In our new advice column, "Hey, Johnny!" (as in: stage door Johnny), an anonymous Broadway veteran answers the burning questions that might just be keeping your theatre-loving soul up at night. Previous columns have covered everything from how to tell your parents you want to major in theatre to whether you need a "Broadway body" to make it big.
Got a question? Ask it here.
What's your advice for someone who isn't supported in their love of doing theatre? Signed,
When I was a teenager in the Midwest I was part of a youth performing arts troupe. We were associated with the education division of a local professional theatre, serving as both ambassadors and also cheap publicity, and we played the nursing home circuit with what can only be described as naïve pluck. We felt like stars and we got standing ovations, though our "set" consisted of nothing more than a few rolling trunks and a ladder, and our costumes involved shapeless spangled vests that had the flair and breathability of potato sacks.
It was heaven. We were theatre kids and someone was teaching us routines and people were being made to watch us.
One muggy day in the middle of the summer, our troupe played an outdoor festival by a river. The theatre that organized us was planning to put on The Wiz as part of their professional lineup that winter, so songs from that show were featured in one of a half-dozen medleys that made up our show. (We did a spirited and anachronistic 1776 medley; you haven't lived till you've heard a squeaky-voiced 14 year-old boy warble "Molasses to Rum.") Once we got past the "Brand New Day" step-touches in The Wiz portion of the afternoon, the majority of us, sweaty and out of breath, took our places in the background on this strange floating dock. That was my friend Gina's cue to step forward and sing "Be a Lion."
Now, Gina could really wail. She had a huge voice and was sincerely talented, and not just "for a local girl." The night before the festival, a bunch of us had stayed over at someone's house (we were allowed to have co-ed sleepovers; God love our parents, who probably knew the boys weren't really interested in the girls as anything more than scene partners). We'd stayed up all night screaming and laughing and playing a version of Pictionary called Musical Theatre Pictionary in which every single thing you drew on a big sheet of paper had to be a reference to a musical.
All of these overnight shenanigans had left Gina hoarse. Midway through "Be a Lion" — which she usually knocked out of the park, sometimes literally (we played a lot of outdoor parks) — her voice went out. Just stopped working. I don't know if you know the song "Be a Lion," but it's the ballad Dorothy sings to you-know-who, about how "not even lightning will be frightening" to him. Not with all the courage she knows he has, when he's finally brave enough to step forward and claim the day.
And there Gina was, unable to muster the strength to get through a song about just that.
My voice had recently changed. I was 16 or so at the time and had been going through a bit of a depression, as I was in love with a hopelessly straight senior who was also in our youth troupe. Because of all these mixed emotions, I frequently wanted to disappear and go unnoticed; this, despite my intense desire to be onstage. And yet, standing there on that floating dock, something told me to step forward — to save Gina, and, in doing so, to "save the show." And so I did. I stepped up and snatched the microphone out of her hand, and in my memory the humidity dissipated and perhaps a few seagulls stopped what they were doing and stared. In reality I probably just sounded like a boy whose voice had recently changed.
When the song came to a close, there's wasn't time for applause; we went right into the Grease medley, and I had 20 seconds to shift gears and play "Doody." Afterward, though, at the "stage door" (a funnel cake stand), a bunch of the moms rushed me. "That was amazing," they squealed, squeezing my shoulder and rustling my too-long bangs. "You could barely even tell there was a mistake, even when you took the alternative high note!" The moms served not just as rides to our gigs but also de-facto stage directors; they probably could have done the show themselves; they'd seen it so many times. They knew I'd been brave, and smart. The show must go on, right?
Gina hugged me, our troupe leader and I high-fived... even the hot senior boy gave me one of those fake-shoulder-punches that can, when you are a 16-year-old closeted gay boy, be interpreted as a version of affection.
But then the crowd cleared and what was waiting for me was my mom. "Were you allowed to do that?" she asked, her face stricken with concern. The other mothers had run up to me, but mine just stood there. "Were you allowed to step up to the microphone like that, without permission?"
"Allowed?" I said. "I mean, Gina's voice totally gave out. There wasn't really any other choice."
"Well, okay," my mom said, and it was okay, in a way. She didn't punish me. She kept paying for classes. She came to every opening night forever more. But a seed was planted in my head that day, Jianna, and the seed that was planted blossomed like an evil weed that overtook my brain and left my inner voice gnarled by doubt. My stepping forward had embarrassed my mom — had been not rewarded but questioned — and it set-off a long streak of personal second-guessing that I still struggle with to this day. Despite having been on Broadway many times and having forged a great grown-up relationship with my mom.
You asked me what my advice is for someone who isn't supported in their love of doing theatre, and there are two things that could mean: 1) Someone isn't paying for your voice lessons, or 2) Someone doesn't "get" why you'd have such a foolish dream, as in: "We will not pay for you to major in musical theatre. It just isn't practical and we don't want you living in our basement when you're a grown-up."
Of course the funny thing about dreams is that they are not only NOT diminished by being made forbidden, but rather they flourish like moss and spores and magic. Jianna, we must pray for these people, because they don't know what you and I know: that to have found something that keeps us not just occupied but enthralled is an actual gift. I cannot tell you how many people I have met who have no idea what they want to do when they grow up. I'm speaking exclusively of people who are already grown up.
I'm going to give these "someones" in your life the benefit of the doubt (and I'm also going to guess that they are your parents). There's a good chance they don't support your love of the theatre because they're afraid for you. Because they know the odds are scary (they are), that New York is practically unlivable (it is), and that a life without security can be unsettling at best (you see where I'm going with this).
But maybe these people aren't your parents. Maybe they're schoolmates, making fun of you for being the girl with her head in the Mary Poppins clouds. Maybe it's a boyfriend (or girlfriend) who thinks you should keep your mouth shut and stay off to the side, to not act so showy and loud. Or maybe it's you. Maybe you don't always understand or even appreciate your own passion/obsession/adoration about such a fickle, weird art form.
But if you're like me, theatre was always the only thing I willingly came "back" to without being negotiated with or yelled at. Never academics. Never sports. Never anything except the promise of putting on the (original) Into the Woods album and closing my bedroom door and enacting elaborate shows for the only audience I had at the time: my stuffed animals. And this was still when I was in high school.
Whoever these people are who don't support you, Jianna, it's either because they don't have enough information about your plans for the future (including, yes, potential fall-backs; double-majoring isn't the worst idea ever, folks!), or because they don't understand passion. And there's a very good chance they don't. The reason romance novels are still alive and thriving (at least on the coverless Kindle) is so people can read about passion, even if they can't conjure it up themselves.
And many of them never will. They won't have been infected with the bug you and I have, Jianna — the one that has no cure, is completely terminal, and isn't actually all that contagious. People who hate musicals will never be convinced otherwise. It's as if they were born with the antibodies that keeps them immune.
Your entire life there will be people who don't support you. Even after you win a Tony. If you don't believe me, go read some of the stuff "they" say about Idina, a bigger star than you, me, and most of my readers, combined. Times two. Your job is not to convince people to support you, then — though I feel for you and wish you felt lifted up and celebrated for all the things that you think make you broken but probably, in fact, make you interesting.
Your job is, instead, to look for those unexpected moments to step off the ladder and step forward. To stop waiting for somebody to tap you on the shoulder and give you permission to live your life in Technicolor. To take the microphone when you feel called to and especially when you feel afraid to. To know that if you risk exposing that vulnerable part of you that occasionally still feels like she's bobbing on a dock in the middle of a river, then that's all you can do.
Even if afterward, everyone but your own mother gives you a high-five.
The other alternative is to stay in the background like a polite girl, perched on the safety of that ladder and watching the world float by.
My advice, Jianna? "In your own way," as the song goes, "be a lion."
Break a leg,