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.
Currently showing posts tagged Ragtime
Ben made his Broadway debut in “Ragtime” at the Neil Simon Theatre in November 2009. On Monday, his roommate and fellow "Newsies" cast member, Josh Burrage, makes his Broadway debut in “Cats” at the same theatre. Adding to the small world aspect of professional theatre, the marquee for “Mean Girls” — Ben’s next show — went up today across the street at the August Wilson.
As Ben said when he posted this photo, “Honored to walk to work with my roommate and see this. Lots of love for 52nd Street.”
In just under the wire, here's a video I made 7 years ago to commemorate Ben's Broadway debut in Ragtime. Ahh, the memories.
Flying home yesterday from LA, with a brief stop to drop off my mom in Houston, I realized yet again how wonderful it is to have so many special friends and extended family members as a result of the boy's adventures. I saw people who have been part of our lives for the past eight or nine years and just shook my head in wonder at the community that surrounds him and us.
Watching the filming of "Newsies" could have been better only if Jill was there. It truly was a remarkable evening filled with memories and hope. Now, after a frenetic past few weeks of work and wonder, things briefly slow down to "normal."
Whatever that is.
Several years ago, Ben and I attended the Helen Hayes Awards, where the Kennedy Center’s production of “Ragtime” was up for multiple honors and legendary playwright Edward Albee was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. If was an opportunity — a year after the Kennedy Center run ended and four months after “Ragtime” on Broadway closed — for Ben to briefly reunite with the theatre family he had come to love.
Terrence McNally (author of the book for “Ragtime”) introduced Albee, a longtime friend and writer of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “A Delicate Balance,” among other classic shows. At the after party, we were celebrating with “Ragtime” alums Sarah Rosenthal and Laurie Ascoli when I noticed Terrence and Albee talking.
Not wanting to miss out on a chance to have Ben’s picture taken with two of the great playwrights of the 20th century, I convinced him to ask Terrence, an incredibly kind man who generously agreed. Laurie, Sarah and some unidentified woman (unceremoniously excised from this photo during the editing) joined in and we got this.
Upon hearing of Albee’s death last night, I immediately thought of this special moment as well as one dating back to my time at University of Houston, where he taught playwriting starting in the late 1980s. I was taking an acting class in pursuit of a minor for my long-gestating degree, and we were asked to read some of the students’ work for Albee.
The character I read was the villain of this noir-ish piece, which needed some work, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. (I am not, repeat NOT, an actor.) I remember only one part of the scene, where my character asks a prospective victim, “Do you know how long it takes to watch a person drown? … Seven minutes … I timed it on my watch.”
At that point, Albee nodded, looked at the writer and us, and said, “Thank you. Not bad.”
Best review of my life.
Proud parents with Ben after his performances in his first-ever Broadway show (Ragtime, November 2009) and his first show as an adult (Tuck Everlasting, April 2016).
Ben is featured in a wide-ranging interview on Broadway World, looking ahead to “Tuck Everlasting” and back at “Newsies.” In some ways, our high school senior is starting to sound like the theatre veteran that he is.
• The hardest part of performing professionally at such a young age was definitely being away from my family. I moved to New York when I was eleven and my parents had to switch off taking care of me until we could find a permanent solution. And being on the road [with “Billy Elliot”] when I was 13, and then once again when I was 16 with “Newsies”, was really hard. I was on my own, away from my family, and barely ever got to see them.
• I would say the hardest thing I've had to learn is that your body is not indestructible. I remember when I was younger, I wouldn't stretch very often and would go from zero to a hundred without really thinking about it. And that's okay when you're really young, but the older you get, the more your body needs to be taken care of. I remember I suffered a heel injury when I was in “Billy Elliot” and was out of the show for about four months, and that was really hard; I never stretched and that was definitely a wake up call for me, having to make sure I kept my body warmed up and healthy.
• In this business, unfortunately, there are hundreds of no's to one yes, and it can be really hard. But if you know this is what you want to do with your life, never give up. I know, personally, it's something I have always had a passion for and have longed to do, and everyone in this business is in it, not for the job security or the paycheck, but because it's what they love.
The boy is growing up. To see the rest of the interview by Gianluca Russo, click on the link here.
Few things are sadder than seeing a stage, full of such life and vibrancy just a few days ago, empty except for the crew loading out.
But that’s what happens when a show closes. For those not familiar with the lingo, it’s called the “strike.” (Ironically appropriate, in this case…)
This morning, after dropping Ben off for school, I walked past the Neil Simon for the first time since Sunday’s closing performance, seeing the crates and the crew working in what seemed like organized chaos to me. It’s yet another difference between community and professional theatre; in this case, you have a lot of people who are paid good money to clean up afterward.
It’s still sad, however. And it made me do my own version of a circle back.
I circled back to last week, when suddenly people who thought the show would run for a lot longer raced to the theatre to see “Ragtime.” Several times, waiting after the show, I looked at the crowd standing outside in the frigid cold to get autographs and wondered: WHY?
In the short, three-plus block walk from the theatre to our apartment, I also thought of Alejando Escovedo’s song “The End,” written about the dissolution of a relationship. As the guitars build, Escovedo almost shouts, “Is this really the end?” repeatedly during the chorus.
I use music (along with writing) to process my thoughts and this was the song I played walking around the hospital in the final night before my father passed away. Sadly, the feelings were the same.
This show is not coming back; it really is the end.
If you have the time, take a look at this video of “Gene” the puppet, a creation by cast member Benjamin Schrader, talking to cast members about the show’s closing. It will make you smile.
The final week of "Ragtime" included Ben's fourth and fifth performances as Little Boy, with friends from Virginia's Metropolitan Fine Arts Center in attendance. Also, below are photos of the show's last day, including an after party attended by the cast, crew, and producers.
D.C.'s answer to the Tony Awards recognized Ragtime's terrific showing with four awards: Best Resident Musical, Best Actress (Christiane Noll), Best Director (Marcia Milgrom Dodge) and Best Costume Design (Santo Loquesto and Jimm Halliday). It also was an opportunity for Ben to reunite with a number of his friends (and there are quite a few) from the various shows he has done here.
What a night. The 2nd Annual Born for Broadway benefit also served as a mini-Ragtime reunion, with performances by Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Bobby Steggert, Stephanie Umoh, and Leigh Ann Larkin (from the D.C. cast), plus Ben and the other kids from the show.
The kids performed “Alone in the Universe” from “Seussical.” The video combines footage from the rehearsal and performance.
Directed by Ragtime's Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the evening of pop songs, showtunes, and standards also featured Lesley Gore, Glee's Jenna Ushkowitz, Memphis' Chad Kimball, Malcolm Gets, Jim Brochu and many, many more. Thanks to Marcia and organizer/event founder Sarah Galli for allowing me to take pictures.
So Whoopi Goldberg saw “Ragtime” last night and posed for a photo with the cast, including a young boy who wasn’t in costume.
Pretty cool if you ask me, although I’m still a little freaked that my 11-year-old son did a waltz with Chita Rivera earlier this year, and that I have photos and video to prove it.
Santa came to visit the kids of "Ragtime" backstage this year, thanks to the efforts of wrangler John Mara. Great time for everyone involved.
Now this is a way to start the new year. Here are Ben and Chris singing "Bad Romance" during a dinner break between shows, with a short cameo from Josh Walden. Enjoy...
Ben is used to performing, so serving as an understudy was a bit of a challenge at first when he started work on Ragtime at the Kennedy Center several months ago.
Also, given that he is in fifth grade, he had to do something to show his teachers at Lorton Station what he was learning during the experience. So why not combine the two?
The result is this 17-minute video, which includes audio interviews Ben did with members of the cast of "Ragtime." The interviews are accompanied by stills from the show. Special thanks to Eric Jordan Young, Quentin Earl Darrington, Bobby Steggert, Sumayya Ali, Dan Manning, and Manoel Felciano for participating.
(Also, look for video at the end of Ben dancing with Chita Rivera...!)
Attending the Tony Awards was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We attended a brunch sponsored by the Kennedy Center to recognize the show's six nominations, walked through Times Square (where the show was aired live) and then dressed up for the ceremonies at Radio City Music Hall. A great, great evening...
Look at what was on the cover of the Washington Post’s Weekend section — the picture of Ben dancing in “Newsies.” In the other photo, the boy is shown with Mark Aldrich, another D.C. area native who performed in “Ragtime” with Ben and has been in “Newsies” since it started at Paper Mill Playhouse three years ago.
As the D.C. run of Newsies begins, the boy has been doing a great deal of press for the show. He’s featured in a Washington Times interview with other cast members as well as a Fairfax Times piece that focuses on Ben and Mark. Another story, written for Northern Virginia magazine, also is expected the next week.
The best of the interviews, though, is this Q&A on the D.C. Metro Theater Arts website. It delves extensively into the boy’s background in D.C. theater, alludes to the Stage Dad column I wrote during his Billy Elliot days, and compares that show’s dancing to what you can see on stage in "Newsies." Check it out.
"Ragtime" kids at the Tony Awards — New York City, June 2010
Fond memories, four years and one day after Ben's Broadway debut — Times Square in New York, November 2009
Ben's performing life in a 2-minute video (my present to him for his Broadway debut). It should be obvious quickly why he's here — performing is in his DNA.
Ron Bohmer, Born for Broadway — New York City, May 2012
This photo means a lot to me for a host of reasons.
I have served as a photographer for “Born for Broadway” for the past two years, and in the process learned a great deal about the need to raise money for paralysis-based organizations such as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. It gave me a chance to meet some wonderful people, among them Sarah Galli, who created the show as a student-sponsored cabaret at Marymount Manhattan College. She started the program after her brother sustained a spinal cord injury in a 1998 diving accident.
The gala, performed in New York, also has served as a mini-reunion for my son, Ben. He has performed in the show under the direction of his “Ragtime” director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and reunited — albeit briefly — with a number of his fellow cast members from the production.
The first time, in 2010, was emotional because “Ragtime” had closed prematurely in January of that year. “Born for Broadway” served as an opportunity to reunite the four kids — Little Boy and Little Girl and their understudies (one of whom was Ben) — who had performed in the show. It also gave audience members a chance to hear Christiane Noll and Robert Petkoff perform “Our Children” — a song that still brings a tear to my eye.
The second show came as Ben was rehearsing in New York, five weeks before he finally became “Billy Elliot.” He was the youngest entertainer to solo in the event, and performed “I Can Do That” from “A Chorus Line,” bringing his career at that point full circle.
I distinctly remember him auditioning for his manager with a dance to “I Can Do That” when he was 9. Seeing him perform it for an audience that had come to see Broadway and TV stars donating their time and talent, with absolute self confidence after a long day of rehearsals on a rainy New York evening, was both gratifying and fulfilling.
That I managed to get this picture of Ron Bohmer, who starred as Father in “Ragtime,” performing the show’s “Journey On” at the conclusion of the event is just a bonus.
I picked this photo today because the fourth annual cabaret was announced this week. It will be performed at 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 30 at 54 Below, less than a block from our old apartment on West 54th Street. And I’m planning to take pictures again.
Kennedy Center, April 2009: One of my favorite pictures from the "Ragtime" era, this is of Ben and Christopher Cox walking back to the theatre following a dinner break.
Baseball is known for its superstitions: Always respect a streak. Never talk to the pitcher who's throwing a no-hitter. There is some logic to them, even though superstitions can stray toward the weird sometimes. To quote a player trying to stop a hitting slump in "Bull Durham": Anyone have a live chicken?
Theatre, as I've learned, also has its share of superstitions. Did you know that saying "Macbeth" aloud in a theater is the same as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie? (It is referred to, simply, as "The Scottish Play.") Or that actors do not, I repeat do not, discuss the show's reviews or their individual performances. (I'm pretty sure some read them, though...)
Baseball and theatre share a single moment in "Ragtime," in which Father takes his Little Boy out to watch a game rather than talk to him. Baseball is, Father says, a "civilized" sport.
Then, in the Act II number "What A Game!" Father finds that the other fans are less than proper and certainly not civilized, even as his son Edgar learns how the other half of a divided America lives. (Even though the play is set in New York, the fans act more like they're from Philadelphia.) It's a light moment in what becomes a progressively somber second act, and one of the play's many tips of the hat to America's greatest icons.
Theatre, like baseball, also is full of traditions, some of which are better known to the general public than others. As rehearsals have moved to performances, I've learned about two such traditions that are just fascinating.
One is the "sitzprobe," in which cast members sing through the show with the orchestra in a rehearsal hall without blocking, costume, or staging. The focus is on merging the two groups and in the case of "Ragtime," which integrated a 28-piece orchestra with a 40-member cast, it was quite the experience for all concerned.
The other is the "Gypsy Robe" ceremony. Held an hour before curtain on Opening Night, it started in 1950 when Bill Bradley, a chorus member in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," persuaded a chorus girl to give him her dressing gown. According to the Actors' Equity website, Bradley sent the gown to a friend on opening night of "Call Me Madam," who then sent it to another chorus member on the next opening night. The tradition, which has continued nonstop for almost 60 years, now has official rules; for example, the robe is given to the most experienced chorus member, who then parades around the stage counterclockwise and slaps the hand of each person in the cast.
Fortunately, Ben has participated in both events as part of the "Ragtime" company. This Saturday, when he goes on stage for the first time, he will sing "What A Game!" in the role of Little Boy. And as he learns more about the history and traditions of theatre, he flinches when I mention the word "Macbeth" in his presence.
As long as he doesn't go on the hunt for a live chicken, I guess we'll be OK.
“In 1902, Father built a house on the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill. ... And all our family's days would be warm and fair.” — The Little Boy, opening lines of “Ragtime.”
The curtain opened and there stood my son, opening the first Saturday night performance — not counting previews — of Broadway’s new revival of “Ragtime.”
It had been a long journey to this point, and as Jill and I sat on the 7th row in the orchestra section, we were more nervous than Ben was.
Arms interlocked, fingers crossed, tears filling our eyes, we watched as he maneuvered across the stage in the show’s stirring opening number. And just like you see in the movies, I found myself flashing back to that day in March when I took him to the understudy audition at the Kennedy Center.
“And there was distant music…”
At the time, we didn’t know if he had the vocal chops for the part, especially since the role called for performing with a 28-piece orchestra. And precedent was working against him; he had what he thought was a Kennedy Center jinx because some of his worst auditions had occurred there.
“Do your best,” I told him, as we do at every audition. “As long as you do your best, everything else will take care of itself.” I recognize those are clichés, but we say them with all due sincerity, because that’s all we require of him as we make this journey.
That day, we also came up with a new, more straightforward motto: “Kick ass. Take names. Have fun.” Perhaps not the most politically correct thing to say to an 11-year-old, but we say it anyway. And he did and does to this day.
For all of the hard work and sacrifice that this requires on the part of everyone in our family, you have to keep the “fun” part in perspective. After all, he’s still a kid, and this is an adventure equal to any rollercoaster ride you can find in any theme park.
Or, as he says, “You know what the worst part about boredom is? It’s boring.”
This has been anything but boring.
In my 20s, a car pulled out in front of me on Christmas Eve, totaling the first new vehicle I ever had. Then my second car, a used battleship that would not/could not be destroyed, was stolen the next holiday season.
A few months later, I got married, picking a safe, middle-of-the-year month — May — to avoid any potential mishaps. Within two years, my first child — Nicholas — was born (of course) in December, tying the fate of my parenting skill (or lack thereof) to the emotion-laden holiday season.
Two years later, during my parents’ Christmas visit to North Carolina, my dad and I went to see two movies on the same day. Movies were one way my father and I bonded, and it didn’t hurt that I managed to escape what was an increasingly untenable situation at home.
On the way back to Reidsville from Greensboro, I asked him: “Why, given everything you’ve been through, are you and mom still together? How have you made it work?”
He paused for a long time, then said, “When I look at your mother, I see the same person I fell in love with. Of course, she has changed, physically, and so have I, but I still see the same person.”
For me, there was — and is — no simpler definition of love.
I could not say the same, and within a month, I had left the marriage. I wanted the chance to be like my dad.
Within two years, I had divorced, remarried, changed jobs, and bought a house. As Christmas 1996 approached, Jill and I were ready to mark the birth of our first child, Katharine. She was born two days after Christmas.
Little did we know that before the next Christmas we would have two more children. Ben and Emma were born Dec. 11, 1997, giving us three kids who are the same age for 16 days each year and four children born in a single month.
Christmas had moved from a season of endings to a season of beginnings — albeit one that has us running around constantly and trying to hold on to our remaining shreds of sanity.
But the spectre of loss has continued to loom.
Last weekend, I looked around the table at a birthday celebration for Ben and Emma in New York. Earlier, Ben had performed for the second time in “Ragtime,” and we went to a restaurant with family and friends to share some cake and have a late dinner.
My mom was there, as was Nicholas (thanks to my mother’s generosity in paying for his plane ticket). Emma and Kate watched Ben perform for the first time, and we had dear friends and family also in the audience.
As we lit the cake, I looked around and thought briefly of the people who weren’t there — my dad, Jill’s mom, Fran and Bill — and would have given anything to join us. Just as I had done at Thanksgiving (also a dinner in New York), I thought of the holidays we shared as a family, how the chaos of growing up amid illness had given way to the chaos of raising our own children.
And, despite my need (and ability at times) to cling to the holiday humbug that looms over my past, I realized how truly lucky I am.
Almost 10 months ago, our son joined a group of actors, singers, and dancers in a rehearsal hall at The Kennedy Center. Usually one or both parents accompany Ben to the meet and greets, whereupon we get to talk to some of the actors before we’re restricted to the stage door or green room to sit and wait.
Jill and I both attended this meet and greet because it was Ben’s first Kennedy Center show, his first Equity production, and his first time working as an understudy. He had just finished two Ford’s Theatre shows — “A Christmas Carol” and “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” — and was nervous but confident as this next journey started.
Little did we know what this journey would bring.
Ten months later, as I write this on a late Sunday in early January, I’m sitting on my bed in a New York apartment three blocks from the Neil Simon Theater. It’s quiet, although the 30 mph wind that has dropped temperatures into the low double digits continues to whip in and around our building. Ben is asleep in the top bunk near me, restlessly waiting for his return to school and to a life that in short time will be more unfamiliar than ever.
Because, one week from tonight, he bids farewell to “Ragtime” and to the extended family he has known for these past 10 months. It has been a time that has changed his life — and our lives — forever.
If this were an awards show, the list of people we need to thank would go far past the 45-second allotment that you get before they cut to a commercial. I would have to start with Ben’s siblings — Emma, Kate, and Nicholas — who have seen their lives turned upside down by all of this and proven to be remarkably resilient. Jill and I would have to give a special shout out to our employers and the people who work with us, for their patience and help as we juggle schedules. And we could not have done this without Laurie and John, the child helpers, or “wranglers” as they are known.
“Ragtime,” for those who haven’t seen it, has a 40-person cast and a 28-piece orchestra, plus a large crew that works behind the scenes. Almost half of the cast transferred with the show from the Kennedy Center, which means that Ben has spent the better part of a year with a core group of actors who have greatly influenced his life: Bobby, Dan, Quentin, Josh, Eric, Christiane, Sumayya, Ron, Mark, Donna, Aaron, Jonathan, Tracy, Bryonha, Corey, and Jim.
And of course I have to thank the kids, from mighty Miss Sarah and Christopher to Kaylie, Ben’s fellow understudy who joined the cast with 21 others from the New York area in September. And of those who joined the show in New York, I also have to give shout outs to Robert, Stephanie, Terence, and Carly. There are many, many more that I wish I had gotten to know better who also helped influence and support Ben.
Before my time at the podium runs out, I must move over to the creative team — especially Marcia the director and Jim and Jamie, the show’s musical backbone — that decided our son could be successful on the large stage. You have changed his life for all time.
And to Terrence, Lynn, and Stephen, as well as Tom and Michael, thank you for creating and nurturing such a wonderful piece of theater and allowing Ben to be part of that process.
We must also thank the crew from both companies, among them Peter, Shari, Brandon, and Kate, the stage managers who have been so supportive; John, Sunshine, and Roeya, the business folks behind the scenes; Rachel the dresser; and Errollyn the elevator operator, just to name a few.
As parents, we have learned to appreciate the people and what goes into the process of moving from page to stage, from creation to evolution as your work grows and changes over time. From our vantage point, somewhere on the distant periphery, we have witnessed the highs, the smiles, the lows, the tears, the questions of what happens next.
The reason “Ragtime” isn’t running for much, much longer will be one of many questions and much debate in the weeks, months, and years ahead. But we are so blessed to have had it be part of our lives for this past year.
Thank you again, from the parents of a Little Boy…
I'll never forget the first time I took my son to a movie.
It was Thanksgiving Day in 1999. We were living in North Carolina, and my family was visiting from Texas. On a whim, we decided to take the foursome to Toy Story 2, even though Ben and Emma weren’t yet 2.
We knew it would be a challenge, and true to form, Emma and Kate decided to check out every seat, and lap, in our row. Nicholas kicked back amid the madness and feigned moderate interest; he had already seen the movie.
Ben sat in his chair, riveted, the entire time, eating his popcorn by the kernel and taking occasional sips from his Sierra Mist. His feet extended barely past the seat cushion.
We should have known something was different then.
Parents of child actors are on the periphery. You observe, evaluate, question, and wonder. You pursue PhDs in personal and professional juggling, trying to strike the balance between the actor, your other children, and your respective careers.
And you schlep — a lot.
At age 9, Ben decided he wanted to pursue this as a profession, with the encouragement of his dance teacher and a couple of others who had spotted his talent — and, more important, his presence — on stage. Talent is something you can nurture and teach; presence is innate. You either have it or you don’t.
Making this level of commitment was something Jill and I were willing to do, but we agreed in advance to several rules that we would not bend. Among them:
• He has to maintain good grades; none of this matters if he ends up flunking out of school.
• He has to be professional when he’s on the job.
• He has to be a kid when he’s not.
We also decided that we would make a conscious effort not to be your stereotypical stage parents, those who constantly criticize and critique everyone else’s work while extolling the virtues of their “perfect child.” You see these parents over and over at tryouts, acting/dance classes, and other informal gatherings rife with politics that could rival any legislature or Congress. (Suburban PTA meetings have nothing on a professional audition.)
Some parents want to sit and watch auditions and rehearsals and are shocked when they can’t, not realizing that this is work. (After all, would you want to accompany your teenage child to a job in a fast food restaurant? “Hey, Mom, can you please move? I’ve got to get this customer their fries.”)
That, of course, is a bit of an exaggeration. Many parents, like us, are making tremendous sacrifices for their children. But, just as in any competitive sport, we've seen some kids that are either coddled or pressured to such an extreme that you wonder how they will survive it. And sadly, tabloids have been littered with those who ultimately didn't.
Our philosophy always has been to be as unobtrusive as possible. We are there for support, not to interfere, which largely translates into a lot of picking up and dropping off. Our big questions are of the “Is he doing OK?” and “How can he improve?” variety. It’s the same approach we use with Ben and his other siblings with regard to school. While we have opinions, we’re not the professionals at this, and far be it for us to tell professionals how to do their jobs.
Most important is this simple fact: Our personal success is not rooted in Ben’s professional success. Instead, it’s rooted in whether we help our good, talented children become good, talented adults.
Today, at 12, Ben has worked more than some adults I know. Over the past year, he has been in four productions — two of the "Ragtime" revival and two world premieres ("The Heavens Are Hung in Black" and "Golden Age").
In many ways, this is his golden age.
Two years ago tonight, he finished a role as Young McDuff in the Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Macbeth.” It was a spectacular show, filled with magic, illusion, special effects, and buckets (yes, buckets) of blood. Pretty cool for a then-10-year-old, eh?
As parents, we were initially queasy about our son dying on stage 53 times, and watching him be stabbed and then carted off by his shirt (he had to wear a harness underneath) was shocking the first time.
But as the play’s run progressed, it started becoming routine.
“So how was the death scene tonight, son?”
“Pretty cool. I made a lady scream from the balcony.”
Theater is filled with these types of situations, populated as it is by exquisitely talented people who are wonderful characters in their own lives as well as on stage. Few are anarchists about earning “a decent wage,” but they are willing to do whatever it takes in exchange for the love their craft provides.
By and large, the people Ben has met in the professional world are not your stereotypical divas and jerks, although we know those folks are out there. In his case, it’s been exactly the opposite; people have been extremely supportive of him as a child actor navigating his way. They see his joy for the stage, his genuine love for the craft, and they see someone who — no matter what happens down the line professionally — is a lifer. And they have responded to that.
As much as Ben deals with the actors, most of our interaction on a show is with the “handler” — also known as a “wrangler” — who is hired to follow the child around and make sure that he/she is on time, always safe, and ready for his/her cues. (They also serve as big brother/big sister, psychiatrist, watchdog, and gentle chastiser.)
In many ways, it’s a thankless job, but one for which we are grateful. Ben has formed many deep, wonderful relationships with the people who were assigned to watch over him. We don’t know what we — or he — would do without them.
Two years ago, when “Macbeth” ended, Ben was extremely down, having come face to face with the reality that his life would be a series of meeting and making miniature families that would disintegrate when the curtain fell one last time.
Unfortunately, that’s the business piece of the art, which he also has learned the hard way in a short period of time. The closing of “Ragtime” remains something he doesn’t emotionally grasp, although he accepts with dismay the practical reality of it.
All of this has had an impact on his family, too. Emma, his twin sister, has learned to become more independent without him around. She no longer trails in his shadow. Nicholas is learning to appreciate the talent that his “little brother” has in addition to the opportunities he has not received.
Jill and I are learning to endure time apart, which makes our time together that much more precious. (Look up the clichés on absence and hearts and you’ll get my drift.) In life’s grand scheme (hey, I was in the cliché dictionary just a second ago), we realize our time doing this is relatively (and blessedly) short.
If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s how to become a cheerleader for my children. In addition to providing me with rafts of great material — this blog for example — they also bring me great joy. Having watched my own father struggle just to stay afloat, I realize how blessed I am to have the good health (as well as a good job) that allows me to give this back to my children.
I am proud to be a stage dad; in many respects it’s the best job I’ll ever have.
One thing we learned early on is that Ben feels lost without having a show to do. He is relentlessly creative, and at an age in which he is a sponge for knowledge, but having the structure of a regular schedule comforts him. This is the same child who, at age 3, wondered aloud what the schedule was, and was visibly upset that we had nothing planned on a Saturday.
“Dad,” Ben proclaimed recently (at 12 he is prone to proclamations), “I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m enjoying being around adults. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a kid, and I like kids. It’s just that kids are… so limited. I think adults are much more interesting.”
After the premature demise of “Ragtime,” we were fortunate that Ben was back on the job within a few weeks. This time, it was a new play — Terrence McNally’s “Golden Age” — at the Kennedy Center.
Ben was the only child in “Golden Age,” which was set backstage at the premiere of an opera in 1835. It’s not your typical topic for a 12-year-old who is content to make nerf gun videos during his time off. (As if to rub his still somewhat analog father’s nose in it, he announced today that he has more than 1,000 subscribers to his bentwins10097 YouTube channel)
But remember, this is the child who didn’t like to read, then found himself doing Dickens and Shakespeare in his first two plays. Whether he realizes it or not, the training he is receiving is in the work of some of the greatest playwrights of all time, and he gets to work with top-of-the-line actors, directors, and others as well.
“Golden Age” was presented as part of a trilogy of McNally’s plays devoted to opera; the others were the Tony Award-winning “Master Class” and the superb “Lisbon Traviata.” Like many new plays, it is a work in progress, but the writing is often funny, thought provoking, and in many instances for me, very profound. It is the work of a true artist, a combination of thoughts and perspectives on critics, commerce, and the joys and fears of creating something new and different, something the world needs but hasn’t yet seen.
Now “Golden Age” has ended, and the five-week DC to New York respite we received has ended, too. We’re back in the land of “Who knows what’s next?” again, facing a variety of new and sure-to-be interesting transitions.
And with that coda, I have only one last thing to say: Run like the wind, Bullseye.
Just after Ragtime’s stirring opening number, Father says something to Mother as he leaves on his year-long journey: Nothing much happens in a year.
In many ways, this is a typical Saturday morning. I’m writing this and procrastinating. On the agenda is grocery shopping, doing laundry, running a few errands, cleaning up the apartment, and muddling through some leftover work tasks. Ben is sound asleep on the couch, not yet stirring, and anxious to go to his dance classes. Tonight, Jill will arrive, and we will have a rare weekend together in New York.
But this weekend, like much of this past year, also is atypical. Tomorrow, we head to a brunch that will have the feel of an extended family reunion, and then we will go to (eek!) the Tony Awards.
It’s something I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime, and only fantasized about in the broadest terms a year ago. But in a rare moment of wisdom, the nominating committee recognized Ragtime with six nominations — an amazing feat for a show that closed five months ago.
In many ways, the nominations bring a bittersweet sense of closure to a show that many feel should still be running. They represent long-deserved acknowledgement for people who have toiled in the business for decades, an affirmation of some whose careers are just starting to explode, and recognition of a production that forever changed the lives of everyone involved with it.
And a year ago, it had only just begun.
Ben was the last person from the original D.C. cast to perform, and his debut was on Broadway. Closing for him, and for everyone involved, represented a huge transition into the unknown.
Journalists are trained to work with the 5Ws and an H. The lasting lesson from my college training is to ask two more questions: “So what?” and “What’s next?”
In this case, the answer to the “So what?” is obvious. This experience has changed our lives for good. And fortunately, after months of uncertainty, we now know what’s next.
But for one last weekend, we can remember, recognize and reflect.
From closing to closure, we have a chance to celebrate. And we will.
Note: Sunday marks a year since Ben’s Broadway debut in “Ragtime.” This week, Ben’s grandmother saw him in “Billy Elliot,” which made me wonder again how my beloved grandmother would have reacted to the craziness of our lives. This is a true story, with more than a little irony.
My grandmother sat in the dark auditorium and dozed to the ragtime music.
I ate my popcorn and glanced at her. Occasionally she would wake and look at the screen.
The movie was long, so she had a good long doze. She didn’t drink the Coke I had bought her with money she had given me earlier in the day, so the ice melted and left it flat.
I wished I knew what she was thinking.
Maybe it was relief. Maybe it was sorrow. Maybe grief. I really wasn’t sure. After all, he had been her husband for more than 50 years, the last five in and out of hospitals. They argued and fought. They kissed and made up. He was cantankerous, a do-it-my-way man’s man who really wasn’t.
She was an independent sort, a flapper in Louisiana who told stories — true ones at that — of getting rides to work with Huey Long. She was married eight years before her first child was born. Her second, my father, came two years later. She listened to music and cooked in the kitchen. She would slice raw tomatoes she bought from the nigra woman with the big garden down the street.
The lights came up. Now she would have to go back and visit the mourners.
“Thanks,” she said, as we walked to the parking lot. I drove, back then it was an adventure because I was only 16 and they had a big Buick that was almost impossible to park. As we walked out of the theatre she squeezed my hand, nearly cutting me with her wedding band. I knew her thank you was genuine.
I also knew no one would understand what I had done. Kidnapping my grandmother, to anyone on the outside, was not a great idea. Taking her to a movie I wanted to see was a selfish act.
We held hands as we went out to the parking lot on that drizzly December day. I steeled myself for the drive home and hoped I could back out of the parking lot in the big silver Buick without hitting someone. It was a 50-50 shot at best.
Grandmama had never driven a car. She was 76 now and not about to start, so asking her was out of the question. But as she looked at me with her eyes so tired, a washed out look that took me back to the first time my grandfather was in the hospital, she smiled and squeezed my hand again.
The wipers streaked the windshield; they hadn’t been changed. All I could be was critical, because I didn’t know how to change them. Still wouldn’t, if forced. I’m not mechanical.
She didn’t care. I was her only grandson, and she knew how to spoil me. It was the same technique she had used with my father and it worked. She came from an era that “respected” men for being “men,” even if it meant muttering the word “bastard” under her breath.
We drove in absolute silence for a mile, which was odd because we were both talkers. Some say I got it from her; my mom has got it, too, even though the two weren’t blood. Grandmama was one of the ones I could talk to about anything and not be scared.
The wipers muddied the windshield. They weren’t much help at all. We drove across town, probably too fast if my mom had been in the car. But my grandmother didn’t care.
“It was a good movie,” she said.
We got home and the family was there. No one said a word. They didn’t know what to say. My aunt (dad’s sister) and uncle scowled at me and shook their heads. I knew I would get a talking to later.
Soon I could smell the food. My grandmother was doing what she did best, cooking for the family. It was December, so there were no tomatoes this time. She served a thin flank steak, deep fried and battered. Coffee from that morning remained on the stove.
She didn’t talk much that week or next. It was the Christmas season 1981, and she didn’t think it was appropriate to ruin the holiday season for others. She didn’t cry, at least not in front of me. The only time I saw her do that was when she missed me leading a youth prayer at church because she got there too late.
I got my talking to from the people who didn’t understand my motive behind the kidnapping. They didn’t really care what I thought.
Over the passing months, as she dwindled in size and moved slowly toward the plot next to her husband, my grandmother never brought up that day. Six years later, in the middle of the night, I sat on the floor next to her as she lay on the couch. My father was calling for an ambulance.
I held her hand again. The wedding ring cut into it some more.
“Do you remember ‘Ragtime’?” I asked.
She nodded. I could barely see her in the dim light.
“Yes, it was a good movie.”
Not too long ago, I bumped into Jim Moore, the musical director for “Ragtime,” while Ben was in a ballet class.
“Did you realize what we were getting you into?” he asked.
We laughed for a moment — fleeting moments are all you seem to get when one show ends and the search for another begins — and soon parted ways.
This is one of theatre’s little oddities that no one prepares a parent for — watching your child have extremely intense, fulfilling relationships with people whose talents far outnumber yours, then seeing those relationships evaporate or be forever altered within moments or days. The boomerang of emotions your child feels is sometimes more dramatic than what you see on stage.
Fortunately, as we’ve learned, the theatre community in general is small and close knit. Chances are, if you go from show to show, you’ll always meet someone with a connection to someone you know. And, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll work with people you like (and who you hope feel the same about you) more than once.
Ben has been extremely fortunate to work with a variety of interesting, creative people over the past four-plus years he has been doing this. When each show has ended, he has mourned its loss, and wondered if he would ever see those people again. We try to reassure him, and let him know that he will, just in a different context.
Perspective is a funny thing, and in many ways, it’s only gained by experience and the passage of time. Little things — fragments of memory — that seemed insignificant in the moment take on greater resonance with perspective. Things that once seemed huge shrink and drift away when new memories or experiences are added.
As parents, this is something we try to teach our kids, that perspective and context do matter. It’s hard for kids — and in some cases, adults — to understand that a break up, or a show closing, or a high school sporting event that didn’t end well is not the end of the world. It’s even tougher to comprehend that something you cared so passionately about is but a memory.
That last sentence applies to parents, too. When you see your child immersed and psyched about an activity, no matter what it is, the end and subsequent transition always is a bit of a shock to the system. You’ve juggled and scrambled and rescheduled to successfully achieve the impossible, and then it’s done and over in a flash. Yes, inevitably we are relieved to get our lives back — until the next thing comes along, that is — but we often miss it, too.
Ben’s run in “Billy Elliot” — he marked 10 months in the show last week — has been a fascinating experience for a number of reasons. And even though it is a long-running show with no chance of closing any time soon, it has presented a number of challenges on the transition front. Ben has seen a number of kids — castmates and peers — leave as their voices change and contracts end.
The reality of the business — that nothing is ever permanent — regularly hits home.
Almost two years ago, I had no way of realizing the impact that “Ragtime” would have on the lives of everyone in our family. The show’s abrupt end caught all of us off guard, and it took a while to bounce back. It was such a close-knit group of people, which is something I’m reminded of every time we see someone from the show on the street.
I can see now, far more clearly, why people try to work with the same folks over and over. The ability to collaborate and create is made far easier when you have people you know who are just as passionate as you about a particular project. Ben is extremely fortunate to have known so many kind people who have that ongoing passion.
Two years ago, taking that leap into the unknown — a leap of faith without a bungee cord attached — was exciting, thrilling, exhausting and scary as hell for everyone in our family. And it remains just as exciting, thrilling, and yes, exhausting and scary today.
No matter what happens next, it’s been one heckuva ride.