Laura MacDonald spent July and August 1997 as Playbill On-Line's summer intern. As she heads off to her sophomore year at University of King's College in Nova Scotia, here are her observations about her summer on Broadway.
I usually like to be the one asking all the questions, but this summer almost everyone I've met has asked me the same question: "You're not from here, are you? No, I'm not from New York, and I'm not from the U.S. either. I'm from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
How did I get here? Way back in May, I applied for an internship with Playbill On-Line that was advertised on the site. I was convinced my chances were slim. I'd only just finished my first year of university in the Journalism program at the University of King's College, I had very basic computer knowledge, and the job wasn't exactly within walking distance. But I did have a passion for theatre. Not only did I get an interview, but I got the job.
"When it all comes out just the way you'd planned, it's funny what that moment brings," says Flora in Kander & Ebb's Flora the Red Menace "...I don't hear anything, I'm supposed to hear bells, drums, trumpets, I don't hear anything," and I didn't. One day I would like to be the chief theatre critic for The New York Times, but working in New York is something I always saw in my very distant future. I can relate perfectly to Flora, because when something you've longed for finally happens, it really is "a quiet thing."
I've read countless stories of people who remember the time they saw Gypsy or Follies or some other astounding musical, but though I have seen many impressive productions before, none ever bowled me over like The Life, which I saw in my first week here. What wowed me the most were the performers. I had seen Lilias White steal the show in How to Succeed... and with The Life she finally gets the chance to really show her stuff. The entire company was superb and it was very satisfying to see a stage full of women performing meaty roles. After having a difficult time trying to find a place to live, I started work at Playbill On-Line. My job was to update the databases of awards, colleges and newsletters and to write the occasional story. I first assessed the databases and then started collecting the information I needed. It may not have been the most exciting work, but I was in the offices of Playbill, full of theatre history.
To gather information for the databases I had to call London, California and many other places I had never called, let alone been to. This was very exciting for me, and when I called people and said I was with Playbill On-Line, there was a certain authority behind me; people know what Playbill is.
In the office are invaluable sources of information: people. Robert Viagas, my editor, has written books and is now working on a musical. David Lefkowitz, a writer, has written plays and runs his own theatre magazine. Sean McGrath, a database manager, is an aspiring director. Blair Glaser, another database manager, used to be an actress and now coaches actors on the side. These people almost always had answers to my questions, which were many.
My co-workers were nearly all American and seemed to get quite a kick out of my accent, which I didn't think I had. They claim I say "oot" and "aboot," while they say "owt" and "abowt. I think I say "oat" and "aboat." Though their knowledge of American theatre was extensive, none of these people knew much about Canadian theatre. So I began my Canadian invasion. Canadian universities quickly made their way into the college database, and the Dora's, the Canadian equivalent to the Tony awards, are now on file. As I began to write more and more news stories and features, I made a point of slipping in the occasional Canadian story. I was shocked to discover one day though that no one here knew who the celebrated Canadian actress Martha Henry was. "She's the Canadian Jessica Tandy," I told them. "So. . . she's dead?" Sean asked.
The main difference I've found between living in New York and just visiting is the people. As a tourist one mostly sees other tourists in touristy places. But when you live her for a while you see just about every kind of person you can imagine, and even some you can't. Yesterday I passed a man carrying the bottom half of a mannequin over his shoulders down Central Park South. At the 76th Street flea market one Sunday another man had his two parrots out for a walk -- on his head. A sidewalk preacher tells me Shakespeare was black. I've passed the same man on the corner of 51st and Broadway a dozen times, playing the same song on his saxophone, an unsung Broadway star.
Living here I explored places tourists generally don't go. Walking down an East Village street I passed an empty lot right out of Rent and I spent a week living in the Bronx. Now I know what it's like to commute. Though I soon discovered many of New York's greatest attractions lie far from Times Square, there is still nothing like walking down Broadway close to curtain time to take in the bright lights and the sight of people dressed in their best for the theatre.
I saw as many plays and musicals, on Broadway and off, as I could this summer. Thank goodness for the TKTS booth, offering some of the best theatre in the world for half-price. I visited TKTS three times to purchase tickets for Titanic, a musical that didn't impress me the first time I saw it but whose music quickly grew on me.
Belasco's ghost didn't visit me when I went to see A Doll's House at his theatre, but like myself, he was probably too caught up in Janet McTeer's performance as Nora.
The rush ticket line for Chicago was an angry one. Scalpers had camped out at the head of it and spent a lot of time arguing with Shubert Theatre security guards. At the back of the line, all the way down and under the marquee for Phantom at the Majestic, we craned our necks to see what was going on, hoping they'd get kicked off the line and improve our chances at getting tickets. We waited and waited. Someone suggested a musical be written called Rush, all about the line-up experience. The scalpers did get kicked off the line, but I did not get tickets. So I bought I full price one, for the second balcony, and thrilled at every razzle dazzle second.
As the summer wore on I wrote more and more stories, helping to sub for David when he went on vacation. The databases were coming along slowly but surely when the call came for more news stories. I was thrilled to be assigned to writing only stories for the rest of the summer, good-bye databases!
I've known for a while that I want to write about theatre, but working here this summer has confirmed it even more. I really enjoy listening to what creative people have to say and this summer I talked to many. One artistic director and I discussed the difference between American actors and foreign actors who have a better sense of history. A translator explained why his translation of an already translated play was important and different. An actor told me why Stephen Sondheim's music is so unique. A composer described his music to me and a director philosophized on the state of Broadway.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green did a panel discussion at a bookstore and I went to cover it. As I was writing the story I couldn't believe that I, at 18, was writing about these two theatre legends, editing their quotes and describing their appearance.
A press agent at a regional theatre where Christiane Noll was performing casually mentioned that she had just finished recording the songs for the animated King and I, a news story that hadn't been written. So I called Noll, now that's exciting for me just to say that, and she told me all about the recording.
The same press agent also arranged for me to talk to Jason Robert Brown, the composer of the upcoming Parade. He picked up right away that I was Canadian and told me about some songs from Parade that he would be performing in concert. All thanks to a very kind press agent -- and not all of them are.
I soon learned that many seemed to have pent-up anger and were very unwilling to give out information. When no one would give any information out about the change of the rush ticket policy for a major musical I simply went to the theatre and read the sign on the door explaining the change. My story was posted before the news appeared in The New York Times.
This summer I went to my first press conferences, an on-the-job education. My first was the arrival of David Alan Grier in Forum, held at the St. James Theatre. The still photographers argued with the television cameramen about where to sit and, after a short performance, it was time for interviews. One television journalist totally lost her composure when Grier gave her an unexpected answer, the things they don't put on the air.
Not all press conferences are like that. I went to another where I was the only reporter in attendance. It was slightly embarrassing, but it meant that I got to talk to the star and the director for as long as I wanted.
I'm eager to go back to school now. I've learned a lot this summer but I've also seen just how much I still have to learn. I'm also eager to get back to Canada, though I've had a blast in New York, I want to write more about Canadian theatre because I see how little people know about it.
I bought the cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's (I have his picture on my office wall) Merrily We Roll Along because I had heard the song "Opening Doors" and was very intriguing. From the beginning to the end -- or in this case I should say from the end to the beginning -- I was enthralled. I have favorite musicals, but Merrily is the first one I've ever heard that I can completely relate to. So it's fitting to end with some of Sondheim's inspiring lyrics: "It's our time, breathe it in, worlds to change and worlds to win...we're the movers, we're the shapers, we're the names in tomorrow's papers." I feel that it's my time.