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  • Stage Dad: Farewell, Tuck...

    “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.”

  • The Last Flight

    My father was a huge fan of the Jet Age-influenced modern architecture that found its way to the United States in the early 1960s. He was particularly fond of the Space Needle in Seattle and loved the design of the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, which looks like a flying saucer that has landed on its four legs.

    He also appreciated the design of the Trans World Airlines Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, even though he never had the chance to see the famed gull-winged building that was dedicated in 1962.

    On Sunday, two days before what would have been my dad’s 75th birthday, I toured the terminal with Bernadette, a family friend and fellow photographer. The tour, part of Open House New York, was billed as the last time the terminal will be open before it is converted into the centerpiece of a $265 million luxury hotel.

    Designed by the celebrated Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, the terminal is considered one of the masterpieces of 20th-century modernism. Saarinen, who also designed the St. Louis Gateway Arch, wanted it to have sleek and flowing lines that represent a bird in flight.

    New York City was considered the birthplace of the Jet Age, which officially started in the mid 1940s but took off (literally) in 1958, when the Boeing 707 began service on a New York to London route. That was the first year that more passengers crossed the Atlantic Ocean by air rather than by ship, according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

    The development of the Boeing 747 only accelerated the pace of air travel, but it also was the beginning of the end for the TWA Flight Center, which struggled to handle the larger planes and additional passengers. On Sunday, for example, organizers for Open House New York expected 3,000 to 5,000 people to be on hand for the tour, and the terminal felt crowded with half that number.

    Fortunately, unlike many celebrated buildings that seem to be randomly razed in and around the city, the terminal was included in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Last month, the state approved plans by MCR Development and JetBlue Airways plans to build a 500-room, six-story luxury hotel on the terminal site.

    The Mad Men-era terminal will become the lobby for the hotel, which is scheduled to open in 2018. For generations to come, the hotel owners promise, it will feel like 1962 again.

    Somewhere, my dad is smiling. 

    For more photos, see my Facebook page here.

  • This is Really The End

    Few things are sadder than seeing a stage, full of such life and vibrancy just a few days ago, empty except for the crew loading out.

    But that’s what happens when a show closes. For those not familiar with the lingo, it’s called the “strike.” (Ironically appropriate, in this case…)

    This morning, after dropping Ben off for school, I walked past the Neil Simon for the first time since Sunday’s closing performance, seeing the crates and the crew working in what seemed like organized chaos to me. It’s yet another difference between community and professional theatre; in this case, you have a lot of people who are paid good money to clean up afterward.

    It’s still sad, however. And it made me do my own version of a circle back.

    I circled back to last week, when suddenly people who thought the show would run for a lot longer raced to the theatre to see “Ragtime.” Several times, waiting after the show, I looked at the crowd standing outside in the frigid cold to get autographs and wondered: WHY?

    Why, indeed.

    In the short, three-plus block walk from the theatre to our apartment, I also thought of Alejando Escovedo’s song “The End,” written about the dissolution of a relationship. As the guitars build, Escovedo almost shouts, “Is this really the end?” repeatedly during the chorus.

    I use music (along with writing) to process my thoughts and this was the song I played walking around the hospital in the final night before my father passed away. Sadly, the feelings were the same.

    This show is not coming back; it really is the end.

    ••••••

    If you have the time, take a look at this video of “Gene” the puppet, a creation by cast member Benjamin Schrader, talking to cast members about the show’s closing. It will make you smile.

     

  • Snowbacle 2015

    There’s a great Peanuts cartoon in which a single flake of snow falls from the sky and one of the characters exclaims, “Close all the schools!”

    Fairfax and other counties in Northern Virginia should have taken a look at that cartoon this morning. Instead, a wintery mix of bad timing, rush hour commute, poor planning and communication turned into an epic storm of a different, rancid kind.

    What was expected to be 1-3 inches of wet, powdery snow was just that, but it didn’t start falling until around 4:30 a.m., 2 ½ hours before sunrise and with temperatures in the low 20s. While many schools in the area decided on two-hour delays — a choice usually made by 5 a.m. before the first buses roll — Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun County opted to start at the regularly scheduled time.

    It was a big mistake, and one that likely will be a migraine for FCPS for some time to come.

    ••••••

    For some reason, I woke up at 3:30 this morning and could not go back to sleep. I knew the weather was expected to be iffy at best, and figured the kids would go to school on a two-hour delay, if at all.

    As the snow started to fall, I turned on the TV to look for the announcement and didn’t see one. Surprised, I woke Jill shortly after 5 a.m. and told her that it was a decision that Fairfax would regret.

    Our daughters, Kate and Emma, go to high schools on opposite ends of our house, which is on the county’s southern border. Kate is a senior at Mount Vernon, while Emma is a junior at Lake Braddock.

    Both girls, who are responsible drivers with a number of activities and/or work after school, said they wanted to drive alone to school. Kate’s commute involves Route 1, which is a state highway that usually is salted. Emma’s, on the other hand, involves a number of back roads that can be a challenge in tough weather.

    Somewhat worried, I decided to follow Emma, who was picking up a friend, and meet her at Starbucks for some morning coffee. Even I was not prepared for the streets near our home to be a hockey rink.

    We went just over a mile in an hour and saw two wrecks and multiple cars spinning out. On a hill, Emma and I were separated when a car in front of me stopped midway, and soon thereafter, I found myself playing chicken with a truck and a school bus that was fighting to gain limited traction. Fortunately, I was able to back up safely, get Emma parked, and take her home.

    By this time, parents and students were already venting on social media. And it wasn’t even 7:30 a.m. 

    ••••••

    Within two hours, the hashtag #closeFCPS was trending worldwide on Twitter, reminding me once again that the hardest decisions school leaders make come down to three things: personnel, student expulsions, and weather-related closings. All three, in one key aspect or another, are no-win situations.

    I learned this lesson while serving as a communications director for North Carolina's Rockingham County Schools. Geographically speaking, Rockingham County does not compare in size to Fairfax County, home to one of the nation's largest school districts. But it shared some similarities, with the potential for storms in the western end not affecting the southern or eastern portions of the county at all. So while roads were too dangerous to bypass in some areas, others would have nothing on them.

    Closing schools is an all-around inconvenience. Instructional days are lost and have to be shifted around. Parents have to scramble to find child care arrangements, or be faced with the prospect of missing work or leaving their kids at home for the day. It is not a decision that is made lightly.

    2013-14 was not a good weather year, as students and staff missed numerous days due to a seemingly never-ending winter. Fortunately, the weather gods have been kind in 2014-15, with only one day missed so far this school year.

    In large county districts, it’s worth noting that closing schools usually is an all-or-nothing proposition. And in developing school calendars (a subject worthy of its own debate, but not now), districts build in a certain number of inclement weather days for instances such as this. When a district operates on a two-hour delay, they get credit for the instructional day, even though classes are compressed and cut short.

    I’m not conservative on most things, but I am where the safety of my children is concerned. As inconvenient as closing or delaying the start of school may have been, it’s just not worth it to put your staff or students at risk. Putting teenage drivers on the road before sunrise during the early morning rush hour is scary enough.

    Several Maryland school districts made what I consider to be the right call from the beginning. They started with a two-hour delay, then some closed for the day when weather conditions did not improve. A similar approach, while not ideal, would have been welcome here.

    We were fortunate. Kate made it to school safely. I managed to get Emma home and then walked the mile to pick up her car. By this time, streets were finally salted and I made it home safely about 9:15.

    About an hour later, Fairfax County Public Schools issued an apology, noting the decision was made with “the best information we had very early this morning.” School board member Ryan McElveen, in a Twitter post favorited more than 5,000 times in less than three hours, said the decision not to close “was terrible.”

    “Clearly,” he wrote, “we screwed up. I am so sorry for all the hardship brought upon so many.”

    Let’s hope everyone has learned a valuable lesson, and next time something like this comes up, perhaps everyone truly will err on the side of caution and safety.

  • From Closing to Closure

    Just after Ragtime’s stirring opening number, Father says something to Mother as he leaves on his year-long journey: Nothing much happens in a year.

    Hogwash.

    In many ways, this is a typical Saturday morning. I’m writing this and procrastinating. On the agenda is grocery shopping, doing laundry, running a few errands, cleaning up the apartment, and muddling through some leftover work tasks. Ben is sound asleep on the couch, not yet stirring, and anxious to go to his dance classes. Tonight, Jill will arrive, and we will have a rare weekend together in New York.

    But this weekend, like much of this past year, also is atypical. Tomorrow, we head to a brunch that will have the feel of an extended family reunion, and then we will go to (eek!) the Tony Awards.

    It’s something I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime, and only fantasized about in the broadest terms a year ago. But in a rare moment of wisdom, the nominating committee recognized Ragtime with six nominations — an amazing feat for a show that closed five months ago.

    In many ways, the nominations bring a bittersweet sense of closure to a show that many feel should still be running. They represent long-deserved acknowledgement for people who have toiled in the business for decades, an affirmation of some whose careers are just starting to explode, and recognition of a production that forever changed the lives of everyone involved with it.

    And a year ago, it had only just begun.

    Ben was the last person from the original D.C. cast to perform, and his debut was on Broadway. Closing for him, and for everyone involved, represented a huge transition into the unknown.

    Journalists are trained to work with the 5Ws and an H. The lasting lesson from my college training is to ask two more questions: “So what?” and “What’s next?”

    In this case, the answer to the “So what?” is obvious. This experience has changed our lives for good. And fortunately, after months of uncertainty, we now know what’s next.

    But for one last weekend, we can remember, recognize and reflect.

    From closing to closure, we have a chance to celebrate. And we will.

  • The Reality of Perspective

    Not too long ago, I bumped into Jim Moore, the musical director for “Ragtime,” while Ben was in a ballet class.

    “Did you realize what we were getting you into?” he asked.

    We laughed for a moment — fleeting moments are all you seem to get when one show ends and the search for another begins — and soon parted ways.

    This is one of theatre’s little oddities that no one prepares a parent for — watching your child have extremely intense, fulfilling relationships with people whose talents far outnumber yours, then seeing those relationships evaporate or be forever altered within moments or days. The boomerang of emotions your child feels is sometimes more dramatic than what you see on stage.

    Fortunately, as we’ve learned, the theatre community in general is small and close knit. Chances are, if you go from show to show, you’ll always meet someone with a connection to someone you know. And, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll work with people you like (and who you hope feel the same about you) more than once.

    Ben has been extremely fortunate to work with a variety of interesting, creative people over the past four-plus years he has been doing this. When each show has ended, he has mourned its loss, and wondered if he would ever see those people again. We try to reassure him, and let him know that he will, just in a different context.

    ••••••

    Perspective is a funny thing, and in many ways, it’s only gained by experience and the passage of time. Little things — fragments of memory — that seemed insignificant in the moment take on greater resonance with perspective. Things that once seemed huge shrink and drift away when new memories or experiences are added.

    As parents, this is something we try to teach our kids, that perspective and context do matter. It’s hard for kids — and in some cases, adults — to understand that a break up, or a show closing, or a high school sporting event that didn’t end well is not the end of the world. It’s even tougher to comprehend that something you cared so passionately about is but a memory.

    That last sentence applies to parents, too. When you see your child immersed and psyched about an activity, no matter what it is, the end and subsequent transition always is a bit of a shock to the system. You’ve juggled and scrambled and rescheduled to successfully achieve the impossible, and then it’s done and over in a flash. Yes, inevitably we are relieved to get our lives back — until the next thing comes along, that is — but we often miss it, too.

    Ben’s run in “Billy Elliot” — he marked 10 months in the show last week — has been a fascinating experience for a number of reasons. And even though it is a long-running show with no chance of closing any time soon, it has presented a number of challenges on the transition front. Ben has seen a number of kids — castmates and peers — leave as their voices change and contracts end.

    The reality of the business — that nothing is ever permanent — regularly hits home.

    Almost two years ago, I had no way of realizing the impact that “Ragtime” would have on the lives of everyone in our family. The show’s abrupt end caught all of us off guard, and it took a while to bounce back. It was such a close-knit group of people, which is something I’m reminded of every time we see someone from the show on the street.

    I can see now, far more clearly, why people try to work with the same folks over and over. The ability to collaborate and create is made far easier when you have people you know who are just as passionate as you about a particular project. Ben is extremely fortunate to have known so many kind people who have that ongoing passion.

    Two years ago, taking that leap into the unknown — a leap of faith without a bungee cord attached — was exciting, thrilling, exhausting and scary as hell for everyone in our family. And it remains just as exciting, thrilling, and yes, exhausting and scary today.

    No matter what happens next, it’s been one heckuva ride.