I had been in New York City for two months, exploring the sites and living the dream, but something vital was missing. I looked from the top of skyscrapers and from the depths of the Subway, but I couldn’t find it. Then one day I received a gift in the form of a golden ticket… a ticket that would lead me down a one-way path to the big-time.
I now share with you the story of my descent into theatre as I became addicted to the NYC Broadway Experience.
When living in New York City and trying to figure out how to live like a real New Yorker, that old quote came to mind which instructs “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. I can only guess this means that when you are in Rome you should go and see a bloody battle to the death at the Coliseum, but the closest thing I could find to mortal combat in New York City was professional wrestling at Madison Square Garden. I figured then that New Yorkers must do something else. That’s when I received a ticket to see the Broadway production of Mary Poppins. It wasn’t exactly ancient gladiators fighting wild beasts in an enclosed arena, but the ticket was a gift so there was nothing to lose.
Suddenly I was thrown into a world of culture, special effects and spontaneous song and I couldn’t stop with just one. The first ticket had been a gift, but it was a dangerous gift as I was now hooked and the ticket prices were rather extravagant. After my first hit, I was walking around Times Square in a theatrical haze when I came across a man in a bright red jacket selling tickets at greatly discounted prices. I responded discreetly in whispered tones and he pointed me to a queue leading behind the famous big red stairs. There was also a big electronic sign that showed a bunch of productions for that day, along with their associated discount price. As it turned out, there was a business being run under these stairs called TKTS which deals in selling last minute Broadway tickets often at half-price. What a devious way to make money off of us hopeless addicts, I thought to myself, but then I had already reached the front of the line and was handing over cash for another two tickets.
I would continue to rely on this ticket office in the coming months, but I quickly realised that TKTS only provides discount tickets for select shows, and they don’t deal with some of the bigger productions. By this point, my tolerance for theatre was getting quite strong so I needed something heavier. When you need tickets to the hard stuff, you either have to have a lot of money, or you rely on your big-shot New York City contacts. I talked to some friends who knew someone big and powerful in the NYC scene and they were able to get me the tickets I wanted – often even the premium orchestra seating. This is how I got to experience the crème of the crop – the ultimate Tony Award winning production, third row from the front, right in the centre. I had made it to the top, and it didn’t get any better than this.
After that, though, I couldn’t see where to go next. It seemed that it really couldn’t get any better than that production, so I didn’t know what to do with myself. I saw a couple more shows afterwards which were great but they just didn’t have the same effect anymore, and it was in this way that I was able to break my habit.
Looking back now that I’ve put that world behind me, I see that the Broadway Experience is like a bigger, better and more personal version of going to the cinema. Seeing a movie has become quite casual in these times of mass production, but going to a Broadway show is still a real event. People get all dressed up, the actors change, and because it’s all happening live in front of you, mistakes even happen. Despite the fact that some productions set up in one Broadway theatre and stay there for decades, because every performance is different the occasion actually feels temporary and extraordinary.
Another thing I can do now that I’m out of the fog of theatre addiction is look back and remember the productions that I experienced so please read on to hear about Mary Poppins, Spider-Man, Catch Me If You Can, Chicago, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King, and The Phantom of The Opera.
At The New Amsterdam Theatre
This was the first Broadway show that Jessie and I saw when we received two tickets as gifts from a friend we were staying with. I wasn’t that big on Disney so I wasn’t expecting anything amazing, but Jessie was very excited so we jumped on the Subway and headed to 42nd Street. Entering the New Amsterdam Theatre, we noticed the architecture was amazing and we had great seats right in the centre of the orchestra. The audience was made up of lots of families with excited kids dressed up in sparkly dresses and smart shirts. Then the lights dimmed.
What took place on that stage in front of me and above me proved that I had no idea what to expect of Broadway. Despite not having a background interest in old Disney kids’ stories, the special effects and production sets were incredible and I was blown away. I went in thinking that we were attending one of the lower end productions, but this Mary Poppins production seemed to have more effort put into it than the giant productions that tour the world. Amazingly elaborate sets changed completely in an instance, a kitchen was cleaned by magic, and a woman holding an umbrella floated away above the audience – all before I left the theatre humming the theme music.
At The Foxwoods Theatre
This superhero musical got a lot of attention in the media due to its huge costs (the most expensive theatre production of its time) and its technical acrobatics along with the associated accidents. In fact, there had been so many technical hiccups and less than great reviews that the production was still in the preview stage – the longest a production has ever gone on without an official opening date. So obviously when Jessie and I were invited along to see it with friends and their superhero-obsessed twin 4-year-old boys, we jumped at the chance. We sat at the back of the main floor, and the kids and their father sat above us at the front of the mezzanine.
The production has apparently changed a bit for the better since it finally made it out of previews, but when we went, it was about a bunch of comic-loving geeks trying to come up with the ultimate Spiderman story. As far as the story went, it was a bit strange at this point, considering that they had so much material to work with and decided to go for lesser known characters and a bizarre story within a story format, but I kept an open mind. The sets were great and again very technical, with bits and pieces folding out like origami to create the scene. The songs, written and composed by Bono and The Edge from U2, are a bit like embarrassing emo pop rock songs, and the dancing is incorporated into the fight scenes like the Batman TV shows from the sixties. Bam, pow, thwap!
However, what you really went to see Spidey on Broadway for was the circus-like acrobatics, and they are all here! You’ll get a crick in your neck staring up at Spiderman swinging about chasing the Green Goblin on his jet glider, and you’ll wonder how they can soar around so much with getting all their cables tangled up. At several points in the production, both Spiderman and his villains swung up onto the edge of the mezzanine to walk around then zoom off again, so this is a great spot for kids.
Speaking of all those high-flying stunts, another reason you might go to see this production is to get a chance at seeing some of the infamous mistakes and accidents take place. You’d probably hope that you didn’t bring your kids to see Spiderman fall from his webbing and land on the stage breaking his legs and some ribs, but we were lucky enough to see some awkward mistakes take place – the best being a moment when Spiderman saves love interest Mary Jane and swings her to safety, but when they land he can’t seem to undo the safety clip that holds them together. After standing around awkwardly staring at their connected hips and trying to separate, after about twenty seconds they finally manage to free themselves and Spiderman swings away to end the first act and send the audience laughing into intermission
Again, I can’t comment on the new format of the production, but when I saw it, the story and the music weren’t anything to write a comic book about, but the sets, acrobatics and stunts were pretty impressive. If you asked the kids we went with, however, it was the best damn day ever.
At The Neil Simon Theatre
I had a friend visiting and I wanted to show them what Broadway was like without paying a lot, so after seeing what tickets were up for grabs at the TKTS office, we decided to see Catch Me If You Can for half-price. We were a bit hesitant about seeing a musical based on a great film by Steven Spielberg, but nothing else available was screaming out to us so we went for it, and we were glad we did.
This musical about a clever teenage fraudster posing as a pilot, doctor and a lawyer all the while being hunted by a frustrated but sympathetic FBI agent is full of the sixties swing and jazz that you may have seen in the film and more. The sets are a little simpler yet still very effective, but the performances are amazing. The humour around the main character of Frank is a little more tongue-in-cheek than in the film, and Norbert Leo Butz who plays FBI Agent Hanratty was fantastic and later won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Somehow this musical doesn’t take anything away from Spielberg’s film but instead acts as a perfect accompaniment to it, with the swingin’ sixties jazz turned up a notch and the style turned up with it, and I haven’t even mentioned the female dancers in the musical. Imagine sixties flight hostesses and their uniforms and you’ll have a slight idea.
At The Ambassador Theatre
Jessie and I once again found ourselves in Times Square fancying a Broadway show, so after a brief look at the TKTS office (noticing that there wasn’t a great selection due to the Tony Awards being held that night) we went for discounted tickets to see the classic musical Chicago. We only made the decision around an hour before the show start so when we arrived we weren’t that surprised to find that our seats that we paid very little for were on second level to the far right of the stage… with a slightly obstructed view (one corner of the stage wasn’t visible to us due to our viewing angle). That didn’t matter too much, though, because the star of this production has been played by many famous actresses over the years and tonight former model Christie Brinkley was playing the part… then that awful little sheet of white paper fell out of the playbook – the one that announces any temporary substitute roles. As it turned out, Ms Brinkley was hosting the Tony Awards that night and the part would be played by someone else who I didn’t recognise.
Putting all of that aside, seeing this musical was a prime example of a stripped down production, with a simple, fun story and the stage set was made up of chairs and lighting effects. The performances were good with a lot of sexy style thrown in but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d missed out on Christie Brinkley, and she was the one that could’ve made this better.
In the end, it was good to see a slightly more minimalist musical where the production rests more on the story and character performances rather than special effects and huge elaborate sets, but after seeing other productions, it just seemed outdated (or classic?) and possibly a bit cheap. I’m sure real theatre buffs would disagree.
At The Eugene O’Neill Theatre
Ever since the first show I saw on Broadway, I had my heart set on one in particular, and that was The Book of Mormon. It was the new show in town, highly regarded as the one to see, and as it would seem, impossible to see. On numerous occasions, Jessie and I had tried to find tickets. We found some very expensive tickets for average seats a couple of months in advance, but while we were pondering whether or not to spend the cash, they sold out for a few more months. Another way to get tickets is to go to the theatre box office early in the day and put your name into a draw of 199 other names, then later in the evening they draw out twenty names of people who get to buy two tickets for average seats at the low, low price of $60. The problem with this is that we didn’t have time to be going into midtown every day, spending hours waiting around and then just hoping to score. After a while, we found some seats right at the back of a show coming up in about a month. They were expensive for the average placing but we knew how hard it was to get tickets so we took them. Then we overheard the guy that was behind us in the queue trying to get tickets and he was told they were sold out. Next, he came over to us with a desperate look on his face and said he would pay us slightly more than we paid if we gave him the two tickets for him and his wife. We took his details and decided to try pulling on some New York City strings to get better tickets – it was time to call in the contacts.
Speaking to the friend we were staying with, she told us that she knew someone rather powerful in New York City who would be sure to get us tickets to the most sought after theatre production in the city, if not the world. We didn’t hold our breath, but sure enough, we received the tickets two weeks later in an envelope –we had two seats in the centre, three rows from the front, valued at around $850 each. The tickets were for a show that was two months away, and in the time between us receiving the tickets and the date of our show, The Book of Mormon most of the biggest awards at the Tony Awards, making it even more exclusive. We were told the tickets were ours for free – the only condition being that we had to have a steak dinner before the show, which was also on him. We called the guy from behind us in the queue (the one that missed out on tickets) and told him he could have our old tickets for the same price we paid. Under a Subway station in the Bronx, he showed up pushing a stroller with an adorable son sleeping in it, and we made the exchange. He was over the moon, and that was most definitely my good deed for the entire year. I felt that I could even rob a house at Christmas and still be square with karma after that.
When the night finally came upon us we found ourselves seated in the orchestra with literally the best view in the house. We were surrounded by rich people young and old with giant diamonds on the fingers and pearls hanging from their necks. There was a thick sense of excitement and anticipation in the air, and then the lights went out and the show began.
For the next couple of hours, I witnessed the greatest show on earth. It was a story of a hopeful Disney-loving, door-knocking Mormon missionary that gets sent to Uganda and thinks his positive can-do attitude will change the villagers’ lives instantly. This character is also partnered up with a chubby, irritating buddy who is probably even more naïve than he is. After a lot of hilariously awkward events, a list of side-splitting songs and a few ‘evil Mormon hell dreams’, you will find yourself absolutely aching from laughter. I remember laughing so much at one point that my eyes were welling up with tears and I looked to my side and saw a lady who must have been in her late 70s doing the same – all while listening to a bizarre twist on Mormon history that involves having sex with a frog (it seems ridiculous but the musical makes it work).
I couldn’t think of anything that could have made this production better. The props and sets were great, the performances were brilliant, and the songs were hilarious. If I knew how good this musical was before I actually saw it, I would probably have sold some of my less than vital body parts for cash earlier. I’d even consider buying the soundtrack. Honestly, it’s that good.
At The Minskoff Theatre
Jessie’s sister was visiting us from back home in New Zealand so we decided we would show her the magic of Broadway shows, too. Taking common interests into account, we went ahead and bought three tickets online to Disney’s The Lion King. Our seats were average because the show is very popular, the TKTS office doesn’t sell discounted tickets to it, and we didn’t want to spend too much money.
The Minskoff Theatre appears to be quite a modern theatre which suits this musical perfectly. The sets, props and costumes in this production are all made to look like they were made by an African tribe, and therefore belong in a museum – artistic license plays a bit part here. Where this production really shines is the costumes, with people wearing big fancy masks that they can move around like puppets and people on stilts for giraffes to name just a few. As for the rest of the production, it’s the same story as the Disney movie, with the same familiar songs, but slightly more arty with the crazy costumes and props. It is pretty cool, however, to see a stampede of intricately designed animals rush down the aisles next to your seat. Oops, I spoiled it. But if you love the movie and don’t mind re-watching it from time to time, you’ll want to see this musical.
At The Majestic Theatre
Our time in New York City was coming to an end but there was still enough time for one more Broadway show so Jessie and I decided to see a real classic, The Phantom of the Opera – currently Broadway’s longest running production. We scored discounted tickets from the TKTS office with seats up in the mezzanine.
Going into the theatre, I actually had no idea what it was about beyond an ugly guy that lives under a theatre stage, so my feelings towards this production might be a bit biased as it was all new to me. This one had classic written all over it: the music was bold and familiar; the set designs were big and elaborate without being too technical; and the performances were very dramatic. Seeing this production made me realise what it must have been like before theatre was for the masses, and the perfect example of this was the people that got all dressed up for the event contrasting against the odd couple sitting in front of us: a young man who puts a lot of time in at the gym and tanning salons with a drunken wino a few years older than him that spoke and laughed too loud at inappropriate moments. When The Phantom of the Opera was king, before theatre was for the masses, that stupid couple wouldn’t be there.