It’s the day that lives in infamy, y’all.
For me, June 10 marks the golden anniversary of something hurtling from the east to the west, landing in something of a cataclysm. And that something is a small boy. And that small boy is me.
This might seem meaningless, and I’m aware this is the third entry in a row that might be described as a personal essay. But frame it as The Making of a Musical Writer and perhaps you’ll find some useful insights. I’m going to talk about the worst day of my life in a way that doesn’t involve self-pity; when I’m writing a musical, I see to it that characters never pity themselves. When those ultra-serious Eurotrash shows do that, I always have to stifle a giggle. And when you read a blog, you’re free to giggle out loud: I’m not going to hear it.
Untimely plucked from his natural environs, the lifelong Manhattanite was plopped in the lap of Southern California luxury, and viewed it as a fate worse than death. Dad got a too-good-to-pass-up job with Universal, and I got to know his black glass office building. It was square. Why? In Manhattan, you build to the shape of your lot. This was the only tower in Universal City, the large lot owned by the studio. No rationale for it being square, or black; or was I just looking for things to hate about the place?
In those days, the Universal City Studios Tour was – wait for it – an actual tour. Trams drove you around the lot and everyone got out to see Lana Turner’s dressing room. The guide proudly pointed out a familiar sight: the bridge from which Shirley MacLaine gets pushed into the water at the beginning of Sweet Charity.
Hey, wait a minute! I know that bridge. I played on that bridge. That bridge is mine, back home in Central Park, my personal property. And here they’ve constructed a replica, to fool the world. And so I thought of Hollywoodsmen as counterfeits, convincing the world they’re seeing New York – my New York – when they’re not.
Five days before our one-way flight landed in Los Angeles, something truly devastating occurred there. As a little kid, I followed the presidential race with the intensity of a sports nut twice my age. All my little kid hopes and dreams rested on RFK. LBJ (took the IRT…) had mucked up the good work of the JFK administration by miring us in Vietnam and I just knew that it would take my Senator, the slain hero’s brother, to set the country right again. That morning, I got up early to read the election results in the Times: a banner headline proclaimed good news! My idol had won. The morning edition had published too soon to report that Bobby Kennedy had been killed right after his victory speech. My parents woke to deliver the sad truth. Now, my mother had a college friend who’d settled in Dallas, and she’d long wondered how anyone could live in the city where a Kennedy had been shot. We all learned, the hard way, starting on the day that lives in infamy.
Kids bullied me. For my impenetrable New York accent. For rooting for the Mets. For liking to read. I got the idea that none of my miseries would have plagued me had we remained in New York. And so, perhaps as a defense mechanism, my heart stayed in New York. I continued to read The New York Times, and particularly enjoyed Walter Kerr’s think pieces on Broadway shows. I wish I had a picture of my bulletin board from childhood, because it symbolizes my obsessive connection with New York theatre. I took tacks and yarn and mapped the streets around Times Square. Then I cut out colored cardstock in the shapes of every Broadway Theatre, placing them on the board. Finally, I tacked on little marquis signs showing the names of the show currently playing there. But you all did the same, I’m sure.
Eventually, at the age of 16, I got to visit the actual brick and limestone and wrought-iron version of that creation on my wall: I spent 13 days back home, and saw 17 shows. A Chorus Line, Chicago (the original with Gwen, Chita, and Jerry), Streamers, Equus, Pippin and Godspell. Was the intermission of the last one my first cup of wine or my first time on a Broadway stage, or both? I was just reunited with my scrapbook from the trip, containing all the playbills. I wrote notes using the calligrapher’s pen I’d been given to write music with. I don’t know which makes me sound older, that, or the $12 ticket stub for my orchestra seat to A Chorus Line.
It was abundantly clear to me and everyone who knew me that I needed to be in New York; it was the only place I could thrive. And two years later I moved back, for college. There, I immediately had something of a rude awakening when I discovered that my classmates from the east coast had all read the Iliad and the Odyssey in high school. What did my California A.P. English course have me read instead? A tome called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m not going to say the insufficiency of a California education is my Achilles heel; I’ll just say “rivet masterlink.” (Just yanking your chain.)
So there’s the context for my unusual Golden State antipathy. (Most residents like it.) And why I always said I’d never want to raise a child in the West. But, reading this over, I see that my connection to New York theatre was somehow solidified by being away from New York theatre, for an important ten years in my development. I survived the away-time, and can take the attitude of many a war veteran: Sure, it was a tough decade, in hell, but ultimately it made me stronger.