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Two theatre-loving siblings forged a deeper bond during a birthday Broadway outing
My sister is six years and two days older than I am. For most of our lives, we shared a combined birthday meal with our parents, but after our mother died, this family tradition began to unravel. So this year, I tossed out a different idea: that we see Beautiful together.
My sister and I talk on the phone almost every day, but we don't spend all that much time together. We are both busy with our lives, our jobs, and our kids. And even though she told me that she wanted to see more shows, I wasn't sure if she would really schlep into the city from Connecticut. But I figured if any musical would entice her to come in, Beautiful was it. I was right. She agreed enthusiastically.
Growing up, we went to the theatre a lot, courtesy of Theatre Development Fund in fact. Every few weeks my mother would receive an envelope adorned with that distinctive red TDF logo -- it was like getting a present. She'd open it and fan out all the options (back then each show offer was printed on its own page). My mother would sort out which shows "looked like duds" and which sounded promising.
So I did the 21st-century version of what my mom did back in the day and scrolled through TDF and other discount sites, seeing if I could swing 'Beautiful' tickets near our birthdays. Frankly, it wasn't the show I would have picked. I was apprehensive about listening to covers of Carole King when I can hear the real thing (she's still performing!). Despite the show's awards and acclaim, I worried that it would be, as my mother would have said, "a dud," at least for me. That's because I thought of Carole King's songs as my sister's music, not mine.
When we were kids, we shared a bedroom. Darkness terrified me -- some of my most vivid and emotionally charged memories are of lying in bed, struggling to fall asleep, huddled under my ballerina blanket. We had a stereo in our room and as we drifted off, we'd play albums. As the eldest, my sister got to pick the music, like Tapestry. I was about six when I first heard it. I remember the record's scratches and pops. It was summer and the suburban night air was a cool relief. When I peeked out from under the covers, I saw fireflies flickering outside the window screens. We listened to the album over and over and over again. The sultry music lulled me to sleep but the lyrics went over my head -- it was an emotional landscape I wasn't yet mature enough to navigate.
That's the baggage I brought to the show.
In Beautiful, Carole King's songs are strung together to chronicle the story of her early life, from scrappy Brooklyn nobody to chart-topping, broken-hearted genius. It ends with her taking the life-changing step that moved her from behind the scenes to center stage. The story was about her music, but the music also told her story, which I realized I only vaguely knew. I was aware that, before she exploded into a '70s folk-rock idol, she had written pop songs, but I never thought about which ones. Watching Beautiful, I learned that she co-wrote "The Loco Motion," "Up on the Roof," and "Some Kind of Wonderful" with her first husband, Gerry Goffin. They topped the charts before my time but I still knew those tunes well.
In our shared bedroom, my sister and I had a closet with sliding doors. Inside, she left me the discards of her childhood: Barbie dolls, outgrown dresses, board games, and two orange boxes with metallic, gold swirls that held her old 45s. For me, these items were a blueprint to the future with my sister as guide. She wore clothes I would eventually wear. She went places I would eventually go. Her body did things my body would eventually do. These old 45s invited me to join her. I listened alone but she was still with me. After all, she had picked them, scratched them, and eventually handed them down to "let" me listen to them. That was a big deal to me. I never realized how much until I sat in the theatre hearing those same songs coming from the stage.
The house was packed and it was clear that many people in the audience were, like me, inhabiting two places at once: watching the show while reliving old memories. During Beautiful, I was catapulted back to my suburban bedroom, suddenly a skittish six-year-old again, cowering under the covers, being comforted by the sounds of my big sister's breathing and her handpicked 45s. The anticipation of each song was palpable. That's when I realized that Carole King was no longer just my sister's music -- it was mine, too. I got teary. I glanced at my sister and saw she was also crying.
At the end of the show, when the audience was invited to join in during the encore, the theatre erupted. We had all been singing along in our heads so we were eager to let it out -- we crooned loud and with gusto: "You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart…"
After it ended I walked my sister back to her car. We made small talk about the show, but in my head I was mulling over how much our backstory had added to our experience. We agreed that we should always see a show together around our birthdays and, as I walked back to the subway, I thought about how much this would have made my mother happy.
My sister is a Connecticut fitness junky, baseball mom, and successful doctor. I'm a crunchy, organic, Brooklyn writer who makes a living in advertising and is clueless about sports. We are very different, and sometimes we don't "get" each other as much as either one of us would like. But that night, through the music and the memories, we reconnected a little. Not only did my sister and I create a new birthday tradition, we rediscovered a common ground.
Top image: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical by Joan Marcus