Below are a few narrative essays about some incredible experiences I’ve had centering around some amazing people and one beautiful show.
Let the Music Take You
Rain spattered the car windows as we drove to Detroit at the crack of dawn. It was my first time on a plane in my conscious memory, the only other time was when I was eleven. I felt uneasy about the flight and the security procedures at the airport. Fortunately, we got there early enough that security was a breeze and soon, we were sitting in the weathered leather chairs, waiting for the plane to arrive. After boarding, I dug out my favorite book, the pages dog-eared and scribbled on, highlighted and underlined. “Untold Stories of Broadway,” it was called, and my mom referred to it as my security blanket because I carried it everywhere with me. The author, Jennifer Tepper, had interviewed people in various careers on Broadway and categorized the interviews according to theatre. I couldn’t wait to visit the legendary theatres that were featured in the book.
After the plane landed, we retrieved our luggage from the baggage claim and hailed a taxi. “Where you ladies from?” the cab driver asked. “Kalamazoo, Michigan,” my mom answered, absolutely impudent to have been a citizen of our small town since birth. I closed my eyes and listened to the man tell us how he had fled Haiti as a boy and moved to New York in search of the American Dream. “And I’m living it now,” he exclaimed, lavishly. I suddenly realized how simple a dream could be. I had been coming to New York every summer in search of a much bigger dream than driving people around in a yellow car. I found it admirable.
After dropping off our luggage and checking in at the hotel, my mom and I stepped out into Times Square, immediately struck by the baking sun. My ears filled with the sound of taxis honking and people shouting. A line of young schoolboys wearing kippahs marched by us. We made our way toward the street fair down the main strip. I bought a gyro, the warm foil heating my palms. To my left were racks upon racks of bright bohemian dresses: electric pinks, sunset oranges, canary yellows, and meadow greens. To my right was a table full of gold and silver rings, gleaming under the sun. Behind that was a wall of beads hanging from a droopy white tent. It was a captivating sight and I was overcome with the feeling of being a part of something larger than myself. I wondered who else had stood in my exact spot and felt exactly what I was feeling.
Later that afternoon, we returned to our hotel room to dress for a show. I powdered my face and curled my hair. I slid on my pink baby doll dress. Excitement stirred in my stomach as we rode down the brimming elevator.
We started off into Times Square and soon found ourselves on narrower streets, drawing away from the throngs of people. We reached a large building that was a coalition of tiny black box theaters, and climbed three flights of stairs to our destination. We sipped cokes in a jazzy bar on the second level of the theatre building.
My mom left me at a high round table while she went to the bathroom. I thought back to the very first time I’d met Hannah Elless. She had come back to The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre to announce the line-up for their 85th season. My friends and I had all rushed out to the lobby as soon as the speeches were over, hoping for a chat with our hometown hero. As soon as we saw her, we all stood in awe, and spoke like bumbling fools. We had no idea what to say to her. Of course, she was sweet as could be and talked about what it was like returning to Kalamazoo from New York.
Fast forward to Christmas break. I was attending a day-long masterclass given by one of my teachers from The Kalamazoo Civic. She had promised teaching artists from New York, although she refused to tell us who. After a day filled with projection exercises, dancing, and a crash course in healthy belting; Hannah walked in. My stomach fluttered with surprise. She spent about two hours teaching us and answering questions. At the end, I went up to her, alone this time, and we talked about an audition I had for a role she had played when she was in seventh grade. Then, we walked down to the group and talked for at least a half an hour longer. We talked about 54 Below, and Jennifer Tepper, and New York City happenings. I had gotten in trouble for staying out too late, but it was totally worth it.
“Let’s head down to see if they opened the doors yet,” my mom said, pulling me out of my flashback.In the little lobby outside our theater was a hyper college student carrying a metal money box and a stack of programs. He was acting as the make-shift box office. As more and more people arrived and added their name to the waiting list, I began to get nervous. I hoped that our tickets were in that will-call box. Hannah was one of the stars of the show and she had gotten us in to see a hot new reading in one of New York’s most prestigious play festivals showcasing new works by up and coming composers. I had absolutely no knowledge of the show or the style of music or really anything except the title, For Tonight.
I was torn from my thoughts as the theatre exploded with singing, a last minute rehearsal. It was suddenly real, Hannah was in that room and I’d get to watch her in a new show in New York City in just a few minutes. I wondered if she remembered that I was coming.
The man asked what name our tickets were under, and I felt so glamorous saying, “Hannah Elless.” I felt like a debutante, making my way into New York’s theatre society.
We entered the tiny brick room and chose a seat in the center of the fourth row. Since it was a staged reading, the performance would take place with the actors sitting in a semi-circle of chairs on the floor with the audience facing them on risers. There was no stage. There were four music stands in front of the chairs, and the actors would stand in front of a music stand, reading the lines and lyrics from their binders. They might switch from one stand to the next, but choreography would be minimal. It was an incredibly intimate format. I flipped open the program and went straight to Hannah’s bio. I loved seeing Kalamazoo attached to her name, and how she’d grown up acting at The Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, just like me.
The lights dimmed and the performers filed out from behind a little black curtain, Hannah at the end of the line. Her hair was braided at the crown of her head. She sat by herself at the head of the semi-circle, placing her black binder under her stool. The ensemble began moving fluidly around the stage, “Hey, hey, away, hey, hey, away, let the music take you…”
Hannah played a mystical gypsy, Mirela, who fell in love with a man who refused to allow her into his town. It was a thrilling mystery that tugged at my heart and toyed with my emotions. I loved every single second of it. The whole show was a contradiction of folk/rock music and a 19th century setting, and it clashed in the most incredible way.
After the show, my mom went to the lobby and I waited on the stage area for Hannah to come out. She walked out with the leading man, Brandon, and as soon as she spotted me, her face lit up. “This is Bailey, she’s from my hometown, she knows like more about Broadway than I do. She’s like read Jen Tepper’s book and everything,” Hannah said to Brandon. “And this is Brandon, he had a bad experience in Kalamazoo,” she said to me, her eyes brimming with a story.
“Oh, really, what happened?” I asked, intrigued. “He was on the American Idiot tour,” she started, and then she grabbed my shoulders, “have you seen American Idiot?” she asked, as if it was the most urgent thing on the universe. “No, but I’ve watched the documentary,” I told her. “That’s a good one,” Brandon said and I agreed. She had totally forgotten why we were talking about American Idiot and forgot to tell me the story. But I didn’t even care. “I’m so happy you could come,” she said. “Oh my gosh, it was so good! Thank you for getting us tickets,” I repsonded.”They told me that you’d be on a waiting list, but they’d do their best, I didn’t realize how sold out we were,” Hannah said. “There were a lot of people waiting in the lobby on the waiting list! It’s a hot ticket,” I said.”Guys, we need you to get out of here,” the stage manager said, shuffling the herd of people toward the door.”I guess we better move out,” Hannah said.
We walked out toward the doorway, and my mom met us there. We took some pictures together, posing against a brick wall. Hannah kept making me laugh, which made for some really cute pictures. The stage manager pushed us out further into the lobby. “What else are you seeing?” Hannah asked.
“We have tickets for Beautiful tomorrow, and we’re seeing Klendez at 54 Below, and then we’re going to do the rest on TKTS.””Are you doing anything else today?” Hannah asked.
“We talked about seeing a show, but we’re pretty tired. We got in this morning,” I said.”Did you guys fly Spirit?” She asked, and I smiled at her use of “you guys,” she was definitely a Michigan girl. “We drove up to Detroit in like the middle of the night so we got here at 8 this morning.” The stage manager came out again, wanting us to leave. “We’ll, I’m so happy you could come,” she said. “Yes, thank you so much,” she gave me a hug, and we said goodbye.
I floated down the stairs, my head exploding, trying to sort out everything that I’d just experienced. It was my first time seeing a show at its earliest stage. I was part of the initial group to view a possible hit. What if something in the show changed because of a note I wrote on a comment card? What if, years down the line, it transferred to Broadway and became a smashing success? What if Hannah won the Tony award and I got to watch her cross the stage and I could tell the story about being one of the first people to see her in that role? The sky was the limit with what could happen to this musical, and I was imagining all of the possibilities on the walk back. I could not be bridled. I gazed up at the towering Broadway posters in Times Square, at all of the movie adaptations, and jukebox musicals, and revivals and I realized how lucky I was to see original work. Broadway needs more of that original stuff.
For Tonight at MSU
“Bailey, you want to come up and talk about that. How the show has changed since NYMF?” Joe, the director of For Tonight, was leading a talk-back with the cast after their closing show, when he turned to me in the audience and invited me onstage. I popped up out of my seat, surprised, and made my way toward the stage, an excited-nervous energy rushing through me. “Bailey loves the show so much that her dad put the YouTube tracks onto a CD so she could listen to the show in her car,” Joe said, and I nodded, smiling at my dad in the second row. “She is also really inspired by Hannah,” Joe said and Hannah smiled at me.
I stood there next to him and slowly began to talk, thinking carefully about what was I was saying, “Well, a little over a year ago, I was getting ready to come to New York, and so I asked Hannah if she was going to be in anything,” I said, looking to Hannah who nodded at me, beaming, as if to say, ‘you got this, girl.’
“She told me about For Tonight, she said she thought I would like it, and I didn’t know anything about it, other than the fact that Hannah was in it, and I went and I loved it. I loved the music, everything. So then, in my English class, we had to write about a vacation that had an impact on us, so I wrote about that, about seeing For Tonight and everything,” I stole another glance to Hannah, who nodded again, “and then Hannah read it, and Joe ended up reading it, and Spencer, and that’s kind of how I met them. So, yeah. And the show is definitely different from when it was at NYMF, there’s a lot more dialogue and some new songs which is really cool Anyway, you guys are all amazing,” I finished, and the cast made a collective, “Awwww.” I returned to my seat, bursting with pride and excitement for this show.
After the talk-back, I grabbed my poster and waited for Hannah to finish talking to her family. We took a picture and then she was off to greet some of her friends who had come to the show. But, before the picture, we must have talked for a few minutes. I don’t remember what we said, but my dad was taking pictures even while we were just talking, and there is one photo that captures this thing about Hannah that is so incredible. When you talk to her, she listens in a way that makes you feel like the most important person in the world at that moment.
Next, I was talking to Joe, who took me backstage to the green room to have some more members of the cast sign my poster. The other lead, Adam Theodore Barry, seemed to find my throwback NYMF poster pretty cool, because he had been in that original production as the Romani man. Joe and I returned to the stage area and we talked for a few more minutes. He signed my poster with a gold Sharpie.
After that, I got to meet the writers. Before that day, I had never met them in person, but I had talked to them on Facebook quite a bit, and I was so excited to have a real, in person conversation with them. The composers, Spencer and Shenelle, signed my poster and then we took a picture on Spencer’s phone.
Then, we talked about colleges, because I had just visited a school in Ohio called Baldwin Wallace. Spencer and Shenelle are teachers, and they have some students who attended BW for Musical Theatre, and they raved about the program. I had recently changed my mind, deciding to pursue Arts Management instead of Musical Theatre, and as soon as I said that, Shenelle looked at Spencer and said, “We were just discussing that the other day! That you have the perfect personality for Arts Management!” Although I am super excited about Arts Management, it has been slightly nerve-wracking to tell people about this new decision. But now, these were two people who had never met me in person, acknowledging my abilities in Arts Management. I took this as a message from God that my life was going in the right direction.
After talking to everyone, I decided that I needed a selfie with Hannah, to set as my new profile picture (of course!). When I approached, she was talking to some friends, and I chatted with her husband, Steve, for a few minutes. “Hey Hannah, we’ve got a selfie request right here,” he shouted, grinning. We took six selfies together, because is it even possible to take just one?
After selfie-time was over, we talked some more. We got to talking about colleges, and how I had changed my intended major. At the end of our chat, she said, “Oh, I’m so proud of you!” And then she gave me a hug. It was one of those moments that I will remember forever.
I walked away feeling more than inspired. I felt appreciated and understood and loved. Thank you, For Tonight company, for being the amazing people that you are.