What Play Changed My Life?

Is there a play that changed my life? The American Theatre Wing wants to know, and as I look through the contest entries, I figured I would chime in. However, there is a 350 word limit to the entries and I am long winded, so I will post it here in lieu of disqualification.

I honestly don’t know if I could look through the list and pick one in particular that stands out as the “one.” My experience with live theatre didn’t even start with theatre itself. It started with film musicals and branched outwards from there. As a child I wore out a VHS of Mary Poppins and recall the annual viewings of The Sound of Music on television (though I was always sent to bed, incrementally seeing more and more each year – I didn’t know there was a wedding until I was 10!) It was always striking to me seeing Julie Andrews as a stoic brunette Edwardian one day, and a blonde tomboyish novice the next. Plus, I was affected by the music in each property.

As a young child, it was these films and others (such as The Wizard of Oz, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Brigadoon) that first introduced me to music theatre and the idea of a song as an extension of the storytelling. This awareness was further promulgated with ample exposure to AMC, when it used to be the “American Movie Classics” channel with Bob Dorian and Nick Clooney (oh those were the days…) plus, there was also my father’s vested interest in the film adaptations of The Sound of Music and South Pacific.

Now, I’ve always been observant and curious. Ever since I can remember, when I became interested in something I went out of my way to learn and study about it, whether it was my fascination with tornados when I was 7, the Kennedy administration when I was 8, or the Tudor/Elizabethan era when I was 9. Watching The Sound of Movies on A&E back in 1995 triggered a similar reaction. I delved into the R&H movies, and read everything I could. There was a particularly incredibly coffee table book by Ethan Mordden simply titled Rodgers & Hammerstein that offered detailed history, analysis, photos, and was just a beautiful history of the composing team which is sadly out of print. It was through this book that I really started to understand that these films (with the exception of State Fair) had originally been created for Broadway. I guess you could say the rest is history…

Looking at the milestones in my theatregoing life there are several moments that come to mind: The first time I ever entered a theatre. I couldn’t even begin to tell you where it was, nor what I was there for. Concert? Play? Madrigal Pageant? But that is beside the point. Lingering in my mind is this indescribable feeling of entering the space. It was in the tradition of those late 19th/early 20th century palaces. There was this aura about the decor, the way the lights illuminated the space, that non-descript smell that is both simultaneously musty and clean. Add to that the anticipation that something was about to happen, plus the excitement that I was missing school to be there (I recall Sr. Benedict, my first grade teacher being there). There was something gothic and foreign about the space itself that resonated with me. I was awestruck – and it is a feeling I can recall every time I enter a theatre. For some reason it was especially vivid to me (and probably why I mention it) when I visited the Mark Hellinger Theatre last week.

And there are other moments: The first time I ever auditioned for a show – in the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts in Peekskill (dodged a bullet on that production of The Sound of Music, let me tell you…). The first cast album I ever owned – the lavish gatefold LP of original London cast of My Fair Lady. My first trip to see a Broadway show (Miss Saigon). My first ever onstage save in my high school production of My Fair Lady (one of these days, I’ll bring up those fond memories – maybe even some embarrassing video!) Also, my first time visiting the stage door of a major show (Noises Off!i). My first closing performance (Bernadette’s Gypsy; which also constituted my first backstage tour of a theatre). My first opening night (The Light in the Piazza). The 2006 Tony Awards dress rehearsal. When I see Love Loss and What I Wore on Sunday night, I will continue to add to this list.

You see, I would love to pick one and say “This is it!” But it is near impossible for me to choose “the play” as each and every live theatrical event I have seen has in one way or another informed my sensibility. I could pick some favorites, and highlight the extraordinary visceral reactions I’ve had, but if I name one I start finding myself listing everything. Even the extraordinary failures have educated me on how to be a discerning audience member. Every single time I enter a theatre it counts as a stop along the way. Live theatre for me provides a catharsis impossible to find elsewhere, and there is nothing more intimate and personal than feeling that communication between yourself and the story onstage. I’m grateful for what I’ve had, and look forward to what’s to come.