nick took Conner to her first Broadway show (“Waitress”) and a friend gave them a backstage tour. Once the day was done, we had walked more than 10 miles.
On Saturday, Jill and Kate came in by train from Virginia and Emma flew in from Pittsburgh. At that point, we had all four children together for the first time since Emma’s graduation in July. Thanks to Ginno, Casey, Bernadette, and everyone else who took the time to stop by, say hello, give a hug, and catch up. It was great seeing all of you.
On Sunday, Emma and I stuck around and went to The Newsboys Variety Show at 54 Below to see Ben perform a song (“Unemployed”) with his roommate Josh. Again, I was struck by how kind and (obviously) talented the cast of this show is, and by how warm and friendly they are. They are a family unto themselves.
Before you knew it, the long weekend was over and it will be Christmas before the four are together again. But it was nice — very nice — while it lasted.
I think I may have found the official theme song of the 2016 election.
Two more election-related items:
• I turned on the TV last night during the debate and heard someone say, "Look at those hands!" Fortunately, the channel was ESPN.
• The "Well, duh" headline I saw last week: "Election is turning out to be unhealthy source of stress for many Americans."
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.
Elementary, middle and high school students from Northern Virginia performed scenes from four Broadway musicals Friday at the end of Metropolitan School of the Arts' annual summer musical theatre camp. The first show was "Hands on a Hardbody" (above); the second was from "All Shook Up" (below).
The students learned scenes, songs, and dances during the two week camp and then performed the pieces in a two-hour finale at Northern Virginia Community College's Ernst Cultural Center.
Beth Howland's death was announced today and, due to her wishes, it was almost six months after it happened. That's a remarkable feat in today's 24/7 news world, but nothing compared to the prospect of performing this song eight times a week on a Broadway stage. You might remember Howland as the ditzy waitress on the long-running show "Alice," but she also was an original cast member of "Company."
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.
“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.”
"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.
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).
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...
In a continuing quest to show — from afar — the process of rehearsals for "Tuck Everlasting" (and the boy who is in it), here's a short video on the unveiling of the marquee. The show opens in previews on March 31, with opening night set for April 26.
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...
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.
For my kids, Alan Rickman will always be known as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. On screen, I greatly enjoyed his work in the original “Die Hard” and opposite Emma Thompson in “Love Actually.” (The lesser-known cult classic “Galaxy Quest” comes in third, at least for me.)
Like many actors, however, Rickman’s first love was the stage, and he returned often after establishing his movie career. On a business trip in 2002, I was fortunate to see him in the Tony Award-winning revival of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives.”
“Private Lives,” written in 1930, is a screwball comedy about “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” divorcees who reunite and abandon their new spouses on the first night of their honeymoons. As with any classic farce, it is wonderful when handled with care and imagination, and falls completely flat when it’s not.
The Rickman revival, in which he reunited with frequent co-star Lindsay Duncan (who won the Tony for Best Actress), was a brilliant night of theatre. Witty, sophisticated, often laugh-out-loud hilarious, and, surprisingly, full of heart.
Walking back to my hotel on that mid-summer evening, I marveled at the performances and the show. More than a decade later, it remains a fond memory of actors working at the top of their craft.
RIP, Mr. Rickman. It was a pleasure to see you live.
(And, it goes without saying, there has been too much death in the entertainment world this week…)
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...
Two days after Ben left the Broadway company of Billy Elliot, and the afternoon before he left on the tour, kids and parents from both companies joined us for a "Goodbye ... Hello" celebration in one of the kids' favorite locations — a park close to the show. Thanks to all who attended and supported our son. It was a great afternoon.
Ben played the principal role of Michael during Billy Elliot's 1,000th show on Broadway this week. Unfortunately, I was traveling from New York to San Francisco, but my mom and nephew, Eric, were there to see the performance. Photos are by Broadway World and Playbill.
Congratulations to everyone involved with the show, which has been running on Broadway for almost three years.
A big congratulations to Ben on his debut as Michael today in Billy Elliot. Son, you were great, and we hope you get to perform the role again soon. Thanks to everyone who attended and those who sent kind comments — it was fantastic!
Ben had the opportunity to perform as Billy with cast members from “Billy Elliot” during the 25th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “Billy Elliot” raised more than $150,000 during the six-week fundraiser, finishing as the second runner-up in the competition among all Broadway shows.
With Neil McCaffrey as Michael and the show’s Ballet Girls, the group performed a hysterically funny mashup of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” in two shows at the Minskoff Theatre.
The six-week fundraiser by 52 Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring companies raised $3.7 million. Seventeen productions participated in the benefit at the Minskoff (home of “The Lion King”).
To see a six-minute compilation of clips from the show, go to this link.
The performance also gave us an opportunity to spend time together as a family over the Easter weekend, an event that featured a visit from Nicholas as well as a subway trip to Coney Island. Below are photos that illustrate the always "interesting" time we have together.
The arrival of the Billy Elliot tour at the Kennedy Center has provided a number of opportunities for reunions for the boy and some of his fellow cast members from the Broadway company. First, Neil and Ruby came down and spent some time with their former cast mate, taking a backstage tour after the show. Then, more than 100 students and teachers from Metropolitan Fine Arts Center came to see Ben as Michael and show their support.
We are thrilled for Ben, who has booked his second Broadway show! He will play Tall Boy and understudy Michael in "Billy Elliot"!
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.
"Disney on Broadway," a one-hour TV special celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Disney Theatrical Group, aired Sunday, Dec. 14 on ABC. The "Newsies" tour was featured briefly, and if you looked, you could catch a glimpse of Ben in a couple of shots like the one above. He was featured far more prominently in the ad for the show!
You’ve got to love the Disney-ABC synergy. At 7 p.m. EST on Dec. 14, the network will air a one-hour special, “Backstage with Disney on Broadway: Celebrating 20 Years.” Included will be a visit behind the scenes prior to the Newsies tour opening in Philadelphia last month.
The special, which will be hosted by Jessie Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family, will feature a look at the eight shows Disney has brought to New York, including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, and Aladdin.
Outside the Shubert Theatre — New York, April 2014
Ballerina in an empty theatre — New York City, November 2010
Of all the people we have met during our family’s “reality show,” Tim Federle is one of my favorites.
Tim was one of the choreographers on staff for the Broadway production of “Billy Elliot” when our son, Ben, was part of the ensemble and the Michael understudy in New York. “Billy” was one of those shows where the kids rehearsed constantly to remain on top of their dance skills, and Tim taught a number of the classes.
Most of the time, the parents interacted only briefly with the staff, waving hello and goodbye as we did the drop off and pick up at Ripley Grier Studios, so I didn’t formally meet Tim until after Ben made his debut as Michael in February 2011. When we returned to Virginia after that heady weekend, he sent us an email complimenting our son on his attitude and his debut, which was almost unheard of in our experience.
Later, we had a chance to meet and talk briefly, and exchanged email from time to time. What I didn’t know, during this period, was that Tim was working on a young adult novel called Better Nate Than Ever.
Tim wrote the main draft of the 30-chapter book, which tells the story of a child’s pursuit of the lead role in a Broadway musical, in a 30-day whirlwind before he left each day for “Billy” rehearsals. Rooted in Tim’s own experiences and inspired by his work on “Billy,” Nate is a hysterical, realistic, sentimental story of a young boy’s can-do spirit and desire to perform.
Before it was published, Tim sent us an advance copy of the book, and we loved it. Nate’s story is a universal tale of a child pursuing his greatest passion in life, albeit with an insider’s knowledge about Broadway auditions. For that reason, it is enjoyed just as much by adults as its intended demographic (ages 9-12); think of it as “Toy Story” for theatre lovers, without the CGI.
Reviewers and audiences felt the same way we did. Nate was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2013, a Slate.com Favorite Book of the Year, and a Best Book of the Year by both Amazon and Publishers Weekly. The just-released sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, is on the same path. It was named a Best Book in January by Amazon and has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.
Last week, on the one-year anniversary of Better Nate Than Ever’s publication, Tim taught master classes at Metropolitan School of the Arts (MSA) in Lorton and Alexandria. He was ending a two-week tour to promote both books, having come in from Milwaukee the night before.
Audiences on the tour have been receptive to the books, which was wonderful to hear after Nate generated minor controversy last fall. The book references the main character’s emerging sexuality (albeit in an age appropriate, chaste way), a development that led to some cancellations from schools, including Tim’s own suburban middle school in Pennsylvania.
No such problems have been reported in this area, and MSA welcomed him with open arms. The school is where all of my kids have received their dance training, and founder Melissa Dobbs connected with Tim after our family and her fellow teachers raved about the book.
For high school students at the MSA Academy in Lorton, Federle taught a dance combination, advised students on their singing and monologues, and offered audition techniques they can use. He then went to MSA's Alexandria studio and conducted a second class for about 40 students ranging from elementary to high school.
At both sessions, you could hear Nate’s voice come through Tim; yes, he admits, he was writing about what he knows — musical theater. He told stories of his Broadway experiences and provided sound advice for the students about pursuing their passion and dreams.
As much as I enjoyed watching the classes, I was even happier to see the students and teachers benefit from Tim’s knowledge, wisdom, and humor. Sometimes, good guys do finish first.
For more photos from the visit, go to my Facebook album here.
Ben had a rare day off recently, so he decided to make a movie with Emma. Enjoy.
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.
The sign for our child's first Broadway show — on Broadway in Times Square, no less.
“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)
A year ago, Ben made his Broadway debut in "Ragtime." Tonight, he is on stage again, marking his 158th consecutive performance in “Billy Elliot.”
At home in Virginia, Kate is sitting downstairs drawing and painting, finally calm after an operatic outburst, an outburst that’s sad in large part because it was so predictable.
If Latin were not a dead language, this would be called “parentis extremis.”
I didn’t expect to be writing this on Saturday afternoon. I thought I’d be running errands that need to be complete. But I can’t. Emotionally and physically spent, all I can do is sit here and type — a RSS feed of pride and hurt, joyful emotion and deflating sadness.
I am super proud of my children, and do my best not to disappoint them. All I want is for them to do their best and be kind to others in the process. Much of the time we are successful, but sometimes we’re not, especially when a mental disorder lurks in the background — never dormant, always waiting.
You really don’t realize how hard stage actors work until you are around them. Ben has done eight shows a week, six days a week, since July 7. It's something that would test anyone's stamina, let alone that of a 12-year-old.
Sometimes, we get asked why he's doing this, why we do it. Certainly this has tested our entire family’s stamina. At the same time, Ben wants this and works on it tirelessly. He sings in the shower, dances in the living room, and does his homework between scenes. He remains a kid at heart, and a good one at that.
Some people wonder why we would “push” our child into this. I have met and gotten to know people who live vicariously through their children and I can tell you with certainty that’s not us. Life would be much less complicated if we didn’t go back and forth to New York every week.
The thing is this: You do what you can for your children, whether it’s Broadway or travel soccer. And as long as they hold up their end of the bargain, you do it as long as you can.
Is it wrong to admit that sometimes I don’t enjoy being a parent? Or that I get tired of all the requisite b.s. that goes along with the job?
Yes, parenting is a job — some days with benefits, some days without. According to life’s HMO, you have to be in network to enjoy it.
Many days that network includes your fellow parents, people with whom you bond while waiting in the parking lot at dance, or over a baseball practice. Something changes once you welcome another person — one completely dependent on you — into your life. Friendships that meant everything to you fade and sometimes disappear, replaced by diapers, then carpools in messy vans, then middle school football games on Thursday (not Friday) nights.
The people you meet and are social with rarely are the same friends from college, the ones who could discuss obscure literature or music with you until 4 a.m., drunk on cheap beer or tequila (everyone has a bad cheap tequila story). Life’s great mysteries always seemed solved by a simple night of semi-lucid conversation on the couch. That is, until the next morning, when a new set of mysteries popped up again.
Nostalgically, we say we miss those times, when in fact what we miss is the freedom they offered. Some crave that freedom like a drug, believing it is better to be on parole from daily responsibility. Others embrace the new reality that parenting and family brings.
It took me a long time, well into my 30s, to embrace that reality. If anything, being a single parent for much of the past year has turned that embrace into a bear hug, reminding me how lucky I am to have Jill and these four talented children.
But occasionally, the embrace feels like a chokehold.
Life with teenagers is not easy, as my fellow parents will attest. Kate’s doctor says teens lose 10 years of maturity from the moment they become prepubescent and don’t get it back until the hormone surges slow down several years later.
I can’t wait for that to happen.
The bipolar/puberty combination has turned our daughter with a mood disorder into someone I don’t understand. She can be so sweet one minute, showing the kind, lovely, talented girl we know exists in there. Then on a dime, she becomes “Toxic Teenager,” host of her own pity party, and believer that she is the monosyllabic snark mistress of the universe.
All the while screaming and crying at the top of her lungs.
The verbal warfare during these times is intense, and it’s only gotten worse as her shape has changed and she’s gotten taller. The Chinese ping-pong team could learn serve and volley from us. Aaron Sorkin could write our scripts.
The adrenaline that surges through her body during these fits and episodes dissipates almost as quickly, leaving her drained and remorseful. I try to remind myself, and her siblings, that the verbal venom we have to fend off is just as filled with self loathing.
I started writing this piece yesterday, but couldn’t finish it, too tired and exhausted from the afternoon battle to continue while Kate continued her painting. Today, I returned to it, drained and suffering from the post-traumatic stress disorder that another round brought.
Right now, at this moment, I take comfort in four things:
• That Kate finds comfort in art and ballet.
• That Ben is doing so well.
• That Nicholas and Emma are such good people and such good siblings.
• That Jill is coming home tonight so we can be together for two nights before the Thanksgiving round robin begins, another week of adventures for our family.
That’s enough right now.
After a couple of days of sentimental postings, thought you might enjoy this...
It’s ironic, in this past year of going back and forth to New York, that two shows — “Next to Normal” and “Wishful Drinking” — have involved women who are bipolar.
Carrie Fisher's one-woman show, "Wishful Drinking," played last year at Studio 54, which is just down the street from our apartment. I never was much for the "Star Wars" phenomenon, but I've long admired her sense of humor and absolute candor in her writing. And "Wishful Drinking," a series of vignettes about her dysfunctional (to use the term lightly) family and her struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder, is extremely candid.
It's also hysterically funny, and provides anyone with a great deal of intelligent insight into the struggles a person faces when they have this terrible disorder. (More irony in timing: A taped version of “Wishful Drinking” airs on HBO next month, just as the national tour of "Next to Normal" begins and the Broadway version gets ready to close in January.)
I'm not someone who writes fan letters (my only previous one was to Richard Nixon, when I was 8, nonpartisan, and learning the presidents, but he was a little busy in 1973). So I'm not sure why I decided to write one to Fisher, except that I felt a sense of kinship after seeing the show.
Here's an excerpt from what I posted to her blog:
"Hooray, I’m #326! It’s a spot in life I’m familiar with.
"Not sure if you’ll get this far down the list, but thought it was worth a shot. I’m not your run-of-the-mill, average, never-been-on-a-date “Star Wars” stalker; in fact, I’m a married father of four and writer who happens to be a huge fan of your non-acting career. I’m also the parent of a 12-year-old girl who is bipolar."
I then went on to explain more about our situation and the roller coaster ride we live and breathe as parents and as a family. I didn't expect anything, really, but a response of some kind would have been nice.
Heck, even Nixon sent me a picture of the White House, even though he had a worse PR problem than Fisher does, if you think about it.
I guess if I had seen my likeness on a Pez dispenser and been chased by the founders of Comic Con, I wouldn't bother to respond either.
So much for fan mail.
January 8: So, here we are, riding on a train to New York again. Ben is napping next to me, having finished a 13-hour, two show day only a few hours before, and we are going to see "Billy Elliot."
It's the final show on Broadway, a place we left behind three months before when Ben joined the “Billy” national tour. For the past four weeks, the tour has been at the Kennedy Center, a 20-mile drive from our house and one of the places where this journey began.
Immediately I flash back to our first train trip almost five years ago, when my little boy was trying to learn Gavroche's song. He didn't really know what he was doing, didn't really understand how the audition process worked, didn't really comprehend what was ultimately ahead.
Neither did we.
The "Les Miserables" audition was not a success, obviously. Nor was the first of many "Billy Elliot" auditions that started when he was 10. But there was progress; he kept getting calls to go back. And he kept going back.
At that point, we had no idea where all this would lead, just that we had a child who had found an all-consuming passion and managed to remain a kid at the same time.
That's our job as parents, striking the delicate balance between nurturing the passion and ensuring that he is a regular kid. The questions Jill and I receive most often are around this subject.
"Has this changed him?"
January 30: Three very long weeks have passed since I started writing this essay, and it’s been since last fall that I’ve contributed to this blog. That happens when you live in a Petri dish of puberty. Change is the constant in your life, and the weeks are long ones.
Today I’m driving to Pittsburgh to pick up Ben and Ginno, the fifth “child” in our household. Ginno, who cared for Ben for the last several months in New York, has been serving as his guardian on the road for the past two weeks. He truly cares for our son; we’ve been fortunate to have him in our lives, along with Brian, Jill’s cousin and another one of the masses that help take care of our little boy.
The 570-mile drive up and back is arduous and long, something I’ve gotten used to as a long-distance parent. For several years when my oldest, Nicholas, was in high school, I made the drive to North Carolina and back on the same, long day. Now Nick can come see us — a blessed development. He has matured so much and, at 19, is rapidly becoming the adult I always hoped.
For the longest time, I have said I’m interested in being friends with my kids when they are adults. With Nicholas, there is reason to be encouraged.
Ben has an Achilles tendon strain, which occurred in a ballet class in Cincinnati, and he’s out of the show for an undetermined period of time. Even though the injury is considered minor, it means he won’t play Michael, Billy’s best friend, because he’s supposed to be training for the show’s lead character.
Billy, the elusive Billy Elliot. A boy who has warmed the hearts of millions and changed a lot of people’s worlds since the 2000 movie and subsequent stage musical. Ben has pursued the part for almost four years now, his first audition coming just after he received his first professional gig in “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre.
That seems so long ago.
February 11: It’s a stressful time, and we’ve become pros at handling stress.
Kate, our oldest daughter, is struggling. It’s something that seems to happen during this time each year, when the days become shorter and colder. She spent 18 days in an outpatient program over Christmas and New Year’s. Her freshman year in high school, which started so promisingly, has deteriorated.
Starting shortly after Thanksgiving, Kate became progressively more manic. Her chances for academic success, which are subject to the cycles that come with being a bipolar teen, seem to be deteriorating as well.
We are trying to transfer her to another school, one that is better equipped to serve students with emotional disabilities. One of her teachers — her case worker, no less — explains that if she would just turn in her work, her grades would be better.
It’s become a familiar drill: Every time something new happens — new school, new meds, new teachers, new counselors — Jill and I have to recite again what has brought us to this point. Diagnoses, family histories, flaws, foibles — all are exposed yet again. Improvement, continuous though fragile, is the long-term goal.
Ten weeks into a hyper manic cycle, we are worried.
I had a chance to talk to Nicholas at length this week while waiting for the kids to get out from a movie. It was great to catch up, learn about his classes — he’s taking a buttload of hours and getting a new roommate — and hear about his upcoming audition. It’s a stressful time for him, too, but I’m proud of how he’s handling it all.
Ben and I went out to take pictures today. It was bitterly cold, and the wind made things that much worse, but it was good to get out for a while. The boy has been housebound largely since he got home, although the PT has gone well and he seems to be feeling better. Ginno has returned to New York; we still don’t know what Ben’s training will look like.
The sunset, however, is beautiful.
February 17: I’m in Houston, visiting my mom for the first time on her home turf in two years, attending a conference related to my work. The weather stinks, but I manage to sneak out and take some pictures. Photography is a source of comfort, especially when I’m having such trouble writing.
We’ve decided to send Ben back to New York, still not knowing with certainty what will happen with Billy and the tour. He needs to be away, to get back to some semblance of the life he has lived for 2+ years, and we know that. We’re still not sure what the next few months will bring. Even though things seem to be taking shape, we still have questions.
Ben is not used to long periods of inactivity, not surprising given that he has worked steadily for the past three years. He is bored and restless, trying to make the best of the first major injury he has had as a performer. New York seems to be the perfect temporary antidote.
As parents, that can be tough to accept, to realize your child — at the tender age of 14 — belongs in a place so far removed from the nuclear family life. And yet Ben has done the three things we’ve asked of him — stayed engaged in school, acted and worked professionally in a professional environment, and yet somehow remained a kid who still loves and needs his family.
Once he plays Billy, Ben will be only the second child in North America to play the show’s three young male roles (Kylend Hetherington, one of the current Billys on tour, is the other.) That speaks to Ben’s versatility and, ultimately, his will.
I don’t know how he does it. I’m not sure I understand how we do it, either.
The doctor has changed Kate’s meds, but getting her into another school has been slowed by yet another bureaucratic hurdle, as has the process for getting Emma into her high school of choice. Emma has done everything right; she has good grades and exhibits patience at home and school that are beyond her years. But red tape threatens her ability to attend the school where she has thrived.
In Houston, I call an official at the school that both my daughters — for completely different reasons — want to leave behind. Because a long holiday weekend is coming, we won’t get a call back until Tuesday.
February 21: Things are starting to take shape. A plan is moving into place for Ben, who will resume his formal Billy training in Los Angeles in April, then return to New York in May for five weeks before rejoining the tour in June. If we’ve learned anything about life with “Billy Elliot,” it’s that patience is required.
The school official calls. No word on Emma’s placement, but we have a transfer meeting set up for later in the week for Kate. I’m back in Virginia for three days before we head to New York to see the boy and Ginno. The bigger task: moving out of the apartment we’ve had for 2½ years.
One problem: I left my wallet on the airplane when I came back from Houston.
Fortunately, I don’t have a pile of credit cards to cancel, but it’s still painful. And it’s really no surprise, given everything that has taken place over the past couple of months, that I would do something so stupid.
Almost two months before, driving in D.C. with Ben and a very volatile Kate, I had a minor fender bender. No one was injured, but I struck a car that was being driven by a member of the District of Columbia’s law enforcement community. And the car I was driving — a 2002 Volvo with 150,000 miles on it — decided it was time to hang it up.
Things have to get better.
February 27: Today is Kate’s last day at her old school. Later in the week she will start fresh in a new program. She is more stable than she has been since before Thanksgiving, and for that we are thankful.
Jill and I drove up to New York the day before, to start packing the little apartment we moved into when this adventure began with “Ragtime.” It’s a day we’ve dreaded, in part because we’re leaving our son and some wonderful friends and memories there, and because it represents the end of a tremendously significant era in our lives.
One reason Ben is on the tour is because it gives him a chance to play Billy. Another is because he could play Michael, a principal role, when the show was at the Kennedy Center over the holidays. Sadly, the show’s closing on Broadway meant that he made the right move in leaving New York when he did. Happily, going on tour gave him a chance to perform in front of friends and acquaintances that otherwise would not have seen why we do what we do.
Now all we have to do is finish packing.
We’ve decided to let Ben stay in New York for the next month, return to school during that time, and see how things go until he resumes training. Friends that we’ve made because of this experience — Ginno, Carol, Bernadette, Katie, Ruby, Todd, and Carole — are helping us with the transition.
Last night the Oscars were on, and we sat on the couch and watched as they marched predictably to form. Cheers went up when Meryl Streep won in what proved to be the night’s only surprise.
Today, Jill left to help Kate get ready for her new school, and found a surprise — a letter informing us that Emma will get into her school of choice as well. Ginno, Ben, and I continue packing. As day progresses into night, I go to my neighborhood bar with a friend.
While there, I get a message I never expected. Ben is nominated for an award for playing Michael in Washington, D.C. On our last night in New York, he gets recognized in his adopted hometown.
Things indeed have come full circle, tying us in knots at times in the process as we go through the extreme highs and the equally tough lows. These past 50 days have been one of the roughest periods we’ve experienced as parents and as a family.
Fortunately the pebbles we stumble across slowly fill the potholes along the way.