I don’t remember the first play I watched. I know it was either Antigone or The Glass Menagerie; both plays came to my junior high via a local company that took shows on tour to the area schools. I remember watching both transfixed; I remember skipping classes to watch a second performance the following day of The Glass Menagerie because I wanted that magic again and didn’t know when I’d next have the chance. I remember thinking – no, knowing – that I wanted to be a part of that. That I wanted to be on that stage. That I wanted to be the one telling those stories to the people sitting hushed and transfixed in their velvety folding chairs. I auditioned for my first show not long after that.
I don’t remember the first musical I watched, either. I know the first one I watched on a television screen was Grease, and my mother thought it was too risqué for me (I think I was probably 9 or 10 at the time.) As for onstage, I think it was Bye Bye Birdie, a high school production when I was a freshman or a sophomore. I can’t sing a note and me dancing looks a lot like someone being electrocuted, but oh, do I like to watch others doing those things, and doing them well.
I don’t even remember my first Sondheim show. I want to say it was A Little Night Music, which I know I saw early on as a college student, but when you see as many shows as I have over the years, things start to get fuzzy around the edges. I do know there’s no way, seeing it as a college student, I would have understood it all. There’s no way I would have understood that when Petra sings “Every day a little death” in “The Miller’s Son” that “a little death” was an old-fashioned euphemism for an orgasm. Mostly because I’m pretty sure at that stage in my life I barely knew what one was. (Yes, that is totally an indictment of the men I’d dated up until that point.) And I am absolutely sure I didn’t get the utter sadness and longing and bitter sweetness of “Send in the Clowns” at my ripe old age of 18 or 19 or however old I was when I watched the show. When you’re that age, you can’t understand, not really understand, the meaning behind “Just when I’d stopped opening doors/Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours/Making my entrance again with my usual flair/Sure of my lines/No one is there. ” You have to have lived a little life to understand that. I’ve lived a little life. I get that now.
Since then, I’ve seen West Side Story with its doomed lovers and joyous “America” (in a strangely compelling high school production); Company a number of times with its utterly rapid-fire perfect “Not Getting Married Today” and triumphant “Being Alive” and wistful “Barcelona,” Sweeney Todd, again a number of times, once even with my mother, and she still sometimes sings “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit! And it’s filled with people who are filled with…” and then she looks around to make sure no one’s listening and she whispers “shit” and giggles; Into the Woods, which I can’t even choose a favorite song from, I love so many of them (but sometimes I’ll find myself singing “I wish, more than life, more than anything, more than the moon” around the house when I’m in a particular mood); and of course, my most beloved Assassins, which I see any time I can, no matter who’s putting on the production (I’d probably see a kindergarten production of the damn thing, I love it so), which I actually got to work on last year.
I know I’m missing a lot in Sondheim’s body of work. I’m seeing Sunday in the Park with George for the first time this week, which is a huge thing for me. And I know I could watch some of these things on DVD, like Gypsy, but I really want to see them onstage first. I’m biased. I like the actors in front of me singing and acting. I feel it’s the way it was intended. At least the first time I see it. Once I’ve seen the stage show, I’ll watch the movie version. That’s the reason I haven’t watched a lot of movie musicals, actually.
I grew up in a very small town, and there weren’t many opportunities to see or do artsy things there. You had to drive half an hour to get to a very broken-down movie theater that played the same movie once a day for a month. You had to drive an hour and a half to get to a live theater, which didn’t open until I was in junior high. I wanted more, and I wanted a lot of it, but never really thought I’d get it. I didn’t dream huge. I thought maybe people only saw one play a year, maybe. I thought that’s how life was.
I am one of the very lucky people who had a dream and has been able to continue that dream in her life. I see a hell of a lot more than a play a year. In an average month, I see probably 4 or 5. I’ve gotten to work on more plays than I can count in my life. I’ve met some amazing people. I live in an area I love so much that sometimes I wake up and can’t actually believe I’m lucky enough to be living here. I’ve had such huge experiences that if I’d thought of them when I was a little kid sitting in awe in a darkened auditorium in junior high, I’d have laughed at my own folly.
And tonight, I got to sit about six feet from Stephen Sondheim and listen to him talk about sixty years of working in musical theater. I was close enough to see him tear up, talking about how important art is to our lives. “Art is a form of teaching,” he said. “It teaches us how to see the world.” (I hope I got that right; I’ll admit I was a bit choked up when he said it.)
He talked about seeing the original version of A Streetcar Named Desire when he was young, and getting a thrill that he was part of the theater world, that he was lucky enough to work in this art form. And then he said he saw another show in London recently that made him think the same exact thing. He’s 83 years old and he still gets that thrill, realizing how lucky he is to be a part of this.
The small-town girl who thought she’d get to see one play a year, maybe, if she was lucky, got to see one of her idols tonight. I’m not that small-town girl anymore. I’m all grown up, and I left the small town behind over half a lifetime ago. But that girl comes with me, you see. She comes with me wherever I go. And she is amazed at the opportunites that I have. She is so damned proud of this life I’ve made. And tonight, the two of us sat in our velvety theater seat, hushed and transfixed as if we were thirteen again, watching one of the great icons of musical theater talk about how lucky he feels, to be a part of this life as well.
Sometimes this is really just a beautiful life, you know? Just so beautiful, it hurts to even look at it head-on.
(I didn’t take photos as we were told not to and I didn’t want to be ejected from one of the best memories of my life. This person works for one of the local papers and did. I was closer than this, but here’s a shot from tonight.)
— Danielle Sanzone (@DanielleSanzone) May 7, 2013