One Kid's First Night on Broadway: Part of a Long Tradition

News   One Kid's First Night on Broadway: Part of a Long Tradition
 
Do you remember your first time? Before your mind races back to youthful recollections of splendor in the grass, perhaps I should rephrase the question: Do you remember your first time at a Broadway show?

The Sound of Music star Mary Martin
The Sound of Music star Mary Martin

If you're a theatre nut like me, chances are you do. I don't recall much about my everyday six-year-old existence, but palpable joy bubbles up every time I think of one night in 1960 when my parents took my sister Susan and me to see The Sound of Music. I remember the sets, the costumes, the music, the feeling of dread, as I sank down in my seat praying that those bad men wouldn't discover the trapped von Trapps in that cemetery. For me, the entire evening was, as Lily Tomlin might say, a goose-bump experience. And afterward as a tiny Mary Martin scurried from the Lunt-Fontanne stage door over a curbside mound of snow, I distinctly remember thinking, "Hey, that's Maria! In a winter coat! Getting into a car!"

A little over 20 years after Mary/Maria and the Captain traversed the Alps with brood in tow, I found myself scrambling across 51st Street to the Uris (now Gershwin) Theatre to a two-o'clock matinee that I mistakenly thought began at three. Holding on for dear life to each of my hands were my eight-year-old twin nieces, Jenny and Lara. This was going to be their first time, only instead of a bunch of singing kids surviving Nazi-occupied Austria, we were going to see how a bunch of singing kids survived their hard knock life. We made it to Annie on time, and if you asked my nieces today, I'd wager they would recall with clarity the sets, the costumes, the music, how we booed Miss Hannigan and were convinced by a little redhead with a powerful belt that the sun, indeed, would come out tomorrow.

Fast forward almost 30 years to the present — Tuesday, March 1, to be precise — when it was not the sun's rays but rather another type of theatrical shower that washed over a family member, my great nephew and first-timer James. Having been schooled by his namesake grandfather in the pleasures of the lads from Liverpool, his mom, the aforementioned Jenny, and dad David decided to give him the thrill of his young life by celebrating his third birthday at Rain, the immensely popular Beatles tribute, playing to enthusiastic audiences at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

Reid Shelton, Andrea McArdle and Sandy Faison in Annie.
photo by Martha Swope

James is a city kid, born and raised in NYC and accustomed to the hustle of humanity on the sidewalks and traffic in the streets. But as the song says, those neon lights on Broadway really are bright, and the sensory stimulation of Times Square was enough to send the little guy into paroxysms of joy. Emerging from a taxi for a pre-theatre dinner at the Clubhouse Café on W. 46th Street, he was mesmerized by the lights and sounds of the theatre district and amazed at the sight of corner kiosks loaded with pretzels and M&M's. "Mom! Dad!" he screamed. "Maybe we should eat there!"

Little did this peewee know that his big adventure was about to begin. After polishing off every kid's dream dinner of hot dogs and chocolate birthday cake, the trio headed out into the brisk evening air and the icing that was to come. Riding high on his father's shoulders, James had no idea what lay in store (their destination having been kept a secret by his parents). As they neared Rain's marquee, his ears pricked up to the sound of "Tell Me Why" reverberating down W. 47th Street. "Beatles!" he squealed (his granddad would be so proud). He wanted to stop and listen. His parents obliged, and then ratcheted up the joy several notches as they joined the throng entering the theatre to see "The Band," as they are billed — Steve Landes ("John"), Joey Curatolo ("Paul"), Joe Bithorn ("George") and Joe Bologna ("Ringo") — live up to Variety's declaration that "the Beatles are back!" To hear his folks tell it, every molecule in James' tiny frame was vibrating and as the cast took its place onstage, his little voice could be heard above the din of applause, "It's John! It's Paul! It's George! It's Ringo!" He waved at them and wondered why they didn't wave back. During intermission it was time to make friends, so he chattered non-stop to the amused theatregoers sitting in the row behind him, "Hi! You watching the Beatles???" And after every number he turned to his mother for reassurance that there was more to come. Locked in the pleasurable embrace of a live performance, he wanted it to last forever.

After the show, James and Co. joined the crowd waiting at the Atkinson stage door. When Steve Landes emerged in street clothes, the three-year-old greeted him with, "Who are you?" "I'm John," said Landes. A skeptical little boy pointed to the show's poster featuring the cast in full Beatles regalia and to the amusement of the crowd declared, "You're not John! That's John!"

Nowadays kids weaned on computer generated images are a lot sharper than I was back when I actually believed it was Maria von Trapp climbing into a waiting car. But, happily, however sophisticated, they seem just as willing to give over to the wonderful worlds that unfold when a curtain rises. And when it comes down and they emerge into the neon-lit night, they're just as thrilled to have their picture taken with the Beatles, even if they don't look like they do on the poster.

Thanks to the generosity of Rain's friendly company, James got his photo op and is hopelessly hooked, seduced by Broadway. For me it was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, for his mother it was Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, and for James it was John Lennon and Paul McCartney. If history bears out, he'll have a memory that will live in him forever. In fact, it's already taken hold. The following morning, his mother tells me he awoke with a huge grin and the first words he uttered were: "'member the Beatles?"

(Judy Samelson, production manager for Playbill magazine's West Coast region, was editor of Playbill 1993-2009. She contributes occasional features to Playbill.com and is a member of the museum committee of the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, CT. Write her at jsamelson@playbill.com.)

James with <i>Rain</i> stars Steve Landes, Joey Curatolo and Joe Bologna
James with Rain stars Steve Landes, Joey Curatolo and Joe Bologna
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