I’ll never forget the first moment that theatre took hold of me, never to let go. I was around four years old and my parents took me to see my oldest brother Carl in his high school production of Get Smart, a theatrical version of the TV show. Sure, I remember the sight of a bunch of teenagers in trench coats and fedoras, standing in an a fake office talking like grown-ups, but the real moment that I’ll never forget was this: A couple guys were arguing. One of them had a pistol. The lights went out. Total darkness. You could hear them struggle. Then, all of a sudden, BANG! The gun goes off. A flash. The lights came back up. And all the people were still alive.
It was a long, long time ago but I’m sure that I sat there in absolute wonder. It was magic.
About ten years later I acted in my first show — I played Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace. I did things on stage and the audience laughed. I don’t know if I ever had made anyone laugh prior to that. I wasn’t a funny kid. I felt like a magician. It gave me self-confidence and joy. I knew from that moment that this kid in the middle of nowhere wanted to do this for the rest of his life.
The opening number of the Tony Awards on Sunday night kind of did it to me all over again. I could write for days about it. But I’m not going to. You just should watch it and have your own reaction. You can do that right here: 2013 Tony Awards Opening Number. It’s by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
If your reaction is anything like mine, you’ll have chills running up and down your arms, you’ll get a lump in your throat, you’ll feel downright apprehended by people doing things in front of you. Maybe you’ll applaud, even though those who deserve it can’t hear you. And, maybe like me, when the following line comes, you’ll see your life go through one of those memory vacuums that you see in movies, sucking you right back to where it all began:
There’s a kid in the middle of nowhere sitting there
Living for Tony performances
Singin’ and flippin’ along with the Pippins
And Wickeds and Kinkys,
Matildas and Mormonses.
So we might reassure that kid
And do something to spur that kid.
Cause I promise you all of us up here tonight.
We were that kid
And now we’re bigger.
When the superhuman Neil Patrick Harris raps this lyric, you can feel things change in Radio City Music Hall. Shit gets real. The truth has landed. Magic is in the air (literally). The calendar shatters and we all become kids again, in the middle of nowhere. A timeless, ageless vortex of wonder.
Watch the reactions of the audience. Their mouths are agape. They are breathless. They’ve simultaneously lost themselves and found themselves. Right then. Right there. Because they all started as that kid in the middle of nowhere. And I can guarantee you that not one of them has forgotten that.
I haven’t. And performances like that bring me right back to that BANG! and those laughs and remind me that theater is not only fun and exciting and the thing that I do best, but it’s a goddamn necessity. We need to sit in awe. We need a sense of wonder. We need to see that imagination can be tamed, crafted and delivered. Because imagination and hope go hand-in-hand. And the moment we stop wondering what is possible in our lives is the moment of true despair.
Which leads me to Mike Tyson. Mike Tyson had a one-man show on Broadway this season. Mike Tyson. So, he appears in the number, briefly and awkwardly. But at the very end of his bit, he does something that made me smile a profound smile.
He shouts “Go, Neil, go!” in unison with the company, turns to exit and, precisely on beat, hops in the air, windmills his legs á la Dick Van Dyke and, like a gleeful kid on Christmas morning, scurries away. It was most definitely choreographed. But I want to believe that Mike Tyson — a man who made a career out of beating other men to a pulp, then lost it all — was so taken by the theater that it just happened to him. His body — engineered to cause as much physical damage as humanly possible — just did that spontaneously.
In a great piece on NPR called “Is This the Greatest Awards Show Opening Ever?“, Linda Holmes throws down the gauntlet: “…if you run the Oscars and can’t figure out how to do for and with love of film what the Tonys are doing for and with love of theater, you are terrible at your job and should hand it off to someone else.”
But here’s the thing: Film can’t do that, no matter how much you love it. It can do plenty of other things. But that? Make thousands of people applaud and cheer and give themselves over to a moment? Nope.
That’s our game, folks. And when it’s great, it’s an absolute wonder.