My Life in a Theatre
Thursday, December 06, 2018  •  
Thu Dec 6, 2018  •  
Broadway  •   8 comments Share This
"The ghosts of all the shows I've seen at the Shubert are bound to greet me again when next I cross that storied threshold."

One seasoned audience member's tribute to the memories he's made at the Shubert



The three-note motif had insinuated itself into my mind's ear since we took our seats in the balcony of Broadway's Shubert Theatre, where we were about to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! It wasn't from a song in the show, so I wondered why I was hearing it. I closed my eyes for a moment and, when I opened them, there, sitting across the aisle were my mother, my sister and… me, age 10. I blinked, and they were gone. And I heard the three notes again.

It was an invitation to recall an important life experience that took place over five decades earlier: my first-ever Broadway show, Oliver!, seen from the very same section in the very same house.

If you're a theatre nerd like me, your Broadway rituals include keeping a running tab of the shows you've watched at each venue. I've seen a total of 14 productions at the Shubert over 54 years… about half the number that played there during that period. In addition to the aforementioned shows, the Shubert has shown me The Apple Tree; Promises, Promises; A Little Night Music; A Chorus Line; Crazy For You; Big; Chicago; Bernadette Peters in Gypsy; Spamalot; Blithe Spirit (the only non-musical on the list); Memphis and Matilda.

Oliver! happened on my tenth birthday. I had a cold, and my mother -- who rarely let me set foot outside the house if I so much as sneezed -- behaved in a most unusual way by insisting we go. I remember only isolated moments: the view from the balcony; scenery that moved to music before our eyes; the songs (which I soon learned by heart from the original cast album -- a deluxe CD reissue of which I ended up producing nearly four decades later); and a single line of dialogue barked by Fagin to one of the boys, "Shut up and drink your rum!", followed by audience laughter. That laughter, especially, made a tremendous impression, seeding theatrical aspirations which blossomed within a few years, as I played leading roles in four summer camp musicals and added drama lessons to my music studies.

By my next visit to the Shubert, I was a Broadway veteran, having seen two other musicals on subsequent birthdays. The Apple Tree was different in three important ways, however: it wasn't my birthday, I went by myself and I bought my own ticket. It was a Thanksgiving Day matinee, and my mother must have wanted me out of the house during dinner preparations. My family found me a "twofer," the common nickname for a discount coupon because it allowed theatregoers to buy tickets practically at half price. I spent $2 of my allowance to buy a single $3.90 balcony seat. (Fifty years later, a ticket in the same section for Hello, Dolly! cost $99.) I saw the show alone, though my father chauffeured me to and from the theatre… my mother's way of getting him out of the house, too. It was closing week, so both Barbara Harris and Larry Blyden of the original cast had already left. I saw Sue Ane Langdon, Alan Alda and Hal Linden, years before all three went on to greater fame on television.

By the time I saw Promises, Promises, I was an autonomous adolescent, accustomed to riding the subway regularly and (unbeknownst to my parents) spending my bar mitzvah gelt on theatre tickets. Some of the plot subtleties went over my head (even in the balcony), but it had that bubbly Burt Bacharach/Hal David score, plus Jerry Orbach's Tony-winning performance, which, once again, allowed me to boast "I saw him when" long before Law & Order made him a household name.

Stephen Sondheim changed my life -- or at least redirected my stage ambitions. His musicals were the first I attended multiple times, the better to study the art and craft of theatre writing. So when A Little Night Music played the Shubert, I saw it three times. My inaugural visit was over spring break during my sophomore year in college, with a Sondheim-mad classmate. (Jim Finger, where are you now?) There's little I don't remember from that performance, down to (aha!) every phrase of the song "Remember."

I had graduated to the orchestra section for A Little Night Music, but for a late preview of A Chorus Line, I was back in the balcony with both my parents. The show's buzz during its initial run at the Public Theater sent us scurrying to the Shubert box office when tickets went on sale. (Well, I scurried… due to my theatregoing expertise, I had become the designated ticket buyer for my entire extended family.) In a show of memorable moments, the most indelible for me was a non-musical one: Paul's monologue, in which he describes how his father learned about his sexuality. It foreshadowed a conversation (nowhere near as dramatic) I would have with my parents nearly a decade later, though at the time I wasn't ready to admit it even to myself.

My next "important life experience" at the Shubert came with Crazy For You. My late partner, Richard, was turning 40, and I got us tickets for his birthday. Neither of us was big on surprises, but I took a major calculated risk. He didn't know that, instead of two tickets, I had bought eight, the others reserved for some of our closest friends, including two who flew in from Minnesota. I faked an ankle injury to ensure that, by the time we got up the stairs to the mezzanine, the six surprise guests would be in place, waiting for us to climb over them to reach our center seats. Dinner at Crepe Suzette, a favorite Restaurant Row boîte, followed. The show was fabulous, a landmark in the career of choreographer (later director) Susan Stroman. But what I remember most is Richard turning to me as the lights went down, and saying, simply, "You did good."

Over the ensuing decades, I continued to enjoy the shows I saw at the Shubert, but important life experiences increasingly occurred elsewhere. I don't know yet if I'll catch To Kill a Mockingbird, the theatre's current occupant, another rare non-musical play for that house. But the ghosts of all the shows I've seen there -- including Elvira from Blithe Spirit -- are bound to greet me again when next I cross that storied threshold. Joining them will be shades of my younger self at Oliver!, as well as some of my older incarnations, as my life, at crucial moments, took major turns at the Shubert.


Daniel Guss is a native New Yorker. During his career at RCA, he reissued over 1,000 compact discs, ranging from the recordings of such classical superstars as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leontyne Price, and James Galway, to classical music compilations and Broadway cast albums.

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Jim Mahady said:
Such a sweet article, and beautifully written. It brought back many memories of times spent in Broadway houses. Of the shows mentioned, I saw A Chorus Line, Chicago and Hello, Dolly at the Shubert. Thanks for the memories, Daniel. Coincidentally, I have an old friend from college days who was in Oliver as a 14-yr-old in Fall 1965, and was recently in the Midler Dolly - Michael McCormick...
Posted on 12/8/2018 at 11:31 AM
Anne K Johnson said:
My most memorable moment was when I was 18 and came to NY and saw The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. At the point in the play when Helen realizes that the letters being spelled out in her hands by Annie Sullivan were for objects, I started to cry. I cried so hard and so long that I couldn't get up out of my seat for 15 minutes after the play was over and the audience had left.
Posted on 12/8/2018 at 12:38 PM
Peggy Jo Donahue said:
I loved your theater memories, which reminded me so much of my own, begun in the same era. I saw many of the same shows you did and to this day I remember the thrill of scoring standing room tickets to A Chorus Line with my college friends and standing right behind the director! I also remember my mother recalling all the great shows she saw during the '40s and '50s. Theaters hold our memories.
Posted on 12/9/2018 at 11:48 AM
Daniel Guss said:
Thank you, Jim Mahady. Why do I think Michael McCormick went to Northwestern University? If he did, and you did, then all three of us were there at the same time. (I was a music major, but hung out more with the Radio/TV/Film crowd.)
Posted on 12/20/2018 at 11:07 PM
Jim Mahady said:
Just seeing this now, Daniel. Yes, I went to Northwestern, Class of ‘76. McCormick was class of ‘73. We both majored in Theater and performed in the WAA-MU Show together. How wild that you may have seen him in your first B’way show! And I realize that another performance I saw (possibly at the Shubert) was the spectacular Chorus Line performance in 1983 when they became the longest-running show.
Posted on 5/8/2019 at 12:38 AM
Daniel Guss said:
My turn to say "just seeing this". NU Class of '75, School of Music. I had a song up for WAA-MU in 1972, but it didn't make the cut. Got three songs in the inaugural Mee-Ow Show in 1974. My time at NU overlapped with Mike's by two years (and with yours by three). I have a memory of a Gilbert & Sullivan "Yeomen of the Guard" in which Mike might have played the Minstrel...
Posted on 8/3/2019 at 9:47 AM
Jim Mahady said:
Yes, Daniel - Michael M was indeed in that YEOMEN production, as was I. Mike played a leading role - a sad clown or something, not the wandering minstrel. It was my first NU show (Fall ‘72) and I was in the male chorus (along with classmate Charles Busch!). Also did MIKADO the following Fall and all 4 yrs of WAA MU, and some other plays.
Posted on 3/7/2020 at 12:48 AM
Daniel Guss said:
Just watched the 54 Below cabaret show by Charles Busch, and realized he was there, too. Never met him. But that was NU. Now I'm wondering if you and I ever met...Michael McCormick's role was Jack Point, the strolling jester.
Posted on 4/13/2020 at 8:10 PM
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