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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Cranston for President

As soon as I heard Bryan Cranston say “It’s not personal, it’s just politics” in a TV commercial for “All the Way,” I knew I had to see the show.

I mean, come on.

Like good little nerds, my sister and I, with our friend Kate in tow, went to the show on Friday night and all gave it rave reviews.

Cranston plays LBJ in the first year of his presidency – the play opens with him on Air Force One, having just been sworn in following JFK’s assassination – as he works to pass the Civil Rights Act and run for election in 1964.

In my unprofessional opinion, this play was tremendous. It wasn’t necessarily the story itself that I loved, but the way the story was told. It followed different groups of people seeking different endgames through the same situations: LBJ trying to procure votes for the Civil Rights Act; Martin Luther King, Jr. working with fellow activists on a plan to ensure the Act included provisions they wanted; and long-tenured politicians fighting against its passage.

The play told the story of three disparate desires, but connected them in clear, logical ways. Sometimes, multiple stories shared the stage. It was often set up like a split-screen. You’d see MLK on one side, LBJ on the other. Each would have his moment to act out the scene, and then the next actor would begin telling his side of the story. It wasn’t rapid-fire or back-and-forth, but it helped me understand how the stories were intertwined. As the action shifted from one setting to another, often from a room in the White House to a hotel room MLK and his team were staying in, it sometimes seemed as though they shared a passing glance, as if to toss to the next guy and the next scene. They were acting separately, but aware of each other’s every move.

And then there was Bryan Cranston. I think he’s one of those actors you just know will be amazing, no matter the role. I’ve never seen Breaking Bad, which is what I think most people love him for. But whether he’s the CIA director in Argo or Ted Mosby’s boss in How I Met Your Mother, I think you can sense there’s something great about him.

He certainly was great in this. I don’t know exactly what LBJ was like, and maybe Cranston played a bit more of a caricature than he did real person, but he clearly wanted to represent the man himself onstage, with all his political genius and all his personal insecurities. The NYT did an interesting story on Cranston’s preparation for the role, which included a video of his trip to the Times‘ archives in search of information on the president. I also love the story’s pictures of Cranston and the cast in rehearsal. I never think about the stripped-down rehearsals a Broadway cast had to go through in order to get to the elaborate final production.

I also loved discovering that one of my obscure little obsessions had a connection to this play. John McMartin, who I later found out is a veteran stage actor with multiple Tony nominations, played a senator set on blocking passage of the Civil Rights Act. Before “All the Way,” I knew him as the editor of the foreign section in my beloved All the President’s Men. He delivers one of my favorite lines in the movie while expressing his skepticism over the paper’s aggressive Watergate coverage: “Where did the Washington Post suddenly get the monopoly on wisdom?” (A clip of this scene is nowhere to be found on the internet because I’m the only person who’d watch it. Just trust me. He delivers the line perfectly.)  I love that McMartin is still going strong, and it was cool to see him on the stage.

I don’t think “All the Way” will be on Broadway much longer, though I’m sure it will run past the upcoming Tony awards. If you love Bryan Cranston, great acting, or American history, it will enthrall you.