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Monday, June 15, 2009

Theater People

Theater people are a little kooky. They are intensely connected to each other, forming deep bonds with the others who work in their theater. They are ostentatiously, sometimes prolifically, demonstrative. They are not without their streaks of crudity and slap-happiness. In short, they are precisely what you might expect--if you stopped to think about it--of people who spend 12-16 hours a day holed in up windowless spaces doing repetitive tasks such as hammering endless nails, hemming eighteen skirts for the chorus number, each hem thirty feet in circumference, or rehearsing the same set of lines over and over again, "this time with more feeling."

Theater people thrive on mixing the absurd with the serious, taking their craft immensely seriously at the same time that they, who realize they are stared at and judged on a nightly basis and twice on Saturday and Sunday, can be hilariously self-deprecating. They will do things like play Stage Tag during a half-empty matinee of a Shakespeare comedy. What's Stage Tag? You pick a word, typically one syllable, sometimes nonsense, sometimes not, and you pick someone to be It. The person who is It has to work the word into a speech at the precise moment when he or she is touching someone else. The person touched then becomes It. The loser is whomever is It when the play is over. The trick is making it so seamless that no one but the group onstage notices any monkey-business going on with the dialogue.

Theater people will concoct traditions: You are really a member of this company once you spend a night up in the gods (the uppermost part of a theater; in this case, the system of rigging and narrow walkways above the stage and house, from which lights and sound equipment hang). Or they will spend entire sunny Saturdays in a basement costume shop, sitting on top of the cutting tables, stitching, and playing "Would you rather..." One person asks a question: "Would you rather eat a live snake or a dead mouse?" and the next person around the circle has to answer and explain why, then ask the next question. This is not a G-rated game, or even a PG-rated one, the way theater people play it. But it does while away the hours.

Another thing about theater people? If they get bitten by the bug early, the disease never fully goes away. Sure, they may grow up, get jobs completely unrelated to the theater, get married, have children, and have nothing to do with the production of a show for fifteen years. But that won't keep them from missing the theater, thinking nostalgically about those stolen nights hiding from the security guards in the gods, giddy at the closeness of their latest crush, or reminiscing about that zipper they replaced between the end end of one song and beginning of another so that Pontius Pilate wouldn't have to go back onstage holding his robe closed with one hand.

And then they will start trying their best to turn their children into theater people.

I have discovered that small children, in fact, adore the theater. I'm not one of those crazy stage mothers or anything. My kids, despite their solid comedic timing, ability to burp on demand, and near-perfect recall of vast quantities of story books about dinosaurs, have never been in a production of anything. But I do love to take them to see shows. It started when Son was not even two. We saw a university musical production of Pinocchio, and he was riveted for two whole hours. He cried when it was over because he didn't want it to end. I've taken them to productions put on by local women's groups and traveling puppet troupes; they've been to the circus, Disney on Ice, and outdoor theater in the park. Basically, I'll take them anywhere I think the venue/time/show is suited to children. My one caveat is that the performance can't be so expensive that I will prefer torturing the people sitting near me with a melting-down child rather than miss ten minutes of the performance myself by removing said child.

And so, it's perhaps not that surprising that when we were in New York recently, we took them to a Broadway show. Although I adore theater and go to see plays every time I'm visiting a big city, I'd never been to a big-budget Broadway musical before. I figured I was missing something, but I had no idea just how much I was missing until I saw a production for myself.

Seriously, there are not enough words to do it justice.

The music! The choreography! The costumes! The special effects! The set. Oh. My. Stars. The SET. It was a stroke of design brilliance and a masterpiece of execution. Having worked on a lot of shows in my time, I have some sense of the complexity involved in staging, and the staging of this production was nothing short of miraculous as far as I was concerned. It's not just that it looked good. It was three dimensional in all the best possible ways. Pieces of the stage rotated; they rose and fell; they turned into hills and giant confusing forests and castles. It was sheer magic.

Now, you may laugh at me when you hear this, but we saw Shrek.

I loved the movies, and so did my kids, and I figured they would have a great time seeing the characters come to life. But seriously, I had NO IDEA what a truly incredible thing a first-run Broadway show can be, and now I feel like I want to become some kind of Broadway spokesmodel or something. Because honestly, there is simply no describing the level of being transported into another world, swept away into the funny, and impressive, and poignant, and how did they do THAT?! universe of Broadway theater. Finally, finally, I get it.

When I was in college, I had a brief but mortifying fling with the notion of getting into musical theater. I can dance. Not that I'm classically trained or anything, but I'm pretty good at picking up steps, and I love to dance. I thought that if only I could get over my stage fright about singing, I could audition for chorus parts in college musicals. I have no qualms about standing up in front of hundreds of people talking, whether making toasts or reciting lines; I can take pratfalls; I have a hoot of a good time practice stage fight scenes. But ask me to sing something in front of anyone over the age of five, and I turn into quivering jelly.

To conquer my fear, I took a singing class as an elective in college. During the final exam, in which I had to sing a song in front of my classmates (all five of them), I got so nervous that I irretrivably lost my place, began shaking uncontrollably, and nearly started to cry.

Needless to say, I have never had a part in a musical.

But, having grown up on movie musicals (The King and I and The Sound of Music were favorites), I still have a soft spot for them. Broadway, I have learned, is the place to see them.

Now any of you who live in New York are probably rolling your eyes at me and saying "DUH!" And those of you who hate musicals (I'm aware there is a lively contingent of such; I blithely do not care) are rolling your eyes at me and saying, "SO WHAT?" But if you like theater, even if you're not sure that you like musicals, please, do yourself a favor once in your life, and go see some big-budget, up for a few Tonys, extravaganza of a production on Broadway.

You will never, ever EVER forget it.

And neither will your children, if you take them.

I guarantee it.

Of course, you can trust my judgment. I am, after all, some kind of half-cousin to theater people. As long as you're willing to count my past in my favor.

Full disclosure: I won the tickets to Shrek in a giveaway. But you didn't have to be a blogger to enter to win, and there were no stipulations that you had do anything more than use the tickets if you won them. And, quite honestly, as expensive as a Broadway show is--which makes me unendingly grateful to have won the tickets--I would have bought four tickets in a heartbeat if I had really known what I was in for. You can be sure that the next time we're in New York, we will partake of another bit of Broadway magic.


supertiff said...

i've seen phantom 8 times, and the time that i saw it on broadway was NY FAR the worst. of course, i still loved it.

when i saw miss saigon on broadway? my mom thought she was going to have to leave me in the theater, because i wouldn't get out of my seat.

and don't even get me started about rent. sigh.

Daisy said...

There's no business like show business! I played piano in the pit orchestra for so many musicals that I know the songs by heart - even if I didn't sing them. I'm a lowly 4th grade teacher now, but I channel my inner theater geek through my teaching style.

Jaina said...

Oh I love Broadway...though the only show I've seen in NYC was Jesus Christ Superstar...amazing musical. I finally saw Phantom of the Opera last summer here in San Diego. It was phenomenal. Back in February I saw Rent on it's farewell tour with two of the original actors. This August I'm going to finally see Wicked! I'm so excited. We have a great Broadway link down here and are getting tons of amazing Broadway shows touring here. I love it. And the theatre is about 10 minutes from my apartment. (if there's not a baseball game or anything major going on downtown)
Shrek sounds fantastic!

LceeL said...

I won't bore you with stories of early theater training and stuff - but I will tell you of a week spent in London last year during which we saw FOUR live shows - on the LONDON STAGE!!! Sound of Music, Lord of the Rings, We Will Rock You, and lastly (and best) ... WICKED!!!!

And yes, I really went nostalgic over all those years performing on stage.

CaJoh said...

Yes, I admit I am one of those Theater people. We have our traditions as well. Like wearing pink and black bowling shirts with our nicknames on them and having strange secret handshakes— I miss being in the theater and enjoy going to see a show where I played to see who is still around.

Mama Mary said...

Broadway=Magic! How awesome you guys went to a show. I saw some excerpts from Shrek on the Tony's and wasn't too impressed so I'm glad to hear you liked it.


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