What Was Your First Broadway Musical?
One of my favorite questions to ask a Broadway enthusiast is "What was your first Broadway musical?" I find it an interesting study to explore how people were introduced to the lights of the Great White Way. Was it a parent who chose the show? Did you get to choose it yourself? Like millions, were you indoctrinated through Cats, reeled in by the promise of its enticing (and deceptive) television commercial? How did your first Broadway musical shape your opinions on Broadway? Did it establish your likes and dislikes? Was the experience so completely overwhelming and transforming that all musicals since have paled by comparison?
My first Broadway musical happened by accident. My high school was offering a field trip to NYC, which, as part of the visit, we would attend a Broadway show. This was in 1988 and I recall the entire cost for the trip (which included lunch at Mamma Leone's) was a whopping $15. That price should give you an indication of the seats that we had. The musical we were going to see was 42nd Street, in year eight of its healthy run. Indeed, the musical had settled in at the St. James Theatre after starting at the Winter Garden and then vacating the Majestic Theatre to allow the recently opened The Phantom of the Opera to begin its "short" stint there.
Ensconced in my seat in the back row of the second balcony at the St. James, I really had no idea what to expect. My breadth of knowledge on musicals had been limited to those of the film genre. Live theatre was not something that was on my parent's radar, so I didn't have anyone taking me into the city to "waste money" on such things. The overture began and I felt this strange electricity wash over the audience, and realized that this was unlike anything I had ever encountered. I even recognized a few of the Al Dubin/Harry Warren tunes from reruns of the Carol Burnett Show and perhaps some of the old movies I had seen.
The curtain came up part of the way on some of the most miraculous, in-sync tap dancing I had ever witnessed, teasing us with those "dancing feet." It then lowered again, only to rise higher the next time to reveal the full stage in all its glory. I remember being completely delighted by character actress Bobo Lewis who was sarcastically chewing on the role of Maggie Jones, the female comedic support of the piece. What that lady did with songs like "Go Into Your Dance" and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" had such an impact on me. I think it was then that I realized that you didn't necessarily have to be the star to get all of the glory. She mined every laugh, eye-roll, and aside with sheer aplomb.
I have found that, over the years, if I really love a musical, I forget to breathe while I am watching it. It usually leads to my walking out of the theatre with a throbbing migraine that only reveals itself after the illusion has ended. I've had such headaches walking out of Les Miserables, The Secret Garden, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Into the Woods, Urinetown, and The Scottsboro Boys. 42nd Street didn't quite do that for me until we reached the big eleven o'clock number "Lullaby of Broadway." Watching that musical piece build as performer-after-performer flooded the stage, sashaying down the two grand staircases of a glorious train station set, climaxing in an enormous kick line, was the eye-opening epiphany of my life. This is what musical theatre is! This is the world I will never get enough of! I was breathless (or forgetting to breathe).
42nd Street is not my favorite musical of all time. It does, however, hold a special place in my heart as my first Broadway musical. The lavish production values and the escapist fun of the music and plot were enough to ignite a love affair that has lasted for twenty-seven years and shows no sign of fading. What better way to hypnotize a young boy with musical theatre than with the lasting effects of a "Lullaby of Broadway."
I would love to hear the story of your first Broadway musical. Please share those memories in the comment section below.