In The Presence of an Icon (Or, “That Night I Waited Five Hours for Tickets to See Bette Midler on Broadway”)

At 4am Saturday, my alarm rang. By 4:45, I (along with my boyfriend, a saint) was sitting in Shubert Alley with the seven others already in line. Our mission? Secure standing room tickets to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! that night.

At 10am, the box office opened. We each walked away with two SRO tickets.

At 8pm, the overture began. At 8:10 or so, Bette Midler appeared onstage, and one of the greatest nights of theater I’ve ever experienced took off.

Some background on why this was such an early wakeup call:

Months ago, I came to terms with the fact that I was only going to see Hello, Dolly! by a great stroke of luck or by suddenly coming into wealth. Once the Tony nominations were announced Tuesday and the show racked up ten nods, my determination to see the show was renewed and I took luck into my own hands. I researched the cheap ticket situation (no rush or lottery, but $47 for SRO). Going off the advice of a kind stranger on Twitter (whose tweets appeared when I searched “hello dolly standing room”), I decided to wake up (very) early Saturday, head down to the box office, and see what I could do.

A brief aside to sing the praises of my boyfriend: Not only did he wake up at 4am and sit with me for every minute of our 5-hour wait for the box office to open – he also brought camping chairs so we each had a real seat. But that’s not all. Since each person can purchase up to two SRO tickets, he snagged a pair, but instead of going to the show himself, he bequeathed them to my theater-obsessed coworkers (my roommate took the fourth ticket). Yes, I know, he’s the best person ever.

Seven people were already in line when we arrived, but given what my Twitter friend had told me (he assumed 15-18 SRO per show), and knowing they would be selling for both matinee and evening, I felt good about our chances. Five hours later, we emerged victorious.

Ok, now for Bette.

I honestly had no idea what I was in for. I mean, I kind of did, because it’s an icon in an iconic musical role. But what I didn’t understand until reading the Playbill is that she really hasn’t been on Broadway much (before 2013, it had been 40 years), and that this is her first huge, headlining musical on Broadway ever.

The first time she appears onstage, she’s disguised; she and two other actresses ride out on a carriage, their faces buried in newspapers. One by one, they drop the papers into their laps, and when you see that third face is Bette Midler’s, some crazy musical theater reflex is activated and you start clapping without even realizing it.

The clapping never really stops. Actually, it even goes beyond clapping; in some cases, it was full-on arm-waving, as if the person expected her to notice, stop and point, and proclaim, “Yes, I love you, too.” She may as well have done just that; the electricity in that audience never waned. David Rooney’s review in The Hollywood Reporter puts it perfectly: “Midler soaks [the enthusiasm] up like a heat-seeking beacon and then beams it right back out into the house.”

If simply being in Bette Midler’s presence was the best part, I still would have walked away happy. But more than that, she was also fantastic in the role. I loved hearing her sing, watching her dance and ham it up for the audience.

Every other element of the production was fantastic, too. It reminded me why I love classic musicals. As I’ve become a more knowledgeable theatergoer, I’ve discovered the joy of those that are more outside the box, too – Dear Evan Hansen, or, yes, even Hamilton – but seeing Hello, Dolly!, with its stage awash in colorful costumes, its songs catchy and classic, the whole thing borderline cheesy, I was reminded why I love standard musicals. I didn’t grow up with much attachment to Hello, Dolly! in particular, but it reminded me of the shows that first drew me to a love of musical theater.

I will admit to being bummed when we learned David Hyde Pierce’s understudy would be on that night as Horace Vandergelder. Next to Bette, he was a big reason I wanted to see the show (because, Niles Crane, hello). But Michael McCormick, who performed that night, didn’t seem to miss a beat, and played Vandergelder as the character I knew him to be; he had a gruffness that I almost couldn’t imagine in David Hyde Pierce.

The man standing next to me during the show had also seen the show a few nights earlier, with Pierce. He said he was also terrific, but McCormick wasn’t leaving anything to be desired. (And for the record, this man I spoke with was visiting NYC, had purchased his earlier tickets well in advance, but loved the show so much that he decided to tough it out in the standing room line for another chance.)

Gavin Creel, who played Vandergelder’s employee, Cornelius Hackl, was the great discovery for me. He’s been in tons of shows, but I’d never seen him before, and I absolutely loved him. It was when he started singing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” that I realized there was much more to this show than just Bette Midler.

And yet, there still was Bette Midler. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, I’m kind of excited to thumb through my old Playbills someday and think about how lucky I was to collide with this show, with that star.

Then I’ll remember I only secured the tickets because I spent five hours in the middle of the night waiting in line. So I wasn’t just lucky; I had to work for I, too. I hesitate to say I’d do it again, because Saturday night was such a purely lovely theater experience (and because no one should lose that much sleep on a weekend). But I’m so glad I did it once.

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On Broadway: “It’s Only a Play”

Truly my favorite thing about New York is being able to wake up, decide you want to see a Broadway show, and go.

That’s what I did Saturday when I saw a matinee of “It’s Only a Play.” I’ve been wanting to see it since it opened in the fall, and I think cold January Saturdays where you have nothing planned are the perfect days to do things like that – stuff you don’t prioritize in the warmer months or around the holidays.

The play was hilarious, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t partially want to go because so many actors I enjoy are in it. Like Martin Short, Stockard Channing, Matthew Broderick and my newest favorite, F. Murray Abraham. Plus, Jonathan from 30 Rock!

The dialogue drips with cultural references and there’s a high name-drops-per-minute ratio. The cast worked really well together, and it’s just a lot of fun. Martin Short has the stage to himself for many of the play’s first minutes, and he did one of the funniest, most engaging bits I’ve witnessed live. Like he was just telling the audience, enjoy this. Watch what I can do. 

But perhaps my favorite part of the whole experience was reading F. Murray Abraham’s credits in the Playbill.

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The man has won an Academy Award for Best Actor and lists his first credit as “Macy’s Santa.” That’s why he’s great.

And why I’m scheming ways to spend more of my winter days at Broadway shows.

On Broadway: You Can’t Take It With You

My sister and I more or less have a rule that we see a Broadway show when she’s in town. We don’t follow theater too closely, but right now there are two shows we really want to see: You Can’t Take It With You, and It’s Only a Play. We saw the former last night, and it was lovely.

I’ve seen high school and college performances of this play before (it’s a Kaufman & Hart classic) but never a professional one. Of course a Broadway production is going to be of a different caliber than a high school show, but I don’t think that was what made me look at the play differently this time. I think it was the fact that I’d never seen Penny Sycamore played by someone who could actually be a middle-aged mom, or the Grandpa played by someone who could actually be a grandpa.

That someone who could actually be a grandpa, by the way, was James Earl Jones. As you’d expect, he was amazing, delivering perfectly timed one-liners and kind of just sitting there grinning the whole time. It almost felt like he was grinning at the spectacle before him, simply joyful because he got to be in this weird little family in a fun little play. And it just so happens that sitting there grinning works perfectly for the character.

There was an interview in the Playbill with Kristine Nielsen, who plays Penny Sycamore, matriarch of the crazy family around which the show centers. “This play is about collectivism. It is ‘take care of each other,'” she said while discussing her role. I liked that. During the show, I kept thinking of The Royal Tenenbaums. A movie, not a play, but still a story about a family that’s slightly…off. No one is normal. They have spats and disagreements. They can be ashamed of each other. But they also know they’re family. They take care of each other.

We’re all a little off, but we take care of each other anyway. That’s family. The family you’re born into, and the family you create for yourself among friends. Either way, I know I’m lucky to have mine.