Note: I'm in NYC this week, attending plays and soaking up the ambience of old Broadway, supported by a very generous grant. I'm posting my thoughts for anyone who might be interested.
Today I witnessed magic. Yes the carpet flew Aladdin and Jasmine around the stage. Yes, Jafar melted and the Genie did any number of other magic tricks. But that wasn’t the magic I’m talking about.
I sat in the gorgeous interior of the New Amsterdam Theatre, restored to its Zeigfeldian glory. Not everyone loves Disney but they did a tremendous service in restoring that place. It housed legendary performers—Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller. I had to chuckle when I realized that most of the time, the chorus in family-friendly Aladdin wore costumes that would not have been terribly out of place in the Follies). And, more recently, it saw the premiere of The Lion King, which has become a theatrical force of nature.
A ten-year old boy sat next to me, singing show tunes as we waited for the show to start. He’s attending a performing arts camp in NJ. His mom seemed a bit wary of me until I told her I taught theatre and directed plays. I was okay after that. Tourists who spoke a rainbow of languages filled in around a woman who has lived in NYC all her life (from her accent, I think Queens, maybe the top of Brooklyn). She was taking her grandson to the show
There I am, a middle-aged theatre teacher from Tennessee. I don’t know any of these people and will never see them again. But for 2.5 hours we shared a powerful experience. We laughed. We clapped. Many of us couldn’t help but hum along. I will admit I teared up at the end a bit, to my surprise. We all willed the Genie to take an encore after “Friend Like Me.” We ooh-ed and applauded when the carpet flew Aladdin and Jasmine around the stage, hitting our cues like we were part of the show. That’s because we were. That’s the beauty of theatre. It happens in the moment, a collaboration where the audience informs and helps it. And in that process, theatre brings people together, weaving disparate, diverse people with divergent lives and experiences into a single tapestry. Together we experience human emotion—laughter. Tears. Delight. Awe.
Many faiths have a holy rite known as Communion. My own faith has this, and I participate fervently each week in an attempt to touch God. But in the theatre, I experience another form of communion where I touch humanity. In a world where we seem to multiply ways to find divisions, where we seem to delight in minimizing the feelings of others, where we find ways to invalidate and isolate, to label and de-humanize, there is something refreshing—almost sacred--about sharing emotions together. A potluck of the soul, perhaps, where we all contribute and then consume. It's something I think we could have more of, a beneficial tonic.
I will never see the grandma from Queens again, or the little boy from the theatre camp. I’ll never see the tourists from other countries. But I’m more human and richer for having spent some time communing with them. And I can't help but feel elevated for the experience.
Another form of magic I saw was the Genie. He’s making his Broadway debut, out-sparkling and outshining every sequin, rhinestone, and gem on that stage. It’s truly remarkable to watch him, both because it’s a phenomenal, high octane performance and because there is a special joy in the fact that it’s his dream come true, as his bio notes.
I have no idea what his path was, what obstacles he faced and conquered, but I have to imagine there were many. I don’t know him, but he’s my hero now. He’s the one I shall think of when I go back to school, sit in the auditorium and try to coax and coach my beloved young students into using their upstage hand, singing with their head voice, projecting to the back row, cheating out, being quiet backstage, etc. Dreams do come true, and magic does happen. However, one of the things I loved about the show was that you could see the characters sweating. I know that sounds weird. But there’s a realness, a gritty human truth about that. It’s hard work, performing like that. It’s hot under the lights. You’re doing a serious cardio work out for 2.5 hours, and there’s the need to project your emotions and soul out to an audience of 1700 people!
I like the sweat because it reminds me that magic happens, but only with hard, hard work. And kudos and congratulations to Major Attaway for making the magic happen. The glitter you wore in your makeup and the lights that followed you onstage were not half as brilliant as your work. Bravo, sir! Bravo and many, many encores.
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