September 14, 2009

Behind the Mask

Living in NYC, it's easy to fill your schedule with the most eclectic and unusual activities - like cheese-eating contests, pillow fights, and underground tunnel tours - rather than taking advantage of the most obvious entertainment that the city has to offer: not only monuments, museums, and observation decks, but also, Broadway.

I was a big theater fan as a high school student, and managed to extract myself from my parents' house just long enough to see a couple local and touring productions of shows like Little Shop of Horrors, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Anything Goes. From the start of my freshman year in high school, I fell in love with musical theater as a performer, too, getting cast in the ensemble of Oklahoma! with only one line to say: "No, Aunt Eller, you're the best!", and then in the exceedingly inappropriate "Cell Block Tango" from Chicago in our school's musical revue. I continued performing throughout high school, joining chorus and even choking out a squeaky solo my senior year in Scrooge as the Ghost of Christmas Present. You could barely hear my tiny singing voice over the too-loud pit band.

In college, I sang as a sanitarium patient in Marat-Sade and wore hot pants and a push-up bra in another production of Chicago. Since then, my inner musical theater star has been sequestered to my bedroom and, occasionally, a rental car.

In a way, seeing musical theater in New York is too painful, reminding me of the optimism of my teenage years, of dreams deferred, of costumes loved and lost. But I had no excuse not to go see The Lion King on Broadway when I found out that our friend Jeff would be exiting his role as Zazu the bird for several months while he joined the cast of Mary Poppins on Broadway. We've known Jeff for years now but had never seen him sing and dance, not to mention wear blue face paint and puppeteer. It was time.


As a New Yorker, you're kind of programmed to hate Broadway. It's for tourists, who you're supposed to hate too. It's cleaned 42nd Street up too much, contributing to the Disneyfication of the entire Times Square area, which was supposedly better in the pre-Guiliani, pre-Lion King days of a red, triple-X neon glow everywhere you turned. Fake IDs, imitation electronics, peep shows, glory holes, and dirty movies are reminisced about as the "good old days."

So people are surprised to hear that I really enjoyed The Lion King on Broadway. (To be honest, I even really enjoyed the movie when it came out in 1994, and I wasn't even in high school anymore.) It's bright, colorful, imaginative, dazzling, dizzying, and delightful. The use of puppets to transform the actors into animals is inventive and suspends your disbelief long after the final curtain drops. Everything swirls on stage, way up into the rafters, and all down the aisles. I couldn't help smiling at its silliness, at its energy, and at the escape I was getting from the honking, yelling, mugging, stealing city outside that everybody else seems to love. Call me boring, but I like my city clean, safe, and full of flashing lights of every color of the rainbow. Broadway's theaters, and the shows inside of them, cordon off a nice little fantasy land within the city's harsh reality.

After the show, we waited outside the stage door like giggling teenagers, and were waved in by a freshly-showered Jeff in his street clothes. You'd never know that this was the guy who literally stole the show, especially in the first act. It wasn't until he picked up his Zazu puppet on the empty stage, under the dim glow of the work lights, and started showing us how to blink his eyes and flap his wings that we were really able to make the connection between our friend and what we saw on stage.

Among our group, Maria, Michelle and I bonded over our love of theater, wistful at the shows we'd been in together, trying to remember the last time we'd stood on an empty stage after a performance. We felt thrill, whelm, jealousy, gratitude, even regret. But we were also so glad to be back in that dark auditorium of the Minskoff Theatre, red plush house seats dark, downstage lit by a single bulb.

All the props, sets and costumes were put away by the time Jeff gave us our tour, but he took us into their respective hiding places for quick demonstrations of hyena masks, robes, gazelles, and even the baby Simba. We oohed and ahhed more than just politely. At least between Maria, Michelle and myself, we were truly impressed.

But there's something about loving theater that makes you not want to go backstage, to see the actors without their makeup, to see the puppets without their masters. Even as (former) actors ourselves, we somehow want to keep thinking the hyenas are real. We know they aren't. But we don't necessarily want to remind ourselves of it.

That being said, after having spent some time with the real Jeff over these last few years, I'm glad to have met the Fantasy Jeff, the song-and-dance man who makes everyone in the theater laugh. I'm looking forward to seeing the next version in Mary Poppins. I'd better not wait too long, though: Jeff's stint is only scheduled to last five months!

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