Tag Archives: Barbra Streisand

Pardon Me…I Believe You Dropped These Names

8 Nov

As I wrote last night, I started a petition yesterday to (hopefully) save the Cafe Edison in Midtown Manhattan, and I’m happy to say it’s going very well. So well, in fact, that I received an email today from Colleen Wilson at the Wall Street Journal, asking for a brief phone interview about the closing and the petition. Her article, “Lights Are Going Out At Cafe Edison,” was published online tonight and should be in the printed paper tomorrow. (If anyone gets a copy, save one for me!) Here’s a link to the article if you’d like to read it. (And just to clarify: I am the merchandise manager for the national tour of Kinky Boots, not the Broadway production…though I have managed there, as well.)

As I type this, we have about 3,700 signatures. Now, I’m new to this whole petitioning thing, but apparently that’s a very impressive number for a petition that’s been public for less than 48 hours. Still, I’m not sure it’s enough to achieve what we’re all hoping for, so if you’ll forgive me…I’d like to drop a few dozen names of people who have signed our humble little petition in the hopes of persuading you to sign it yourself.

::Ahem::

Glenn Close. Susan Sarandon. Sarah Paulson. Matthew Broderick. Alan Cumming. Michael Cerveris. Judy Kuhn. Lin-Manuel Miranda. Julia Murney. Martha Plimpton. Carol Kane. Bryan Batt. Karen Olivo. Billy Porter. Celia Keenan-Bolger. Howard McGillin. Karen Mason. Mary Testa. Gregory Jbara. Lee Wilkof. Amanda Green. Teal Wicks. Jonathan Freeman. Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Donna Lynne Champlin. Emily Skinner. Shuler Hensley. Rachelle Rak. Danny Burstein. Marc Shaiman. Christine Pedi. Harriet Harris. Jackie Hoffman. Lily Rabe. Harry Groener. Ron Orbach. Noah Racey. Kevin Cahoon. Francis Jue. Judy Blazer. Jim Stanek. Joe Iconis. Brad Kane. Steven Pasquale. Rob McClure. Leslie Kritzer. Steve Rosen. Jeffry Denman. Sam Harris. Ilana Levine. Mamie Parris…

I’ll stop there because I’m even embarrassing myself (and I’m waiting patiently for Audra McDonald, Bette Midler, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rosie O’Donnell, Jennifer Holiday, LaChanze, Sutton Foster, Andrea Martin, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Neil Patrick Harris and even Barbra (Ms. Streisand, if you’re nasty) herself to join our cause. And yes…I tweeted each and every one of them.)

What’s the point of all this name dropping nonsense? To show you that this diner means something to not just the poor merch folk who can’t afford expensive meals, but to Broadway and Hollywood heavy-hitters, too. It’s an indication of how communal the Cafe Edison really is – where common folk can sit next to a 6-time Oscar nominee and enjoy a cheese blintz and a latke and it’s no big deal. If Broadway were a college campus, the Cafe Edison would be the commissary where even a freshman can mingle with the most popular seniors.

My new pal, Jeremiah Moss (@jeremoss), has a very successful blog called “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York,” which chronicles the sad demise of Old New York as icons and landmarks are torn down and gutted in favor of strip mall fare. He is officially the one to have broken the news about the Cafe Edison closing yesterday and he has organized a Lunch Mob at the diner tomorrow (Saturday, November 8, 2014) at 12 noon. He’s encouraging diners to bring large signs with supportive slogans like “Save Cafe Edison” or “Polish Tea Room Forever,” and he’s absolutely encouraging everyone to have a bowl of matzoh ball soup and a grilled cheese sandwich while you’re there. If you can make it, please go. I can’t because…well, I’m in Denver…but my heart will be there with the Strohl family (the owners of the restaurant) and the staff as well as the supporters. Here’s a link to the Facebook Event Page for the Lunch Mob. Please…go if you can!

And finally, I’m going say this: The folks at the Hotel Edison shouldn’t mess with that Glenn Close. If she doesn’t get what she wants, she’ll boil your bunny or make a coat out of your puppies. I’m just sayin’.

"I'm not gonna be ignored, Gerald Barad!"

“I’m not gonna be ignored, Gerald Barad!”

#SaveCafeEdison

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My Bologna Has A First Name…It’s O-S-C-A-R

3 Mar

Well, as they are wont to be, this year’s Oscars are over…though I was seriously starting to question whether they might go on all night. And…as I predicted…I am very pleased that “Frozen” won the Oscar for Best Animated Motion Picture and “Let It Go” won for Best Original Song! (Told ya so!)

Unfortunately, I was packing up the merch booth when the movie won, but I was back to the hotel in plenty of time to see Idina Menzel sing “Let It Go.” And to hear this:

I’m sorry…what did he say? Who did he introduce?? I have to give her credit where credit is due…in spite of being in rehearsals for a Broadway show, flying out to L.A., having a limited amount of rehearsal, being called “Adele Dazeem” in front of billions of people and clearly fighting off some massive (and understandable) nerves, I think Ms. Menzel gave a pretty great performance. A lot of people have been very critical of it, but honestly, I can’t imagine being in her shoes. Her studio performance of the song, which is heard on the movie’s soundtrack, has become a bit of a cultural phenomenon and would be nearly impossible to replicate live, and singing on the Oscars for the first time – or even the 10th time – must be terrifying. Here is her performance from last night’s Oscars.

Not too long after Ms. Menzel screlted for the world, it was announced that “Let It Go” had won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Not only did this make the song’s husband-and-wife team first-time Oscar winners, it also made Bobby Lopez the youngest EGOT winner in history. What is EGOT? It’s what happens when one person wins the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards over the course of their career. Including Mr. Lopez, only 12 people have won these awards in competitive categories: Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin Hamlisch, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin and now…Bobby Lopez. There are three additional members of the EGOT Club who won one or more of the qualifying awards in non-competitive categories: Liza Minelli, James Earl Jones and my girl, Barbra Streisand.

When I worked as the merchandise manager at Avenue Q on Broadway, I briefly met the Lopezes a couple of times. They were both lovely to me and I am so happy for their continued successes. They wrote a very charming acceptance speech that ended with Kristen Anderson-Lopez sending a message out to the couples’ daughters back in Brooklyn: “…never let fear or shame keep you from celebrating the unique people you are.” I think that’s what resonates so deeply in me with this song – it’s about celebrating you, not in spite of what color or gender you are or what you believe or can do or who you love but because of those things. It was a beautiful speech and a deserved win.

While we’re on the subject of the Oscars…can we talk about Lupita Nyong’o and how devastatingly beautiful she is and how genuine she seems to be? She looked absolutely stunning tonight (as she has at every awards ceremony this year) and deservedly (and surprisingly) became only the 7th black actress to win an Academy Award, winning 75 years after Hattie McDaniel became the first black actress to win for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” Really? Only 7 in 75 years? Ms. Nyong’0’s acceptance speech was flawless and heartfelt. Here’s a transcript of it:

Thank you to the Academy for this incredible recognition. It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own. Steve McQueen, you charge everything you fashion with a breath of your own spirit. Thank you so much for putting me in this position. This has been the joy of my life. I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I.

Chiwetel, thank you for your fearlessness and how deeply you went into telling Solomon’s story. Michael Fassbender, thank you so much. You were my rock. Alfre and Sarah, it was a thrill to work with you. Joe Walker, the invisible performer in the editing room, thank you. Sean Bobbitt, Kalaadevi, Adruitha, Patty Norris, thank you, thank you, thank you, I could not be here without your work.

I want to thank my family for your training and the Yale School of Drama as well for your training. My friends, the Wilsons, this one’s for you. My brother, Junior, sitting by my side. Thank you so much. You are my best friend. And Ben, my other best friend, my chosen family.

When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from your dreams are valid.

Thank you.


If you haven’t seen Ms. Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey in “12 Years A Slave,” please do. The movie isn’t easy to watch, but I’m glad I pushed through and watched it to the end. It’s an important story told by incredible actors…and it’s the 2014 Oscar winner for Best Picture. Be sure to check it out.

Lupita Nyong'o on the red carpet at the 2014 Academy Awards

Lupita Nyong’o on the red carpet at the 2014 Academy Awards

I’m Not The King…I’m Just A Singer

3 Oct

There’s no real way to say this without sounding like a complete douche nugget, but…when you’ve worked on Broadway as long as I have, “celebrity” really loses its allure and mystery. Broadway is a very small community and you often find yourself working with, around and for some pretty famous people. Yes, I have only worked on Broadway as a merchandiser (and we are the bottom of the totem pole as far as most people are concerned), but I have worked on over 50 shows on Broadway alone, not counting off-Broadway, national tours and my years working at the Metropolitan Opera. One of the first things my boss told me when I was hired was, “We’re here to do our jobs, not to bother the actors or the patrons – no matter who they are.” And I’ve had interactions with some pretty famous people (hold on tight, I’m about to drop a lot of names here): Hillary Clinton, Ricky Martin, Kathleen Turner, Billy Joe Armstrong, Tyne Daly, Heidi Klum, Ben Stiller, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Earl Jones, Luciano Pavarotti, Ted Brokaw, Audra McDonald, Mario Lopez, James Franco, Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes…blah blah blah. It’s hard to imagine that I could possibly be nonplussed by these people now, but I am. In New York, you get used to seeing Sarah Jessica Parker walking through Shubert Alley or standing in line at Starbucks with Kevin Spacey and you don’t freak out over them. They’re just people like you and me.

This is not to say that there aren’t still folks out there that would make even me starstruck. Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé and Julie Andrews are the first three that come to mind. I don’t know how I would react if I got to meet any of them. Especially Barbra. And part of me hopes I never do meet them. Julie Andrews came to see a show that I was working in New York a few weeks ago and I was stuck working the booth in the basement, so I never even got to see her. I would like to think that I’d have maintained my sense of professionalism, but…she’s Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp. I very well might have turned into a blubbering mess. But the fact is, they’re still human beings. They’re people who are fallible and vulnerable and tangible. They are still alive and for that I am very, very grateful. I fulfilled a lifelong dream of seeing Barbra Streisand in concert last year – twice! – and I am certain that it will stand out as a highlight of my life even when I’m old and gray.

One celebrity that I will never get to meet, and one who seems to be so unfathomable to me, is Elvis Presley. He died only a few months after I was born, so I wasn’t around to experience him at the height of his glory. Or, more accurately, the many heights of his 20-year career.

While we were in Memphis last week, several of us paid homage to the King by visiting Graceland, his mansion located on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Of our group, I think I was the oldest and probably the only true Elvis fan of the bunch. I’d been to Graceland before – twice, actually – but this trip was somehow different. I think because I was finally old enough to really appreciate the man’s accomplishments. My previous trips were more for the camp value – the tackiness of the Jungle Room and the jumpsuits – but this time I went with a sense of reverence, awe and respect.

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Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

Graceland itself is much smaller than people expect it to be. It even looked smaller than I remembered when we drove up to it. Walking in the front door and looking into the living room and music room, most people started commenting about the dated decor. The plush white carpeting and the 15-foot white sofa with blue velvet curtains and the stained glass windows separating the living area from the music room. It wasn’t included in the audio tour, but I remembered from the first time I’d been that Elvis’ body had been laid in state in that music room before his burial.  That also reminded me that he had died just above our heads on the second floor. The house was no longer tacky and laughable – it was somebody’s house. A family had lived here, played here, laughed, cried and died here. But there was no mention of his wake in the music room. The stairs leading up to the second floor have been closed to the public since Elvis’ death out of respect for him and his family, which also adds to the myth and the mystery surrounding him. Graceland is no tourist attraction – it is a shrine.

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The living room and music room at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

Walking through the rest of the house, pausing to look at the awful (but original!) carpeting in the kitchen, the bizarre mirrored stairwell leading to the over-the-top blue and gold TV room with a giant lightning bolt painted on the wall, I stopped marveling at the early-70’s decor itself, but I started focusing on the amount of decor. Every last inch of the house is decorated – painted, carpeted, or, in the case of the billiards room, covered in pleated fabric. It became fairly clear that Elvis was making up for the things that he and his family didn’t have when he was growing up. That was also apparent when walking through the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum across the street. But somehow it didn’t come off as pretentious – it just felt like he wanted to provide his family with nice things because he was finally able to.

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The Trophy Building hallway at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

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Left: Elvis wearing the black leather suit during the ’68 Comeback Special.
Right: The suit on display in the Trophy Building at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

Next to the house is what’s now called the Trophy Building, and it may house the most awe-inspiring/intimidating hallway I’ve ever walked through. On both sides of the 80-foot hallway are Elvis’ gold, platinum and diamond albums (diamond indicates sales of 10 million copies or more!) and his three Grammy Awards, which incidentally were all won for gospel albums. It’s outrageous to think that one human being accomplished so much as a musician in 20 short years. It quite literally took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. Turning the corner from the trophy hallway into the museum-like trophy building, you’re overwhelmed by another facet of Elvis’ success: the movie and TV memorabilia room. In this room are costume pieces and posters from Elvis’ movies as well as costumes worn in his concerts, including the famous black leather suit he wore in his incredible ’68 Comeback Special. In terms of sex appeal, no one can touch Elvis in that black suit. This was the King at his absolute peak physically, vocally and financially. On the walls of this room are also humanitarian awards given to Elvis for his charitable contributions and old checks that Elvis had written to dozens of charities around Memphis, including the Boys and Girls’ Club of Memphis and the Memphis Jewish Community Center. There’s also a plaque in honor of Elvis’ 1961 Hawaii concert that raised $64,000 to help build the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. This was a good man who gave back to his community, his friends and his family. People are quick to write him off as the overweight man in a too-tight jumpsuit and mutton chops, but he was the real deal: a celebrity – quite possibly the biggest celebrity ever – who remembered where he came from. How anyone could walk out of that trophy room without feeling humbled is beyond me.

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The trophy room in the racquetball court at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, TN

But it didn’t end there. From the Trophy Building you are guided to the racquetball court, whose walls are covered from floor to ceiling with more awards – gold and platinum albums from Elvis’ international and posthumous sales as well as a selection of some of his famous jumpsuit costumes. While you’re completely gobsmacked by the sheer number of awards on the walls, you’re listening to Elvis singing what has been called his most emotional and personally connected song, “If I Can Dream,” and “An American Trilogy.” “So hush little baby, don’t you cry/You know your daddy’s bound to die/But all my trials, Lord, soon be over.” It’s nearly impossible to not be moved. I couldn’t help thinking about his daughter, Lisa Marie, and what it must be even now to hear those lyrics sung by her daddy. And as we moved outside to the meditation garden and the Presley’s graves, I was overcome with a sense of sadness and gratitude and awe. There I was, standing at the grave of one of the greatest artists of all time – a man whose work I so admire and grew up on – missing someone I never even knew.

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Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland in Memphis, TN

Elvis Presley still doesn’t seem real to me. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it must have been like to be him – to walk a mile in his blue suede shoes. His was the ultimate American dream come true – to come from nothing and become a legend. I often wonder if these huge superstars ever regret their stardom. Do they ever wish they could just hop in the car and run to Target and not be noticed? I remember a night when Britney Spears came to see Shrek The Musical on Broadway. She was in town doing her Circus tour at Madison Square Garden and had the night off, so she brought her two kids to see the show and it became a zoo. Paparazzi knocking people down trying to get photos of her and her boys, people screaming her name and scaring the children. She had to be walked into the theatre after the lights had gone down and had to leave before the end of the first act to make sure she got to use the restroom before anyone noticed her. Unfortunately, two young girls walked into the bathroom as she was walking out and started screaming, which started a domino effect and ultimately she and her entourage had to leave before the show ended. And all she wanted to do was take her kids to see a show. I can’t imagine what that life must be like or what kinds of sacrifices have to be made to maintain it or what kind of toll it must take on someone’s life.

I recently heard a story about a man who approached Elvis and said, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m finally meeting the King!” Elvis replied, “I’m not the King. Jesus Christ is the King. I’m just a singer.” I don’t know if that story is true, but I sure hope it is.

A Hunk-a Hunk-a Burnin’ Love

22 Jun

BARTENDER: What size do you have that shirt in?
ME: Large, Extra Large and Double X.
BARTENDER: So, do you have it in medium?
ME: I have Large, Extra Large and Double X.
BARTENDER (Clearly confused): Oh.

Today I am writing from my merch booth at the back of the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio. My booth is actually located inside the theatre, which is pretty common in smaller houses like the ones on Broadway. On tour, I’m usually set up in the main lobby of the venue, which feels like it’s miles away from the auditorium and my fellow company members. I often feel pretty isolated, but it’s the nature of what I do here.

I felt pretty “out there” in high school, too. I went to a school in Louisville that had developed a reputation for being kinda rough, and I was terrified to go there. My middle school had been on the border of two high schools’ bussing routes, so most of my friends went to J-Town High School and I ended up at Fern Creek, where I knew almost no one.

I made several friends – I’ve always been more comfortable with a small group of close friends than a large group of people I barely know – and we were all misfits in a way. My friend Natalie got me hooked on “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and we would sit in class and quote the movie rather than studying our algebra equations. My friend Amy and I would send each other notes, trying to make the other one laugh by quoting the song “I Touch Myself.” And then there was Mrs. Burton, who I thought looked just like Phylicia Rashad in her “Cosby Show” years and treated me like as her peer.

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Señora Burton in Mexico City.

Mrs. Burton was my Spanish 101 teacher, and when I started studying with her, she had just graduated with her Masters degree and had completed her certificate of fluency from the University of Mexico City. And she was Ms. Harris then. I had a huge intellectual crush on her – I wanted to know everything she did. And she was funny. For me, she will always be “that” teacher – the one who inspired you to always do better.

I don’t know why or how it came so easily to me, but I picked up Spanish very quickly and Mrs. Burton took me under her wing. Once every couple of weeks, we would have in-class Scrabble day, where we would pair off into teams and play Scrabble in Spanish. Because I had progressed so rapidly, the only person I could play against was Mrs. Burton. She pushed me. She encouraged me. She believed in me. I adored her.

My sophomore year, I ended up in Mrs. Schenck’s (pronounced SKANK) Spanish 102 class. I didn’t mean to be the know-it-all, but it became fairly evident that I was more advanced in the language than she was, which made us both very unhappy. I was sure to get back into Mrs. Burton’s 103 class the next year. By that point, I had gone with her, another teacher and a few other students to Mexico for a week and by that point I had decided that I was going to follow in her footsteps and get my Certificate of Fluency in Mexico before going on to be an interpreter. That would mean I’d have to learn a third language, at least. Two more if I wanted to interpret for the U.N.

Mrs. Burton had me reading novels in Spanish. She had me reading her college textbooks. In Spanish. She was giving me a college-level language education while simultaneously teaching high school Spanish 103 to the rest of the class. I was getting special treatment, but it was because she believed in me, and to be fair – I deserved it. I was that kid that would go home and literally study the Spanish-English dictionary to increase my vocabulary. I was a nerd, and she embraced that. I had found a kindred spirit!

Some time during my sophomore year, I got the name of a young man in Argentina with whom I would write for almost a year. He would let me practice my Spanish and I promised him I would help him learn English. We talked about Argentina, South America and, of course, the Peróns. It was such a joy to get letters from David. It was a challenge to read his letters, and I was happy to tackle it. I wore out my verb conjugation books and dictionaries trying to decipher his dialect. My brain was working at 110%, and I loved it.

During that time, my parents and their best friends, Paul and Carol, started a side job cleaning office buildings at night to make some extra cash. They would drag me and my brother along and we would vacuum and empty garbage cans and ash trays and we would get a little extra in our allowances at the end of the week. I actually enjoyed it because it allowed me to listen to my Magneto and Daniela Romo cassettes that I’d bought in Mexico City on my new Walkman (remember those?). And then one night I noticed Carol putting a tape into her Walkman, and on the cassette cover, among several other weird, colorful logos, was the face of a woman, surrounded by what looked like a sun, and underneath was written in big, uppercase letters: EVITA.

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The cover of the Daniela Romo cassette I bought in Mexico City. Her big hit was “Desnudo,” which means, “Naked.”

I remembered David writing to me about Evita, so I asked Carol what it was. She said, “Oh! You should listen to this song. It’s called, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” I think you’d find it to be really interesting because you love Spanish so much.” (Carol was an elementary school librarian, and was always ready with cross-curricular suggestions. I loved her dearly.) So she let me borrow her cassette. It was “The Premiere Collection: The Best of Andrew Lloyd Webber.”

The tape wasn’t cued up for “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” It had been rewound all the way to the beginning, and when I hit play, I heard something so strange and different and wonderful that I immediately fell in love. The sound of a huge pipe organ, a thumping bass line and synthesized drums hit my ears. Then an opera singer started singing, “In sleep he sang to me/In dreams he came…” What was this? I listened to the whole tape. Twice. “Memory” was on that tape. I didn’t know that Barbra Streisand song was in Cats! (Hers was the only version I had known until then). And I was shocked to learn that Carol, who went to church with our family, had been listening to music from Jesus Christ Superstar. Wasn’t that sacrilegious?

I became a man obsessed. As soon as I could save up the money, I asked my Dad to take me to the big record store (remember those?) on the corner of Hurstborne Lane so I could get the tape of Evita. I wanted to learn more about her, and that seemed to be the most logical place to start. I put the tape in as soon as I got home and sat in front of my stereo for the next 70 minutes and didn’t breathe. I had never heard singing like that before. Who was this woman singing “Buenos Aires?!” And what in the world was she saying?!? That was the first time I ever heard Patti LuPone sing. It was the first time I knew that Inigo Montoya (“You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) could sing. I must have listened to it all the way through at least 5 times that day. The next day, I asked Dad to take me to get the Phantom of the Opera cassette. We listened to that one in car on the way home because I couldn’t wait. We listened to the overture. About 10 times. My Dad must’ve thought I’d gone crazy, but for me, something had clicked.

The overture to Phantom made me want to learn to play piano. “The Music of the Night” made me want to sing. Patti LuPone made my head want to explode. I very quickly got in contact with my friend Jenny, who played piano very well, and had the Phantom of the Opera sheet music on her piano at home. My Mom found a used piano for sale. Pretty soon I was set. Jenny would come over after church every Sunday afternoon for our weekly lesson, and in the meantime, I would practice “Music of the Night” instead of scales. Sorry, Jenny.

One day, as I was riding somewhere with Jenny, she said to me, “You know…Phantom is coming to town next year. We should look into getting tickets. Or, we could just get tickets to the whole season!” I had no idea what she was talking about – which season? Spring? Fall? I don’t do summer. – but I was in! I loved Jenny. She was in college, but, like Mrs. Burton, she treated me as an equal – not as some idiot teenager, but as someone who had something worthwhile to say. And simply put – Jenny’s a sweetheart.

I talked to my parents and convinced them to buy me a subscription to the Broadway Series for my birthday and part of my Christmas. According to the advertisement, in order to secure tickets to Phantom for the ’93/’94 season, you needed to have a subscription for the ’92/’93 season. When you renewed your tickets for ’93/’94, you would be guaranteed your season seats for Phantom, which was coming to Louisville for the first time and was guaranteed to sell out all six weeks.

That first season was amazing. Guys and Dolls starring Lorna Luft, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (was that also sacrilegious?), a play called Breaking Legs, The Secret Garden and Les Misérables. I was in deep, y’all.

When we lived in England, we had gone to the theatre a few times. We saw Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, Richard Harris in Camelot, and my Dad and I saw The Pirates of Penzance. I fell asleep during all three. And I was terrified of Fruma Sarah. For my birthday one year, Mom and Dad took me to see show in the West End called Bugsy Malone, which was directed by Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees. I remember sitting in my seat thinking, “Is this where Mickey sat?” The show featured a cast of pie- and egg-throwing kids – literally all of the cast were under the age of 16 – and starred a  young Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Years later, as I was selling her kids some Shrek ears at a performance of Shrek on Broadway, I told Ms. Zeta-Jones that I had seen her in Bugsy Malone. She smiled and said, “Oh, you were the one?!” and gave me a $20 tip. She will always be tops in my book.)

That summer, my family moved to Paducah, Kentucky, because my Dad got a new job. Jenny and I kept our season tickets even after my family moved to Paducah. That was part of the agreement of moving – my parents promised that they would get me up to Louisville for all the shows. They knew what moving the summer before my senior year meant – how hard that would be – and they kept their promise to try to keep me happy.

When I went to register for my new school, I had one class opening that needed to be filled. I had heard the school had a great choral program, so I signed up for Show Choir. I didn’t know you had to audition for it…I just assumed you signed up for it and you were in! I got to the choir room my first day and met a kooky, lovely woman named Donna Green, who told me that she only had one opening for a male voice that year and that I would need to audition to officially get in. She took me into a small room with a piano and had me sing through “Somewhere Out There” from “An American Tale” and she showed me some choreography (step-touch, paddle turn – pretty much like my Discoveryland! audition) and she told me I was in! I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was excited.

I went back into the choir room and met the people who would become my family for the next year. In fact, I made so many friends in that one year of school because of the choir (and probably because I was fresh meat, too) that I didn’t even care that we’d moved. I missed my friends from Louisville, but being in Show Choir gave me some visibility and, believe it or not, street cred in the school, and being a new kid on the block (not the one with anxiety issues) who made it into Show Choir was kind of a big deal. I don’t think I ever let it go to my head – and if I did, I apologize to everyone at Reidland High School – but I finally felt like I fit in somewhere. The Show Choir kids were silly and talented and popular and I was a part of that. We made sequins look cool, y’all.

Show Choir was the first time I’d ever felt like part of a group. The whole gang slept over at my house one night. Some of us went to Graceland together. We had Jolt Cola parties (we were wild and crazy kids!) and we were there for each other when one of us needed support.

Our big end-of-the-year show was called “Collage: Celebrate the Victory!” I don’t remember what victory we were celebrating, exactly, but we celebrated it nonetheless. Each of the three choirs performed in the show – we would take turns being featured – and then there were the group numbers where all of us would sing together. We even did an entire Phantom of the Opera section of the show. I got to make my own mask for “Masquerade” (which was pre-tty fabulous, if I do say so myself) and I got to sing “All I Ask Of You” with my friend Shanna. The Concert Choir did a “Newsies” medley long before it ever became a stage musical, and they did lots of flips and turns and jumps, too. The ladies of the Show Choir did a “Sister Act” medley that was pretty spectacular. The men got to do “Little Darlin’,” and I got to do the spoken solo. (“My darlin’…I neeeeed you…”) I’d always find the oldest woman in the front row and take her hand and embarrass her. What? I was funny!

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Our program for Collage ’94

We also did a medley of Elvis tunes, with each of the guys dressed as Elvis in various stages of his career. I chose to be Elvis in his heavier jumpsuit-wearing days and I got it in my head that it would be funny if I snacked on something during the number. I cleared it with Ms. Green, and the first night of the show I showed up with a box of Twinkies (remember those? Too soon?). We snuck into the back of the house and as the horns started blaring “duh duh daaaaaaaaaaaah, duh duh duhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” all the Elvii ran up onstage and took various Elvis-like poses. I shoved an entire Twinkie in my face, making sure I smeared a little all over my mouth for effect, and I started tossing Twinkies into the audience. They were wrapped, of course. I specifically remember hitting one woman on the head with one. I hope she enjoyed it as a snack later.

As the number progressed, the masticated Twinkie in my mouth morphed into a big ball of sticky, doughy goop and I couldn’t swallow it. As everyone else sang, I chewed and chewed and chewed, but it just wouldn’t go down. All the while, I kept doing the choreography. My partner for the number, Stacey, knew something was up because I wasn’t singing, and she kept looking at me with a quizzical, “What the hell is wrong with you?” look on her face, but we kept going. I managed to swallow the big wad of cake, but it got lodged in my throat and I started choking. I’m not overdramatizing right now – I was really choking on a Twinkie in front of 1,000 people. But I kept dancing. At one point in the song, the choreography required that Stacey and I stand back to back, link arms, and I had to flip her over my head. That dance move saved my life. It basically replicated the Heimlich maneuver, dislodging the snack cake from my throat, allowing me to breath again. As if nothing had happened, I swallowed the cake with a big grin and sang my little blue face off. And no one was any the wiser. The show, as they say, must go on.

The choirs all sang at graduation, too. As I walked up to the front in my cap and gown, I got a huge lump in my throat – not of the Hostess kind – and as we turned to face Ms. Green and the music started, she mouthed, “I love you guys,” and I fell apart. Instead of going to hang out with my fellow graduates that night, or even my family, I went to a lock-in with some of my Show Choir friends, which just felt right.

A few months later, I’d be with my Show Choir family again, though in much sadder circumstances. One of the guys – Michael – had been killed in a car accident just a week or so after he got his driver’s license. It was the first time I’d ever known anyone who’d died other than my great-grandfathers who had both lived to be in their 90’s. It didn’t make sense. But we all came together and supported each other. That was the last time I saw most of that group, though several of us are still friends on Facebook. And I still keep in touch with Jennifer, my best friend from that high school, though not as often as I’d like. Twenty years on, though, I still consider her to be one of my nearest and dearest.

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My Show Choir

If you’d have asked me in 1993 what I thought moving to Paducah, Kentucky would mean for me, I would have answered, “It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to me.” I was so wrong! Ms. Green’s choir – and her encouragement – led me to pursue private voice lessons, which led to me getting a scholarship to Murray State University and got the ball rolling for a whole lot of great things. Some of that credit goes to Jenny, too. Mrs. Burton’s support and encouragement and her absolute belief in me gave me the invaluable life skill of speaking a second language, which has been more useful than I ever imagined, and she sparked my curiosity about travel and culture and customs. So to those two great ladies, I say a great big, ¡Gracias! Estoy tan agradecido á ambos.

I’m Beautiful. And I’m Here.

21 Jun

A MOTHER and HER DAUGHTER approach my booth.

MOTHER (to HER DAUGHTER): Which shirt do you want?
DAUGHTER (timidly): The black one.
MOTHER (to ME): She’ll take an extra large in the black shirt, please.
ME (to HER DAUGHTER): Well, these are are regular-cut shirt – for men – so I think an extra large is going to be too big for you. I think you’d be better off with a medium, actually.
MOTHER: No. She’s bigger than you think. She needs an extra large.
ME: OK. (Pulling out an XL. To HER DAUGHTER) Take a look at this and tell me what you think. I still think it’s going to be too big for you.
MOTHER: It’ll be fine. Thank you.
ME (to HER DAUGHTER): Well, if you decide later that it’s too big, you’re welcome to bring it back and exchange it for a smaller size.

I am slightly ashamed to admit that I have started following Amanda Bynes on Twitter since her bizarre behavior and arrest in the past few weeks. I fully admit that I followed her on Twitter only because I was curious to see just how crazy she really was. Part of me, however, was hoping that people were somehow just misinterpreting what she was trying to say – that she wasn’t as bad off as people were reporting.

What I’ve learned from Ms. Bynes’ tweets is that she is obsessed with her looks, and more specifically, changing them. When she’s not fighting some sort of Twitter assault against “the haters,” she’s talking about how excited she is for her surgeries. And then tonight she tweeted something that really upset me, because it goes against everything that I believe we should be teaching young people – particularly young women – these days. She wrote, “It doesn’t matter if you feel sexy if you don’t look sexy.”

From the time I hit puberty, I knew something was kind of different about my build. I developed leg hair very early in my development and my Mom, who was younger then than I am now, made jokes about the hair that was starting to grow in various places on my body. I know she didn’t mean any harm by it – I think it helped her cope with the idea of having a teenaged son – but it made me incredibly self conscious. I stopped taking my shirt off when I went swimming. I must’ve gone through a bottle of roll-on deodorant a week to try to avoid body odor. I didn’t understand what was happening to my body and having my Mom ask me about it just made me feel even grosser. I was mortified when my grandfather once hugged me and then felt my cheek, telling me it was time I started shaving. I was well aware that my body was changing and I really didn’t want anyone else pointing it out to me.

As I got through puberty and settled into myself a little more, I didn’t really think about my body so much. I still wouldn’t take my shirt off in front of anyone, but I didn’t worry anymore that I was weird-looking or awkward. I made it through high school and college without any real issues. The braces came off my teeth. I never had acne. Sure, friends would comment on how big my calves were now and then, but that was pretty much the extent of it. It was no big deal. Once I got to grad school, things changed.

Show business is, unfortunately, a very image-based industry. In undergraduate school, it never occurred to me that I would eventually be limited to being cast in certain roles based on my appearance. That all changed with my first audition in graduate school. The first show of the season was My Fair Lady, and auditions were held before we even started classes.

I had heard that it was very difficult to be cast in a show at my new school. The talent pool at that school was quite deep, so I was really pleased to get a callback for the role of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who sings “On The Street Where You Live” in the show. I sang a cut of the song at the callback and waited to see if I would make it into the cast. As it turned out, I was cast in the “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” quartet and I was also to understudy Freddy. I was really excited, flattered, honored and a little bit scared. The day the cast list went up, I went down to the office of our Director of Opera and Music Theatre to thank him for casting me in the show. It was only our second day of class, and I wanted to start off on the right foot.

Things didn’t go quite the way I expected. I knocked on the door, introduced myself and thanked him for putting me in the show, adding that I was really excited to get to understudy Freddy. I was expecting a simple, “You’re welcome. I look forward to working with you.” What I got instead was, “Well, if you were 20 lbs. lighter, you wouldn’t be the understudy…” That was the moment that I became painfully aware of my weight. Over the next two years, Herr Direktor would repeatedly come back to it to keep me in check.

The final show of my first year in school was Sweeney Todd. Everyone wanted to be a part of that show – especially me. I would have been happy just to be in the ensemble, but I secretly had my heart set on the role of Anthony. If I recall correctly, auditions for Sweeney were to be held at the beginning of the spring semester, just after we returned from Christmas break. Herr Direktor, who was also my acting teacher, had warned each of us in his acting class to be prepared to face our neuroses in our acting final, which would be held one-on-one with him in the male ensemble dressing room just down the hall from his office. The final was a three-parter: 1) A prepared monologue, 2) Presenting a monologue using song lyrics and 3) Herr’s neurosis analysis.

Parts 1 and 2 went pretty well. Part 3 had me terrified. I honestly didn’t think I had any neuroses – I was only 22! I wasn’t even really sure what a neurosis was! He had assured us, though, that he knew us better than we knew ourselves. Part 3 of my final was being told that if I expected to land a role in Sweeney Todd, I should consider losing 15 pounds.

I wasn’t cast as Anthony, but ended up with what I now consider to be a much more interesting role – Tobias Ragg. Toby really gave me an opportunity to act as well as sing. It also gave me the opportunity to sing “Not While I’m Around.”

In 1985, Barbra Streisand released her first Broadway album, which included amazing arrangements of “Putting It Together,” “Somewhere” and “Not While I’m Around.” My Mom has always been a big Barbra Streisand fan, and I distinctly remember sitting in the back seat of my Mom’s car one night, listening to Barbra, and as that song began, my Mom looked at me in the rear view mirror and said, “This is my song to you.” In the show, it’s a song sung by, for all intents and purposes, a child to the woman he loves as a mother. As sung by Barbra, it is essentially a promise from a mother to her child to protect and care for him as long as she’s around. I had forgotten about all of this until we got into rehearsals. One night, as we were doing a sing-through with the entire company, just before my song, our conductor whispered to me, “Make them cry.” Suddenly it all came rushing back to me, and the song – and the role – took on a much deeper meaning. The night that my parents flew in to Oklahoma to see the show, I could barely make it through the song. Even though I was singing in front of 1,200 people, it felt like I was just singing it to my Mom. I had told the story to some of my cast mates before curtain that night and I couldn’t look at my Mrs. Lovett or our conductor because they were both teary-eyed, too. It was one of the most wonderful moments I’ve ever had onstage. I felt like I had finally come into my own. I’d done something right.

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Things continued to go well at school through the next fall semester. Herr Direktor and I had pretty well kept out of each other’s way, even though I had been cast in every mainstage show (all of which he directed) since I’d entered the program. I got to my last semester and started to put the final touches on my Masters thesis and recital. According to the rules of the university, I was able to choose my graduate review panel, and I deliberately did not choose Herr Direktor. Even though he and I had figured out a way to work together, I was certain he would make my thesis approval a living hell and I didn’t want the stress of dealing with him. He approached me one day, asking why I hadn’t selected him and then told me he needed to be on my review board and that he would speak to my graduate advisor about swinging him in. I emphatically told my advisor that I did not want him on my board, and to his credit, he defended me and my board choices and would not allow Herr Direktor to push his way onto my review board.

This did not sit well with Herr Direktor.

Casting had begun for the last show of our season – the last show I could do In my school career. It was The King and I – a terrible choice for what was basically a music conservatory full of white kids in the middle of Oklahoma. I knew the only place I could possibly fit in that show was as Lun Tha – Tuptim’s love interest – but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be cast in the role. What I expected even less was being cast as the non-singing Kralahome, who was required in the first scene of the show to be shirtless. Shit.

As I had with each show, I thanked Herr Direktor for putting me in yet another show, and his response this time was, “Don’t think I didn’t know exactly what I was doing by making you take your shirt off in this show.” I immediately went on a diet and hit the tanning bed for 20 minutes a day for four months straight. By the time we got to tech rehearsals, I was as brown as a biscuit and had lost about 10 pounds. Jazz and ballet class had helped tone me up, as well, but I still couldn’t bring myself to take off my shirt in front of everyone. I wore a wife beater as a way of slowly easing myself into the idea of exposing my torso in front of my closest friends. I couldn’t even begin deal with the idea of 4,000 people seeing me shirtless in one weekend. To their credit, my cast mates were incredibly supportive, and looking back at photos, I looked really good. In the throes of it, though, I just knew I looked awful. I had a panic attack before our first performance.

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During the photo call for The King and I, we were setting up for the final scene of Act One. The King has called all his wives and advisors in to pray to Buddha because he has heard the British are coming, and Anna and the King are testing each other’s will, seeing who can bow lower than the other. The entire company was onstage, and many of their families were out in the house taking photos and waiting for us to finish up to go home. We had professional photographers in the house, as well, in addition to the show’s crew. There were a lot of people there. I was situated downstage, next to Anna, sitting with my legs folded under me, my hands pressed together at my sternum, trying to sit as still as possible so we could just get the shot and go home. From the back of the auditorium, in front of all of my colleagues, their parents, etc., I heard, “SUCK IT IN, BRATTON!

Since then, my weight has been a constant concern. Only recently, ironically, my muscles have also become an issue.

I’ve always had large calves. I don’t know how they got that way…they’re just big. The last time I had a costume measurement, I think they were 18” around when flexed.

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About three years ago, I started working with a marketing and promotions company that hired people to work as brand ambassadors to promote various companies. I got the job through a friend and it paid really, really well for what it was. I quickly climbed the ladder at that company and began managing for them within a couple of weeks of being hired. I was one of their top brand ambassadors and a go-to for most of their major accounts.

Two summers ago, they hired me to promote a television network’s summer lineup. There were eight of us – four men and four women – and we had been dressed in identical clothing at the request of the clients: a branded t-shirt and hat, white ankle socks, blue sneakers and khaki capri pants. Throughout the day, our manager would gather us up and have to take a group photo – tuck the shirts in, untuck them, roll the pants up another half inch, roll them down, etc. For some reason the client just did not seem to be happy with the way we looked.

At the end of the shift on our first day (the promotion was to run a week), I got a text message from the project manager back at the office asking me to come back to the office for a meeting when I finished up. I knew that couldn’t be good, but she assured me it was nothing to be nervous about. She just needed to chat with me.

When I arrived at the office, she took me into the conference room and closed the door. “Jason, I can’t even believe that I’m about to say this to you because you’re one of our very best, but I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able to continue the promotion with you. It has nothing to do with you work – you’re the best B.A. we’ve got. It’s just that the client has decided to go with a different look. I’m so sorry. They feel that they need another girl on the team. You will, of course, be paid for the rest of this week, but you won’t be needed any longer. I hope you understand.”

I didn’t understand. If I was the best brand ambassador they had, why had they specifically chosen me to be let go? There were three other men on the team, but I was chosen to be fired. Why? She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give me any more answers. No specifics. I might have believed that they really did just want to have another girl on the team…until I was offered $500 in addition to the remainder of the week’s pay to keep quiet. In hindsight, I know that it was essentially hush money for them firing me based on my looks. Was I too fat? Did they not like the way my legs looked in the awful capri pants they’d put us in? What was it? No one would tell me.

Around that time, I also started noticing people on the subway reacting to my legs. People would nudge their friends and point and whisper. I saw at least three people on separate occasions taking pictures of my calves with their smartphones. (Here’s a tip if you’re trying to sneak photos: People can see reflections in your glasses, so don’t pretend that you’re playing Angry Birds when one can clearly see their own legs reflected in your Ray Bans!) One man actually ran across 8th Avenue to stop me on the street to say “Damn! I ain’t never seen legs like that before!” A bike messenger passed me once and said, “Damn, bro! I wouldn’t want to get kicked by you!” At that point, I certainly would have been happy to give him a swift kick. A woman actually grabbed one of my calves and said, “I’m sorry – I just had to touch it.” I felt like I finally had an idea of what life must be like for women with large breasts. Each time these instances occurred, it sent me into a tailspin of anxiety, frustration and self-loathing. I felt like a freak, so I ate. There were long, tearful come-to-Jesus talks with my roommates. And I ate. I wore long pants regardless of the heat. And I ate.

I found a wonderful therapist in New York who helped me sort out a lot of things and put a few things in perspective, but even after two years with her, I still struggle with my body image. I find that I dress to blend in – to not call attention to myself. To hide. Not a good thing for someone whose career depends on standing out. I’ve gained a good amount of weight on this tour just because of the nature of touring. It’s hard to eat “well” on the road with no kitchen. Traveling with a bunch of dancers who have the most incredible bodies I’ve ever seen makes it hard, too, but I have to say, not one of them has ever made me feel badly about my body. I know how hard they work and what they have to sacrifice to maintain their build, but I also know that they love to eat. And nothing gives me more pleasure than to see a ballet dancer shove a Double Quarter Pounder in her face on a travel day.

As someone who struggles with his inner fat kid demons every day, it makes me so angry when I read things like Ms. Bynes’ tweet. “Sexy” or “beautiful” or “talented” has nothing at all to do with what you look like and everything to do with how you feel about yourself. Weight can change. Your hair changes colors or falls out or grows where you don’t want it to. Skin wrinkles. All of that is simply cosmetic. It’s what’s in your heart that matters. So to Ms. Bynes I offer this challenge – rather than being so concerned with getting your nose “fixed” and paying thousands of dollars to a plastic surgeon, spend that money on a therapist who can help you fix whatever is broken inside you.