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A theatre lover remembers the man who inspired her obsession
The last show I saw with my father was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was an early October evening in 2014, and it was the first time I realized he was sick. He coughed all through dinner and the show, insisting it was just a cold, but his pallor and inability to focus indicated otherwise. He died of a rare cancer the day after Thanksgiving that year.
I was lucky to grow up in New York City at a time when middle-class families could easily afford to go to Broadway shows. My father took me, his only child, frequently, initially to musicals and later to dramas, too. Neither one of us could recall which Main Stem production was my first (I wish he had written it down the way my mother recorded the dates I took my first steps and said my first word). However, I had vivid memories of us seeing the Duke Ellington revue Sophisticated Ladies when I was 10, particularly Gregory Hines's seemingly effortless tapping and Alvin Ailey star Judith Jamison descending a staircase draped in a white coat with a high fur collar that I covet to this day. So by default, it became my "first" Broadway show and was an experience my father and I cherished and spoke of frequently -- especially since talking about real life did not come easy to us.
When I needed advice about my romances, career, or other heavy stuff, I went to my mom. But whenever an intriguing new show was announced, I called my dad. Although I've always joked that theatre was embedded in my DNA, there's no denying that my father played a leading role in my love for the stage. Would I have found it without him? Probably. But I suspect every theatre fanatic can point to one person who sparked the obsession. Even when we were so angry with each other that we weren't speaking, an announcement of say, Ian McKellen starring in Richard III at BAM (we both thought it was unforgettable) or Bullets Over Broadway (diametrically opposed opinions on the show and Woody Allen!) could reunite us. Discussing fictional characters' foibles, failures, and fears was imminently preferable to facing our own.
Since theatre was such a huge part of our relationship throughout the decades (as an arts journalist with access to comps, I was proud I could pay him back for all the tickets he bought me in my youth by constantly inviting him as my plus one), I knew that many shows would remind me of him. Passing the marquee for Curious Incident always incites a dull pain that's tough to shake. When I catch a production he didn't live to see that I think he would have enjoyed, such as An American in Paris, I grin (albeit wistfully) and imagine the conversations we'll never have.
However, the night I went to see Maurice Hines Tappin' Thru Live, I had my most profound experience of grief. Recalling my love for Hines's late younger brother, Gregory, in Sophisticated Ladies, I decided to bring my 10-year-old daughter (who's already a theatregoing veteran thanks to my job). After more than a half century in showbiz as a mover and shaker, Maurice Hines was starring in this autobiographical revue that promised exuberant song-and-dance numbers interspersed with behind-the-scenes celebrity tales. And for the most part, that's what it was…until he started talking about missing Gregory, who died from cancer in 2003. Because of an unspecified fight, the two didn't speak for over a decade, but reconciled by happenstance before Gregory's death. As Maurice spoke about his regret for the years they missed -- and his gratitude for the ones they had -- I convulsed with tears. Partially I was crying because of how hard I had worked not to feel the loss of my dad by remembering the good times, glossing over the bad, and never sitting with my mixed emotions for too long. But it was also the symmetry of that moment that got me. Here was my 10-year-old daughter watching Maurice Hines just as I had watched Gregory Hines at the exact same age a generation earlier. I am indoctrinating my daughter into a life filled with theatre just as my dad did for me. It's a legacy I hope she will eventually pass on.
As I cried, my daughter gripped my hand tightly, whispered, "What's wrong?" and I said, "Shhh, I'll tell you on the way home," and I did. I know she understood my words if not quite the feelings, though she inevitably will one day.
Before he died, I never thought to ask my dad who inspired his love of theatre. I'm pretty sure it wasn't his parents, neither of whom ever talked about shows let alone went to see one. And yet someone must have opened up that door for him. I am thankful he was the person who did it for me.
Photo of the author, her father and her daughter courtesy of Raven Snook.