We search for fulfillment behind the footlights, we desire to be inspired, and we hope to change the lives of others.
Inspired by The American Theatre Wing's "The Play That Changed My Life" (edited by Ben Hodges; introduction by Paula Vogel), a book in which 19 influential playwrights of our time reveal their formative moments in theatre, Tony Award winners and nominees share anecdotes and stories about the plays, musicals or productions that made them into the artists they are today.
Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford (You Can't Take It With You, Kinky Boots)
Shows continue to inspire you, but I think as a child, the first time that I saw Gypsy was when I realized, even at a young age, the power of a great book in a musical. That musical has an incredible score, but the book matches the magic of the score, and I think that's what elevates it and makes it such a classic. It's my favorite. When that "Overture" starts, I cry every time. Even on my iPod, I cry!
Tony Award nominee Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed, Xanadu, Sister Act, Lysistrata Jones, Cinderella)
The first Broadway show I ever saw when I was a kid was Pippin. I knew the album by heart, but was absolutely shocked when, at the end, Ben Vereen stopped the show removed sets, tore off costumes and pointed out a mole on the leading lady. He even invited audience members to come up and kill themselves. I was very young, and the whole ride back to Pennsylvania I couldn't believe Mr. Vereen had ruined the show the night I saw it! The next day at school, I asked Ellen Walters what happened at the end of Pippin the night she saw it. When she described the exact same thing that happened at my performance I knew then and there that the theatre was a very unsafe place where anything could happen.
I try to put that in everything I write.
Tony Award winner Laura Benanti (Gypsy)
I've had so many different levels of life-changing, like when I heard Stephen Sondheim for the first time when I was five, that changed my life. That was the thing where I was like, "Oh my gosh, hold on. People sing their feelings? This is remarkable." So, that. The song "I Remember Sky" was [used for] learning to play the piano. My mom is a voice teacher, and she had it on the piano, and I just started plunking it out. I was probably like 8 or 9, and then I started singing along to it, and I was crying because I just thought it was so unbelievably beautiful. Then, I saw Crazy for You when I was 11 with my middle school class, and I was like, "That! I want to do that."
Sierra Boggess (The Little Mermaid)
I saw A Streetcar Named Desire in London in 2002 when I was in college. I saw it at the National Theatre, starring Glenn Close and Essie Davis. I had a student ticket, so I was in the front row, and it was unforgettable. At the end of the play when Glenn was being taken away, Essie Davis (as Stella) was screaming and crying for her sister, and I remember being completely entranced by how real she was. After the show, they did a talkback and Essie said she grieves differently at that moment every night. Sometimes she grieves for the world. It just struck me so deeply to hear that and really understand how important this art form is. We are healing the world through our work!
Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County)
The reason I thought musicals were a thing someone should write is because of West Side Story. I heard West Side Story when I was a kid, and I used to put the needle on the LP — because I'm ancient — and then I would lift it up, and I would read the dialogue that was in the script that was published, and then I'd put the needle back down. My understanding of how theatre can work and how music can work in a theatrical context was entirely built around West Side Story, so I can't think of how my life would have been down this path if it were not for that show. It is not only the show that has changed my life. It is the show that made my life. It is the show that made me want to do this.
Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown)
Growing up in Oklahoma, we had an outdoor theatre called Discoveryland. Every summer the did Oklahoma!, naturally. I remember you could order a box dinner and choose between chicken and steak, a couple of sides and a desert. Kool-Aid may or may not have been included. You'd get there early and eat and enjoy the hot 100 [degree] humid weather of Oklahoma and scratch the mosquito bites till they bled.
But the sun would go down. The Overture would start. And out came the horse with Curly singing, "There's a bright golden haze on the meadow!" From that second, I was in. This was where our family was every July 24 for my birthday, much to my brother's chagrin.
When Laurie and Curly finally get together, I cried every time. I knew that one day I would be playing that role. I would become a singer. Then, in fourth grade, I auditioned at my elementary school, and I got it. I thought my life would be over because there was no way it would get better than that.
So, the show Oklahoma! will always mean a lot to me and one of the main reasons I'm in musical theatre. Great memories with our family, too. Tony Danza (Honeymoon in Vegas)
I moved from E.N.Y. in Brooklyn to Malverne Long Island when I was beginning 10th grade in high school. I was a small kid, and it was hard for me to fit in initially. I met a girl in one of my classes, and she told me about the school musical, [Kiss Me, Kate]. She was going to try out, and she said I should, too. I tried out and was amazed to be cast in the ensemble. I danced in the "Too Darn Hot" number. So, it all started as a way to see a girl and a way to get out of the house every night, but I was hooked quick. I saw one of the coolest guys in the school, Joe Lucaro, singing, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" and wanted to be him. Hanging at rehearsal was fun, too. And then there was Mr. Messinger, who regaled us with tales of Merman and Jerome Robbins and made us believe we just might be able to be up there on the stage.
Tony Award nominee Robin De Jesus (In the Heights, La Cage aux Folles)
Caroline, or Change. It was a cloudy Monday. I think I had just struggled to get someone to cover my shift at The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company so that I could go to an audition. I kept hearing about this show, so I went to TKTS and got a ticket and… then I proceeded to cry for two hours. So much of Caroline reminded me of my mother, who had been a factory worker and a domestic her whole life, and in retrospect, so much of Emmie reminded me of me. My mother always said I was the only one who wasn't afraid to dream (even if it was because I didn't know any better). That show lit a fire under my ass. So many of my auditions up until then had been for fluff, and as crazy as it was and as broke as I was, after seeing Caroline, I learned to say no to gigs that lacked the qualities I wanted. I also got a new agent and quit the restaurant. A year later, I was rehearsing for a reading of In the Heights in Connecticut and in the other room rehearsing was Anika Noni Rose. Life is crazy sometimes. P.S. I can't wait to see how many lives Hamilton changes!
Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray)
In 1964, Man of La Mancha changed everything for me. We took the subway, not to Times Square, but to Greenwich Village, where we entered a theatre that seemed more like a circus tent. Down the staircase we went to our seats. Seats that surrounded the stage on three sides. The only entrance to the stage was a staircase that was lowered from above and then lifted up to lock the "prisoners" in the jail. I felt locked in with them. Actors changed characters right before your eyes or, like mice, disappeared into holes under the stage. Richard Kiley, an immensely magnetic personality, charged the other prisoners and audience to use our imaginations. The story, told with minimal set and props, completely enchanted me. I had already seen plenty of Broadway theatre, but this transformative performance showed me the true power of make believe.
A few years later, I returned to see the show in a traditional Broadway house. While it remained a wonderful production, losing that environment lessened the overall magic of the show. Oh, how I wish everyone could have seen that original ANTA Theater event.
Tony Award nominee Joshua Henry (The Scottsboro Boys, Violet)
The musical that changed my life... It was Violet, really, because I actually did that in college, and then being able to do it on Broadway — that was the biggest full-circle moment for me. I really believed in the message, and the experience of doing it here on Broadway was unlike anything. I made some really great friends along that journey, too, so that was probably the biggest one.
Tony Award nominee Jeremy Jordan (Newsies)
The Fantasticks because I got cast as the Mute in high school, and I only ever sang and I never really acted, and I was like, "Why are you casting me as the Mute?" But they cast really old, so they wanted me to still be in it, and what happened was that it forced me to listen on stage. And, it's because of that that I decided to take the path of theatre.
Tony Award winner Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots)
When I was a kid growing up in Queens, we never really went to see Broadway shows, but my mom had all of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein albums, so that's actually how I learned how to sing. The one that I listened to first (and most) was The King and I — I'd sing all the parts — I was Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. I started listening to it when I was four, and I listened to it so much that one day my grandma (who lived upstairs) just came and took the LP off the record player and took it away from me without saying a word. I'd also listen to South Pacific and West Side Story all the time. When the opportunity to write Kinky Boots and work with Harvey [Fierstein] and Jerry [Mitchell] came up, I really wanted to do it, and I went back to those old Broadway albums and used that as my inspiration for Kinky Boots — because how could you not find Rodgers and Hammerstein and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim inspiring?
Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
Itamar Moses' Bach at Leipzig, both in terms of starting a relationship with a writer that I still hold very dear, and as the first time I worked at New York Theatre Workshop and worked at that level and with a really amazing ensemble of actors. It was a really exciting. It was also Itamar's first play to be produced Off-Broadway, my first time directing at that scale of Off-Broadway. So that definitely feels like a before-and-after moment.
Tony Award nominee Rob McClure (Chaplin)
The play that changed my life was Sweeney Todd. I was 15 years old, and I saw it at the Bergen County Players, a little community theatre in Oradell, NJ. The surprise ending left me breathless and in tears on opening night. I remember thinking, "Tomorrow night there are going to be 100 new people here who don't know that's coming! I have to be there when they find out!" It ran every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for two months. I saw every performance. By the end of the run, I wasn't watching the show anymore. I was watching the audience watch the show. I was fascinated. I didn't know in what capacity, but I knew I needed to be around where stuff like this was happening. Tony Award winner Audra McDonald (Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, Porgy and Bess, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill)
Master Class. Zoe Caldwell. Enough said.
Tony Award winner John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)
It might not be evident in my work, but I've always been a huge Beckett fan, and indeed, I had coffee with Samuel Beckett before he died — through a mutual friend, Alan Mandell, who played the role of Tobias in "Shortbus." He was a Beckett collaborator, so his sense of humor, laughing into the abyss, was always something that worked for me… I think because I grew up with a lot of loss, that was something that touched me. Even though [his work is filled with] old-men roles, those are the roles I want to play. The only real other stage roles I want to play are old-men roles in Beckett and [Harold] Pinter and Joe Orton [plays], and certainly people like Edward Albee, who teetered between Beckett and perhaps [Eugene] O'Neill. He was kind of in the middle, he was our American Pinter. To me, the most exciting modern writer remains Tony Kushner. Angels in America is the most exciting play in the last 30 years in my view.
He's a God to me, and he comes directly down the line from Paddy Chayefsky… Everyone spoke in this articulate language, but somehow it worked in the way that Kushner or Oscar Wilde or the people whose humor and morality are just cascading throughout the language and the love of language… Those people were really influential for me and certainly, musically, the people we talk about — Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, David Bowie, John Lennon and Tom Waits and Patty Smith. There are so many greats that influenced Hedwig in style, but also in spirit.
Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical)
Well, On a Clear Day [You Can See Forever] changed my life. It's not like the one from my childhood that made me know I want to do this, but as far as a show and a play that changed my life, it was On a Clear Day… It was my Broadway debut. I didn't have any prior connection to the show at all, and producers and directors and Harry Connick, [Jr.] took a chance on me for that show, and it will always have a very special place in my heart now, which I think is kind of neat when you don't have an association with something at all, and then it ends up being such a huge part of your life.
Tony Award winner Kelli O'Hara (The King and I)
The first Broadway show I ever saw was Master Class. I was in college studying opera and wondered if there would be a place for a singer like me on Broadway. Master Class definitely encouraged my decision to move to New York and try theatre.
Tony Award nominee Laura Osnes (Cinderella, Bonnie & Clyde)
So many plays and musicals I saw inspired me as I grew up (one of the first professional productions I ever saw was the tour of Miss Saigon, and I will never forget it). But, if I had to choose the one that changed my life, it would have to be South Pacific when I got to perform in it on Broadway at Lincoln Center. After a series of four auditions, I found out that I would be assuming the role of Nellie Forbush from the lovely (and pregnant) Kelli O'Hara. I hadn't seen the Broadway production or even the movie before my audition, but my husband had just played Lt. Quale in a regional production of the show. LCT's production of this classic was truly special, as everyone who was a part of it or got to see it will boast. Filling Nellie's complex shoes was a rewarding challenge, thanks to genius director Bartlett Sher, and being surrounded by the most brilliant cast was like a daily master class — the extraordinary Paulo Szot, sweet Loretta Ables Sayre and darling Danny Burstein. I was 23 years old, and I like to say that I grew from being a girl to being a woman during my time as Nellie. It was truly a life-changing opportunity that seemed to legitimize my budding career as an actor in New York City.
Tony Award nominee Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Rags, Working, Godspell, Pippin)
Wow, there are a couple. The play that changed my life, I guess, was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's when I became obsessed with theatre and with plays. I saw it twice. There was a recording of it, and I used to listen to it to go to sleep, which is very perverse. I could give you several answers to that question, but that's certainly one of them.
Tony Award nominee Holland Taylor (Ann)
The play that changed my life was A Chorus Line. It broke such new ground in so many ways that I was never the same person afterwards, and I felt that Michael [Bennett] had his thumb on the pulse of the zeitgeist because that spoke to old grandmothers from New Jersey — that spoke to everyone. And, I've just seen Hamilton, and that is equally transcendent. A Chorus Line, when I saw it, I saw it originally in the Newman [Theater]. It had only been playing like ten days. I was out of my mind. I said, "This will echo for decades," and last night I saw Hamilton in the same theatre, and for the first time since, I thought, "This will echo for decades." It's a triumph. It's a masterpiece. It's completely new. That's the event of the decade.
Casting director Bernard Telsey
A life-changing moment for me, I think, in working in the theatre, was getting to work on Rent — probably because it was my first Broadway show, and it made me feel like I entered this world that I had dreamed about being part of since eighth grade, in getting to participate in a show that was so personal and so telling. It sort of changed my whole view, and it made me feel like you can reach and grab a little of those stars that are far away. I'm thankful for that experience, and working with Michael [Grief] and Jonathan [Larson] was not to be believed. The collaboration that went on through a very long casting process — I loved it.
Tony Award winner Alfred Uhry (Parade)
I was a little boy. I think it was Carousel because I believed everything that they said. At one point, she said, "Remember that sampler?" And, she starts to sing, "When you walk through a storm keep your…" And, I thought, "My God! Somebody wrote all that down on a sampler?!" I just remember being overwhelmed. I was a little kid.