It is now 8:30AM. I have been sitting here on the sidewalk outside the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater since a quarter to seven this morning. This would be odd if I were not in a line.
The bleary, blood-shot eyes and jittery-from-all-the-Starbucks-I’ve-had look of some of the folks in line ahead of me suggests that they must have been here since the middle of the night. Right now, a red garbage truck and two overall-clad New York garbage men are clearing scrap wood and metal from the stage door of a neighboring theater. The racket they are making is enough to induce deafness – or a nervous breakdown. The man behind me in line is studying a script of some kind while a boy in front of me devours his cinnamon-raisin bagel. Everybody in line looks about my age or a little younger… part of that long ever-lengthening life stage colloquially known as “young adulthood.” That is to say, we’re the kind of people that have the time, on a random Tuesday morning, to sit on the hard stone pavement of a midtown Manhattan sidewalk and wait in line.
It’s a pleasant experience, waiting, and I’d bet a “slipper as pure as gold” that you already know why. I am trying (for the, ahem, third time) to get rush tickets to see Once – this year’s recipient of the Tony Award for best musical.
Why all the effort, you ask? The first answer, the practical one, is that rush tickets are cheap. If you’ve got lots of money or lots of time you can see a good number of shows in New York. You can guess which one I and my companions in this line have in abundance.
But the second answer is a more compelling one. It goes something like this: There are people like me sitting in lines all over Midtown right now. We – all of us – want, crave, another show. We’re humming with delight as we imagine the experience we are about to have. Even the most refined among us can’t help but feel a little like an adolescent girl at a Justin Bieber concert. It’s not unlike the anticipation of eating your favorite food: as the obligatory “Come on, people, shut off your damned cell phone” announcement plays, our eyes widen, imagining the lights dimming in the theater; and if our ears could salivate in anticipation of the first notes of the orchestra catapulting out of the pit we would need a stack of napkins.
“If I’ve done my math right, you should be getting the sixteenth and seventeenth tickets,” the woman in front of me tells me. I look up from my book. I have to admit that her magenta velour sweatpants and One Direction t-shirt do not scream “mathematician”, but she has ignited a small spark of hope in me. But numbers 16 and 17 are still too close for comfort. I shuffle my feet and do the math for myself. I try to wish away a few people in line ahead of me for a moment. I made decent time riding the D train down from the Bronx, but apparently I hadn’t learned as much from my first two (unsuccessful) rush attempts as I thought. A pre-6:00AM train wasn’t enough to place me fifth or sixth in line—the musical theater version of social security.
I’ve spoken to a few of my line-companions, told a few of them that I live in the Bronx. I took notice of their surprised looks. The woman a couple people ahead of me told me that she is a concierge at a hotel, spending her day off with her son to see this show. As she talks I notice her kind smile. I imagine her in a pillbox hat and a coat with shoulder-tassels and smile myself. It fits. For a moment I feel particularly happy.
Two busses have just pulled up and spilled some guests from a nearby hotel out onto the street. They gawk. In the line we huddle together, taking shelter from their expressions.
A delivery man wheels up; he’s pushing two dollies engorged with freshly minted September playbills for the show. They smell wonderful, and my heart flushes. But, seeing the playbills, I realize that I have no idea what this show is about. Is it enough to know that it’s a love story set in Ireland (“…who could ask for anything more?”)? Is it enough that everyone I know who has seen it calls it the “best show I’ve seen in a while”? I don’t know. Still, there’s no hesitation. I am ready to drop both money and time on something I know nothing about. Sounds like the behavior of a crazy person. Maybe the gawkers know something about us that we can’t see.
In the old days of theatre, it’s fair to say that shows were just that. Shows. Spectacles of song and dance and various other talents, loosely held together by some sort of nominal plot.1 There’s nothing wrong with that kind of show, I mean, 7.5 million of us watch Glee every week. But the Broadway show is more now than it once was. Each member of my new rush-line community wants more than two hours of song and dance routines. We want songs and dances and costumes and sets and lighting design and spine shivers and tiny bumps up and down our arms. We want melodies and lyrics and a swelling orchestra and our eyes filled with tears. After the show, we want to burst back out onto the same sidewalk where we had built a temporary community just that morning, stop everyone on the street and tell them: “It was worth it.”
Because there’s something mesmerizing about Broadway that casts a kind of spell over me. When it’s done well it’s a spell that lasts well beyond the experience. I feel, I don’t know, more myself afterwards… more human. More connected with my emotions, senses, imagination. I don’t know what I want from this show, but I know I want that.
It’s strange now that I stop and think about it. It’s not just Broadway, or Once, or whatever I want to experience – it’s its effects that I want. I’m sitting here on the hard curb with my companions and already I’m thinking of what it will be like when it’s over. That when it’s over I’ll feel more human. Strange. But I want that. I want that more human, more-connected-with-what-makes-me-me experience.
I want to stop evaluating and just experience. When I spill out into the cool new York night from the heat of the theatre I want to be more attentive. Inside I’m paying attention – just paying attention – to the color of the costumes and the lights and the sets and the sounds of the voices. I’m not analyzing and judging them, not yet. I’m just attentive to them. Like they were put there on purpose.
Annie Dillard knows how to do this, too. In her essay “Living Like Weasels” she commands me: get “out of your ever-loving mind and back to your careless senses. I remember muteness as a prolonged and giddy fast, where every moment is a feast of utterance received. Time and events are merely poured, unremarked, and ingested directly, like blood pulsed into my gut through a jugular vein.”2
Sometimes Broadway is like that, teaching us how to approach our lives – more attentively, or more intentionally, nobly, beautifully. Other times it teaches us things about our lives – that we are not alone; that we should honor the way we feel; that others think and feel the way we do.
A man has just made us move our line. Our whole mini-community gathered its lawn chairs and Starbucks cups and moved, en masse, to the other side of the box office. Despite our rush-line friendships each of us clung to the shirttails of the person in front of us, our priorities as orderly as our line: no cuts. I gather my things and resettle down the block on a step still wet from last night’s rain.
Because of the move, the ever-present NYC scaffolding which provided cover from the gathering rainclouds has disappeared. Likewise the unprotected Wi-Fi that I was borrowing. The twitter hashtag would be #rushticketproblems, nothing that would make the poor soul who’s just got in line for nonexistent ticket number 21 feel much better when he’s turned away in two hours. I’m sympathetic for number twenty one. Rush line camaraderie only extends so far, but it does extend.
Last spring, after learning very quickly I was going to be unlucky #30 in the Once rush line, I moved to another line where I met a young woman and struck up a conversation with her. The two of us chatted about musicals and what shows were the best we’d seen. We got into a ridiculous argument about whether Madonna ought even be cast in the same show as Patti Lupone, much less allowed to play Eva Peron. By the end of it, the other folks in line were chiming in (mostly to chastise me on my poor taste in Eva Perons). But when I saw my new friend that night at the show, I felt a connection with her; that a small friendship had been born. We couldn’t help but start talking at intermission about the first act, the few missed notes, how we wanted to bottle the charisma of the lead actor, take it home, and keep it in a safe place.
It’s a fragile thing, that charisma. Something that can’t be captured by grainy pictures on iPhones. We wanted to talk to the lead, my friend and I that night, pour out the dammed-up energy within ourselves. At least tell him: “Me too. I feel like that too, sometimes.”
Isn’t this what we’ve wanted all along? Isn’t this why we stand in these lines, see these shows – to say “me too,” to share ourselves and our lives and stories with one another? It’s why sometimes I want to go up to the priest after a homily, or the host of a party, shake their hands and say thanks. Not too effusive, not pressing the hand too hard, not overenthusiastic – just: thank you for that chance to remember who I am. Perhaps it’s why I purchase soundtracks of the musicals I’ve seen, and buy the sheet music to play at home – so that the next day I can stay connected.
Line orderliness notwithstanding, I do feel connected to these others in line – the guy with the cinnamon-raisin bagel, the concierge making time for her son. Maybe even more so with the ten or fifteen people behind me who won’t join the rest of us at the show tonight. Twice now, I’ve been in that place in line and been turned away. As I look at them now – fidgeting, texting friends, counting and re-counting – that slight tightness at my sternum returns. It’s the anxiety that makes you crane your neck and stand on your tiptoes to see who’s getting in. It’s a thinly veiled wanting-to-be-included.
The problem with empathy, though, is that it spills. Empathizing with the people around me spills over into empathy for the homeless men I passed on the street on my way here. And for the millions of New Yorkers still packed away in their apartments above me. And suddenly there’s a tiny fracture in my chest, a small break, an opening. And I’m aware that all of the emotions I feel are emotions I share with every other person on the planet. The flush of being alive. The humanity that these shows celebrate, there’s a unity in them. And then it’s gone. My “ever-loving mind” has closed my heart back up again.
But it was real, that moment. As real as the quasi-liturgical experience of going to the theater. An experience that really does, in a sort of ironic, bourgeois way, compel me to live empathetically.
It is now 9:55AM. Before the guy next to me can finish unwrapping another cinnamon raisin bagel, a theater employee props the box office door open. A little cheer goes up from the line leading up to the box office at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. And our little community starts to move together toward the open doors.
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