A Different Kind of Church

Dear God,
As you know, when I became a parent, I had hopes and dreams for my kids. Some of those were the usual growing-up wishes (be healthy, learn to tie their shoes, not get suspended, win a Nobel prize). Others were more specifically related to my desire for them to dig the stuff that I dig.
I hoped they would love snow instead of curse it. I crossed my fingers they’d like games and puzzles, envisioning late night hands of Hearts or all-family Scattergories battles. Enjoying chocolate fell somewhere between a want and a necessity; I could probably have let it slide if they agreed that bacon makes everything better.
Ella and Annie have fulfilled those hopes, and then some. They have their own interests, of course. And they certainly don’t like everything that I do. (I had to go through some actual mourning when I finally came to terms with the fact that they are probably not summer camp kids and will likely never sleep away at my childhood haunt.)
This makes it all the sweeter when they genuinely fall in love with something that makes my world go ’round. I mean, their enjoyment of most things Disney has totally made their teething days worthwhile. But it was what happened last Sunday – and my realization that they share one of my passions as deeply as I do – that made me decide to write to you.
My girls are musicals maniacs.
Just like their mama (and their grandmama before).
School of Rock, 2015
Growing up an hour outside of Manhattan, my family and I were fortunate enough to make it to the Big Apple several times a year to see the musicals on the Great White Way.
My mom was a theater major in college – which, in my eyes, made her all-knowledgeable. Whenever possible, we would sit in the front row of the balcony or mezzanine so that she could point out the stage markings. I was fascinated to learn that miniature Xs indicated STAND HERE, thrilled every time I could see someone waiting in the wings.
It wasn’t just the performances, however. Before that curtain ever went up, this feeling would begin to build. (Not loathing; trust me.) It began with seeing the show’s name glittering on the marquee, increasing as the ushers greeted us at the door and continuing to grow as we stopped at the concession stand (you think we missed an opportunity to grab Junior Mints, Milk Duds, or Peanut M&Ms? Think again).
My first Broadway musical, 1980

Every theater in my memory is adorned in velvet, with plush carpeting wall-to-wall, curving staircases, chandeliers, gilded portraits. Although we scarcely dressed up for other more formal locations (*cough* church), we always wore “something nice” to see a Broadway musical. Which, come to think of it, was kind of like church to me.
When I close my eyes even now and imagine settling into my seat (always too small and uncomfortable), then hearing the opening strains of the overture prior to the curtain rising… that same feeling, that rush of adrenaline, fills me. Something was starting – something organic, something unique to that moment; an exchange between the performers and the audience, where we could be lead into a world that, minutes ago, didn’t exist. It was redeeming and transcendental. I came alive and was made new, whole, believing.

Yes, musicals were definitely my church. Sorry, God.
Meeting the cast of the incredible Lion King touring production, 2011
Over the years, there were hits and misses. We walked out of at least one production but saw others twice out of sheer adoration. I was in high school when Les Mis and Phantom rose to popularity, which meant I was at that perfect, angsty, drama-prone age where it actually sounded romantic to be seduced/kidnapped by a mystical, abusive, masked madman or ponder being forever on my own (pretending he’s beside me). For hours, I listened to those shows’ soundtracks in my bedroom, poring over every heart-tugging word, every climactic chord change, every piercing harmony.
I prayed over musicals.
As luck/fate/You would have it, Nick is not a Broadway fan. He tolerates most musicals and, at least once a year, somewhat grudgingly accompanies me to a show – but they’re really not his thing. (He says this is because he acted in so many musicals growing up, he got them out of system. I say this is because he’s a poop.)
Despite Nick’s lack of interest, I knew I was going to do everything possible to try and indoctrinate my girls to the wonderful world of Broadway. The soundtracks to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Annie, and The Sound of Music were in regular rotation when they were little. Instead of watching cat videos, we’d huddle around YouTube and watch clips from the Tonys. (And, okay, also cat videos.)
When Ella was four, my mom, stepdad, and I took her to her first Broadway musical (The Little Mermaid). I think she liked it, but really, what I remember most is how I forgot that traffic would be an absolute bear after a matinee, meaning it would take three times longer than usual to drive home and perhaps packing a snack or taking a bathroom break before loading up for the gridlock drive would have been a good idea.
My ears still hurt from the screaming.
That was the beginning. At least once a year when we visit my mom, we are fortunate enough to take the girls to a musical on “actual” Broadway. The girls’ first joint show was the same as mine – Peter Pan, seen up close from the orchestra with Peter (her)self flying overhead. I’m not sure they were hooked, but it definitely made an impression. Rochester is also a super theater-appreciative city, with excellent touring productions coming through. The girls usually look forward to going, but until recently, I wouldn’t have said they loved it like their mama.
Dolled up for Peter Pan, 2011
Within the last couple of months, though, something seems to have changed. Maybe it’s general Hamilton mania… maybe it’s just that they’re older… but their musicals radar has suddenly tuned in. They notice which shows are playing and at which theater. They talk about how they’d like to see a particular production, but they’d “really like front row balcony seats because they’re the best, right mom?”
(Sorry, God. I’m working on humility.)
I had taken them to see Wicked when it was here in 2012. At 6 and 8 years old, they liked it well enough, but they didn’t truly get its complexity and humor. When I learned that the touring production would be returning, I knew we needed to see it again.
In advance of last weekend’s show, we prepped (as we always do) – reviewing the characters and plot, listening to the soundtrack, researching the actors’ biographies. As the Big Day drew closer, Annie’s anticipation intensified. Out of nowhere, she’d be standing in front of me, fists clenched in jubilation. “Mama! I Can’t believe it’s only two days till Wicked! I AM SO EXCITED!!!.”
Aladdin, 2014
At last, Sunday arrived (none too soon for Annie). Worried that the production’s intensity might be too much for her, I offered to sit between her and Ella – but they wanted me on the aisle, with Annie farthest in. From the flying monkeys’ appearance to Elphaba and Fiyero’s departure, I couldn’t pry her eyes from the stage. She was entranced, for good.
Ella, on the other hand, routinely interacted with me, pointing out costume changes, unexpected staging, and raising her eyebrows with approval whenever someone nailed a difficult part. She also seemed to be looking somewhere other than the stage, although I couldn’t tell where until intermission when she breathlessly asked me what “the man was doing with all those buttons.” After learning that he was the gentleman in charge of the sound/mixing board, she was enthralled. “He’s making that happen?? THAT IS SO COOL.”
When the final bows had been taken, Ella slipped her hand in mine as we exited the theater. “Mama. That was so good.”
“It really was, kiddo, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. I mean… it was really good.”
“I think so, too!”
“Can we see it again?” 
“Sure! Next time it comes to Rochester, we’ll get tickets.”
“No… I mean, like, tomorrow…”
Ohhhhh. I get it now.
My girls have found in Wicked what I found in Les Mis and Phantom. They’ve been bitten by the musicals bug. SWEET FANCY MOSES.
In the week since the production, “Popular” and “Defying Gravity” and “What Is This Feeling” have been sung nonstop. They’re researching which show they’d like to attend when we visit London next summer. They and some friends are also working on a full-scale backyard production of Hamilton, complete with choreography, props, lighting, and costume changes.
Yes, they taped the lyrics to the shower. Multitasking at its finest.
In short, they’ve come to church.
Thanks, God, for this glorious turn of events. They may never go to sleep-away camp, but if I can share musicals with them, it’s more than a fair trade.
A Wicked selfie

Bitten by the theater bug

For two weeks, Eleanor and Annabelle attended a local Annie Kids theater camp. I’d envisioned a small, revue-type of performance, but it turns out they’d actually be putting on a real production — fully staged and costumed, with each child auditioning for, and being assigned, a part. Ella boldly chose to audition for the role of Annie, whereas Annabelle, on the other hand, auditioned for Molly, one of the orphans – ’cause, truly, what she wanted most of all was to be an orphan.

And, really, who could blame her? Orphans are so chic. Despite the fact that, as a kid, all of the fictional orphans with whom I was familiar wore filthy little rag outfits and were fed unappetizing things like gruel, my friends and I totally envied them – and not just because they didn’t have parents to make them take baths or prevent them from consuming seventeen hotdogs in one sitting. Little Orphan Annie was tough and got to pal around with Sandy. Harry received mail by owl, had a rockin’ scar, and got to wear an invisibility cloak. Barefooted, broom-weilding Cosette eventually landed the only surviving (and handsome!) member of the short-lived revolution. Dorothy acid-tripped through Oz wearing an incredible pair of shoes. Batman had a double-identity and drove one of the coolest vehicles in existence. Tarzan subsisted on bananas and loincloths and eschewed Batmobiles in favor of vines.
And do we even have to discuss the amazingness that was Punky Brewster?

Little orphan envy. I totally get you, Annabelle.

The girls had been given an Annie Kids CD, which they were instructed to listen to “so many times, their parents would go crazy.” Ever the rule followers, they dutifully requested that we pop the CD into the car as we drove home from camp. Rather than actually sit back and enjoy each track, however, we only listened to the first 8-10 bars of each song before skipping to the next one, making it feel like we were frantically scanning an Annie-only radio channel. (It seems they’d only learned that much at rehearsal the first day — enough with which to audition — and they didn’t want to get ahead of themselves.) Thankfully, this fast-forward mania meant we were spared the recorded version of “Tomorrow”, which seemed to feature odd growling noises interspersed with Annie’s cherub-like melody. I chalked it up to a flaw in the CD and gratefully skipped to the first eight bars of the next song.

While they prepared for the auditions, Nick and I did everything we could to help the girls understand that it was highly unlikely that they’d be chosen for the roles they wanted. Partly, this was because there were at least 35 camp participants – but also, realistically, the directors just might decide that other children were better-suited to play Molly and Annie – and that was okay. Not okay as in, Oh well, who cares?, but okay because, sometimes, things just don’t work out as you planned… but life goes on anyway. You don’t get the part. Your team doesn’t always win. It sucks and it’s difficult (and, as an adult, that’s where Starbucks, Godiva, and whiskey come in handy), but this disappointment thing? A pretty consistent part of life.

Still, we gave the pep talk, reaffirming that whatever person they were assigned, it would surely be fun, and they’d ultimately have a great time.
We didn’t anticipate that one of our daughters might not be cast as a person at all.

The cast list was quite late in coming because the director had decided to add another song into the show to accommodate the large number of – in his words – talented singers who’d auditioned… and Ella was given one of the newly-added roles! A solo at that! True, it wasn’t the part of Annie, so she couldn’t sport a curly wig and dress in adorably ratty orphan duds, but it was a great role nonetheless, and I was very happy for her.

I then scanned the email for Annabelle’s name…. and discovered that she would not be playing the part of Molly. Nor an orphan. Nor a servant.
No, Annie had been assigned the role of… Sandy. The dog.


(At least it explained the odd growling during our speed-listen of “Tomorrow”.

Through all of our careful preparations, Nick and I had never considered that the part Annie got might not even be human.

Annie took the news as I’d expected: she cried. A lot. We tried to do all of the “right” things to ease her heartache (including a surprise Bruegger’s breakfast run), and to persuade her that this would still be a great experience. She could still learn and sing and dance and act and have a wonderful time. Plus, Sandy is important! Sandy steals scenes! Annabelle could be the cutest, best damn Sandy ever.

But still… The ball was in her court. Only she could decide if she’d run with it or throw it at someone.

(BTW, these moments – when your big-hearted, sensitive kiddo is cast as a dog instead of an orphan – these are so not in the parenting manual. REFUND, please.)

Annie managed to pull herself together, and the first week of rehearsals passed by with little further mention of playing Sandy. In fact, driving home after each rehearsal, both girls barely stopped talking about what they’d learned and how great the other cast members were. As a bonus, by now, we were listening to the full versions of all the songs (which was both better and worse than our first manic experience), so even I felt that I knew the music backward and forward. Three performances were scheduled for the following weekend, and – not wanting Annie and Ella to look out into the audience and find only unfamiliar faces staring back – I dutifully bought tickets to all three shows.

annie spotlight

As the second week began and they started getting into costume, I noticed that Annie’s spirits seemed to lift. When it was announced that a fourth performance would be added because the first three had sold out so quickly, I asked if maybe I could skip that one, since I’d already be seeing the three original shows… but, no, oh no, the show was fantastic and my presence was definitely needed at every single performance.

Heck, I knew the songs already by heart. Might as well learn the staging and choreography, too.

At last, performance day arrived, and Ella and Annie raced into camp. (“It’s butterflies, right?” What, sweetie? “That’s what’s in my stomach. Butterflies, right?”) I’d planned to spend the hour between drop-off and the performance doing a little window shopping, perhaps grabbing a coffee… But when I noticed that other parents were already staking out spots 55 minutes in advance (damn stage moms), I rummaged through my purse for a stale mint and took a seat myself.

Turns out, the director really knew his stuff (and had some awesome assistants and apprentices), because, after only eight days of three-hour rehearsals, these kindergarten through third-graders managed to put on a mighty fine show.

annie outfits
A Warbucks servant and Sandy (looking rather like a sheep), ready to go…

Unlike the growly groans on the CD, Annabelle’s “ruffing” toward the end of “Tomorrow” was pretty freakin’ adorable.

annie sandy2 blur
annie sandy blur
Real dogs don’t smile. Very professional of her.

In addition to singing a solo, Ella also got to wear the brand-new, hand-me-down high heels that had arrived only a week or so ago. Mighty smug about that, she was.

annie bert3 blur
Ella as Bert Healy, beginning “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”.      

annie bert1 blur
“It’s what you wear from ear to ear, and not from head to toe, that matters!”

After the first performance, as the girls ate their lunch, I asked what their favorite part of the show was. Ella told me it was the song “Little Girls”, but Annie replied, “DUH. All of the attention I’m getting!” Not exactly what I was going for, but she definitely took that Sandy ball and sprinted with it.

In fact, Annie not only embraced her role as Sandy but also as a member of the chorus (where she ditched her furry headpiece and actually got to sing and dance, human style). Ella got into character, to be sure, but Annie took things to a whole other level…

annie, taken seriously blur
(Click to enlarge)
Why just sing the song when you can passionately feel it?

Really, all four performances were delightful, and even Nick had to agree that the two shows he saw with me were pretty freakin’ adorable. Nevertheless, after driving to and from the camp for two weeks and then spending six straight hours at the theater two days in a row, I was happy to leave the place behind for a while.

As the girls were packing up their costume boxes, I mentioned that I didn’t think they had everything – a water bottle, a few pairs of pants, and a couple of shirts seemed to be missing. They insisted that they’d brought them home earlier in the week, and – conceding that perhaps the nonstop Annie Kids CD marathon had, indeed, made me batty – I gave up my protests.

Upon arriving home, however, the missing items were nowhere in sight. Five days later, they still couldn’t be found…

And so, less than a week after leaving, we found ourselves back at the theater. Again.

Stage parents are crazy, yo.

annie ending2 blur
“Smile, darn ya, smile!”