The Best Answer I’ve Ever Heard

My ability to move to New York hinged on securing an internship, which I did at the eleventh hour. I found a marketing internship at an off-off Broadway theatre known for fostering new work, something I was very interested in. Also, it allowed me to live in the city I loved while looking for a more permanent, “pay-the-bills” job. I’d begun laying the preliminary groundwork for what would become my online creative culture magazine, but a web-based startup magazine wouldn’t fund living in the city that never sleeps unless I wanted to sleep in the park.

Interning at that theatre became integral to my launching pad into New York in ways I couldn’t anticipate. Playwrights including John Patrick Stanley, Horton Foote and David Mamet had produced new works there and now-notable actors like Kevin Bacon, John Turturo and Sarah Jessica Parker worked there early in their careers. I never met any of those people but toward the end of my brief tenure, I did have the honor of sharing a few minutes with the great Ruby Dee in which she told me, “The Oscars are fun, but they’re nothing compared to live theatre.” What bliss.

During my time at the theater, I spent my days in the lobby meeting actors who intrigued me with their stories of triumph, failure and Tim-Gunning-it (making it work). Their candor about the struggle of being a working actor in the city—especially someone who hadn’t been on Broadway or didn’t have a credit on any given incarnation of Law and Order—opened me up to a different way of talking to creative people. Yes, they were actors and some of them have since gone on to be Tony nominated and on TV shows like The Good Wife, but really they were just people, artistic freelancers, trying to do what they loved for a living.

One afternoon, a young woman walked out of her audition and sat down next to me in the lobby. She turned to me at the desk, smiled, and said, “That felt really good.” I smiled back and told her I was glad it went so well. She said, “I got to do what I love today, I got to act and be someone else for a few minutes, and it felt awesome.” I love creative people so much.

Among my responsibilities beyond answering the phone and talking with actors waiting for auditions, my favorite was manning the theater’s street fair booth and promoting the upcoming slate of fall productions. My supervisor had some sort of family crisis—I saw him only a handful of times over the course of those months—and this was my opportunity to prove I could market the hell out of this theater and get butts in the seats.

New York street fairs are like magnificent magnets; they draw people from far and wide. Carnival food stands sit next to fashion startups which rub shoulders with cavernous booths full of iPhone covers. My booth sat in a row of other theatre-centric booths. On a stage across from me, performers from various Off-Broadway musicals sang selections from their shows to the crowds buying hot apple cider, sunglasses and deep fried Oreos. I got to speak with theatregoers of every ilk, inviting them to see our season’s plays and handing out free tickets every hour or so. I forged a friendship with Sarah, a girl who worked at of the Broadway websites, I heard an earful from a strung-out woman about the ills of leftist theatre, and I gave bags of candy to eager children whose Upper East Side parents probably didn’t feed them sugar. It was a great way to spend a Saturday.

In the afternoon, an older woman walked up to my booth and told me how much she loved theatre. I asked if she was interested in any of our shows and she said she might be. She explained that since tickets had become so costly, she didn’t get to see as many shows as she would like, a notion I certainly understood. Broadway pricing now caters almost solely to the wealthy, something that’s unfortunate. I gave her some free tickets to the show in which she seemed most interested (Take that, Broadway establishment!) and as she thanked me, she made a passive comment about how she missed performing.

My Scooby Doo ears perked up. “Oh, are you a performer?” I asked.

“I was,” she said. “I was a dancer.”

I told her how impressive that was to me since I’d begun to understand how difficult it was and is to be a dancer by profession. I told her I wished I’d taken dance as a kid but I’d played and been terrible at sports instead. I didn’t recognize it until I was much older, much larger and much less coordinated, but I truly wish I could dance well. I watch ballet dancers and I wish I had that strength or tone. I watch them move, the ways their muscles shift and glide and flex and quiver, and I marvel at how extraordinarily gifted they are.

“Where’d you dance?” I asked.

“On Broadway,” she said.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes, I was in Cats.”

Alright, there are two types of people in this world: those who understand and appreciate Cats and those who don’t. I, for one, totally get it. It’s a non-linear story; a series of vignettes about cats with extreme personality disorders. There’s one, albeit very thin, story about Grizabella who’s old and somewhat mangy, and after the kitties hiss at her for about an hour, she sings one of Broadway’s most famous ballads and goes to Heaven. I fell in love with the show by watching the DVD and finally saw a tour production when I was in college. I realize some folks don’t love the cat/human hybrids dancing in the aisles, but I do and I knew enough to know that being a dancer in Cats is serious business.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” I said. “Which company were you in?”

“The good one.”

The best answer I’ve ever heard to any question I’ve ever asked.

She went on to explain that she was in the original company on Broadway and got to experience all of the excitement that surrounded that production first-hand. It was the Hamilton of its time and she reveled in the bliss of her job every day. I wished she’d stuck around longer or that I’d sprinkled some catnip on my booth so I could ask her every question I’ve ever wanted to ask someone in Cats. As fate would have it, I’d get my chance.

Six years later, my best friend’s partner happened to be an actor on a hit Netflix show and he loved Cats like I did. When the revival charted its return to the Great White Way, he and I talked about going to see it together. A month of two later, they invited me to join them for the opening night performance.

My friend and I stood off to the side of the red carpet while his partner did interviews and we watched as the famous faces filed into the theatre. Once inside at our seats, I scanned the room to see Andrew Lloyd Webber a few rows to my right, Rosie O’Donnell in front of me to the left, and Tommy Tune giraffing his way down the aisle to sit up front. Since Hello, Dolly is my favorite musical, watching Ambrose from the film walk down the aisle next to me was surreal. I hardly noticed all the above-the-title Broadway stars in the seats around me because the Ambrose was there. Once the show began, I was in dancing feline bliss. Oh the dancing. It was magnificent. We, the audience, whooped and hollered and cheered on the cast of hard-working hoofers like it was a rock concert. It was a moment sitting in a theatre I will never forget.

At intermission, we decided to duck into a little bar next door to avoid waiting in the bathroom lines at the theater. Stepping out of my aisle, I physically ran into Jack Antonoff from the band Fun and almost knocked him over. That’s when Rosie O’Donnell walked up to us because she knew my actor friend from doing a gameshow together. After we were introduced, Rosie looked at me and said, “My, my, you’re handsome.” On top of being a flatterer, she also liked my bowtie, a fancy leather bespoke piece by Jake Simpson, a designer I’d featured in my magazine. I felt as fancy as my bowtie.

We enjoyed the remainder of the show and I fanboyed hard when Andrew Lloyd Weber himself came on stage to congratulate the cast. I felt like I was existing in an alternate universe, a place where unbelievable things could happen to a plain old Joe like me. We took the subway to the opening night party and while waiting for the train, we ran into two girls from the cast of Orange Is the New Black. They’d also been at the show and joined us as we headed to the party. It was in Gotham Hall, a building I’d walked past a thousand times but knew only from a Britney Spears concert special. She’d worn a shiny red leather corset with black patent leather pants and it had been on a daily loop in my life for the better part of four months after it aired.

I spent most of the party people-watching on the sidelines. After all, this party wasn’t for me, I was only a guest of a guest, so I focused on keeping my composure and remaining as professional as possible. At one point, my TV actor friend looked at our group and said, “Let’s go dance,” so we did. There, we danced with the cast as well as TV actors, pop stars and Broadway luminaries and when “Toxic” came over the speakers, I felt just like Britney, dancing in my black leather (bowtie) to “Toxic” in Gotham Hall.

Yet as fun as the dance floor was, my night changed while I was in line at the bar. Talking with whoever was next to me, I found myself shaking the hand of the original Jenny Any Dots who, and I still can’t believe this actually happened, sang her song, “The Old Gumbie Cat,” in my ear while we were in line for drink refills. It was the opportunity I’d wanted six years before while standing at the street fair. There, off to the side of Gotham Hall, I had a real conversation with another original member of the show whose revival brought us together. I asked her what it was like to see someone new playing her part and she said, “I’ve been around for so long, there have been plenty of Jennys. I cheered them on during the first run of the show and on the tours, now I can cheer her on tonight.” I loved that she felt such a kinship with those who came after her. There wasn’t a trace of jealousy or a hint of pining after days gone by. She was a theatre teacher now, loved her life and loved this opportunity to be a part of such a fun evening.

As if the experience hadn’t been wild enough, we ended the night at a secret bar hidden above a Five Guys with the girls from Orange Is the New Black. Sitting in the backseat of the cab headed home, the evening replayed over-and-over like a spin cycle in my mind. A lot has been said about the commercialization of New York and think-pieces and books have been written about the gritty decades gone by where truly magical things happened in the city. But I think New York has a few fabulous cards left in her to play and that night, under the cover of darkness, she played a few for me.

Yet in the swirl of a wild evening, I couldn’t help but think back to my conversation with the ex-Cat during the street fair. I thought about all of the felines who were now a part of this show’s legacy. Would they end up like that woman, pitted with the memories of a bygone passion or would they end up like the Jenny Any Dots who sang in my ear, happy and fulfilled in her current phase of life? Both women loved dancing but the human body cannot sustain being a Broadway dancer for your entire life. The rigor of the intensive daily beating eventually wears you out. Yet one woman seemed to have lost her way and the other forged a new path full of gratitude.

A month later, I would spend a morning with five members of that revival cast of Cats, talking about dance and Broadway and even a little behind-the-scenes gossip of So You Think You Can Dance. I’d hand-picked them for a feature to anchor my summer magazine content and again, it was a wild moment being able to speak with people whose art had touched me so much. The dancers spoke about the necessity of keeping their bodies healthy in order to prolong their careers and how they were already exploring other avenues of entertainment so they’d be able to transition to a new phase once this one ended. They had questions about their future and the reality of what happens when your dream doesn’t fit into your skin suit anymore. While the woman at the street fair didn’t necessarily appear sad, it was evident she missed those days so much that she hadn’t really moved on. She waxed poetic about that time, remarking “It was such a happy time then. I haven’t felt like that since,” and no, that doesn’t have to mean she’s unhappy now, but it felt like she never found anything else to be equally passionate about. In contrast, the “Jenny” who sang in my ear had forged a new path full of gratitude and new artistic creation. She was happy, smiling from ear-to-ear, and talked fondly of her students and her opportunity to help them achieve the thrill she’d experienced once on the Broadway stage.

I want to be like her. Her name is Anna McNeely and though our paths only crossed for a few minutes, I learned something important from her. I learned that newness is inevitable and that gratitude for what’s been and what can be is the key to joy. Even when we reach our goals, that doesn’t mean we’ll stay on that high. We are actually destined to not stay on that high. But there’s something new coming, and that’s the real adventure. As Grizabella sings, “Another day is dawning.”

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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2 Replies to “The Best Answer I’ve Ever Heard”

  1. I live down in North Carolina so I have to experience musicals through touring productions, but at least I live in Charlotte, a popular stop for tours. I have experienced Broadway before: aged 12 in 2006 with my mom seeing Wicked- my favorite song was “Popular” and that was all I remember, but that show would spark my love for musicals.

    So I am a massive musical fan, which would later be turned into a passion in 2013 by Les Mis

    Liked by 1 person

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