I fell in love with the stage at an early age. Even though I don’t remember the exact date, I remember the show explicitly.
It was during Daddy’s first stint of employment at what was then Northeast Mississippi Junior College. Most likely I was around 5 because my sister wasn’t married yet. Daddy had gotten a couple of free tickets to the spring musical and he and Mama allowed my sister to drive me to Booneville. Something they rarely ever did – much less let us go alone on fairly lengthy journeys at night. At that age, 20 miles seemed to be a fairly lengthy journey.
But the show made the trip very worthwhile to me. It was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” Although it was a simple community college adaptation of the Broadway hit, I was hooked at the first note. Back then I had an odd talent of being able to sing almost the entire lyrics of a song after hearing it only one time. I wore my family down with my continual renditions of “Happy Talk,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “Bloody Mary.” My mama would later recall that the funniest part of that whole time was hearing me croon “Some Enchanted Evening” while trying to make my voice sound like a baritone singer.
Probably hoping I would learn some different lyrics, Daddy found the “South Pacific” soundtrack on an album at Big K and made my infatuation with the musical even greater. I listened to the album so many times it finally refused to play again without skipping.
Even though I was a child before cable television, I managed to find Broadway-ish shows on educational TV from time to time. As I watched them, I dreamed of what it must be like to sit in a darkened theatre in New York City and watch the actors hone their craft before me. I wanted to travel to the Great White Way even before I really understood the geographic distance between Mississippi and the Empire State.
I was in middle school before the chance to see another stage play came around again for me. Our high school presented a version of “Up the Down Staircase” and I sat alone in a metal folding chair near the stage soaking it in like a sponge. Although I didn’t want to be up on the stage, it certainly made me want to see more and more productions.
My high school “crush” was a French horn player who joined the orchestra for a musical our local theatre was producing. Since they needed a chime player and I had played marching xylophone several years in band, he asked me to join them for “Camelot.” Even though the chimes weren’t really similar to what I had played, I agreed because he offered to transport me to rehearsals which sealed the deal for me to get to see him more often for at least a month.
Although my part was a minute one in the overall score, it gave me the opportunity to see the behind-the-scenes portion of play production. And getting to see my French horn player more often (even though that absolutely didn‘t do anything to help that relationship flourish) didn‘t hurt either.
I was over 21 before the chance to see my first Broadway show happened, and wouldn’t you know it, my first show featured frolicking felines. Yep, a group trip to NYC got me to the Winter Garden Theatre to see “Cats.” Believe it or not, I was mesmerized. And when we were offered the opportunity to go up on stage during intermission and look at the set - and Old Deuteronomy - I was one of the first ones up there.
Trying hard not to fall down on the very shiny and overly-buffed stage, I quietly sang a bit of “Happy Birthday” and did a Cabbage Patch move or two. It gave me the opportunity to legally place that I had “sung and danced on Broadway” on my resume.
Even though I spent a weekend in the Big Apple, I didn’t darken the door of another theatre that trip. I had too many landmarks to see and lunch with my friend, Marcia. The next year, though, I not only saw the long-running, mucho award winning “Phantom of the Opera” at the Majestic, I went down the the famous Village to see “Steel Magnolias.” There were six of us in our group and we were the only six Southerners in the entire theatre. It showed but we didn’t care. Afterwards we stopped to get ice cream at a nearby shop and ran into Maeve Kindcaid who played Shelby’s mama in the show. It was fun getting to talk with one of the actors and have her quiz us about our reactions to a very Southern show.
Not content to wait until I could go return to NYC, a friend and I began buying season tickets for the Broadway tours that hit the Orpheum for a few years. I can’t afford the season tickets anymore, but my best friend, Mandi, and I try to see some of the shows that stop there now. She wants to see “The Lion King” if it ever makes a return visit to Memphis; I desperately want to see “Wicked” despite the fact I’d rather have seen it with Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel cast as the leads.
Who knows if I will ever get on the old boards myself. I’ve always had this secret dream to sing on stage at the Corinth Coliseum-Civic Center (of course, I’m still dreaming of getting married there, too, one day) so it might happen. And I’ve always felt there was a little bit of “Ouiser” trapped within me for a “Steel Magnolias” production one day, too.
Until that happens, Sunday night’s Tony award broadcast made me want to head back to the old “City That Never Sleeps” for some serious theatre time. Six years has been way too long and I’m ready to snag some front row seating from TKTS again!
Plus it’s been way too long since I’ve seen my friends Marcia and Sarah. I’m betting at least one of them owes me lunch!