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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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