On December 29, 2013, my mom, Lois Levy, passed away at age 67. (Read my eulogy for her.) In her memory, I’d like to offer a different kind of Broadway history: a short history of the Broadway lessons my mother left me.
Nothing Says I Love You Like A Showtune
Like most mothers, my mom loved to sing to me when I was little. Her favorite? “I love you / a bushel and a peck…” It wasn’t until years later that I realized the song that she sang over and over again to tell me she loved me was originally written as a strip tease number for Guys and Dolls. (If you think the “hot box girls” are supposed to be anything else, you’re deluding yourself.) Luckily, I seem to have avoided any long-term psychological baggage from making this connection.
Anything Worth Seeing Is Worth Seeing At A Discount
For as long as I can remember, my parents took me to see lots of theater: community theater, regional theater, tours, and Broadway alike. But they way they made it possible was through smart shopping: half-priced tickets from BosTix or ArtsMail at home in Massachusetts, “two-fers” and the TKTS line in New York. The balcony was good enough for us, thank you very much, and waiting in line at TKTS was part of the fun and adventure of visiting New York. Of course, my mom being who she was, the line at TKTS was also social hour, as she chatted up everyone around us about what shows they were hoping to see, what they’ve already seen, and what we all thought about each other’s choices and chances at getting decent seats. (If you’ve ever seen the musical number “Hello Hello There” from Bells Are Ringing, in which Judy Holliday gets an entire New York subway car to make friends with each other, you might have an inkling as to what the TKTS line was like with my mom.)
Choose Your Souvenirs Well
If we were going to see a show for half price, it should have gone without saying that we would therefore not be wasting money on frivolities like souvenir program booklets. At some point early on, possibly at my first touring show (Big River at the Colonial Theater in Boston), my mom told me that we would do just fine with the free Playbill provided, but if we saw a show with a really big star we could get the souvenir program book. Clearly those words stuck for me, because years later we saw Tommy Tune on tour in Bye Bye Birdie at the Providence Performing Arts Center, and I insisted we buy the program. (I was the kind of kid for whom Tommy Tune was a “really big star.”) My mother had no recollection of the original conversation, but she must have been grateful for several years of theatergoing without my begging for programs, so she bought it for me. After all that anticipation, it turned out that souvenir programs are actually pretty stupid, so I believe I’ve only bought one other in my entire life. (It was The Lion King. I was so blown away by the visuals, I wanted something I could keep to study those stage pictures forever.)
Souvenirs weren’t entirely off-limits. After seeing Big River, I was so obsessed with the show that my mom bought me both a script and a piano-vocal book. (We already owned the cast recording on cassette.) And after Anything Goes, I got a sweatshirt (likely bought at a discount at Theatre Circle rather than full-priced at Lincoln Center), and I wore that ugly, ugly piece of clothing until it was a rag. T-shirts from Falsettos, Tommy, Hair, Beauty and the Beast, Titanic, Cabaret, and probably some others I’m forgetting would follow, as would scripts and vocal selections from countless more. But unlike that Bye Bye Birdie program gathering dust in some box, those shirts got worn and those scripts got read, and those vocal selections are still being played. These days I’m more of a mug buyer, but when I drink my morning coffee from my Encores season mug each morning, I will think about how my mom taught me that souvenirs could also be useful.
Even the Biggest Stars Are Approachable
My parents took me on my first trip to Broadway in 1989 when I was 11 years old. When we got to New York, our first stop was (naturally) the TKTS booth — obviously, the one at the World Trade Center, so we could get tickets for both that night and the following day’s matinee and save ourselves one line wait. We ended up with tickets to Anything Goes at Lincoln Center (starring Leslie Uggams, who had followed Patti LuPone) and Into the Woods in its final month at the Martin Beck. We also had tickets to see the original production of A Chorus Line at the Shubert, which I believe were purchased with the aforementioned two-fers. We had orchestra seats to all three shows, a rare treat for me. I believe Anything Goes was our first show. We sat three or four rows away from the stage, house right at the Vivian Beaumont, so unusual to me with its thrust configuration and so much smaller than the Boston theaters I was used to. I don’t remember a lot about the show (other than loving it), but I will never forget at the curtain call, during an honest to goodness New York standing ovation, when Leslie Uggams came out to take her bow, my mom waved to her and Leslie caught her eye and waved back. I couldn’t believe it! I turned to my mom and asked if they knew each other. Were they friends? I was totally in awe.
A few years later, we saw Mandy Patinkin’s Dress Casual tour in Boston. Mandy is a friend of one of my dad’s cousins, so my mom took me to the stage door and dropped their name. The next thing I knew we were backstage waiting by Mandy’s dressing room door. We spotted Paul Ford, Mandy’s music director and accompanist, so my mom said hi and suddenly Paul was showing us around the stage before bringing us right to Mandy’s dressing room to say hi. I was totally star struck, but my mother modeled for me how to have a polite, non-crazy conversation between a fan and a star.
I don’t hang around stage-doors often these days, but when I do chat with a performer after a show without making a total ass of myself, I have my mom to thank.
Theater Is The Gateway To Acceptance
On my second trip to Broadway, my parents too me to see Falsettos, which to this day remains the most important musical I’ve ever seen. Falsettos, the fusion of two earlier, one-act off-Broadway musicals by William Finn, tells the story of a middle-class Jewish family not entirely unlike my own, in the aftermath of the father’s coming out of the closet. In the first act, we see Marvin (the father) attempt to create a “tight-knit family” consisting of his ex-wife, his current lover, his pre-pubescent son, and his therapist who is now dating his ex-wife. Act two complicates the story as Marvin’s son, Jason, approaches his bar mitzvah while Marvin’s lover, Whizzer, succumbs to AIDS. While this wasn’t the first time I had seen gay characters on stage—we had seen A Chorus Line on our previous trip, after all—it was the first time I made the connection between those characters and myself. I don’t remember any big discussion about the show, before or after we saw it, or any attempt by my parents to contextualize it as anything other than a good musical. They trusted me to do the rest.
A few years later, when we were in New York looking at colleges, we saw Love! Valour! Compassion!, a play by Terrance McNally that not only featured exclusively gay characters, it featured many of them entirely nude. Now, I’m pretty sure I chose that one (one of the only times in my young life I opted for a play rather than a musical, but it was a Sunday night and our options were limited), but again my parents enjoyed the play, and if they had a comment on the content, it was about the nudity, not the particular sexuality on display. Whether this was intention, subconscious, or simply another example of what good people brought me up, memories of seeing these shows and others with my parents definitely made it easier for me when I came out of the closet to them before I started college.