Well, Ma had her last show a couple weeks ago. That’s 42 years backstage for her—and a full 30 for me backstage-by-proxy. I always hinged a great deal of my identity (and an unhealthy amount of my self-esteem) on my parents’ careers. So I have to say, this is going to require an internal adjustment.
Like I mentioned on Friday, I got to do a little Q&A with Ma in our May issue. It’s always fun to interview my parents. They start off all resistant, all “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really have anything interesting to say.” And 45 minutes later they’re rattling off the stories.
It’s only been six years, but hockey’s already providing a replacement for that kind of lore. Sure, I proudly witnessed a few theatrical absurdities in my lifetime, but it’s really better to have your own adventures. Good to have firsthand stuff to tell and the people to tell it to, and tell it with; good to be a participant in the farce. Anthony Bourdain wrote about wanting a kitchen career to satisfy that childhood fantasy of being on a pirate ship. I think theater and hockey are in that same boat: A little behind-the-scenes exclusivity, plus the mixture (real or imagined) of intimidation and reverence inspired by subcultures.
With the carousing, the insane personalities spanning naïve to criminally insane, and the narrowly averted disasters, it really was as though my parents enjoyed this whole other life on a pirate ship.
“Everyone always wants to hear about the disasters,” says my mother, half-lament. It’s true: Theatrical disasters make the best stories. Of course they do; theatrical triumphs can’t be truly communicated by a second-hand experience. But the disasters get all their delicious flavor in the retelling.
(On my pirate ship, we gather around to hear Krazy Kevin tell “Broken Spokes” or “Flop Like a Fish.”)
Most of the best stories are the ones that happened before me, that were a decade old when I first heard them as a child: Don’t Call Me Buster, Falling Off the Seawall (Twice), Banana!, and ones I don’t have a name for, like when touring cast and crew were invited to a gathering at a wealthy patron’s house, where champagne flutes were refilled after each sip. That one always ends something like, “People couldn’t make it back to the hotel. They slept in the bushes along the sidewalk.”
Michelangelo’s snowman is still my favorite analogy for the theater. I first read about, appropriately enough, in Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. It’s a fable, really: That after a heavy snow, a young Medici king commissioned Michelangelo to make him a snowman. Witnesses said it was the most beautiful thing that the artist ever created—and a week later it was gone forever.
It’s fleeting, the theatrical experience: magical, but temporary. And I come to accept that so, too, were my parents’ careers. And with these things, I suppose, it’s no good to try to preserve them. That would be taking a photograph and stealing someone’s soul. It’s the stories, the oral tradition—those are the best tributes, including as they do a tacit acknowledgement that they can’t quite recreate the magic, but they can pay entertaining homage to it. It’s what I knew of the theater before I ever saw a show. And it’s what I know now.
On Monday they’re having a private retirement party upstairs at the Broadway—a storied place in and of itself. I’m looking forward to being there, and listening.