Catch a brief glimpse of the boy in this trailer for HBO’s “Paterno,” and see him in a featured role when the movie airs this spring.
Currently showing posts tagged Stage Dad
Start of something new — Washington, D.C., October 2017
Unexpected surprise: Ben scored two extra tickets to last night’s "Mean Girls" premiere, so I get to see it with Emma — who is on break from Point Park — as my seat partner and all of my girls here in D.C.
Four more from the Random Thoughts file:
• Remember the “Red Light! Green Light!” game we played as kids? NoVA engineers lost that game a bunch and are taking out their childhood frustrations on the drivers of today.
Of course, it doesn’t help that those who designed the roads apparently whistled “Over the river and through the woods...” while they worked. #dontwhistle #AMcommute #hateNoVAtraffic
• RIP, Joel Markowitz. Thank you for encouraging me to write for your website about the challenges of being a "Stage Dad." But, even more important, thank you for supporting so much of the region's theatre through your work. You are (and will be) missed.
• Post-election commentary: Hey, Virginia, what have I missed? Santa came early, and he's real?!?
• Saddest and truest line of the day, from a Facebook friend: We binge watch tragedy.
It’s gonna be fun…
Also, the boy has finally made it to Netflix. Catch it while you can.
Ben made his Broadway debut in “Ragtime” at the Neil Simon Theatre in November 2009. On Monday, his roommate and fellow "Newsies" cast member, Josh Burrage, makes his Broadway debut in “Cats” at the same theatre. Adding to the small world aspect of professional theatre, the marquee for “Mean Girls” — Ben’s next show — went up today across the street at the August Wilson.
As Ben said when he posted this photo, “Honored to walk to work with my roommate and see this. Lots of love for 52nd Street.”
After a day filled with depressing news (the shooting in Las Vegas, the death of Tom Petty), this was nice to see. The boy is taking over the @playbill Instagram account tomorrow.
And in other news, this announcement also came out today. Very proud of Ben, who has been cast in the Broadway-bound "Mean Girls," written by Tina Fey and produced by Lorne Michaels. The show opens on Oct. 31 at The National Theatre in Washington, D.C., with a run planned for New York in the spring.
Hard to believe, but it's been five years since Ben made his debut as Billy Elliot in the sweltering Louisville, Ky. Here he is after the show with Nicholas and Ginno.
Hello, New York. It’s been a while…
On my first trip to the city in several months, I had the opportunity to take dance photos in Washington Heights with my twins (Ben and Emma) and three alums from the “Newsies” tour cast (Josh Burrage, Kaitlyn Frank, and Iain Young).
A subway tunnel on 191st Street and Fort Tryon Park provided the backdrop for this latest set in the series.
For more photos, go to my Facebook album here. Click on the "Art & Dance" tab at the top of this page to see more galleries in the series.
I watched the Tonys last night in my hotel room in New Orleans, where I'm starting a two-week trip that includes shooting conferences here and in San Francisco, with another trip to Texas in between. (Bonus: Nick is meeting me here tomorrow and will be with me through the Texas jaunt. Yay!)
It was wonderful to see so many people I've become acquainted with performing and being part of the ceremony, and you couldn't help but love the speeches of Ben Platt and the Divine Miss M.
I got here early yesterday and walked around the city, dodging the raindrops to take a few photos. In the afternoon, I went on a swamp tour (why not?) and then called it a night, sitting in my bed and happily watching the Tonys.
Based on all the noise I heard outside, it sounded like the streets of NOLA were viewing the show on a giant screen, but I decided not to be part of their fun. And given the marathon of the next two weeks, I'm happy with that.
The circle is complete, three years after Ben's first series of auditions. "Newsies" the movie is now available for purchase on iTunes and other digital services. (I'm waiting to see the trend post on the large number of musical theatre fans skipping school today...)
So, in addition to this being Valentine's Day, we are marking the official kickoff of "Ben Cook Week" in the family. Last night started with Emma accompanying the boy to the Newsies movie premiere in New York.
Tomorrow it's Law & Order: SVU (check local listings) and then Newsies opens in movie theaters. Jill, Kate and I will see the movie with a bunch of family, extended family and friends at the Regal Springfield Town Center. Nick and Conner will see it in Durham and the Cook/Ghirardi clan are going in Clear Lake.
The movie, which received great reviews from those who saw the New York premiere, also is showing on Saturday and next Wednesday. Hope you get to see it!
My son, Ben, is performing tonight and Saturday as "Older Billy" in a special guest appearance as part of Wheelock Family Theatre's regional production of "Billy Elliot: The Musical."
I went to Boston during Thursday's blizzard to spend time with my 19-year-old and took a few shots at this morning's rehearsal with Seth Judice, who is playing the title role.
With appearances in "Law & Order: SVU" and the "Newsies" movie next week, the boy is well on his way to an adult career. But for a brief time at least, it's nice to see Ben return to the show that dominated much of his childhood.
Bonus photos: I took the photo below of Ben and Salma Hayek after she saw the show in Boston during the national tour in 2012. Right: Caught this picture of the boy with the “Newsies” poster during a lunch break today in Boston.
Given our family’s lengthy history with “Billy Elliot: The Musical,” it felt a little strange to see — and photograph — the show after three-plus years away. But anyone who has read my blog knows that being part of a theatre community means you will inevitably encounter circle backs, in which a show returns to your life in an unexpected way.
Circle back is what I did for two nights last week, watching from behind the lens while shooting “Billy Elliot” production photos for Boston’s Wheelock Family Theatre. On Feb. 10 and 11, our son Ben will have a circle back of his own when he teaches master classes and plays the role of Older Billy.
Moving any large show into a smaller regional house can be a challenging logistical task, but the cast and crew have done a terrific job. Thanks to Linda Chin Workman for bringing me in to photograph the show — I also took headshots for several cast members — and to everyone for making me feel welcome.
Here’s a taste of what I saw — and shot — over the two nights. Some of these photos are being used in reviews in local newspapers and online, a nice bonus.
If you are in the Boston area, you can see the show through Feb. 26. Buy your tickets by visiting www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org. Ben will perform as Older Billy at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, and 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11. He also is teaching master classes for youth ages 8 to 16 at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 11.
Another video promoting the “Newsies” movie. Just three weeks until it lands in theaters!
This is cool. The movie will be shown in theatres on Feb. 16, 18 and 22. The list of places showing it has grown quite a bit, and you can get tickets now.
The boy singing "Top of the World" from Tuck last week at 54 Below. The "Not At This Performance" cabaret featured understudies who never had the chance to perform on stage.
Another promo for the movie: Two weeks away!
Meanwhile, it’s 8 days until showtime, folks…
Jill has long kidded that Ben would be a legitimate actor when he appears on an episode of "Law and Order." Well, at the end of tonight's episode, we finally got confirmation that next Wednesday is the date. (Check your local listings for air times.)
Last week, I posted photos shot during the final dress rehearsals for Wheelock Family Theatre's production of "Billy Elliot" in Boston. While there, I also took headshots of five cast members in a series of mini-sessions.
Tomorrow, I'm returning to Boston and Wheelock to take various photos and see our son, Ben, play Older Billy. If you've read my Stage Dad posts, you may recall the long journey that Ben took with the show on Broadway and the national tour. This weekend, he will play his fourth different role in the show.
If you're in the area and interested, go to www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org to get your tickets. Ben will perform as Older Billy at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, and 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11. He also is teaching master classes for youth ages 8 to 16 at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 11.
A personal invitation from Ben to the Newsies universe to see the movie starting tomorrow!
From Little Boy to the Big Screen: I was thrilled to be at the taping of the Newsies movie with my mom in Hollywood last September. Tonight, as #BenCookWeek — Nick gave him the hashtag — continues, I'm going with Jill, Kate, and a bunch of our extended family and friends to see it on the big screen. Congrats, son!
To quote Jill, "Our son found a way to deal with his post-election angst."
Ben and Josh Burrage performing "Unemployed" to the music of "I'm Alive" from Next to Normal during Sunday's variety show at 54 Below in New York. The boys, who are roommates, wrote the lyrics to the tune.
Take a look. You might see someone you know...
Congratulations to everyone involved with the national tour of "Newsies," which concludes its run today after 2 years and more than 750 performances on the road. Thanks to everyone who taught our son so much and for being so kind to us along the way. You are part of our hearts forever.
Flying home yesterday from LA, with a brief stop to drop off my mom in Houston, I realized yet again how wonderful it is to have so many special friends and extended family members as a result of the boy's adventures. I saw people who have been part of our lives for the past eight or nine years and just shook my head in wonder at the community that surrounds him and us.
Watching the filming of "Newsies" could have been better only if Jill was there. It truly was a remarkable evening filled with memories and hope. Now, after a frenetic past few weeks of work and wonder, things briefly slow down to "normal."
Whatever that is.
Several years ago, Ben and I attended the Helen Hayes Awards, where the Kennedy Center’s production of “Ragtime” was up for multiple honors and legendary playwright Edward Albee was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. If was an opportunity — a year after the Kennedy Center run ended and four months after “Ragtime” on Broadway closed — for Ben to briefly reunite with the theatre family he had come to love.
Terrence McNally (author of the book for “Ragtime”) introduced Albee, a longtime friend and writer of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “A Delicate Balance,” among other classic shows. At the after party, we were celebrating with “Ragtime” alums Sarah Rosenthal and Laurie Ascoli when I noticed Terrence and Albee talking.
Not wanting to miss out on a chance to have Ben’s picture taken with two of the great playwrights of the 20th century, I convinced him to ask Terrence, an incredibly kind man who generously agreed. Laurie, Sarah and some unidentified woman (unceremoniously excised from this photo during the editing) joined in and we got this.
Upon hearing of Albee’s death last night, I immediately thought of this special moment as well as one dating back to my time at University of Houston, where he taught playwriting starting in the late 1980s. I was taking an acting class in pursuit of a minor for my long-gestating degree, and we were asked to read some of the students’ work for Albee.
The character I read was the villain of this noir-ish piece, which needed some work, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. (I am not, repeat NOT, an actor.) I remember only one part of the scene, where my character asks a prospective victim, “Do you know how long it takes to watch a person drown? … Seven minutes … I timed it on my watch.”
At that point, Albee nodded, looked at the writer and us, and said, “Thank you. Not bad.”
Best review of my life.
I’ve been fortunate to know Zach Manske and his family for the past five years, ever since he and our son, Ben, shared the title role in the national tour of “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” Zach, who lives in Woodbury, Minn., was named “2016 National Senior Male Outstanding Dancer” last month by the New York City Dance Alliance.
A couple of weeks ago, Zach was completing a summer intensive at Julliard when I had the long-awaited opportunity to take his headshots and add to my “Art & Dance” portfolio. Ben, who is auditioning in New York, came along for the shoot, which took place in front of Lincoln Center and at Central Park.
As you might expect when you have not one, but two excellent dancers, the shoot was great fun. But the best part of the day was seeing these two young men, who became friends during a high pressure and intense time as kids, pick up right where they left off, urging each other on and enjoying a chance to perform.
For more photos, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/new-york-zach--ben.
The boy is returning to the role of Race for a filmed version of “Newsies” that will feature original Broadway cast members Jeremy Jordan, Kara Lindsay, Ben Fankhauser and Andrew Keenan-Bulger.
Part of a joint effort between Disney Theatrical Productions and Fathom Events, the stage show will be filmed in Los Angeles in early September, with a one-night-only performance on Sept. 11 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. The movie version will arrive in cinemas worldwide in early 2017.
Pretty cool if you ask me.
After Sunday's showcase featuring 16 high school seniors, Metropolitan School of the Arts hosted a reception for the soon-to-be graduates, a number of whom have been part of the studio for more than a decade.
Recognized were Ben Cherington, Sarah Christophersen, Emma Cook, Sam Cornbrooks, Nakya Fenderson, Sarah Kelly, Sophia Kleess, Biby Medrano, Georgia Monroe, Gabi Odom, Jeremiah Porter, Veronica Quezada, Lexi Rhem, Amber Supernor, Hank von Kolnitz, and Adia Walker.
To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
Emma and Sam Cornbrooks produced the showcase and developed, filmed and edited this video to introduce the event. Congratulations to both of these very talented kids and to all of the performers for their hard work.
“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...
Tim Federle, whose young adult debut “The Great American Whatever” has been called “a Holden Caulfield for a new generation” by Kirkus Reviews, held a storytelling session and book signing Sunday at the McNally Jackson store in SoHo.
The multitasking author, who also is co-writer of the book for the new Broadway musical “Tuck Everlasting,” brought our son, Ben, as his special guest to read the first chapter of the book. Tim and Ben worked together on “Billy Elliot” in 2010-11 and have been reunited again on “Tuck Everlasting.”
Tim, who is one of the nicest people we know in the industry, was a Broadway performer prior to making his writing debut with “Better Nate Than Ever” and its sequel “Five, Six, Seven Nate!” His first novel was named a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” while its follow up won the Lambda Literary Award.
Proud parents with Ben after his performances in his first-ever Broadway show (Ragtime, November 2009) and his first show as an adult (Tuck Everlasting, April 2016).
Tonight, my 18-year-old son is performing for a paying crowd in his first Broadway show as an adult. About 50 miles north of Syracuse, the family of one of my high school classmates is mourning the loss of their 18-year-old son, an aspiring musical theatre performer who was killed last week in a head-on collision that was not his fault.
Life is just not fair.
Like many of you, through Facebook I’ve become reacquainted with many people I grew up with but haven’t seen in years. Chuck Leikham and I went to the same high school; he is best friends with David Watson and his wife, Mary, who I’ve known almost as long as I’ve been alive.
Chuck and his wife, Kristen, have three children and live in Adams, N.Y. He has been in the military for much of his adult life, and now is assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Like many families in the military, they have endured long separations from each other.
Their son, Parker, was deciding between colleges in Michigan, where he planned to pursue a career in musical theatre, when the van he was driving was struck head-on about a quarter-mile from his home. Parker had performed in local, youth, and school theatre since he was in second grade and had just finished a starring role in his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast the weekend before the accident.
By all accounts, he was a terrific talent and beloved by the community and his classmates. A lineman on his high school football team, he was on the school’s “Whiz Quiz” team that won an international championship in 2014. He also was known for wearing bow ties.
Two days after Parker’s death, a community candlelight vigil drew more than 800 people to the South Jefferson High School stadium, where his parents and siblings released 18 balloons in honor of his life. A local video company showed up to record the event, and after letting the family know they had a drone to capture the proceedings from overhead, his mother asked the crowd to make a bow tie for her son. The result shows the incredible outpouring of love and support for Parker and his family.
Tonight, as we celebrate Ben’s opening preview of Tuck Everlasting, a show with beautiful music and the theme of eternal life, we’ll also say a prayer for a family that has lost its own shining star.
Note: The family is trying to get Ellen DeGeneres to wear a bowtie in honor of their son and is asking for support from their friends on Facebook. Chuck wrote today that his son “loved her show and has much in common with her. Parker was all about love and tolerance.” To write in, go to http://www.ellentv.com/be-on-the-show/1058/
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.
"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...
This video was taped shortly before Ben left the "Newsies" tour last month. It asks the cast members to describe the show in 30 seconds. Worth the watch...
Seventeen months after Ben's journey in "Newsies" started, and more than a year after the first "Art & Dance" shoot in Charlotte, we embarked on one last try on the morning before his final performance.
With five fellow cast members, the shoot took place on the roof of the Fox Theatre, more than 12 stories up and with beautiful views of St. Louis in the background.
To get to the platform we used at the top of the theatre, we had to climb up a steep slope. The last few photos in this album were taken by Ben and his roommate, Josh Burrage, from the slope.
I may be brave, but I ain't balanced... Enjoy.
To see more photos from this shoot, go to my Facebook album here.
Jordan Samuels, one of the cast members of "Newsies," conducted his video "exit interview" with Ben prior to last show in St. Louis and posted it to his YouTube page. Both guys did a great job.
Congrats to Ben on his first day of “Tuck Everlasting” rehearsals. We’re so proud of you, son, and can’t wait to see the show.
Beginnings and endings make my stomach turn, especially since I became a parent. Every performance, every show, every game brings the same set of nerves and emotions, especially at the start and as the finish approaches.
Today brought me to St. Louis, the site of a beginning and — the reason I'm here now — an ending. More than four years ago, Ben started tour life in "Billy Elliot" at the Fox Theatre; today he ended his 17-month run in "Newsies" at the same venue.
The difference is striking, as any parent who watches their child grow up notices. At almost 14, he was already a theater veteran, but had never been farther from home than New York; now, at 18, he has spent multiple nights in more than 40 states and all five provinces of Canada.
Unlike when the "Billy Elliot" run ended in May 2013, Ben isn't facing the teenage "dead zone." Starting later this month, finally considered an adult in the industry, he will start work on a new Broadway musical while finishing his senior year in New York.
It's been a remarkable run, one filled with as many false starts as beginnings and endings. It's also a testament to the rare occurrence when desire and hope merge with opportunity. What I'm proudest of is when others tell me our son is still the boy we hoped to raise when he and Emma were born. That, despite having so many different experiences at a young age, he is still kind and grateful for the opportunity to do what he does.
I don't pretend to understand how or why this works the way it has. As parents, Jill and I have done our best to raise four very different children while maintaining our own careers, friendship, and marriage. I would be lying to say it's been an easy juggle, but can honestly say I would not have been able to survive it without her as a partner in this endeavor.
Over the past two-plus years, while trying to build a business and realizing that the career I worked for 30 years to build means little in life's grand scheme, I've been fortunate to spend quality time with each of my kids and help support Jill in her career as it has taken off. Although I wish (and hope) to build a new career as our children leave the nest this year, I would not trade that time for anything.
It's not the turn I would have expected my life to take four years ago when I first saw Ben in St. Louis. But that's the thing I've noticed repeatedly over time: Where you start is not necessarily where you end up.
No matter how nervous that makes me, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Here's to new beginnings.
A near airplane crash. A cross-country flight. Two college auditions. A son on Broadway. A wife working with the White House. And a drink with a Hall of Fame baseball player.
I can't say the final weekend of my 50th year on the planet was boring.
Coming in mid-January, my birthday always has felt like something of an afterthought, given the post-holiday hangover we all seem to feel post New Year's. Add four kids with birthdays in December and a January that is one of Jill's craziest months at work, and it's easy — and understandable — to see why. Hell, I'm usually not in the mood to celebrate, and it's my birthday.
Last year, for my 50th, Jill pulled off a wonderful surprise that had my mom coming in from Texas along with a gathering of many of our closest friends. This year, as my 51st approached, I decided the fewer surprises that life has to offer, the better.
It started Friday, when Emma and I embarked on another college audition trip. This one, which ultimately involved three auditions over a 24-hour period, was in California.
Leaving the anticipated wintery mix and snow behind in Virginia had lots of appeal, although two cross country flights over a four-day period had me anticipating feeling my age and then some. My body does not deal well with the winter weather whiplash we seem to be having around here, and I was still tired from the previous weekend when Jill and I went on a whirlwind trip to New York.
The New York trip (chronicled here and here via my iPhone) involved seeing Billy Joel and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time” (her Christmas present), having tea at the Plaza Hotel (a present to each other), and attending the engagement party for our “adopted” son, Ginno. The party also was a reunion of many of the kids and parents from “Billy Elliot,” sans Ben, who is on the road with “Newsies.”
After all that, I’m sure Jill welcomed our departure as she spent the weekend working with the ASCA staff on planning the School Counselor of the Year celebration, which includes a visit to the White House next week. We don't see her much during January because of SCOY and another major program she supervises, so I felt fortunate that we had the New York trip as a last hurrah.
Little did I know when boarding the plane how close to a last hurrah it really would be.
On the first leg, we were off to Chicago, a little late and flying low because of the bumpy air. We made it just fine, did the cross-country trek across O’Hare, and got ready to board our connection to L.A.
Checking my phone, I saw the first surprise. Late last year, Ben booked “Tuck Everlasting,” a new Broadway musical that opens in April. He’s leaving “Newsies” at the end of the month before starting rehearsals in mid-February, but no formal announcement had been made. Then, without warning, the press release went out.
We boarded the plane behind a large man, obviously an athlete. As he sat on the first row in first class, I recognized him as Frank Thomas, the Fox TV analyst who spent the majority of his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago White Sox.
After sitting on the runway for about 15 minutes, the plane started to take off. Two wheels lifted off the ground, and on Row 31 we felt the familiar surge from behind. But in a split second, the plane jerked back and the pilot ground it to a halt, fortunately taking advantage of O’Hare’s long runway.
The collective reaction was, “What the (insert expletive of choice)?!?” The fire department came out to cool off the smoking wheels as the pilot explained that a cargo door, one right under where we were sitting, had come open.
We were very lucky, even if Emma’s nap had been abruptly halted. We waited for some time until the wheels cooled enough to return to a gate (ironically the same one where our first plane landed in the nether regions of O'Hare), so we could catch another flight. I'm sure at least a couple of people also had to clean out their shorts.
It was that scary.
While Emma started on some homework, I went to the bar and saw Thomas. Figuring the night could not get more surreal, I mentioned that it must have been “interesting” to have been in the front row of the plane. He said “Cheers,” took a sip of his wine, and offered to let me sit.
We talked briefly about — what else? — airplanes and baseball, and he could not have been nicer. An hour later, steeled for the next leg of the flight, we boarded again for California.
The next day was filled with Emma’s auditions, followed by a nice dinner together. On Sunday, my birthday, Emma picked up Starbucks for me. We went to another audition and had lunch with some friends from Northern Virginia who also were in California.
At that point, we drove to Hollywood so we could be closer to the airport for our departure. In our three trips to L.A., I’ve learned to hate the traffic (worse than even Northern Virginia), love the climate (65 degrees in January) and embrace the kitsch.
Emma indulged me as we went to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (separate blog coming on that at some point) and to Amoeba Records, the second best in the U.S. after Austin’s Waterloo. We then had dinner with the Hetheringtons, longtime friends from Ben’s “Billy Elliot” days.
Coming on the heels of Ginno’s party the previous weekend, the West Coast reunion with the Hetheringtons was a nice capper to the California trip. We reminisced, we laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time, and looked to the future.
That future includes two more long-distance trips this month, one to North Carolina to see Nicholas and work on a freelance story, and Ben’s last “Newsies” performance in St. Louis. Ironically, that’s where he started tour life in “Billy Elliot,” more than four years ago.
Circle backs. Full circle. And around and around it goes.
This was shot last December while the tour was in Chicago. It's amazing how fast 2015 has gone by, and how good "Newsies" — now in its second year on the road — remains. Worth a look...
So you never know who the boy will bump into on the street. Of course, if you live the kind of life he does, you get to go to the set for a couple of hours with a number of your closest friends, too. And then the new friend comes to your show.
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...
The Bi-Annual "Musical Theatre Bookstore" Commercial, performed by members of the "Newsies" cast after a show. Hysterical...
The formal opening of the "Newsies" tour was one year ago tonight in Philadelphia. Now, almost 400 performances later, a new cast of principals is in place and life on the road continues for the youngest in our crew. (And if you don't believe that time truly does fly, next week marks four years since the start of the "Billy Elliot" tour.)
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.
As the parent of a child actor, one of my goals is to expose Ben to as many things as he can handle to build his knowledge base and help enrich his performance.
The adult actors he has worked with get this, and Ben has tried to take their advice, even though it can throw his parents — and others — for a loop sometimes.
Example: Knowing that the Folger’s production of Macbeth would be extremely violent and bloody, Jill and I agreed to take our then 10-year-old son to see Tim Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd. The theory was that we could expose him to the fake blood, see how he reacted to it, and then talk/discuss/tweak as necessary.
He made it work, and the other actors were impressed by the “research” we had done as he went into the Teller/Aaron Posner production. Then, one night during the ride home from Macbeth, Ben asked if he could watch the 100 greatest movies of all time, based on the poll from the American Film Institute.
When I asked why, he said the other actors suggested the best way to become better at his craft was to watch good acting. Of course, that meant he would be exposed to more R-rated films, and the biggest one on the list was “The Godfather.”
Imagine, if you will, a high-pitched 10-year-old voice saying, “But Dad, I need to watch it. It’s supposed to be a really good movie.”
We agreed, as long as he read through the screenplay first so that the more violent stuff (can you say horse head) would not come as a huge shock. So during Metropolitan’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” our son was dressed in an outlandish lime green suit carrying around the illustrated screenplay from “The Godfather.”
Flash forward three years. Now 13, Ben and I regularly see movies together. It’s a nice ritual and one that reminds me of my dad, who always wanted a movie buddy to come with him to see the stuff my mom had no interest in watching. (Given that my mom is not a big movie fan, that meant most things.) Ben and I always talk about the subject matter beforehand, and I try to let him know about the parts that I think are pushing the envelope.
This goes for plays, too, and brings me to the end of this story.
Last night, we saw the star-studded revival of John Guare’s dark comedy House of Blue Leaves featuring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Edie Falco. Even though the show has gotten some mixed reviews, the performances are terrific, especially Falco’s.
Although the pacing is slow at times, there is much to admire about Guare’s work, which is set in Queens on the day Pope Paul VI visited New York City in 1965. But no question, it is dark, with talk about nuns, a political bombing, a soldier going to Vietnam, a zookeeper and amateur songwriter losing his grip, and his wife, a schizophrenic who heading for the institution that gives the play its title.
New York theater houses offer student discount tickets to some shows, and it is the only way we could have been able to see this one, which is selling out. So Ben went to the box office with me, showed the ticket manager his 6th grade PPAS ID, and asked for two tickets.
The ticket manager peered over at my son and said, “This show is for mature audiences. You are too young to see this show.”
Ben, without batting an eyelash, said, “But I say f--- on stage every night.”
The ticket manager said, “You must be in Billy Elliot.” He then handed us our tickets and we were on our way.
Ben smiled as we left the theatre. Sometimes it pays to be “mature.”
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!
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.
Ben's episode of 30 Rock aired last night and the boy did an admirable job, uttering the word "orgasm" in his one-minute flashback scene — filmed in black and white — as the Alec Baldwin character.
The girls and their dad went up to New York to see Ben on Columbus Day weekend. I took Emma the chef to the Cake Boss bakery in Hoboken, and the girls had a chance to see their brother in Billy Elliot. It was Emma's third time to see the show and Kate's first.
Congrats to Ben, who is joining the national tour of "Billy Elliot" as Michael starting next week! He also will be in training for the title role and will remain in the Tall Boy role on Broadway during the tour rehearsals. We'll post scheduled stops on the tour soon, but we're happiest about Dec. 13-Jan. 15 — the Kennedy Center!
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.
Emma is one of the Lost Children in Metropolitan Fine Arts Center's production of "Hook: An Original Musical," which runs June 30 and July 1 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Center for the Arts in Alexandria, Va. These photos were taken during dress rehearsals.
The first weekend of Billy Elliot in Boston was a family affair with a dash of celebrity thrown in for good measure. Kate, Emma, and my mom saw Ben as Billy for the first time, along with Brian and Elise Hodges, the Workman family, and Ben's first director, Mark Ramont. Add in an appearance (and a chance to take photos back stage) with Academy Award-nominee Salma Hayek, and you have one memorable weekend.
So, after two and a half years, we finally moved out of our apartment on West 54th Street in midtown Manhattan. It really made no sense to keep it with Ben on the road and Ginno going with him to be his guardian.
That said, we will miss that place more than you can imagine. Great memories were made there as our family embarked on adventures we never thought possible.
A number of bucket list items were crossed off thanks to that place.
But one more adventure was still to be had: Driving a U-haul through the streets of Manhattan. And surprisingly, I managed just fine, even though it was a rough ride. Once we got everything loaded, I took off down the New Jersey Turnpike, which felt like riding a mechanical bull for two hours without stopping.
Fortunately, the traffic gods were kind for once, and I managed to get home safely. We’re now merging the apartment furniture into our house, moving most of it into the basement and Ginno’s boxes into our garage. Who knows when we’ll be back into the city that we’ve come to love.
And that, folks, is what I define as a melancholy realization.
The Austin run of Billy Elliot started on December 11, with Ben scheduled to perform on his 15th birthday with my mom and several of her friends in attendance. That meant I had to get on an early morning plane after seeing Emma — I can’t miss seeing my twins on their birthday, even if they are in separate states — off to school.
Little did I know that my time in Texas would be such an experience, or that it would be extended by several days due to a family tragedy.
Here’s a rundown of what happened on the trip:
• Dec. 11: Made it to Austin and was greeted by a traffic jam that would make my NOVA and NYC friends blush. And in this case, size did matter. I barely made it to the theater in time to give Ben a birthday hug before his call, then bought my sixth-grade English teacher a beer this evening before the show. Bid a fond farewell to yet another childhood myth. After the show, we had a cake for the boy that my mom bought in the hotel bar.
• Dec. 12: Touring the state capitol with Mom, Ben, and Ginno. Really a fascinating place.
• Dec. 13: Media day with stops at four TV stations and my favorite Austin music station. That was cool… Meanwhile, back home, Jill had to go to North Carolina where her Aunt Sybil was buried after a long illness. Thoughts go out to the McFarland and Mercer families.
• Dec. 14: Had a terrific time watching Kylend Hetherington's final show and seeing Ben again as Michael (a sweet surprise and a wonderful performance by both boys).
• Dec. 15: Tonight, the boy is on as Billy, with my mom, my sister and her family, my aunt and her friends, and several dear friends in the audience. But our thoughts are with the one who won’t be there. My second cousin, Kerry Bowman, was killed in a head-on collision while driving from Albany (a small town in West Texas) to Austin to see the show.
• Dec. 17: After an emotional week, Mom and I are sending Ben and Ginno off to Baltimore and heading to West Texas for my cousin's funeral on Wednesday. Many thanks to everyone who expressed sympathy and concern. Also, we need prayers for Jill's ailing father, who also is in the hospital and in increasingly failing health.
• Dec. 18: I’ve enjoyed crossing into West Texas with my mom over the past two days, taking pictures of small towns and sights along the way and learning more details about my roots. We drove through Baird, where she lived until she was almost 7, and made it to Albany for the visitation.
My mom is always good with the one-liners. Example: “They have an antique credenza in there. You don't see that often in a Dairy Queen.
Me: “Everyone is self-centered to a certain extent.” Mom: “That's called survival.” Smart woman...
• Dec. 19: A beautiful service was held for my cousin Kerry this morning, one that focused on the positive with nostalgia, humor, and honor. And a few stories untold, I know...
That’s when I made the three-hour drive to Odessa, where my Texas adventure came to a close. Of course, I had to narrowly dodge a huge tumbleweed amid 40 mph winds on Interstate 20.
The trip stayed interesting to the end, that’s for sure.
This is the last in a three-part series based on conversations and surveys I've had with other parents of child actors about their experiences and lessons learned. The series has been published over the past week on the DC Metro Theatre Arts website and is cross-posted to the blog here.
Over the past two columns, I have written about what other parents have to say about raising a child in show business. We’ve looked at challenges they face and what they wished they had known.
In this final segment, I asked them for their best advice for other parents. Not surprisingly, some of the answers overlap from the previous two columns, but it really comes down to three things:
• Make sure this is right for your family and your child.
• It is a business.
• Be prepared to audition and get as much training as you can.
Here is what my cadre of parents advised:
• “Only pursue this if it is truly what your child wants and not what you want for your child. There is a huge difference and parents know this. It is great when they love it and horrible to see when they do not.”
• “As you get deeper along, remember, they don’t call it ‘show light bulb’ or ‘show airplane,’ but rather show ‘business.’ It is a business and a very competitive and harsh (at times) one. Don’t ever think or be lulled to think otherwise.”
• “Try not to put your life on hold, although this could be tricky. Try to fit show business into your life. Don’t stop your life for show biz. Have your child experience all kinds of things. Don’t make them a singing, dancing, acting machine. If they truly love to do this, a lot of it will be natural for them with a little training on the side. But every child is different and every family unique.”
• “Learn how to Skype.”
• “Make sure this is right for your family. Yes, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that many people dream of and work all their lives to accomplish — but you need to know what it would cost your family emotionally and financially. Your child will not have a typical childhood and might regret that. The time spent away from the rest of family will also have an impact. We made sure that one parent was in the city, and one at home … but it made the time for us as husband and wife hard to come by.”
• “Everyone who is interested should pursue this but don’t expect anything. Be prepared to spend a lot of time auditioning and also a lot of money training. Get as much training as possible and be thoroughly prepared for each audition. Get terrific headshots and update them as needed. Be ready to go to every audition you are sent on (unless you feel the content is not appropriate) If you say ‘no’ too many times to agents they will forget about you. Pursue non-professional work to gain experience.”
• “My advice to parents is to always remember to ask yourself, truly, ‘Are you doing this because your kid wants it or because you want it?’ If you answered yes to the second half of the question, you need to look inside and fulfill your own dreams.”
• “Be involved, supportive, helpful and aware but allow your kid to be who they are not who you want them to be. Children want your approval more than anything; they will do anything for it. So give them lots of acceptance and love and know that we each have our own path to follow in this life. It is our job as parents to encourage them to find their own way and let them know they are loved no matter what they choose.”
• “Don’t push a kid into it, but if they want to perform then try to make it happen. It’s grueling fun!”
• “Listen to your children, and don’t push them. Love them and cheer wildly for them whether they play customer number 10 in their elementary school play or Annie in Annie on Broadway!”
• “Remember that you are responsible for instilling values in him or her. Those values will serve them in life far more than any role they get while they are a child actor. Your job is to raise a person, not an actor. Let the professionals teach them to be good on stage, and you teach them to be good in life. Applaud them for their achievements as a person, not just as an actor.”
That’s sound advice all around. Thanks to my fellow parents for sharing it…
This is the second in a three-part series based on conversations and surveys I've had with other parents of child actors about their experiences and lessons learned. The series is being published over the next week on the DC Metro Theatre Arts website and cross-posted to the blog here.
One of my favorite television shows is Friday Night Lights, a beautifully written, small-scale drama that focuses on a small Texas town and its obsession with high school football. The show’s overarching theme is “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose” – a motto that all parents should adopt when they have a child who wants to perform professionally.
That’s easier said than done, because entering with your child into the professional world of acting and performing is an ongoing test. Schedules get blown up, sibling rivalry can be on steroids, and you often will find yourself asking more questions in a never-ending quest for answers.
We’ve faced those challenges as parents of a performer, and in talking to others in similar situations, I found a wealth of great advice – and a few warnings. Here are excerpts from my e-mail interviews with more than 20 parents, this time centering on the question: What do you wish you had known before you pursued this as a family?
“There is so much I did not know,” one parent said. “I guess maybe it would have helped to really understand the demanding schedule these kids have, but truthfully you can’t really understand it until you live it.”
Unless you land that million-to-one role, make sure you prepare your child for a lot of grunt work along the way. “We learned that much was involved before acting in movies,” said one parent, “including ‘learning to act’ – classes, practice, etc. – local training, local theatre, finding an agent, beginning the work. A wise coach taught us that an actor’s job is going on auditions.”
Parents say you have to be prepared – at least as much as you can be – for lengthy separations. The cost of relocating to New York or Los Angeles is likely more than you expect, especially if there are periods of unemployment.
“I wish I had known more about the business end and the rights and costs associated with being in a union,” one parent said. “We learned the hard way that after everyone took their percentage, we were not left with enough money to cover the cost of travel, tolls, parking and food.”
One parent regrets not spotting his daughter’s desire to perform sooner and doing something about it. “I wish that we had acted sooner, that we had taken her to have her talents evaluated before we did,” he said. “It would have allowed us to plan more.”
Child actors are faced with a short window of time, something I’ve discussed in previous columns. Once you reach puberty, get too tall, or your voice changes, the chances of you being hired until you reach 18 become few. In most cases, small or young-looking adult actors can be hired to play teens.
“It’s a lot of work and time involved. When our daughter was asked to go on tour we decided not to because my husband and I had commitments here, another daughter still living at home and homeschooling, so that wasn’t an option,” said one parent, who also was a child performer. “Then our daughter became too tall, so her options for Broadway were cut very short.”
With our son, one of the most difficult things has been the long periods of separation. For the first year, my wife and I split our time going back and forth to New York, but we had to hire a full-time guardian when he went out on tour.
“I wish I knew how hard it was to be separated,” one parent said. “But that may have stopped me from pursuing this, so I’m glad I didn’t know.”
Parenting, under perceived normal circumstances, often leaves you with more questions than answers. Are we doing what’s right for our child and for the rest of our family?
“Like everything in life, choices must be made,” one parent told me. “Do we want to move? Do we want to split up our family? What about the other kids, spouse, friends, community? For each choice (action), there is a consequence (reaction). We have learned our personal preferences along the journey and so far they have worked well for us and our child.”
And most important, the parents said, remember that you’re helping your child achieve their dream, not living out yours.
“I had been a performer,” said one parent. “I knew somewhat what we would be getting into and I try to never push her into anything she doesn’t want to do. It’s not fair to her.”
Coming Next: Parents give their best advice.
This is the start of a three-part series based on conversations and surveys I've had with other parents of child actors about their experiences and lessons learned. Parts 2 and 3 are being published over the next week on the DC Metro Theatre Arts website.
Balance is something every parent wants. Vertigo is what we can get, if we allow it to happen.
That’s true for all parents, but the juggling act that parents of child performers face is a constant threat to your family’s emotional and social equilibrium. We know and hear the horror stories about families that implode on each other; what we don’t hear about are those that do everything they can to help their child succeed, often at great personal and financial sacrifice.
Recently, I surveyed more than 20 parents whose opinions I value and trust about the challenges they face, what they wish they had known, dealing with family and sibling issues, and advice for parents of children interested in pursuing performing as a profession. I learned very quickly that, as one parent said, each experience is “different for every family unit and for every parent and child.”
Some parents were performers themselves growing up; others, like us, sort of fell into this with limited understanding and a smaller safety net. In my survey, I asked for candid answers; in return, I promised not to use their names if they wished.
Over the next three columns, let’s take a look at what they had to say.
Striking the balance between performing, school work, and family/social obligations was the overwhelming concern for most parents. But they also found the situation could be financially and professionally challenging for them, as they struggle to balance actor child, family, and work requirements. One parent said the monthly cost for training – private and semi-private acting, singing, and dancing classes – can be prohibitive, especially if you don’t live in New York or Los Angeles.
If you do live in one of those cities, barring whole family relocation, you likely will have to deal with long periods of separation. That’s something we encountered while splitting time between Northern Virginia and New York.
“Maintaining the family structure over a long distance is the biggest challenge,” said one parent. “There are many weeks where the only contact you have with your spouse and child is over the phone. … The second biggest challenge is financial. Although my son made enough money to live in New York while he was working, there wasn’t a whole lot left over each month. Living expenses away from home are steep.”
That parent, a teacher, was fortunate because he had time off during the year and summers as well. But others don’t have the same flexibility.
“It is very difficult to work with a young performer,” said one parent, whose daughter has been on two national tours. “I couldn’t work while on the road. I lost my health insurance because I wasn’t working, too.
Another working parent said “logistics” were her biggest challenge, especially with her son performing on tour.
“Just trying to keep up with his schedule, my schedule, my other kids’ schedules, grocery shopping, airline tickets, and babysitting is probably the most challenging,” she said. “Because I keep a full time job while he does this, and I am not willing/ready to just let him be without a parent for more than two weeks, it is just a ton of juggling and patching things together. “
For parents who have been performers themselves, it requires a conscious effort not to live through your kids. “The biggest challenge for me is staying calm and separate from my daughter’s ups and downs,” said one. “I have to be a support and involved, yet remember it is her life, not mine.”
Coming Next: What other parents wish they had known…
For more Stage Dad columns and related writing, go here.
Last week, a friend of mine — not a virtual friend, but someone I’ve known for 48 of my 50 years on this earth — posted a self-described “rant” about his frustrations with social media and the hate that he sees on it every time he logs on.
Lions and flags (oh my!) aside, I could not help but agree with his basic premise, that social media in some ways has brought out the worst in our collective society. We sit behind our keyboards, state our opinions in often the most crude or basic ways, and encourage our “friends” (real and virtual) to respond.
In case you’re wondering, my friend and I are not of the same political or social ilk. As a First Amendment advocate, I respect your right to have opinions that differ from mine. I welcome them, in fact.
As much as I enjoy social media, I do worry about the nonstop access and overflow of information that bombards us daily, mostly — except for the photos — without filters. And I wonder about the pressure it puts our children under.
Today’s kids live in a very public world, as evidenced by the number of Tumblr and Instagram accounts that follow our son and comment on everything he does. I do understand “fansies” and “Billyvers” — most that I’ve met are kind people — but I’ve also made it my business to be aware and alert because people can go too far.
We’ve all heard horror stories about online bullying. We try to teach our kids that nothing you post/text/share is “private.” All it takes is someone who knows how to capture a screenshot or a snapchat and what you’ve posted is there forever.
The online world, in part because it allows you to hide behind a computer screen, also has a dark side. Earlier this year, for example, an Ohio man is in prison for trying to coerce minors connected to “Billy Elliot” into sending him pornographic images of themselves.
The man had hacked into another boy’s Facebook, Skype and Yahoo accounts to get contact information for the youths, posed as a 15-year-old girl named “Ariella Gold” online, and demanded nude photos of teen boys who were on the tour and in the New York production.
I had met the man and seen him at the stage door when Ben was in New York with the show, and had given his name to authorities when the investigation was at its peak. Ginno, Ben’s guardian on the tour, and I talked daily about the things that we could and should do to ensure he was protected.
We were fortunate. The man, now 25, was arrested in January 2013, pleaded guilty to multiple felonies and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
I’m not saying we should go back to a different time, or that social media does not have great benefits. It does, from the trivial and mundane to the thoughtful and mind expanding. I’ve learned a great deal from my collective of friends.
Social media also is part of my business as much as it is part of my life, more so now than ever because my former profession of choice — the print medium — is struggling greatly. While print will never be extinct, as least in my opinion, it will never have the same reach it did when we were kids.
Jill and I try to think about that when we have talked to our kids about the smart phones that are tethered to their bodies. Their world is much more saturated than ours was growing up.
And that’s reason enough for us all to put a little more thought into how much this noise affects all of us, and stop the shouting from our fingertips and thumbs.
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.
We are thrilled for Ben, who has booked his second Broadway show! He will play Tall Boy and understudy Michael in "Billy Elliot"!
Congratulations to Ben on his one-year anniversary in Billy Elliot! He has performed in 416 consecutive shows without missing a beat — a remarkable feat for anyone, let alone a 13-year-old who also went to school full-time. We are very proud of you, son!!!
Four boys talk while walking with their backpacks down 8th Avenue en route to the "Billy Elliot" matinee on a frigid Sunday afternoon. From left: Ben, Jacob Clemente, Joseph Harrington, and Ethan Fuller.
Ben takes a "pea" break to rest his sore legs after the first full day of practice for the title role in "Billy Elliot." After five years, the boy is finally getting his chance to star in the national tour of the Tony Award-winning show — if he survives rehearsals, that is...
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...!)
Nicholas and Ben were reunited this week in New York as they prepare to go out on the road for the three weeks leading up to the latter's debut as Billy later this month. It's a good opportunity for the two, who don't get to see each other often, to bond during what surely will be a stressful time of tech work and put ins.
BTW: This one of my favorite pictures of the two of them together...
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...
Congrats to Ben, who went on as the principal character "Crutchie," last night as the "Newsies" tour opened its second week in Boston. Ginno drove up with me to see the boy, who has understudied the role since the tour began last September.
Nice review for the boy in Emerson College’s Entertainment Monthly column as the show begins its second week in Boston:
"A cast standout is Benjamin Cook as Race. Cook separates himself from the rest with a signature high-pitched and spunky voice, and he continues to define his character with a cigar always in-hand, or rather mouth, and absolutely impeccable dancing. He makes his turn at the end of ‘Seize the Day’ look like child’s play, smirking at the end as if the audience doesn’t know the difficulty level of what appears to be a walk in the park for a dancer like Cook. But his real spotlight moment lasts probably less than a second, towards the end of the tap number in ‘King of New York,’ he flaps his foot so fast it might as well be a cartoon onstage instead of a human."
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.
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.
Generally speaking, I don't get too jealous over Ben's (mis)adventures. But with this one, yep, I'm jealous...
"Last night we had the incredible opportunity of having dinner at the home of Patricia Ward Kelly, widow of Gene Kelly. Would like to thank Patricia so much for opening her door to us and taking us through the archives and the life of one incredible man. A night I will never forget."
Ben is featured in a Los Angeles Times online interview that goes “Behind the Scenes” of “Newsies.” As the only high school student on the tour, he was profiled for the newspaper’s “HS Insider” section by Cassandra Hsiao, a 15-year-old movie editor and book critic.
On Wednesday, the cast of the first national tour of “Newsies” performed two numbers in a surprise appearance at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre following a screening of the 1992 cult film that gave the musical its start.
The cast, which had just completed a show at The Pantages several blocks away, took a bus down Hollywood Boulevard and performed “King of New York” and “Santa Fe” for a surprised crowd of 1,000 fans, stars from the film, and original director/choreographer Kenny Ortega.
For more of my photos from the performance, go to my Facebook page here. Click on the clip below to see a Disney-produced video clip from the performance.
You also can see video shot by a fan in the audience here.
Now in their second week in Los Angeles, the first national tour cast of Disney's "Newsies" performed a selection of numbers from the show Tuesday before a packed crowd of employees at Walt Disney Studios.
The special lunchtime performance of "Santa Fe," "Someone To Believe In" and "Carrying the Banner" was followed by a private tour of the studio.
Newsies review from Around the Town Chicago: "This is an ensemble show where the dancers and the work they do ... is mind-blowing. It is hard to believe that they can do so much and still sing and say their lines. These dancers are: Benjamin Cook, Sky Flaherty, Jordan Samuels, DeMarius R. Copes, Julian DeGuzman, Jeff Heimbrock, Nico DeJesus and Jack Sippel. WOW!"
“Newsies” invaded Baltimore this week, bringing Ben close to home and enabling relatives and friends to come see the show. Baltimore, like Philadelphia and Louisville, was a repeat stop from the Billy Elliot tour, and is the closest the show will be to our house until it comes to Washington, D.C., next June.
It was a crazy week. My mom came up from Texas, seeing her grandson perform not once, but twice. The first time was with Kate, Nicholas, and his girlfriend, Katherine, in tow.
On Saturday, the ASCA staff saw the show as part of their annual Christmas party, and we bumped into some old dance friends afterward. After several families from Metropolitan School of the Arts saw the Sunday matinee, a group of 100 MSA students, teachers, and parents went to the final performance that evening.
By all accounts, everyone had a great time. And it was nice to have Ben at home for a couple of days afterward.
Next stop: Chicago for four weeks starting on Wednesday, Dec. 10.
"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!
After two weeks of previews in Schenectady, N.Y., and Waterbury, Conn., the formal opening of Disney's first national tour of "Newsies" was held Oct. 30 at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.
Nicholas flew in from North Carolina and Ginno caught a bus from New York to join us at the premiere and opening night party. Sam and Alex Cornbrooks, two good friends of Ben and Emma, came with their parents to see the show, as did former Billy tutor Steve and current tutor (and dear friend) Bernadette and her husband, Matty.
Congratulations to Ben and the rest of the cast and creative team on a wonderful evening and fantastic start to the tour. Audiences across the U.S. and in Canada will truly enjoy this show and its fantastic ensemble.
It’s been a big day in Newsies promotional land. Today, Disney Theatrical released a video that will be used in promoting the tour, plus the tour’s own program, featuring a certain kid we know.
This type of promotion is somewhat unusual for national tours, but shows the commitment Disney has made to giving audiences the Broadway version of one of its biggest hits. It’s another reason we’re so proud to have Ben be part of this experience.
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.
Nice profile today of Newsies director Jeff Calhoun in the Huffington Post. Loved this quote in particular:
"I mean, when I look up onstage and see the young man who's playing the role of Race in this, I can't help but think that that's how old I was when I first began dancing professionally. ... So there's not a day that goes where I don't see myself in these kids. And that — to me, anyway — is a huge part of the appeal of Newsies. That, as you're watching this show and seeing all those energetic young people up there on stage, this is the future of live theater right there in front of you. It's very moving. Even talking about it now, I get very moved."
To see the whole story, go here.
Here are three newly released press photos from the "Newsies" tour, taken by the wonderful Disney photographer who also shot the Broadway run. Great pics; I'm jealous.
And also, very very proud.
Finally, we can talk about it... (And I'm sure we will in this space for some time to come.)
Ben has been cast in the first national tour of Disney's Tony Award-winning musical, "Newsies." Rehearsals started this week in New York, and will continue in Manhattan throughout the month of September before the show hits the road.
We could not be happier or more proud of Ben, who identified "Newsies" as the next major show he wanted to do before leaving "Billy Elliot." He has spent the last 15 months working, training, dancing, and singing (much to the chagrin of his sister, Katharine) in Virginia to get ready.
From two open calls, to two days of callbacks in late April, it has been an ongoing part of his life (and ours) for many many months. And now it is a reality.
Here's a nice flashback: The Folger Shakespeare Theatre's version of "Macbeth" (Ben's second show way back in 2008) is being shown at the Carter Baron Amphitheatre in D.C. this weekend. Here is the trailer teasing the filmed version of the stage show, which is available on DVD.
The Scottish play, directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, is one of the experiences Jill and I credit for Ben's desire to become a performer. Only 10 years old, surrounded by seasoned actors who had much more experience, he soaked up everything like a sponge. The production was outstanding, spooky, and unforgettable — for more reasons than one.
We have received a number of inquiries about the “Newsies” tour schedule. Here are the dates for the 25 stops on the tour, which opens in October and runs through next August.
Single tickets are already available in the first few cities and are going quickly. Philadelphia, where the tour’s formal opening will be on Oct. 30, has only isolated seats remaining.
For more information, visit www.newsiesthemusical.com/ticket.
• Schenectady, N.Y. — Oct. 11 to Oct. 17, 2014
• Waterbury, Conn. — Oct. 23 to Oct. 25, 2014
• Philadelphia — Oct. 28 to Nov. 2, 2014
• Cleveland — Nov. 4 to Nov. 16, 2014
• Louisville, Ky. — Nov. 18 to Nov. 23, 2014
• Pittsburgh — Nov. 25 to Nov. 30, 2014
• Baltimore — Dec. 2 to Dec. 7, 2014
• Chicago — Dec. 10 to Jan. 4, 2015
• Charlotte — Jan. 6 to Jan. 11, 2015
• Columbus, Ohio — Jan. 13 to Jan. 18, 2015
• Atlanta — Jan. 20 to Jan. 25, 2015
• Orlando — Jan. 27 to Feb. 1, 2015
• Miami — Feb. 3 to Feb. 8, 2015
• San Francisco — Feb. 17 to March 15, 2015
• Las Vegas — March 17 to March 22, 2015
• Los Angeles — March 24 to April 19, 2015
• Tucson — April 21 to April 26, 2015
• Dallas — April 29 to May 10, 2015
• San Antonio — May 12 to May 17, 2015
• Houston — May 19 to May 24, 2015
• Nashville — May 26 to May 31, 2015
• Durham, N.C. — June 2 to June 7, 2015
• Washington, D.C. — June 9 to June 21, 2015
• Boston — June 23 to July 5, 2015
• Toronto — July 7 to Aug. 16, 2015
Ben ended his run in "Billy Elliot" in Las Vegas. What a long, strange year it's been...
Ben was a co-star on the second episode of "Veep," the Emmy Award-winning comedy featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. He played Walt, the stepson of the vice president's communications director, Mike (Matt Walsh), who recently married. Kathy Najimy is his mother in the scene, which included another series regular, Timothy Simons (Jonah).
The video is of the scene that aired and a brief snippet that was cut from the episode due to time constraints. The deleted scene is on HBO-GO.
"Veep" films all of its episodes before they start airing, which means Ben will not be featured again this season. This episode, in fact, was filmed last fall outside Baltimore. We hope Ben willl be cast again next year; the show recently was renewed for a fourth season by the pay network.
Above: My photo from Ben's final curtain call for "Billy Elliot" on May 19, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Note: Over the past two years, I've written a number of columns for DC Metro Theater Arts, a website that covers local and regional theater in the Greater Washington, D.C., area. Most have focused on our family's journey and the lessons we have learned from having a child stage actor. You can find other "Stage Dad" columns by clicking on the Category tab on this blog or by going to the DC Metro Theater Arts website.
My son and I seem to be in a “dead zone” career wise, and neither of us is too happy about it.
The difference, of course, is that Ben turned 16 in December and, as of mid-January, I’m one year shy of 50. Or, as my oldest daughter said as I started writing this, “You’re not a teenager, Dad. You’re old.”
2013 was a strange and memorable year for our family, filled with several highs and numerous, at times devastating lows. Fortunately, 2014 has started out on a more positive note, despite my desire to wring the neck of a certain groundhog whose prediction of a never-ending winter has been all too true this year.
I digress, but on the “Stage Dad” front, there hasn’t been much to report over the past several months. In both cases, we’re still finding our way.
When this column last appeared in mid-May 2013, I wrote about the end of Ben’s run in “Billy Elliot” and the uncertainty we faced as he returned home after living in New York and on tour for four years.
Two weeks later, my employer eliminated my position in a restructuring. After 30 years as a working journalist, communications director, and nonprofit professional, I was looking for work. I still am.
The next month, Ben returned from New York. He said he was ready to take “a break” after working steadily since he’d turned 10. Within days, he was doing pirouettes and turns in the living room.
As I’ve written before, all teen actors face career uncertainty during their high school years, especially those who make their living on stage. It’s called the dead zone primarily for financial reasons, because it’s often easier and less costly for a young-looking 18-year-old to play 15. You don’t have to have tutors or adult supervision, which (understandably and justifiably) is required for minors.
That means a producer has to take a huge financial chance to hire a minor for those late-teen roles. And in the volatile, financially risky world of professional theater, especially Broadway, that’s a risk many producers aren’t willing to take.
Twice, Ben has been called back to audition in New York for shows that — in the end — “hired older.” In the D.C. area, matters are complicated by the fact that Ben is a member of Actors Equity, and the many fine theatre companies here — with the exception of the Kennedy Center — do not have the financial capacity to hire Equity actors for teen roles. In most cases, they won’t even have him audition, knowing they can’t hire him.
He’s disappointed when these types of things happen, but that’s the reality he faces now. It is, as we say, part of the business of performing. You’ve got to take the bad with the good.
TV, movies, and commercial work are options, but they can be an even bigger crapshoot than landing a stage show in New York. In September, Ben was cast in a role on HBO’s “Veep” (it’s scheduled to air April 13), but otherwise has spent his time dancing, training, and being a teenager.
In many ways, after the whirlwind of the past several years, having him back at home with his twin Emma and older sister Kate has been wonderful for our family. However, the spectre of long-term unemployment has loomed over our heads as I face my own “dead zone.” The economics of journalism have squeezed out too many of my colleagues, many of whom have more advanced degrees and pedigrees than me.
In the middle of this uncertainty, we’ve been very fortunate that my wife, Jill, has a good job with medical benefits. I’ve also found freelance writing jobs and have started a photography business that focuses primarily on headshots, portraits, and events as well as some fine art.
One of my favorite jobs has been working as a photographer for the Metropolitan School of the Arts, where Ben and Emma receive their dance training. They have a great group of friends that are based at the school as well as a terrific outlet to train and perform.
I enjoy being around for those performances, and have learned a great deal about photography as a result. It also gives me a reason to be close to them at a time when, as teenagers, they likely would prefer not to have me around.
So that, as they say, is the status update. Or, to sum it up in a sentence, “It’s been one heckuva year.”
Ben looks out onto the stage prior to his final Las Vegas performance. (Photo by Richard Vollmer)
No question, it’s time.
I knew those words would come at some point, so it’s not a shock to the system, but I’m somewhat surprised by how much emotion accompanies them. Our son, Ben, is leaving “Billy Elliot” this weekend; his final show is scheduled for Sunday in Las Vegas.
He’s 15 now and growing, with a deeper speaking voice in a show that tells the story of a pre-pubescent boy who just wants to dance. Like every child that has played Billy before (and after) him, the role has a certain shelf life. The average Billy’s run is 12 to 18 months, with most of the boys starting at age 11; Ben started rehearsals for the role last May at age 14.
But our family’s “Billy” story goes back much farther than that, which I chronicled in a series of posts that started last May. When the curtain falls Sunday, it will be the conclusion of a journey that started 5? years ago with his first audition and almost three years after he debuted as Tall Boy/Posh Boy in the Broadway ensemble. Over the past 19 months, he has been to 45 cities in 25 states and Canada.
It’s a remarkable achievement, especially for a teenage boy.
Writing is one of my lifelong passions. It allows me to step back, reflect, and process major and minor events. For several years, I have had this blog, and then for several months I wrote the “Stage Dad” column for DC Metro Theater Arts.
Then I just stopped.
Why, you ask? Call it a series of cumulative events. I had a minor health scare, several relatives passed away within a short period of time (my wife’s father, uncle, and aunt; my aunt and cousin), and we faced the usual life/work/family commitments/challenges that come when parents have two careers, three teenagers and one college student.
Shortly after the tour began, we hired Ginno Murphy to be Ben’s guardian, which meant that we didn’t have to employ Sheldon Cooper to develop a cloning device that would allow us to be in two places simultaneously. Using vacation somewhat sparingly, and tagging on stops to a couple of work-related trips meant we could see Ben and Ginno every three to four weeks.
When Ben lived in New York, I was on a train or bus once or twice a week, which gave me opportunities to think and write. For several months, we’ve been so busy moving forward and from side to side that I haven’t taken the time to reflect.
The other night after dinner, my wife and I talked about what this weekend represents. We agreed: It’s time for everyone to move on, but not having our child and this show inextricably linked will be very different. Or as Jill described it, there will be “a void.”
That’s the right word to describe it. And it’s the word that led me to reflect, and start writing again.
“Billy Elliot,” like the current Broadway hit “Matilda” (also a London import with much of the same creative team), is different from your usual musical. Most shows have a rehearsal period, followed by tech, previews, and then the run. Rehearsals during the run are rare, and usually occur when a major creative change is scheduled or replacement cast members are being put into the show.
That’s not how it works with “Billy,” which rotates four boys in the title role. Because the show is so physically taxing, each does two shows a week and serves as standby for two others. Two boys also share the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend. Billys and, to a lesser extent, Michaels take classes in cardio, ballet, tap, and acrobatics in addition to spending 15 to 20 hours a week in school.
When Ben started with the show, he was cast as Tall Boy/Posh Boy, a member of the ensemble, and performed eight times a week. Over a 15-month period, he racked up more than 500 performances while understudying Michael. The tour, which started in October 2011, gave him an opportunity to perform as Michael and train for Billy, which is somewhat unique because the roles are very different.
On Sunday, he will have totaled more than 640 performances in the show, including 61 as Michael and 71 as Billy. That’s not a record; two of the tour’s Ballet Girls (Madison Barnes and Brionna Trilling) have more than 1,000 performances, and long-serving ensemble members have done many more shows than our son.
Other Billys and Michaels have performed in more shows as well. But with one notable exception — Kylend Hetherington (one of Ben’s best friends) who was Tall Boy, then Michael for a short time, then Billy for two years — our son is the only one in North America who has played all three boy roles for a substantial period.
That speaks to his versatility, and his never-say-quit nature. I think he willed himself to stay short and not go through a voice change until he played Billy. He practiced and turned and practiced and turned deep into more nights than we can count. More than once, my wife and I discussed whether he should quit, only to decide that he had to be allowed to pursue his dream.
Down the line, when Ben has time to reflect on it, even he will see what an accomplishment that is.
For the past month, the big question we get is, “What’s next?” And my only answer is, “We’ll see.”
That’s not meant as a cop out. The truth is, we don’t know. For now, Ben is going back to New York to finish his ninth-grade year at Professional Performing Arts School, which he loves. Then, he’s back here for the summer and perhaps into the fall and spring.
He wants to continue to dance, sing, and act. Someday he hopes to be part of the Broadway musical “Newsies,” but can’t do that until he turns 16. He’s working on audition songs, making plans to take dance classes, and keeping his fingers crossed that he can stay in New York.
No question, this is a transitional period for Ben. He is officially nestled in the “dead zone,” that period where teens are too old to play children and too young to be out from under the necessary rules that are designed to protect them until they turn 18. It may be weeks or months until he books something, or it could be years.
If nothing bears fruit, then his return to Northern Virginia will be long-term, at least until he and his sisters go on to college. And that will be different for all of us, because he’s been away from our day-to-day home life for almost four years.
Actually, as I think about it, we do know a couple of things.
We know Ben has the work ethic, desire, and love for performing to do whatever it takes to pursue his passion. He’s proven that. And we know it will be good to be back together as a family under the same roof, for whatever length of time that is.
As for the rest, we’ll see.
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.
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…
For the next several weeks, Ben is back in Northern Virginia, performing as the page in Terrence McNally's "Golden Age." The play has a short three-week run at the Kennedy Center — thank God for those circle backs — and gives us a chance to be together as a family for just over a month.
More on the play later, but I thought you might want to know how Ben's siblings greeted him upon his return. Emma, sweet Cook that she is, made him a cake. Kate, whose ADHD/bipolar inspired ditziness masks a wicked sense of humor, contributed this:
Gotta love big sisters, don't you?
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.