Beyonce, 50 Cent and "Star Wars" may have their legions of followers, but fans of Broadway are equally, if not more, devoted to their own idols. Playbill.com has tracked down a few of these ultimate Broadway fans to discover what draws these theatre lovers to their favorite stars and shows.
Joel Torrance's first viewing of Rent, the musical that made Broadway stars of Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel and Daphne Rubin-Vega, was from the Nederlander Theatre’s mezzanine, and he thought, "If I like it this much from back here, I'll probably like it a whole bunch more from up front." That may be the understatement of the decade, as Torrance has since seen the musical, which opened on Broadway in 1996, an additional 1,071 times. A dual citizen of the United States and England, Torrance currently works in Philadelphia in the investment banking field, and he explains that he initially encountered the rock musical during its Broadway preview period. "I knew it was playing Off-Broadway down at the New York Theatre Workshop," says the 39-year-old, "but I could never get in to see it there, so when it came to Broadway, I was one of the first to line up. I remember walking into the Nederlander lobby and hearing the show while I was trying to get tickets. It sounded almost religious, like gospel."
A self-described Renthead — the term coined for those Rent lovers whose passion for the musical is unbounded, those who created a community while waiting in line to purchase tickets — Torrance says that he drew as much enjoyment from meeting the other Rent fans as he did from watching the show. "You would line up and wait till the box office gave the tickets out two hours before the show. So, everyone thought, 'Well, I'll come three hours before and make sure I get a good spot!' The three hours turned into six, which turned into twelve, which turned into twenty hours. It was a sleepover, and I really enjoyed hanging out with those kids and playing murder-mystery games overnight in the street. It was a big slumber party."
"Why did I do it? What did it get me?" sings Mama Rose in the classic Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy. When asked why she "did it," why she attended the Bernadette Peters revival of Gypsy 200 times, 31-year-old Christie Ford says, "The show became such a special experience for me. The cast was so amazing. The music, of course, is the best there is. I loved the production: I loved the way it was put together, and Bernadette was at the top of her form in that show." Ford, who works in the legal department of Colgate-Palmolive, has been a fan of one of Broadway's leading musical theatre actresses since the mid-eighties, although she didn't see Peters perform live until the mid-nineties at a concert in Richmond. Since then, however, Ford's been making up for lost time, having also seen Peters over 150 times in her Tony-winning role as Annie Get Your Gun's Annie Oakley. One may wonder just how these avid theatregoers can afford attending so many musicals, which can cost over $100 a ticket. Rush tickets, a policy created during the first year of Rent, offer one solution. Often restricted to students with a valid I.D., rush seats offer discounted tickets in specific locations of the theatre, including the front row or rear mezzanine. Like standing-room-only tickets, rush seats are sold on the day of the performance, and many box offices will accept only cash for these seats. "I try to only pay $100 when it is either a last show or a performer’s last show," explains Ford. "Clearly, I was willing to spend any amount to be in the front row for the last Gypsy. But for normal circumstances I usually do either rush tickets, lottery, standing room or use a discount. I make sacrifices in other areas to see theatre, but theatre is what I love, so it takes a priority. . . [And, Bernadette has] just got everything. She's an amazing singer. She can act like no one else, and she's also just the nicest person in the world."
Kevin Lux, a 25-year-old part-time graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who also works for the Abrahamson Cancer Center, certainly concurs. In fact, his devotion to Peters led the New Jersey resident to create a Bernadette Peters fan website, www.bernadette-peters.com. Lux first encountered Peters while he was in college at a time when he was questioning his goals and looking for focus. Peters was performing at a gala concert in Princeton, NJ, says Lux, "singing 'No One Is Alone' from Into the Woods, and it was a complete cathartic experience. She has this ability when she's onstage to make it seem like you're the only one out there. It made me feel that I wasn't alone—she made me feel comfortable, kind of safe in a way. It was like a hug from Bernadette." Soon after that experience, Lux started the Peters fan site as "a community for people who could get Bernadette information, a place where people could come and meet each other. What I'm really happy about is that I actually have made a community. They've even given themselves this campy little name, the Fanadettes, and they've formed a social group that herds around and goes to Bernadette’s concerts."
Ford and Lux may love Peters, but for up-n-coming director Ben Rimalower, his devotion has always been to Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone. Rimalower was just four when he saw the television commercials advertising the Broadway engagement of Evita, and he was more than upset when he learned that his parents would be attending the Andrew Lloyd Webber Time Rice musical without him. "I thought the balcony of the Casa Rosada [where Eva sings ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’] was a boxing ring," Rimalower laughs, "and the show was about this very glamorous Argentine boxer. I thought I couldn't go because boxing was too violent for children." It wasn't until many years later that he finally saw LuPone live at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Since then the 29-year-old director has caught the award winning actress in nearly all of her live stage appearances and thinks there isn't anyone "who can match her as an actress, singer and thrilling live performer. I think she can hold a live stage like a Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra, but she's also an actress like Stockard Channing or Mercedes Ruehl or any of the great actors of her generation." In spring 2000 Rimalower had the opportunity to work with the actress when he landed a job as director Lonny Price's assistant for the concert staging of Sweeney Todd, which starred LuPone as the pie-baking Mrs. Lovett. "It was thrilling," says Rimalower. "I was trying to play it cool and do my job, but I couldn't pay attention to anything! All I could do was watch Patti LuPone. When we were on break, I was just transfixed by her presence in the room." Rimalower, who directed the recent all-star Snoopy! concert and will helm the upcoming Off-Broadway comedy Joy!, says that meeting LuPone only "confirmed and enhanced everything I thought of her. She really is her persona. Patti's personality is so warm and generous and outgoing. She treats everyone with respect, from the crew and the assistants to her co stars."
There may, however, be no more devoted diva fans than 23-year-old Mike Duling and 26-year-old Tom D'Angora, who reached into their own pockets to co-produce In His Eyes, the debut solo recording from Ellen Greene, the star of the original Off-Broadway stage production and subsequent film of Little Shop of Horrors. Duling, a theatrical producer and aspiring director, says that he and D'Angora became fans and eventual friends of Greene, who would often chat with the starstruck men before and after her concert engagements. D'Angora, who also stars in his self-penned cabaret act Divas I've Done — which campily sends up his love for such women as Greene, Maya Days, Marla Schaffel and Liza Minnelli — says that from the very first time he and Duling heard Greene sing live, they questioned, "Where's the album?" "Ellen kept saying she didn't have one," says D'Angora. "Seven months later, my [theatrical] flyering company was doing really well, so I called her, and said, 'You know what I was just thinking about it? How much would I pay for an Ellen Greene CD?' That's where it started. I really think it needed to be there. It was ridiculously overdue."
The time has also come for composer Stephen Schwartz, who is enjoying his biggest commercial success with Wicked, the hit musical at the Gerswhin Theatre that explores the back story of the "Wizard of Oz" witches, the bubbly Glinda and the green-faced, misunderstood Elphaba. The musical is especially popular with young girls like Liz Frankel, a 12-year-old student at New Jersey's Dwight Englewood School who has seen the musical that won Idina Menzel a Tony Award seven times. "The first time I saw it was in March , and I remember during 'Defying Gravity' I was crying. It was so great," says Frankel. Wicked turns every Oz myth inside out and explores a host of issues that are especially appealing to adolescents: popularity, good versus evil, challenging authority and friendship. "I think Elphaba is a representation of school in general because she is the girl who rebels. The Wizard represents the Queen Bee, who makes up rumors, and has everyone turn against [Elphaba]. If she can get through it, it proves that everyone can get through it." Frankel, an aspiring actress-singer-dancer who also loves Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables and Rent, explains that on her most recent visit to Wicked she thought it might be her last trip. "By the end of the show, though, I realized, 'No, never mind. I'm going to see it again and again!’"
While Wicked and such other current fare as Spamalot and Avenue Q have major fan bases, there is another group of dedicated fans who continue to triumph a musical no longer running on Broadway, Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde. They call themselves Jekkies, and there is probably no more enthusiastic Jekkie than Peter Williams, a 27-year-old freelance web designer who lives in Pittsburgh. "I became a fan of Frank's work during my first year at college when a friend shared the "Jekyll & Hyde Complete Work" recording, and I was immediately hooked. I have followed his career closely since then, and I have been his official webmaster since 1999. I really admire what Frank does. He writes wonderful music that you can connect with in a very direct, emotional way." Williams says he became a Jekkie soon after he heard the Jekyll recording; the Jekkies, he relates, "have an online community [www.jekyll-hyde.com] that discusses and supports the show, keeping up with the many productions that take place. We also keep up with the careers of Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, and of the past cast members of the show, many of us supporting their new projects. A few years ago I stepped up to maintain the e-mail discussion list, and I am now reopening a message board for the group as well." Williams is also a fan of Wildhorn's other musicals—The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Civil War and Dracula—and says that each show has its own separate community: The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, TCWFans and The Order of Dracula.
Whether it's the chance to meet a Broadway star or the appeal of a community that shares the same passion for a particular show, it's obvious that theatre fans are a diverse and dedicated group. Perhaps Jekkie Williams puts it best, when he reflects on the endless possibilities that theatre can offer: "It can take you anywhere and explore anything. It's an amazing collaborative dynamic, to have hundreds of people work on a show and then thousands attend, all connecting to a single journey of the imagination."