What’s the one thing you absolutely must do while you’re in New York City? The obvious answer, at least to me, is to have a Broadway marathon. Four shows, two days, and one very starstruck musical theater aficionado: here’s the story of an amazing, hectic, tour de force spring break experience that still feels a little like a fever dream.
It all began on Saturday afternoon with a rear mezzanine seat ticket to the Imperial Theater for “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” a musical based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” The cast kicked off the show by introducing their characters: “Balaga is fun, Bolkonsky is crazy, Mary is plain, Dolokhov is fierce, Hélène is a slut, Anatole is hot, Marya is old-school, Sonya is good, Natasha is young and Andrey isn’t here!” In other words, if you didn’t quite manage to muddle your way through Tolstoy’s dense prose, don’t worry: “The Great Comet’s” got it all summarized for you.
And then, of course, there was Pierre, the adorably bewildered, awkward count who is perhaps better known in his day job as singer-songwriter Josh Groban. If there’s any good reason to see this musical, it’s his mournful solo in “Dust and Ashes,” i.e. an existential crisis set to music and performed by one of Broadway’s greatest baritones.
The entire show was remarkably innovative. There were strips of empty space between seating sections throughout the house where the ensemble stomped, sang and twirled. They tossed packaged dumplings into the audience and handed out little plastic egg shakers, and the myriad of lightbulbs hanging over the audience’s heads were lowered to create the illusion of a star-filled sky in one breathtakingly magical moment. But the ensemble—dressed in crop tops, basketball tanks, leggings, jeans and sneakers—felt out of place with the setting and the main cast’s period-appropriate attire, especially during what I’ve dubbed “the rave scene.” Kudos to the creators for the gutsy design choice, but did they really have to have glowsticks and light-up shoes in what was supposed to be a 19th-century Russian pub?
“We really shouldn’t,” I heard one ensemble member say to another at one point, as they body-rolled their way across the space directly behind my seat.
“Come here,” laughed the other, and they proceeded to make out in the middle of a number.
It was a wild ride. I was thoroughly amused.
Going from this chaotic glory of a musical to the sugar-sweet “Waitress” later that night (also with a rear mezzanine seat) was one heck of a transition. Based on the critically acclaimed film of the same name by Adrienne Shelly (though the musical’s book was written by Jessie Nelson), the story of Jenna, a small-town waitress and expert pie-maker who longs to escape her abusive marriage, sounds almost like the plot of a Hallmark movie. But the cast and creative team somehow managed to avoid falling into the trope of a mere feel-good show, expertly navigating their way past cliches and Mary Sues with large contributions from Sara Bareilles (a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-turned-Tony-nominated Broadway lyricist and composer).
Perhaps the most fun part of the show were the pies. Not the pies in the musical, of which there were many. I mean the pies being sold during the intermission for more than this broke college student was willing to fork over. Judging by the moans of ecstasy (this is, in fact, not an exaggeration) of those sitting next to me as they bit into their key lime and pecan pies, they must have been the height of culinary excellence, and the little collectible tins they came in were a cute touch.
But beyond the pies, the incomparable Jessie Mueller (Tony, Drama Desk and Grammy Award-winner) was the one who truly made the show. Her vibrant soprano voice carried all of the music with polished ease. “She Used to Be Mine,” the musical’s trademark number, is touching in its own right, but Mueller’s incredible range of emotions transformed it into a heartbreaker. Needless to say, she received a well-deserved standing ovation at curtain call.
From Becky and Dawn, Jenna’s funny and lovable coworkers and friends, to Dr. Pomatter, the handsome gynecologist with a severe case of foot-in-mouth, the supporting cast rounded out the performance with a little attitude and a lot of love to create about as great of a musical as is possible when it’s set entirely in a Southern pie diner. Which, as it turns out, is pretty darn amazing. I didn’t quite dream of pies when I flopped down on an air mattress in the living room that night, but the show definitely clung to me long after I’d left the theater for my friend’s sister’s apartment (thanks for sparing me NYC’s agonizingly high costs of living, Rachel).
The next day, I was off to “Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” a.k.a. the Harry Potter fan musical that somehow made its way onto Broadway. Maybe it was the trademark Hufflepuff likeability or the tongue-in-cheek critiques of the Harry Potter universe, but there was something about the show that enabled it to hold its own amongst the flashing neon lights of bigger-name stars in bigger-name shows for me. It was a pleasant surprise,albeit not the biggest one.
“Oh, hey, I think know her, she was in my year at Swarthmore,” said the person sitting next to me in the rear orchestra section, pointing at a picture of one of the cast members before the show.
In the characteristically Swawkward conversation with Jonathan Hui ’12 that followed, I learned that the Hufflepuff character Sally (whom Potterheads may recognize as an allusion to Sally-Ann Perks) in the musical was played by Jessie Cannizzaro ’12. Evidently the Swat bubble doesn’t just exist at Swat, it follows you around. But the light-hearted musical was a hilarious foray into the world of side characters J.K. Rowling somehow neglected to develop through seven books (and eight movies), the central theme of house pride was made only slightly ironic by the sense of collegiate allegiance I had by having a Swarthmore graduate in the show. I left that theater with a sense of validation for being a Hufflepuff and a pretty sweet “#ThirdOrNothing” T-shirt.
That night, at last, was the final and most highly anticipated musical of my trip: “Kinky Boots,” or, more specifically, Todrick Hall’s last performance as Lola in “Kinky Boots.” I’ve been in awe of the singer, dancer, actor, director, choreographer, and YouTuber’s work for many years, so I was beyond thrilled to get to meet him at the stage door after the show, alongside a crowd of appreciative fans, and, while I was there, I managed to obtain several of the other cast members’ autographs, including Taylor Louderman (Lauren) and Marcus Neville (George).
As with most final performances, the entire show became a tribute of sorts to the departing cast member; I was glad I’d seen it once before, so my “Kinky Boots” experience wasn’t entirely centered around Hall (much as I love all that he embodies). Still, Hall’s performance was nothing short of spectacular, from his tearful duet with West End-exchange actor Killian Donnelly (Charlie) in “Not My Father’s Son” to his soaring rendition of “Hold Me In Your Heart.” By the end of the show, I was honored to have watched him in the role, and in a cushy center mezzanine seat, no less.
In his parting speech at curtain call, Hall reminded the audience why musical theater is so important as a safe space for marginalized groups. When “Kinky Boots” premiered, it was a potentially controversial ode to love and acceptance regardless of gender or sexuality, and it was rewarded with rave reviews, accruing Tony, Grammy and Olivier (the British equivalent of the Tony) Awards. Centered around the unlikely friendship between a reluctant shoe factory owner and a fabulous drag queen and featuring a kickass score by Cyndi Lauper, it was uplifting, tragic, sassy, and hysterical by turns, calling out to the audience to “just be who you wanna be” without turning it into a heavy-handed battle cry. The performers jokingly addressed the audience on several occasions during the musical as “Ladies, gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their minds.” The theater itself upheld this acceptance of gender fluidity with a small but significant addition to the customary signs outside the bathrooms, stating “Gender diversity is welcome here. Please use the restroom that best fits your gender identity or expression.”
It is my one regret that I did not manage to acquire a dazzling pair of Price and Son six-inch-heel boots(the company is really missing out with that lack of merchandising). But, in all earnestness, everything about the show from the choreography to the set design to the witty banter between characters raised the bar in entertainment “thigh-high.” The closing number, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” had me humming and tapping my toes all the way through the long and mildly nerve-wracking subway journey to a different friend’s house to crash (thanks, Ruth). It was a sensational romp from start to finish, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to conclude my whirlwind trip.
The complex and intricate combination of factors that musical theater utilizes in storytelling has always enthralled me. At Swat, I sweep stages, carry props, and run cues on the light board in LPAC, dreaming of a future in which I get to push the button that drops the chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera” or track Elphaba’s movements in “Wicked” with a spotlight from a little nook in the set onstage. But it’s one thing to be behind the scenes of a production and another entirely to be sitting in the audience. I typically prefer the former, unable to suspend my disbelief well enough to truly immerse myself in the show. It’s odd, then, that I keep returning to Broadway as an audience member, captivated from the moment I watched my first show in the big city four years ago. “The Great Comet,” “Waitress,” “Puffs,” and “Kinky Boots,” they’re as different as four musicals can be, but there’s a certain quality that they all share, something I can only describe as “Broadway magic.” It’s in the massive billboards’ flashing cries, the snippets of overheard conversation in another language on the streets and the scent of overpriced meat on rice from street carts on every corner. The place itself is a living, breathing urban fairytale, and it’s always a privilege for me to spend some time in the playground of imagination that a good Broadway show embodies.
Caught up in this fantastical whirl of bright lights and brighter stars, it’s no wonder that “The Great Comet” asks its audience, “Are you ready to wake up?”