Unmasked

“Think of me, think of me fondly, when we’ve said goodbye.”

– “Think of Me” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

After 35 years, the chandelier will fall for the last time on Broadway. And that’s a strange thing for an ‘80s kid to know.

There aren’t a lot of constants in American life, but “The Phantom of the Opera” has been one of them. As a teenage choir student, I obsessed over every note of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s mega-musical, and I had a LOT of company. It seemed to touch every aspect of our life.

Learning to drive? A cassette would magically appear in the passenger seat.

Practicing piano? The Phantom’s dramatically descending chords had to be included.

Singing along? You were … OK, probably out of luck unless you were a tenor or soprano, but it was still fun to try.

It came as no surprise to any of us when “Phantom” broke the record for longest-running Broadway musical and kept on going. By then, it had become more than a show: it was an institution, as much of a monument as the Empire State Building or Times Square.

But every show reaches its curtain. In February, the AP reported, Broadway’s “Phantom” will take its final bow. Far off in Britain, the original West End run will continue … for now. I type those last two words with hesitation, remembering that mega-musicals with mega-budgets aren’t a great fit for a pandemic world that doesn’t readily produce mega-audiences.

But as the light goes out on the Broadway run, I can’t help wondering – what held us all?

“Let the dream begin, let your darker side give in …”

– “Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

It’s fitting that the symbol of “Phantom” is a discarded mask. Because for all its spectacle and song, it’s a story of discovery.  

Some of the masks are internal:  characters having to discover who they really are and what they want, the basic impetus of any good story.

Some are dangerous, with the Phantom’s obsession disguising itself as love. That’s a mask we still have to watch out for in this day and age – the supposed lover, zealot or patriot who is willing to break what they “love” in order to keep it made in their own image.  

And some of that discovery means reaching backwards, facing the past clearly and deciding what it will be to us. Christine ultimately makes it a source of strength. The Phantom draws pain from it and makes it a weapon.

We still face all those choices and more besides.

“You’ll sing again, and to unending ovation!”

– “Prima Donna” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

In this day and age, of course, no show is every truly gone. We get soundtracks and videos and revivals and even movies (of variable quality). Those who want a taste of the experience can still find it, and without having to mortgage the house for tickets.

But in another way, it really is the end of an era. There’s a magic to live theater that nothing else really touches … the sense of the story coming to life for the first time between audience and performer, never quite the same. Broadway’s “Phantom” kept reinventing that story through the generations and the spotlight is a little cooler for its absence.

But the heart of the story still lives. The essential lessons will outlast any broken chandelier.

All we have to do is remove the mask and find them for ourselves.

Dr. Jekyll, I Presume?

My theatre life is still in semi-hibernation at the moment.  But I suddenly feel like I’ve been drafted into a production of Jekyll & Hyde.

If you’re not familiar with the 1990 musical, it’s another take on the famous Robert Louis Stevenson story about a well-meaning scientist who unleashes his own dark side with an experiment that works far too well. Several of the songs reflect the same divide: that the people and the world around us can have two different natures, and you can’t always be sure which one you’re seeing.

Now, I haven’t started transforming at night into a brutish ogre of a man who’s deadly with a walking stick … well, not unless there are some really strange Pfizer side effects that I haven’t heard about yet. But as we all start to poke around the edges of this thing called “post-pandemic,” I’m noticing the same sort of split.

My household is immunized. Missy and I are starting to resume our lunch outings again. (Outside, of course.) Heather is emerging from the depths of Chez Rochat to get eyeglasses and do other long-postponed errands. Signs of change are popping up everywhere, from careful and joyful get-togethers to the re-opening of the local movie theater.

And yet.

There’s an uncertainty. Not just about the fragility of this beginning-of-normal … by now, I think we all know that we’re at a tipping point where a bit of action or inaction can make all the difference in how this pandemic is resolved. But it goes beyond that.

We’re getting caught up in our own double vision.

We’ve spent more than a year training to handle a paradox. Like any disaster, we’ve had to look to each other for help and support. But with a pandemic, we are the disaster … and so we’ve also had to look at each other as possible dangers, potential plague vectors that could become deadly with a moment’s carelessness.

From that, an odd dance evolved: the world of being “together apart,” being a neighbor while keeping our distance. The steps have changed as we’ve learned more but the basic figure has remained the same.

But now things are changing. A transition has begun. And we still have our well-honed reflexes, perfect for a 2020 world, that may suddenly be out of step.

We’re entering a world with more faces again – or at least, more places where those faces aren’t sitting in a square, looking for the Unmute button. And for many of us, the reflexes are still telling us “Careful! Danger! What are we doing here?”

The heck of it is, we can’t even say yet that we’re wrong. It looks like Henry Jekyll out there – but are we seeing the right face? Even if we are, could it still shift to Edward Hyde without warning?

We’re re-learning. And it’s not going to be comfortable.

The good news is, we’ve been there before.

In 2013, a September flood hit that split Longmont in two. In 2014, the first significant spring rainfalls began to hit … and I know many of us immediately tensed, looking to the filling creeks, mesmerized by the gushing gutters.

We had to get through those next rainfalls to really see rain again. Just rain. To re-learn that while floods can happen and we need to be prepared, not every storm will be a flood. To be ready for the dangerous and the normal.

I think we can get there again.

It’s OK to be uncertain right now. It’s OK to be cautious. And it will reach a point where it’s OK to exhale. It’ll take time and some careful practice, but we will get there. Not forgetting the lessons we’ve gained, but able to judge when and where they’re needed.

After all, you’ve got to watch out for your own Hyde.

The Story of Us

It finally happened. I got to see it.

In a word? WOW.

If you’re new to this space, you should probably know that I’m a “Hamilton” fan. And unless you’re new to planet Earth, you’re probably aware that I’ve got a lot of company, including many of us who have yet to beg, borrow or steal our way into “The Room Where It Happens,” also known as a live performance of the Broadway smash.

That changed on Independence Day weekend. In a world where everything’s gone remote, the hip-hop history of the early republic followed suit, jumping feet first into streaming television. For two and a half hours we could see the show as it was on one night in 2016 … you know, back about a million years ago, when masks were something from a Jim Carrey movie?

I jumped in with it. And got hit with several tides at once.

First, of course, was a bit of heartbreak for a personal passion. Thanks to the coronavirus, it’s been so long since we’ve been able to touch live theatre – to see faces play off faces, actors play off audience, the perpetual cycle that creates something unique to the moment yet timeless in the memory. For an amateur actor like myself, to have even the shadow of that was powerful, even while it evoked the yearning for something more.

And then it touched something more subtle.

Watching the faces, you see, means watching reactions. Seeing thoughts and decisions. Having the impact of choices made physical and real.

In a story like this, that’s vital. Because this is a story about stories.

And it’s one that’s achingly relevant to now.

A bit of background: the musical sets up Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton as foils to each other. Burr waits for the right moment; Hamilton tries to create it. Burr is cautious about what he says; Hamilton produces a flood of words at every moment. Burr weighs what his audience wants to hear; Hamilton speaks and writes with brutal honesty.

And yet, at the start, they’re more alike than different. Both are focused principally on themselves. True, Burr is considering how he’ll be perceived now while Hamilton instead looks forward to how he’ll be remembered. But it’s still “all about me.”

Burr rarely gets beyond that. When he finally puts his cards on the table, his aim is simply power for its own sake. To be at the center of the decision-making, regardless of what the decisions wind up being.

Hamilton, in the play, finds the seeds of something more.  Not just because he has something he wants to build. But because he’s reminded – often in painful ways – that his story isn’t just HIS story, that the choices he makes have an impact on others.

That’s a valuable reminder at any time. And especially now.

In a crisis, it’s easy to get caught up in the personal. After all, there’s so much of it. It’s human to feel the blows, to mourn the changes, to chafe at restrictions and scream “When do I get the life that I want back?”

We all feel it. And we know it’s not that easy.

In blizzards, in wildfires, in pandemics, the choices we make for ourselves can make life-or-death differences for others. That’s always the case, really, but a disaster underscores it. A moment’s carelessness can mean a pileup on icy roads, an out-of-control canyon blaze, or, yes, an outbreak that snuffs out lives and livelihoods on an epic scale.

And when we consciously look out for others – that’s when we’re at our best. That’s when we become neighbors and communities. It’s how we recover and build. Not by pushing ahead to what we want or deserve, but by watching for the needs and concerns of others and meeting them, even when it’s inconvenient.

That’s a story worth joining.

I wonder if we can get Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the music?

Familiar and Strange

Lately my life has been set to the sounds of “Hamilton.”

Granted, it’s not exactly uncommon for me to put a Broadway cast album on heavy rotation. But this time I have a lot of company. The rap musical about America’s first Treasury Secretary is now the hottest thing on Broadway, winning the Grammy, the Pulitzer Prize, and probably a lot of Tonys in a couple of weeks, all while being sold out into the next presidential administration.

By now, the CD is spending half its time in my car and the other half with friends and family as I repeatedly ask “Have you heard this?” Sometimes it takes quite a while to come back.

It’s probably one of the most unlikely successes on the New York stage. And I’m still trying to figure out exactly what went right. You know, beyond having catchy tunes, acrobatic lyrics, and a truly compelling life story to build around. Any theatre fan knows about fun shows that didn’t last – mass obsession needs something more.

In this case, I think it’s the unfamiliar familiar.

No, my brain didn’t hiccup there. But one of the best hooks for any idea is to be almost familiar, the way a mind latches on to a song lyric you can almost remember or almost make out. (“Louie, Louie,” anyone?) You realize that it’s something you sort of know, but not quite … there’s just enough that’s alien or different to require closer examination.

Like a historical figure that most of us studied in school but only vaguely remember. (The same thing has happened with John Adams a couple of times now.)

Like a Founding Fathers drama that casts minorities and uses rap and R&B to make its musical points.

And maybe most compelling, a political setting that echoes the turmoil of our own, but with hope for the future.

I’ve said before that the Founders aren’t marble figures on a pedestal, nor were their times a stately waltz to the inevitable. In the years after the American Revolution, we had economic distress, brawling factions, threats of outright rebellion, and intense wars of words in the newspapers that sometimes escaped to the dueling ground. A presidential election once sat in paralysis for days because of an Electoral College deadlock, and passionately-held ideas fought for attention with accusations and scandals.

Nothing like the peace and sanity of our own times, right?

In that fact lies a lot of hope. It’s easy to get disgusted, to forget that we’ve been through chaos before and will be again. That’s part of what it means to be a free society – to know that things aren’t going to be neat, pretty, and pre-ordained, but that passion, conflicting motives, and even sometimes outright ignorance and intransigence will be part of the mix.

And yet, somehow, we keep going. In its own way, that’s as unlikely a story as the illegitimate kid from an obscure part of the Caribbean who defended a Constitution and built a national economy before being shot by an aggrieved politician.

“What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” Hamilton now declares from the stage. Amid today’s strife, seeds and stories are being planted that could grow into something totally unexpected. As long as we don’t give up on the garden (and on keeping an eye for weeds), it will survive the weather.

We know we can. We have a daily reminder. And a catchy one at that.

Want to borrow the CD and see?

A Life in Harmony

I’ve waited seven months for this. But now, I can finally get back to unreality.

Granted, some of my friends might argue that I never left.  After all, I live in Colorado. This is the land where May Day welcomes you with seven inches of snow in her arms, where residents petition Washington to build a Death Star, where someone can actually say absurdities like “the first-place Colorado Rockies.”

But until you can sum that all up in a two-page monologue and a baritone solo, I’m afraid it simply can’t compete.

Yes, I’m back to acting after a long break. Too long, really. Ever since childhood, it’s been the perfect refuge: a chance to throw off shyness and uncertainty and dive into another life, to say and do and be things I had never dreamed.

And this one’s special.

This time, I’m back in a musical at last.

I know, I know. Believe me, I’ve heard the jokes. And no, I’ve never walked down Main Street and suddenly seen the passing crowds break into a perfectly tuned chorus number, complete with precision choreography. Well, except maybe on ArtWalk night.

But musicals are a second home to me. I came into community theater through “Oliver!” and never really left. I’ve lived in the vanishing towns of “Brigadoon,” stepped to the plate for “Damn Yankees,” even signed up to sail with “The Pirates of Penzance.” Now, thanks to a re-located Colorado Actors Theatre, I even get to don sword and armor and join the court of “Camelot.”

But it’s more than just familiarity and nostalgia. In a real way, I think musicals speak to a part of the soul that no other story can.

We’re feeling beings, as well as thinking ones. We’ve all had moments in life that were too powerful for words – tragedy, ecstasy, total hilarity or utter peace.

It’s those moments that music was made for.

Through it, we remember the feeling of  trying to hang on to who you are in a world changing too fast. (“Fiddler on the Roof.”)

Or recall the moments when the convictions of your childhood run into the certainties of your heart. (“South Pacific.”)

Or maybe, just maybe, we take hope again that we can make the world a better place – or at least, inspire those who come after us. (“Camelot.”)

These are not small things. Or trivial ones.

And to see them all around you, to give them concrete form – that’s a special power indeed.

That’s the world I love.

I hope I see you there. We’ll be re-establishing Arthur’s realm throughout May (the details are online at coloradoactors.org) and I’ve never turned down an audience yet. If you’re too far away – well, feel free to turn on the stereo and dream with me.

And if you’re not quite sure about entering this strange land, consider this. We feature a King Arthur who promises that in his realm, “The winter is forbidden ‘til December/And exits March the 2nd, on the dot.”

If that’s not appealing these days, then what is?