A few months ago, over a chocolate tart and a forgettable plastic bottle of Korean rice wine, a dear friend of mine broached the rarely asked to articulate question: Why do you love theatre so much?
I blanched, hands wildly and vaguely gesticulating like a parody of the turtlenecked, ascot-ed, and mustachioed Parisian art critic
of my, apparently, cartoonish imaginations. You would think she’d asked me to retake my high school AP Stats course, or admit to watching Death to Smoochy, the way I reacted. I’d never been explicitly asked to explain my Thing before. We all have A Thing (or, in an ideal world, we should all have one): my brother’s an avid rock climber, to the point where he stowed away a bag of chalk and harnesses in his luggage the weekend my family was in Boston for my graduation and left us for several hours in order to scope out a climbing gym in Somerville before dinner; many of us are fortunate enough as we careen through life to acquire multiple Things, no matter how small they might seem.
- A material object without life or consciousness; an inanimate object.
“Thing” gets a bad rap–one of those big writing no-no’s you’re taught at a young age to avoid by any means possible–but when it’s the only word you have to lean on that comes close to capturing that outpouring of feeling, consider this:
- A struggle to explain, in satisfactory words, that warm flutter behind your ribs. A (trans)formative slow shifting. It is brightness; an animating force.
It took me a few years to unlearn the majority of my highfalutin notions, but now I’m a champion of loving what you love–so long as it doesn’t adversely affect others–and fiercely, without having to explain yourself. Maybe I’m dodging the question, but I don’t have concise answers. Why do I care so much about theatre, food, lindy hop, travelling? You might as well ask me why I love having legs, a respiratory system, existing on a planet where gravity keeps me from flying into the ether. It’s deeply elemental, regardless of what point in my life the Thing came along.
I need a better word than “Thing”. (I know you’re thinking “passion”–I… just took a very roundabout way to describe a passion–but shhh, let me enjoy my moment a minute longer).
I didn’t come Fosse-ing into existence. I had a healthy appreciation for theatre that started during the latter years of elementary school, when our school district was invited to take half a day to see the high school’s annual spring musical. Yes, I felt like I was living on the edge by missing a few [excused] hours of class, but there was also the matter of the venue–our high school didn’t have a space equipped for a full-blown production, so each year they’d stage the three days’ worth of performances at a neighboring city’s auditorium. And this was a capital T Theatre–a Mission Revival-style building with woven tapestries hanging over the box seats, carved ceiling tiles interspersed with painted stars and chevrons, and lanterns replicating the ones found on Spanish galleons. Even at 9 I think I had an inkling that not every room would be so opulent, but there was no questioning the sense of awe as the house lights dimmed, a sentient footstool backflipped across the stage, and the Beast lifted into the air.*
Middle school summers were spent ushering at a local regional theatre, handing out programs to elderly subscribers dressed to the nines before drawing the curtains and ducking into an empty seat at the back of the house to watch the shows (Of Mice and Men; Cole Porter’s Can-Can, which gifted me with the only French endearment I know: mon petit chou). It wasn’t until the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening opened in 2006 and I saw the first national tour two years later (my first big “Broadway” production), however, that I well and truly felt that heaving “Where have you been my whole life?” moment and went tumbling through a door that I hadn’t realized had opened when I needed it the most. I don’t know if I’d be here today, with the overwhelming need to write this particular post and the singular experiences I’ve had, if I had seen any other show at that time in my life.
Listen: I’ll be the first person to tell you that Broadway isn’t the be-all and end-all of theatre, far from it, but it’s given me stories that define entire chapters of my life; it’s given me a profound sense of clarity and arms-wide-open love that I struggled for the longest time to find. There was life pre-Spring Awakening and life post-Spring Awakening** — I thank the higher powers that be every single day for the after. Because the “after” gave me the uncharacteristic courage to stand in my high school choir room and warble through the measures needed to get me onstage as Screaming Fangirl #30 and a Munchkin/Ozian in the ensembles of Bye, Bye, Birdie and The Wizard of Oz, respectively (the audition was a
mortifying formality–everyone got into the ensemble).
Because of the “after” I spent my sophomore year at university with our student-run musical theatre group rotating through tech roles (I came to the pleasant realization that even if I had the skill set for the stage–I don’t. at all.–it’s not where I necessarily need to be). I painted brick walls for The Producers and assisted with the run crew during the show: being in the proverbial trenches when a real mirror shattered onstage (and watching in horror as over a dozen actors–some already preoccupied with their “Springtime for Hitler” bratwurst and pretzel headpieces–literally tap danced around glass fragments), hauling a chaise lounge that weighed as much as a chaise lounge backwards up a flight of stairs in a 30 second window of darkness; I dabbled in props for [title of show] and, in a moment of surreal full circle-ness, assistant stage-managed our production of Spring Awakening (enter me, not-so-quietly sobbing into the headset every single night).
Spring Awakening, In the Heights, Once, and as you’ll read later, Hamilton… while I can’t replicate the exact cocktail of emotions I felt in those rooms for those hours, these shows are greater than their curtain calls and closing nights. In my most uncertain moments, I have been buoyed by all that they have given me.
“The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream. For those who did, it unlocked its gates and its treasures, not caring who they were or where they came from.” – Moss Hart, Act One
Back in August I spent a collective three days in NYC (I was visiting friends in Boston for the bulk of my two-week vacation) and, despite the 90 degree weather (with ~80% humidity–might as well go supernova in a sauna), the omnipresent smell of hot garbage, and that one Elmo I saw with his head off leaning against a Mister Softee smoking, it was the most deliriously happy three days I’ve had in recent memory. It was the respite I desperately needed from the stagnancy of suburban Los Angeles–my heart heaviness lifted and nothing on my mind but shows, where I should go for lunch, and time to feel like [the best of] myself again.
I had nothing planned the Thursday afternoon I arrived, so I met up with an old friend and we set out in search of Izakaya, a tiny gem of a place in the East Village that had me swooning on paper alone–“poached chicken slugged with a thick, unhurried sauce of nerigoma… whose flavor suggests a more worldly peanut butter” and “feral curls of shiso and scallions”… I’m easily won over by a pithy description, but Izakaya didn’t even have to try.
“Search” was the right word for how we spent a good five minutes on 6th Street. We walked the same stretch of block, backtracked around some sidewalk trees, and each time found ourselves gaping at the same jump in address numbers we’d gaped at six times before: an unpainted stucco wall where 326 should have been.
There was a door. though. I want to clarify that there was, in fact, a door. No sign, no indication that Izakaya existed except as a review in the Times that may well have been a figment of my imagination, but there was a door. So we eased it open and put our heads into a room that appeared no larger than a train car (and lit as sparingly) and were gently told by the bespectacled co-owner of Izakaya that they were booked for the night.
I was a little disappointed, but I had a contingency plan and it was a two-minute walk away (no hard feelings, Izakaya, I’ll be back!): Cha-an Teahouse.
Cha-an is best known for their specialty sweets, but they offer a number of savory bites and two full meal sets, not to mention an extensive tea list. It’s a beautiful and tranquil space, warmed by the glow cast by rice-paper-shaded lamps; a cascade of paper cranes flowered from the pot of bamboo that greeted us at the entryway–it made my heart, still pining for those quiet late winter days in Japan, sing.
We both ordered the Kago set: soup of the day, tofu and seaweed salad, three daily side dishes, seven-grain rice, and the dessert special. What looks like a serving of green juice was my
infinitely more palatable matcha latte. I dropped a pretty penny on it, but if I could return to the primordial soup from whence I came, I want that soup to be that latte. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a glass of pure bliss, lightly sweetened and just frothy enough–matcha’s typical grassy notes mellowed by the chill.
Our serving trays were flanked by the salad: two cubes of cold tofu resting in a slick of ponzu, dressed with a tangle of seaweed flecked with sesame seeds. The stewed pork (foreground above)? More like distillation of pork–there wasn’t a hint of assertive “porkiness” to it and each piece fell apart with a slight prod from our chopsticks; thimble-sized potato rounds and a lone carrot slice idled in our bowls between bites, soaking up that heady (but not at all fatty) broth.
Tea-smoked salmon lay pillowed on a bed of greens, drizzled with what that looked like your typical, unremarkable white dressing, but which turned to fragrant sesame on the tongue–faintly sweet and rounded out with a suggestion of bitterness. Our dessert for the night was a deconstructed custard pie, served in a glass tumbler with a dollop of cream.
[ Friday ]
Gershwin is always a good idea
I’ve sung Schmackary’s praises to the point where a) you’d assume I’m on their payroll and b) I’m surprised the word still comes out of my mouth instead of a rush of brown sugar-scented air–verbally blacklisted by whatever higher power that be. I didn’t have much in the way of plans for most of the day, so I made an early morning stop at that 45th St. alcove I know better than any place in the city and, with my new friends Cookies & Cream and Funfetti in tow, walked down to the High Line’s 33rd St. entrance.
If Mr. Bradbury could ever forgive me: all of summer was in that day. Few things are as deeply offensive to me as heat*** (anything above 80 puts a seasonal furrow in my brow, not to mention the groaning and pitiful poses I make as I drape myself across a couch/bed/most convenient horizontal surface), but spending a few hours high above the motor traffic and with my feet passing through water features instead of skirting around potholes and indiscernible trash lumps wilting in the heat? It was almost perfect.
After being beckoned from shaded corners by one too many paleta carts, I made my way down to the street and into Chelsea Market for a counter seat at Mokbar and a bowl of their bulgogi ramen: noodles swaddled with that characteristic marinated ribeye and a well-balanced pile of kimchi, all of which jostled for attention under a poached egg. With the yolk running into the bulgogi and kimchi, it all made for a saucy bite. It ended up erring on the overly salty side for me, with not enough noodles to sop up the bold flavors, but there are a number of other offerings on their menu that caught my… nose (the chicken ssamgyetang, for one: “roasted ginger chicken broth, pulled chicken, cucumber and garlic chive kimchi”).
I am a limpet in life–nothing is safe from my waxing poetic once I’ve made my emotional attachments clear. Most Broadway seasons, there’s at least one show I gravitate towards and latch onto, whether it’s a production I’ve followed from its early stages or one that impressed me on Tony night. Last season I had An American in Paris. I’m very fond of the original 1951 film and caught wind of the stage adaptation while they were still rehearsing for an out-of-town run. Watching the company’s journey from the rehearsal room to their month at Paris’ Chatelet, then Broadway–you get this strange feeling of pride, y’know? Like you’ve been a part of that experience in some small way. When I got to my seat at the Palace Theatre that night I had to cradle my face in my hands for a good few minutes and just breathe.
There’s usually some throwback type of show being staged at any given time–something more traditional and champagne bubbly, evoking the shimmer and familiarity of another time. An American in Paris is very much that immediately identifiable name, but in shaping it for the stage, director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has given us an honest-to-goodness dance musical that we haven’t seen in a very long time. And it’s ballet! The iconic American in Paris ballet in Act 2 is some 14 minutes long and you can feel the entire house holding its breath for every minute of it! Dance in Broadway shows these days is more of a complement to the action than it is the primary delivery system for the story–here’s your splashy tap number, there’s some acrobatics–but Wheeldon’s entrusted a company, many of whom are professional ballet dancers and hadn’t spoken on stage until this show, to tell this story in moments devoid of speech, filled only with motion and music. It warms my somewhat-of-a-dancer heart beyond measure and I’d say they’ve succeeded in the most luminous way.
[ Saturday ]
How lucky we are to be alive right now
Spring Awakening was my “gateway” show and any mention of it never fails to put me right back in 2006, but In the Heights? In the Heights was the sucker punch-iest; In the Heights was, and still is, home to me. Lin-Manuel Miranda–I doubt you’ve heard of him, that poor one-shot wonder–wrote a little show about the smells and sounds and people he knew best and in its telling gave all of us–the hyphenated, walking through liminal space–something to hold onto. It’s Washington Heights, plantains, and bachata: the language on the surface is a little different, but the language that matters–regardless of whether we’re in New York City or suburban Los Angeles–that one’s the same. The show visualized so clearly all those questions I’d grown up never having the words for. I didn’t have nearly as much angst about it when I was younger, but as the years pass I’ve become more preoccupied with finding that sense of belonging. But mine is an easily divisible heart and I’ve left pieces of it everywhere I’ve ever been; I’m learning that that isn’t so terrible a thing.
I bought tickets for the first national tour as quickly as they became available and began counting down the months. Fast forward to a few weeks before my show and a little email from the Pantages Theatre saying something along the lines of ‘Oh hey, Lin’s going to be in the area working on a project, so he’ll be reprising Usnavi for the L.A. leg of the tour!’
I may have knocked over some furniture; I definitely cried a bit. I never imagined I’d have the chance to see Lin in person–what with his schedule and my being on the opposite coast–let alone to see him in the role he originated. So I saw the show, twice, and met the man both times (I, miraculously, didn’t combust despite how frantically I felt like every molecule in my body was vibrating). There were some Sondheim references, he laughed, and the second time I asked when we’d be hearing from “our mutual friend, Alexander Hamilton” (having seen and sent the then-named “Hamilton Mixtape” debut song to several of my high school teachers). He responded, with that constant excited grin and a chuckle, “When I have time!”
But first: pizza. Searching the internet for “the best pizza in New York City” seemed like an exercise in futility on my part, so it was just my luck that a few days before I left for my trip, one of the Hamilton cast members tweeted about one of his favourite spots and I jotted it down. A native New Yorker–it was a recommendation I was pretty sure I could trust.
I had three hours before my matinee and, too wound up and preemptively emotional to do much of anything else, I headed out to find Patzeria and its much-lauded “Grandma slice”. I found it, conveniently enough, right across the street from the Richard Rodgers (where I was about to spend the afternoon giving up allllll of my ghosts), next to the Church of Scientology and the Dramatic Monologue it blares on a loop (what are you auditioning for, my eternal soul? I’m not impressed). It was an odd hour and there was only one other customer besides myself. You’d think I could’ve looked less like I was in line for something illicit–crumpled bills clutched in a sweaty hand, my eyes darting around at the signed and framed window cards lining the perimeter of the open kitchen. I handed the man behind the register $4 like we were in on the same secret, asked for the Grandma slice, and in less than a minute he slid a paper plate across the counter and I was out the door with napkins wadded in my hand where money had been earlier.
I sat on the steps outside the theatre with the plate balanced on my knee and took a blurry photo of the slice for the cast members who’d become involved in this tiny pizza saga (there were “YEEEES!”‘s and confetti emojis) and then I… is “ascended” too strong a word because the first bite I took felt like I’d been cleansed of every mediocre slice I’ve ever had in my life. And I’ve had plenty of mediocre slices–remember when my elementary school cafeteria served sad, limp, cheese and tomato sauce-spotted dough disks in single-serving plastic bags because I’ve selectively forgotten about their existence. Heartily sauced and fragrant with roasted garlic, the Grandma slice is deceptively simple, but its crisp crust is an Atlas holding up the best pizza I’ve had to date. Then again, I don’t eat an awful lot of pizza to begin with, but if I lived a few thousand miles closer to Patzeria, I’d be a menace.
What can I say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said by critics, scholars, assorted luminaries, POTUS, and every major publication in the industry and otherwise? I don’t think I’ve ever felt particularly “American” until these past several months: the show’s historic off-Broadway run at the Public Theater and now, only three months into its Broadway residency and it’s exploded into this whole other thing–captured the popular imagination in a way I’ve never seen any show do before. Lin’s vision is singular–in whatever he does, regardless of its scale, he gathers the best people to him; he builds families out of individuals as readily as he builds worlds. In the six years I watched bits and bobs of the “Hamilton Mixtape” (then #HamiltonPublic, #YayHamlet, #HamiltonBway) come together via Lin’s nonstop Twitter (not entirely true, there were times he’d have a writing deadline and we had permission to harangue him if he made a single tweet), you’d think I had ample time to prepare myself for how affecting this all would be. I didn’t; I don’t. It’s been three months to the day since I staggered out to the light of 46th Street after having my mind, body, and soul rearranged for three hours–there are parts of me that are at once sharper and softer because of it, and I can still hear that string quartet (listening to nothing but the cast album since it was released will also do that to you).
Oh, and I unintentionally created for myself a new mascara standard. I honestly don’t know why I was so foolish as to wear mascara to a show (is there a show I’ve seen live that I haven’t cried during?), let alone THIS ONE, but it surprisingly did not melt off. Good on you, Mascara Brand, you passed the three-hours-of-inconsolable-sobbing Hamilton test.
And it’s not just Hamilton. The art pouring off of New York stages right now–I don’t pretend to be an authority on the history of the Great White Way, but in my short years it’s never looked less white. There’s so much more to do, but I’m heartened beyond measure to be able to bear witness and experience what I hope is a turning point in popular theater or what-have-you. I hope we learn from all this and grow better.
“This is not a moment, it’s the movement.” The work being done on and off stage at the Rodgers–for the way stories can and should be told, for elevating voices we don’t normally get to hear from, for choreography as propulsive as the words flying fast onstage and lighting design that’ll make you weak in the knees–it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, which is, unfortunately, not the reality. But it will have such a life after Broadway and I hope you get to experience it, wherever you are. Until then, there’s still the cast recording (see below) and there’s me: I will talk your ear off, given the chance ❤
Have a wonderful week (and let Hamilton into your life),
P.S. After I’d gathered myself into some semblance of composure following the stage door (I thought I could speak to the actors without getting too weepy–I’m generally pretty good about that–but nope, I had to take breaks in the middle of several of my rambling speeches to wipe away tears), Lin made an appearance to sing “Confrontation” from Les Miserables with Kyle Jean-Baptiste (R.I.P. I’m still so unspeakably sad) for that afternoon’s Ham4Ham (the name for the lotto that happens before every show; Ham4Ham performances are between shows on two-show days, right before the lotto drawing, and are attracting increasingly massive crowds to experience Broadway’s newest variety showcase) performance.
P.P.S. Lin plays Hamilton in seven of the eight shows a week and his alternate, Javier Muñoz, typically plays the matinee on their last day of the week (in addition to any other performances where Lin is out for whatever reason). I saw Javi that Saturday and he’s nothing short of phenomenal. I’ve done waaaaay too much rambling for one post to start writing up individual performance reviews, but the sensitivity and all the choices he brings to the role is a stunning, beautiful thing.
P.P.P.S. A very sweet elderly couple I’d struck up a conversation with while we were waiting in line for the doors to open for the matinee invited me to dinner after the show. I had to very tearfully decline, but it was such a lovely gesture amidst that emotional wreckage of a day.
The Goods (there must be a better name for this section–shoot me some suggestions!)
* The cables hoisting the actor up were either as thin as I remember them to be or I was too enraptured to notice the technical details.
** Show clips from Deaf West’s phenomenal reimagining of Spring Awakening, now playing on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. I was lucky enough to see their original run at Inner City Arts’ 99 seat black box theatre in Downtown L.A. What Michael Arden & Co. have done with a show I thought I knew intimately is nothing short of revelatory.
*** Other offensive hot things: Hot Pockets. How can the crust remain frigid after a zap in the microwave, yet the “cheese” comes out nuclear. I will never understand.
– Rise up, rise up and join the #Hamiltunes revolution (I–and industry professionals, your distant cousins, your neighbor’s dog–promise that it’s worth every cent). With the exception of one scene, every word on stage is on this cast recording. Short of being in the Richard Rodgers, you can be in the room where it happens. Give yourself an uninterrupted 3 hour block of time for your first listen (try to process it all, get the details of the narrative) then revisit it again and again and again for lyrics, orchestrations, references, etc. that just keep giving.
230 E. 9th St. (Second floor)
New York, New York 10003
Patzeria Perfect Pizza
231 W. 46th St. (b/w 7th Ave & Broadway)
New York, New York 10036