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All the World’s NOT a Stage, but There’s Still a Lot of Theater to See

"Billy Elliot" in London August 2010

“Billy Elliot” in London
August 2010

With Aiden recently finishing his run of Pippin at the Play Group Theatre (playgroup.org), I am reminded of a couple of things. First, how much Aiden loves musical theater (really loves musical theater) and how that all began with an invitation from Jonah to join him in the spectacular experience that is the Play Group Theatre (read both parts of “The Clown Mensch of White Plains” here at A Thread That Has No End, Feb 2010 and Mar 2010, to understand just how important PGT was in Jonah’s life). And second, that when the four of us saw Billy Elliot in London this past August, I made a note to write about Jonah’s love for musical theater outside of PGT.

Our family’s trip in August to England and Ireland was the first ridiculously big trip we’d taken since Hawaii in 2005 and Cozumel in 2006. Our feeling about England and Ireland was that we needed to begin creating new, big memories for our reconfigured family. We succeeded. But as wonderful as the trip was, it was clear that Jonah was missing from it. Hugely. Not the least because Jonah was a connoisseur of exotic accents, and he would have loved the ones we heard during our trip.

We also felt Jonah’s enormous absence while watching the lead character in Billy Elliot work through the difficult process of living his life in the aftermath of his mom’s death. As you can imagine, this brought more than a few tears to us as the story unfolded. And it moved me to write about Jonah and the stage, this time from his perspective as an audience member.

Billy Elliot was not the first show we’d seen since Jonah died. That moment belongs most auspiciously to Next to Normal, a musical about deep depression in the aftermath of a son-and-brother’s young death. Go figure.

Ellen and I have loved musical theater for most of our lives (excluding only those years when our parents hadn’t yet told us such a thing existed). So when we learned, back in 1996 (Jonah was six), about “Kids Night on Broadway” (one kid gets in free with every adult ticket), we heard the footlights calling. Auspiciously, Cats was our first family musical, a show that is so bad it’s kind of surprising Katie and Jonah ever wanted to see another. But dinner beforehand at Planet Hollywood always piqued their interest, so we were safe (at least, until one of them decided to become a vegetarian).

The records are murky from back then, but I think 1999 was very likely the moment that Jonah fell hard for the theater. In January we saw The Scarlet Pimpernel and in December we saw Les Miserables. That pretty much did it. Jonah’d been snagged. The humor, the exceptionally powerful music and, of course, the abundant violence … it just didn’t get any better than that!

In 2000, we saw Seussical: The Musical which was colorful, well composed, and had every kids’ favorite Dr. Seuss characters in it. Flawed though the show may have been, the kids loved it. And by the way, Seussical was Aiden’s first show (at the age of 6); I’ll never forget the look on his face when the lights went up. That look has yet to go away.

When we saw The Music Man in 2001, its lackluster effect on an 11-year-old boy wasn’t enough to dissuade Jonah from tagging along later that year for a noisy little musical called Rent. Talk about your “I wanna be a Broadway star when I grow up” phase!

2003 saw Jonah meet not Billy Elliot but Billy Joel as Movin’ Out became that year’s “Kids Night on Broadway” experience. Not big on plot, a disappointing lack of violence, and dancing that wasn’t bad but wasn’t a big selling point for Jonah either. Nevertheless, 13-year-old Jonah found Billy Joel’s music irresistible.

Then, in 2004, came Wicked. And Blue Man Group … two stupendous shows that made Jonah’s eyes pop. How he loved both of them! Especially the outrageous musical-rhythmic pyrotechnics (yep, fire … always one of Jonah’s favorites) of Blue Man Group.

In 2005, we all winced our way through Harvey Fierstein as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, where Anatevka looked like a beautiful, rustic little coffee house in Central Park and Harvey’s Tevye in no way fit Shalom Aleichem’s nostalgic model.

Also in 2005, our family took a little side trip to Westchester Community College where we got to see a student production of Personals, Jonah’s old man’s off-Broadway musical (produced at NYC’s Minetta Lane Theater in 1985). It was fun to be a celebrity for a couple of minutes, and I think Jonah kind of dug that.

2005 provided Jonah the opportunity to again see Rent (this time with his Ardsley Middle School acting class) and, with yours truly, Avenue Q. Jonah especially enjoyed the outrageous videos during the show, and he brought home a poster (“What the Fuzz?”) that still adorns his bedroom wall.

Also in 2005, with his Kutz Camp pals, Jonah saw the Elvis Presley musical, All Shook Up. He brought home the CD because of the great guitar work in that show. He also brought home a t-shirt, which he promptly nailed to the ceiling of his room. Who nails t-shirts to their ceiling?

In 2006, we all saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for “Kids Night on Broadway.” More outrageous humor which the kids all loved. Later that year, Jonah joined me and Ellen at Sweeney Todd, the version where the characters play their own musical instruments. We knew someone in the cast so, after the show, not only did we get a backstage tour but every cast member signed a program for Jonah. As he headed into his last two years of high school, this was a moment of real inspiration for him.

2007’s “Kids Night on Broadway” offering was Spamalot. By this time, Katie had aged out of eligibility for a free ticket and, in place of that, had gone off to college (we managed to enjoy things despite her absence). Spamalot, of course, was an instant hit with Jonah as he had loved Monty Python ever since learning his first four-letter words. That summer, Jonah saw Stomp when Kutz Camp took the kids into New York City for a day. And in March, he got to see Spring Awakening which, I think, blew him away. It was intensely dramatic, filled with great music, and teen sex. What’s not to love?

Jonah’s final “Kids Night on Broadway” production, two days before his 18th birthday, was A Chorus Line. Not nearly as good as the original (which Ellen and I had seen “back in the day”) but it’s one of the most important musicals ever created, and Jonah sensed that.

One of the last shows he ever got to see (April 2008) was Buddy (the Buddy Holly story). Somehow, this was perfect. The story of one of rock’s pioneers in the 1950s. More great guitar work. And he got to see it with his chums at Summit High School.

PGT's “Hair” June 2008

PGT’s “Hair”
June 2008

But the final show for Jonah was Hair in Central Park, only a few days after his own production of Hair had finished with PGT. He and Aiden saw it with a bunch of friends (Aiden had stood in line for hours that morning in order to procure a pair of free tickets for himself and Jonah). Hair was a defining theatrical moment in Jonah’s life. It represented the culmination of so much of his growing up. His peers respected him for it. His directors were flabbergasted by the difference in Jonah’s stage skills between his beginning at PGT in eighth grade and Hair in twelfth grade. But even moreso, they couldn’t miss the stature that Jonah had earned in his PGT community, and how powerfully his absence would be felt after his graduation.

There was quite nearly one more musical, but Jonah missed it only by days. Previews for the 2009 revival of Hair began the day after Jonah died, and we had five tickets to see it on March 10 (both Katie and Jonah were to be home from college for spring break). We sat shiva instead.

At the end of Billy Elliot this summer in London, he and his mom sing to each other, “Love you forever.” Those words are the same ones we’ve used countless times with our own children. Taking them to shows, sharing our own love for music and for theater with them, has always been one of the many ways we’ve given our love to these beautiful kids of ours. As Billy Elliot lowered its curtain, it did so intoning a reminder that however we do it, whatever we do it with, and for however long, our hearts are given to our children. And even if one of them ceases to live, our hearts never cease giving that love. Because when we said, “Love you forever,” we really meant it.

Billy

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