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.
Currently showing posts tagged Debut
Time to send a huge "BREAK A LEG" to Ben, who has his first two performances in "Billy Elliot" today. Congratulations, son, and can't wait to see you and the rest of the gang later this week. We’re very proud of you.
Home for two weeks, the boy poses in front of the "Newsies" poster hanging in front of the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., where the show opens tonight.
“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)
Note: In May 2012, I was asked to write a column for a Washington, D.C., theatre website (www.dcmetrotheaterarts.com) on being a "Stage Dad." I'm crossposting the columns to this blog as well after they are published.
"I saw my sis go pitter pat. Said I can do that. I can do that.”
Five and a half years ago, my little boy Ben was dancing in the basement of a woman’s house in Maryland, showing off his gymnastics moves, taps and splits. Afterward, he answered a few questions from the woman we arranged to meet and then we left, not knowing what would happen next.
Really, we had no clue how that audition would change all of our lives.
That little boy is now a teen, getting ready to fly back from Los Angeles to New York, where he will train for the role he’s pursued since 2008 — the title part on the national tour of “Billy Elliot.” And in a couple of weeks, he’ll flashback to that afternoon in the basement when he performs “I Can Do That” in a benefit called “Born for Broadway” at the American Airlines Theater in New York.
Things in his life — and the lives of our family — are coming full circle, the pieces of a long and winding path finally connecting. It’s a path that has featured numerous adventures (of the mis and grand variety), including six professional shows in Washington, D.C., two Broadway productions, one national tour, and one cameo in a TV series that was filmed before a two-show day. It also has involved countless auditions, stealth-like schlepping (planes, trains, and motor vehicle versions), two residences, long days, and sleepless nights.
At least it’s not travel soccer.
Looking back at those adventures, as well as the lessons learned, is the purpose of this blog/column that Joel Markowitz asked me to write. For the past three years, I’ve written a personal blog — in an attempt to process what has taken place in our lives. Joel very graciously asked me to share some of those stories with his audience.
So let me set the scene for you.
My wife, Jill, and I have four teenagers — two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 14 to 19. My oldest, Nicholas, just was accepted into the BFA Acting program at Elon University in North Carolina. Katharine, the visual artist in the group, is finishing her freshman year in high school in Northern Virginia.
Emma, Ben’s twin sister, is in eighth grade at a different Northern Virginia school. Like her brother, she lives for dance. She also is forging, through hard work and good grades, her own path in life in a far more low-key way than her brother.
Now you can see why I like to say, with four kids in four schools in three states, “In our family, the only thing mellow is the drama.”
Over the next several months, I hope you will join us on this journey of what it is like to be a stage parent. We’ll chronicle the ups and downs, answer your questions, seek your thoughts and — I hope — provide you with some insight into the world in which we live.
What a world it is.
I still get nervous when I see my children perform. It’s almost a reflex, a parent’s prayer to a higher being that they will enjoy it, that they will do their best, that nothing will go wrong and, if it does, that they’ll get out of it unscathed.
Over the past several years, I’ve seen my four kids perform in school plays, dance recitals, in college concerts, at venues across the country, and on Broadway. The same reflex kicks in every time.
But on June 30, after a tumultuous 18-hour period, storms on the runway flying to Louisville, Ky., four hours of sleep, and 4½ years of waiting/hoping/praying, I was almost too numb to be nervous.
Ben was finally going to be Billy Elliot.
My wife, Jill, and son, Nicholas, were sitting with me in the center orchestra section in The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Ben’s manager, Linda Townsend, and her companion were on the same row. Also in the theatre were Ben’s road guardian, Ginno Murphy, his tutors, several cast members’ parents, and a number of Billy “super fans” who traveled long distances to see the show.
The night before, Jill and I sat on the runway at National Airport as the huge storm whipped through the greater Washington, D.C. area, leaving 1.2 million people in the area without power and forcing the cancellation of our daughter’s dance recital that was scheduled for that weekend. We took off after sitting on the small USAirways jet for two hours, and did not arrive in Kentucky until almost 2 a.m.
As we were catching a cab to the hotel, my phone rang. It was Ben. He could not sleep. He was nervous. Could I stop in his room when I got there?
I dropped off Jill, who had just finished an 80-hour work week and was at the end of a 20-hour day, in our room and knocked on his door. There was my little boy, now 14 and about to embark on a journey few have dreamed. He wanted to talk – something he shares in common with his dad – and he wanted me to rub his back like I have done thousands of times before when he could not sleep. I happily obliged.
Ben asked which number I was looking forward to the most. I said the finale, when Billy leads the cast in a fabulous tap curtain call. He asked why and I told him simply, “because then you’ll be done.”
After 15 minutes or so, I left and saw Nicholas, Ben’s older half-brother who served as his guardian during the final two weeks of tech rehearsals. Nicholas, now in college and also a talented performer in his own right, did a great job of taking care of his younger brother. The two discovered a deep bond during that two-week period, developing a new-found appreciation for each other.
Flash forward 11 hours. Bleary eyed, we’re sitting in the audience, the resident director has introduced Ben and our family, and the curtain comes up.
Almost three years before, Jill and I sat in the Neil Simon Theater in New York, with tears in our eyes as the curtain came up in “Ragtime.” Ben was the understudy to Little Boy, a principal character who opens and closes the show, and was performing on the first Saturday night of the Tony-nominated (though much too short-lived) revival.
We held on to each other through every scene, and I don’t think I exhaled until the cast took its final bow. There have been lots of curtain calls since, a few disappointments, and some trying times for our family as we juggle parenting, jobs, and the dreams, hopes, and setbacks of our children.
While he was training, Jill said she would not believe Ben was Billy until she saw it with her own eyes. Now, there he was on stage.
For the Billy character, the first act is relentless as he has some role in every number – “The Stars Look Down,” “Shine,” “Grandma’s Song,” “Solidarity,” “Expressing Yourself,” “The Letter,” “Born to Boogie,” and “Angry Dance.” Act II has fewer numbers but is no less strenuous for Billy, with the “Swan Lake” ballet sequence and the show’s finale, “Electricity.”
I teared up twice. The first time was at the end of “Solidarity,” when the audience sees Billy discovering his talent for dance. After a full day of school and a performance in the “Billy” Broadway company, where he played Tall Boy and understudied Michael, Ben performed the turns endless times in the middle of the night in our New York apartment. Despite our orders to go to bed, he kept pushing himself, working on the perfect turn.
The second was during “Electricity,” the show stopping number at the end of Act II. It was the first song Ben learned from the show and one he practiced relentlessly. He had failed with the song and he had succeeded, and there he was performing it on stage.
In January, when the show closed on Broadway, I stood in the balcony and watched as the four Billys performed the number. At some point, I looked to my left and there stood Stephen Daldry, the show’s original director, a person I met twice. He patted me on the shoulder and winked before leaving. I wonder if he had something in his eye.
As a parent, there is no prouder moment than seeing your child work toward something and succeed. At the end of “Electricity,” Ben received a standing ovation, an amazing show of support from the crowd. We had come full circle.
It was time for the finale, an appropriate end to a perfect beginning. And I wasn’t nervous any more.