A once in a lifetime opportunity
It all started with that famous LP covered in purple with the pacman type track spelled out Society. I was an eighth grade boy who struggled to find something I liked outside of school. My parents struggled to guess where their perfect student would fit into the sport. Sports never worked, guitar, golf and tennis lessons were futile. Then my mother-in-law gave me her box of old cast iron albums. She was a regular in the theater and seemed to have all of the cast’s albums. Maybe I would be interested in them? Well I went to the rabbit hole. I became The Man in the Chair of DROWSY CHAPERONE, except I was 14 and I was listening in the privacy of my room. The first was a very different sounding SOUND OF MUSIC sung by someone named Mary martin— not the Julie andrews I used to. Then on CABARET, FLOWER DRUM SONG, SOUTH PACIFIC – all the shows I had heard of. But what was it Society?
i had no idea who Stephen Sondheim was, but the minute I heard his music, I knew something here was different. It wasn’t Rodgers and Hammerstein’s show music! And Dean Jones by HERBIE THE LOVE BUG and Barbara barrie by BARNEY MILLER and Beth howland of ALICE were all in the cast. My only frame of reference for these people was television. Well, I was in love. I’ve played the opening number so many times – I just couldn’t get enough of the excitement it brought with its’ 70s synthesizers and amazing harmonies. Back in the day, you had to get up and move the needle to the track you wanted to play. I have moved this needle a lot!
As a teenager, I didn’t really understand the adult relationship issues that Society was talking, but I knew it was something special. I looked for books that showed all the possible photos I could find. I was amazed by Boris Aronson‘s set and the idea of a functional elevator. And then there was Elaine stitch – she was a weird force of nature – I knew her voice wasn’t great but she sucked me in with that kind of song and howl about RISE! TO AUGMENT!.
The CD era allowed me to get my copy of Society So I no longer needed to play with the needle of my turntable to listen to my favorite songs. But at that point, they were all my favorites. Then, in college, I discovered DA Pennebaker’s infamous documentary on the making of Society Distribution album. A bit like how I got my hands on a VHS tape. In fact, I was starting to see glimpses of these performances being played. I realized how rare this was. The ladies’ outfits were too fascinating- Pamela Myers in his tall white leather boots, Donna McKechnie in her mini-dress that looks like a glamorous dancer that she is, all the men in stockings and Elaine stitch smoke, wear a soft white sailor’s hat and no makeup. Which group. I looked at him and too fascinated by the endless takes, the patience of the conductor Harold Hastings in his big black horn-rimmed glasses and Stritch getting drunk every minute.
My love of musicals was now part of my being. I read all the books, performed in musicals in a community theater, then got jobs in dinner theaters over the summers, moved to professional opera companies as a as a backing vocalist and I ended up playing the roles of a compressed. In college, I wrote long essays on the origins of musical theater and OKLAHOMA’s place in American culture. I created an independent study that looked at comparisons of theatrical orchestrations from the 1930s to the 1960s. And whenever I get the chance, I go to New York to see a Broadway show, my first. being WOMAN OF THE YEAR with Lauren bacall.
All the curiosity, research and knowledge led me to become a collaborating editor at BROADWAYWORLD. I like to watch shows and do interviews. Along the way, I had the opportunity to interview such wonderful women as Linda Lavin and Lucie Arnaz. But when a producer friend brought 4 GIRLS 4 to my town, Buffalo, I insisted on hosting these 4 iconic ladies for dinner after the show. Has come Donna McKechnie, Prince of faith, Andrea McCardle and Maureen McGovern. This guy died and went to Broadway Heaven. All the ladies were lovely and gracious. I sat next to Donna at dinner, complimenting and gushing about her talent. She was as gentle as she was talented.
Good, Society always stays on top of my distribution album charts. I’ve seen productions over the years, including one in Toronto and the last two on Broadway. Now I felt it was time to check off another item from my bucket list. Go to the opening night of this production. I had secured excellent seats to see this revival in March 2020 – and I canceled those plans. I knew from the theaters chatrooms that opening night seats were sometimes vacated the day before the show, if they were available. I booked my flight from Buffalo and knew deep inside that I would get a ticket somehow. I landed at LaGuardia at 7am without a ticket. At 9:17 a.m. to be precise, there you go, my contact at the theater and my good friend informed me that a few orchestra seats had just opened online. The world has stopped – my three friends and I hid in the Port Authority lobby, each trying to get a spot on our phones before anyone dared! I did it. I was going to the opening night!
I walked past the Bernard Jacobs Theater on 45th Street that afternoon. Red carpets were erected, chandeliers and light towers were erected. I told my friends that I would have an hour early to get a glimpse of the theatrical elite when they entered. I sent a message on Facebook Donna McKechnie asking if she would be there – she said yes, I would see her there!
At 5 p.m., I arrived. Cameras, lights and interviewers were already talking to the first comers and I parked next to them. There was my first observation- Pamela Myers escorted by her boyfriend Lee Roy oars! After walking down the line, I introduced myself to Mrs. Myers. She was as bubbly and charming as I had hoped and was happy to take a photo with me. Lee Roy and I had a mutual friend – I chatted with him, laughed about a few theater stories, and took pictures again. There was Michelle lee and Brenda Vaccaro by the way. Betty buckley was bombarded by interviewers, then came Donna. The press needed time with her. She saw that I was standing with Pamela – we kissed, took more photos, and my night had climaxed before the show even started. Matthew Broderick, Jane krakowski and Cynthia then entered.
The excitement was everywhere and once inside the theater the energy was palpable. The opening night program had a photo of Sondheim on it, instead of the show’s artwork – it was a nice tribute. I felt sad that he wasn’t there, having passed away just two weeks before. I imagined where he would have been seated, no doubt in the center of the 3rd row next to the other members of the original cast. At around 6:20 am, the show started – 20 minutes late but who cares! Everyone was happy and at the end of this infamous BOBBY BABY, BOBBY BUBBY — Society, I knew I would remember that night forever.
I’ll save my internal review of the show for another time, but it was a brilliantly crafted play. The standing ovation after THE LADIES WHO LUNCH found me in the midst of a group of people like me, thrilled beyond belief to witness the great diva herself, Patti LuPone, frozen, accepting the applause of his audience. When the lights went out after Act II, press cameras raced down the aisles to film the arcs and rappels. I thought about how lucky I was that I didn’t have to watch online the next day because I was living it that night.
We all walked out of the theater with blazing lights and confetti cannons covering the street. Something very special had happened. I walked back to my hotel room, taking stock of everything that had happened that day. Looking at the photos on my iPhone, I was still in awe of what I had experienced that night after meeting some of my childhood idols. I shared these photos with friends, trying to explain the importance of the evening to them, knowing that they really hadn’t “received” everything I had witnessed. But that’s fine with me. This theater geek was part of something magical … before, during and after that Broadway opening night on December 9, 2021 that could never have been dreamed of 40 years ago in my room at Parkside Court in Utica, NY.