STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: My Theatergoing Journal

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: My Theatergoing Journal I've been so busy that only this week did I have a chance to look at the Playbill dispensed at "Kids Night on Broadway." I liked such articles as "My First Broadway Experience" (Tom McGowan, Amos in Chicago, said that after he saw Fiddler at six, "I refused to leave the theater.") and "Behind the Scenes" (a diagram explained everything from the stage house to the sound board), and a list of theater books that included Wendy Wasserstein's marvelous Pamela's First Musical.

I've been so busy that only this week did I have a chance to look at the Playbill dispensed at "Kids Night on Broadway." I liked such articles as "My First Broadway Experience" (Tom McGowan, Amos in Chicago, said that after he saw Fiddler at six, "I refused to leave the theater.") and "Behind the Scenes" (a diagram explained everything from the stage house to the sound board), and a list of theater books that included Wendy Wasserstein's marvelous Pamela's First Musical.

But my favorite page was "My Theatergoing Journal," which instructed the kids, "As you continue to see plays and musicals, we encourage you to keep this record of your experiences." Underneath was a series of boxes that said, "Date," "Show Title," and "Comments."

Wonderful! Now don't you wish that when you started theatergoing, that you had done this, so you'd still have a record of each and every thing you saw?

And will you be surprised to find that I have?

In 1961, when I was 15, it was a very good year: I saw My Fair Lady on Broadway; Kiss Me, Kate in a Massachusetts summer stock tent; national tours of Bye Bye Birdie, Fiorello, Irma La Douce, The Music Man, and Carnival in Boston's three Broadway-like theaters; as well as my first tryout: I Can Get It for You Wholesale with this newcomer named Barbra Streisand. Of course I kept my Playbills and my ticket stubs, but that didn't seem to be enough. So I took one of my student notebooks with the black-and-white speckled covers, and reconstructed from the stubs: Date, Theater, Show, and rating, going from four to zero. (None of the above musicals, by the way, scored lower than three).

Within a year, I upgraded the notebook to a more adult and sedate spiral bound, and recopied the ever-burgeoning list. By 1969, this book was full from my seeing most of the shows that came to Boston and the modicum of traveling I'd done -- dozens of Broadway shows, plus Lovers and Other Strangers in Detroit; The Grass Harp in Providence; Annie, Get Your Gun in Washington; Hello and Goodbye in Paramus, NJ. So I tore out the pages, put them in a binder, and rearranged everything into the categories of Broadway, Tryouts, Road Shows, Regional, Stock -- even College -- by city and state. (Not high school, though. That's where I drew the line.)

It's the book I'm still using. The cover is pretty battered by now, and there are now well over 200 pages, but the ritual has stayed the same for nearly 38 years: After I see a show, I come home, go to the book, and write in the entry. Well, almost. One night in 1980, I went looking for that production of A Thousand Clowns I saw in Stockbridge many years earlier, and found it wasn't there. But I still had the program, which gave the dates of the show's run. Remembering that I saw it on Saturday night, I then entered the 7-14-71 date -- and added a little "Oops!"

But I can state with reasonable certainty that as of now, I've seen 882 Broadway productions, 346 off-Broadway shows, 680 off-off Broadway shows, and 770 shows at New York's non-profit theaters. I've attended 606 attractions in New Jersey, five tryouts in New Haven, three road shows in Chicago, two in Cleveland, and seven productions in Valdez, Alaska.

Where was I on 3-31-80? In Hamilton, Bermuda, seeing Harvard's Hasty Pudding Show called A Little Knife Music. On 5-5-82? In Dusseldorf, catching Uncle Vanya. On 3-27-88? L'Homme de la Mancha in Paris.

Every now and then, I look over the list, and marvel at how many shows I don't remember at all. What was Out to Lunch, which I saw at on 1-30-87 at the Quaigh? Lady on a Leash, the 1-21-78 entry at New York Stageworks? Frames, on 5-12-80 at the White Mask Theater? And where and what was the White Mask Theater, anyway?

But for the most part, a flip through the pages shows how much I remember. There's Canterbury Tales in Baltimore on 1-15-69, the last show I saw as a single man. There's Tribute at the Atkinson on 7-15-78, the first one I saw as a divorced one. There are the theaters by their former names: The 46th, the Trafalgar, the Alvin. Sadder are the ones that are no more: The Morosco, Bijou, and the real Helen Hayes, of course, and the 54th Street -- the first Broadway theater I ever visited twice -- first on 8-2-62 for No Strings, and then on 6-6-64 for What Makes Sammy Run? Saddest of all, of course, is the one that wasn't razed, but reconverted: The Mark Hellinger, where it all began for me with Fair Lady.

Some entries have little red X's next to them. Those are the shows on which I walked out. The Object of the Game on 10-18-81 at NY Theatre Ensemble. The Trouble with Europe on 2-6-80 at the Phoenix. One show that I didn't see completely has a red "B" next to it instead of an "X" -- The Cherry Orchard at the Beaumont on 7-13-77, the night of a New York blackout. The woman I was with -- now superagent Jeanne Nicolosi -- figured the show wouldn't go on, and said, "Let's see what's happening at Chicago!" And off we went to 46th Street.

The ratings are a fun way of seeing who I was at a certain time in my life. A "0" rating went to such Broadway attractions as The Guys in the Truck, The November People, and of course, Moose Murders, which I saw at a preview. Well, at least 11 minutes of it, as the red "X" suggests. "1" assessments were given Platinum, Her First Roman, and The Red Shoes. "2" to Golda, Doonesbury, and Cyrano: The Musical. "3" to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom on Broadway, Vanities off-Broadway, and Jubilee off-off-Broadway -- all of which, on second though, rated higher.

And the almighty "4" went to Broadway's original A Funny Thing Happened, Cabaret's tryout in Boston (the second time -- after they'd fixed it), and Todd's Secret, a play written by a 16-year-old kid in a New Jersey Young Playwrights' Festival. There has also been one "5" -- given on 6-12-80 to, and I quote, "Jason Filichia and Miss Palmer's Second-Graders Sing Annie." Hey, what can I tell you; the kid was great.

"How I wish I'd started this when I was a kid," my friend Paul Roberts often says. And I always say to him -- as I do to you now -- start! All right, so you won't have detailed records for all those shows you've already seen, but as Peter Link taught us in Salvation, "Tomorrow is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life." Truth to tell, as the years have gone on, I've reconstructed a High School Productions page. They're not all there, nor will they ever be. But having some can still stoke the memories.

For you, too. List the titles you, and from this day forth, keep a terrific, specific reminder of your theatergoing. And if you'd need a book to start you off, maybe Playbill has a few Kids Night on Broadway programs left over.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com