Heartbreak & Gratitude
I fell in love on June 7th, 1987. Not for the first time, nor certainly the last, but as deeply and recklessly as was possible for a 14 year-old in the full bloom of spring. It was that evening that Angela Lansbury hosted the 41st annual Tony Awards. To this day I remember the nominees, the performances, the tributes (most notably to the recently passed Robert Preston). I had started performing in local theater productions a couple of years prior; Barnum, Oliver, Bye Bye, Birdie, etc., and as I spent that summer wearing out my VHS tape of the event, I felt that adolescent flush of knowingness, the smug pride of belonging to an exclusive club that revered Cy Coleman, Bob Fosse, Stephen Schwartz, Andrew Lloyd Weber. And of course the great Angela Lansbury was on my radar, as it wasn't so long before that I had discovered Sweeney Todd, opening a giant window in my world which would never close. But this was different.
It was different in that it wasn't vanity, or insecurity, or any desire to be part of an "in-crowd" (however bizarre the concept of a theater-loving "in-crowd" may sound). It was the giddy realization that this particular type of art touched me on a deep and fundamental level. The taste of dragon's blood that unlocks the language of the birds. It was being plucked from my place and set on a distant rock, changing how I see the world.
Looking back, I see that it wasn't just happenstance, not just my age, or my receptiveness, although those were certainly factors. It also happened to be a great year for the theater. James Earl Jones and Courtney B. Vance starred in August Wilson's masterpiece "Fences." Stephen Schwartz had a new show featuring Teresa Stratas. Alan Rickman, Philip Bosco and Richard Kiley were delivering great performances. Andrew Lloyd Weber had a new production with an all roller-skating cast (alright, that was kind of a dog, but he'd have better luck the following year with a show about a disfigured organist). It was also the year that a new musical called "Les Miserables" appeared and ushered in a new age of popularity and relevance for Broadway, something that arguably would not be equaled until last Sunday.
I don't know if it's a coincidence or not that Lin-Manuel Miranda and James Corden chose the number "One Day More" for their hilarious car-pool karaoke (the same piece that was performed at the 1987 Tonys), but if so, it could not have been more appropriate. "Hamilton" is the new "Les Miz," bringing Broadway into the popular culture in a way that would have been impossible to predict. I have absolutely no doubt that some 14 year-old kid out there (hopefully many) will react to this year's Tonys with the same guileless reverence I felt all those years ago.
As I watched what I consider to be one of the greatest celebrations of the theater in decades, I couldn't help but think how necessary it was at the moment, considering the slaughter that occurred less than 24 hours before. I say "slaughter" rather than "tragedy" because I want to be as accurate as possible. Tragedy is a story. Tragedy has a point. You can learn something from a tragedy, and alter the course of your own life in order to avoid becoming one. What happened in Orlando was chaotic, senseless, mindless, pointless and horrific. Much has been written and will be written on how to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future, and I have my own opinions (come talk to me if you like), but in the meantime, it's important to realize that music, art, theater are not just luxuries, not idle pursuits, but absolutely vital to to the life and health of a nation, a culture.
As I watched "Hamilton" rake in award after award, and all the other amazingly talented and dedicated artists being recognized for their work, one thought kept running through my head, and that was:
"Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. And with each note we will honor his spirit, commemorate his courage, and reaffirm his faith in the Triumph of the Mind.
- Leonard Bernstein, on JFK
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