Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Broadway Experience A Child Would Remember

About a month ago Ellie took three-and-a-half-year-old CJ to her first live play, a local Omaha production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Like many young girls CJ is enraptured by stories of princesses. So Ellie was not too surprised that CJ sat intently absorbing the three hour production (her equally young friend bailed out at intermission). 

Experiencing live theater at any level is a treat best appreciated at the youngest age possible. Ellie, for example, tasted live theater when she was barely five years old. It was  a staging of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Coat at the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck. She and eight-year-old Dan squealed loudly when they recognized the actor playing an Elvis-inspired pharaoh was a counselor from their summer camp. (Eight years later Ellie’s first dramatic roles in “real” Broadway plays came in two productions of Joseph, the first as the vampy wife of Potiphar in her eighth grade play, and then as one of Joseph’s brothers in the first Play Group Theatre rendition in Westchester. 

For the next four years PGT and Ellie were almost inseparable. After Joseph, Ellie took on leading roles as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, the baker’s wife in Into the Woods, Wendy in Peter Pan and Ti-Moune in Once on This Island. (In non PGT productions she was Rizzo in Grease and split the role of the Leading Player in Pippin.)

Ask most adults who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s about the shows they remember seeing and they invariably will call out names like Howdy Doody or Leave It to Beaver, Winky Dink, Captain Kangaroo or The Lone Ranger

I, too, watched those television shows. I have fond memories of them and enjoy the nostalgic times friends reminisce about them. But the shows that made the biggest impression on me, the ones I most recall from that golden time, were Broadway shows. 

In the short span of five years, from the time I was nine to 14 years old, I saw at least six Broadway shows and two operas (Tosca and La Traviata) at the Metropolitan Opera House. 

My earliest Broadway memory—seeing Sam Levene in the comedy Make a Million. For the record, I cannot recall any of the plot. But I do remember sitting with my siblings in the balcony while my parents sat in the orchestra. (An interesting footnote: Make a Million was co-written by Norman Barasch. For those not aware, Gilda’s maiden name is Barasch. She is unaware of any family connection to Norman.)

If you’re not familiar with Sam Levene, let me assure you he was a bonafide star of the theater and movies. Google his name if you don’t believe me. 

My Broadway experience was heightened by the renowned original casts I witnessed. In 1961, Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi. Later that year Camelot featured Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet. 1961 was a stellar theater-going year for me. I also saw Robert Weede, Mimi Benzell and Molly Picon in Milk and Honey. The next year, Alfred Drake in Kean, followed in 1964 by Zero Mostel and Maria Karnilova in Fiddler on the Roof.   

The inspiration for this whole story is to tell you Ellie and Gilda took CJ to a Sunday matinee of a Broadway revival of Once on This Island. Yes, it could be argued that CJ is a tad young for the play’s message. But Ellie has been showing CJ a video of her performance 20 years ago as Ti-Moune. CJ is familiar with the plot and the songs. 

Ellie and Gilda reported she sat on the edge of her seat, enthralled, throughout the performance. She had a day to remember: a subway ride, a walk through Times Square after dark, dinner out in a restaurant, and her first Broadway play. It’s hard to imagine it could have been any better.