2017. A lump rises in my throat as my eyes lift to behold Dolly Levi, at the top of the grand stairway at Harmonia Gardens. The audience bursts with applause. Dolly descends in her signature red dress and feather spray. Tears stream down my cheeks. Why am I crying, clapping wildly, at such schmaltz? That’s not just Bette Midler, icon of my generation, shaping a musical theater diva to her own contours. My entire life floats down those steps: every elaborate fancy, every tawdry detail.
1969. Innocence radiates a cloak of security. How else can you explain two fourteen-year-old boys traipsing up Eighth Avenue from Port Authority on a winter Wednesday, seeking a discount matinee? Junkies coil in doorways. Streetwalkers in piranha fishnets flash maternal smiles. They know chubby lads who mime ‘I’m the Greatest Star’ before bathroom mirrors are not promising customers. Even before we know it ourselves. We are too young and too Catholic; we live too many exits down the Garden State Parkway to understand there’s a revolution brewing for boys like us. We just want to see a show.
I can’t recall how we manage to skip school mid-week, or why our mothers let us bus to New York— alone. They exited the city circa 1950, and have no idea how much its glamour has tarnished. With six older siblings between us, each a unique hellion, our parents are frankly too exhausted to monitor Rich and me. We’re good boys, with high grades and quiet voices. We never make any trouble. What trouble we crave, our parents cannot even imagine.
Rich and I have no tickets. TKTS doesn’t exist yet. We cruise box offices and beg discounted seats. Pearl Bailey as Dolly Levi at the St. James: last row balcony. First row orchestra at the Majestic for Fiddler on the Roof, so far left our necks get sore. That redhead playing Tzeitel: she’s going places.
2017. This revival of Hello, Dolly! is faithful to the script and music, yet so cleverly updated. The comic bits, the lines delivered direct to the audience; ironic jabs keep everything light and fun, without ever cracking the meat of this chestnut.
1971. My father finally makes good on his abiding fantasy; sells most everything and stuffs what remains into a motor home. He yanks me out of junior year, and unfurls us to Oklahoma. If you think there’s logic in the maneuver, you don’t know my father. But I’m not too upset: I know all the songs from that show.
Oklahoma is good to me. I strum guitar at folk mass. I meet a girl with a constellation of freckles. She’s more than I ever dreamed, more than enough. Innocence preserved, I get scholarshipped to a fancy New England college, in no small part because this Jersey boy is an Okie now, at least on paper. In the first rush of Affirmative Action, I fill a geographic diversity slot. A year later, those freckles follow.
Every semester back east includes a Broadway musical. Ain’t Misbehavin’. See Saw. 1776. A few years after the patriotic drumming closes, I sit in the very same theater to witness the original production of Chicago. America’s become jaded.
Rich comes out as a gay man. I’m baffled; he’s not flamboyant.
2017. Dolly sits down to dinner, center stage, with Horace Vandergelder. She launches into the patter of planting marriage in his head. Bette begins with the same verve of so many Dolly’s before her.
1979. New York is exhilarating; New York is grand. The weekend before Christmas I usher my beloved to The Plaza. Our room may be up in the dormers, but we have a Central Park view. We take in A Chorus Line, first time ever I buy full price tickets. We dine at The Rainbow Room, dance to the live orchestra. Lisa accepts the ring I offer. It’s a ridiculous expenditure for a graduate student, worth every penny. We fly home, engaged. The next year we marry.
We ricochet between Boston and Oklahoma, but New York City forges some of our deepest memories. That first Thanksgiving, short on money with no family nearby, we wake at 3 a.m. drive through the dark, and watch the parade right in front of Macy’s. We enter a deli, order turkey clubs, shuck our knit hats and down parkas. Everyone else is decked in leather: pimps buying their girls, and guys, holiday lunch. I catch a glimpse of fishnets, and remember them fondly.
I hardly see Rich anymore. He’s a hospital nurse, on the evening shift. After midnight, he drives into the city and parties until dawn.
2017. Horace cannot keep things under control. His niece dances a polka with—God forbid—an artist. His clerks carouse in a private dining room, on his dime. He detests this matchmaker, yet he yields, again and again, to her insistent grip. Chaos erupts at Harmonia Gardens. Keystone cops break it all up, though the only crime possibly committed is one man’s folly of being too serious, of denying his heart.
1985. Strobe lights freeze Tommy Tune and Twiggy’s splashy kicks into discrete figures. The effect is dazzling, though all-those-jumpy-images unsettle a man fixed on order and continuity. Lisa and I hold hands during My One and Only, reaffirming our commitment. But outside the theater, our grasp slips. We shoulder on; pursue what we love, raise children we love, try, and try and try to love. But some things cannot be willed. Finally, we go to therapy, dig deep, and expose dissonance beyond all fears. I finally recognize that I’m gay. Not a deal breaker to an Irishman steeped in rigid Catholicism with no sins of the flesh to confess: I would never leave my wife. But Lisa wants more in life than accumulated burden. She leaves me with a hulking house and an even greater volume of guilt. I cannot fathom what she’s done, until years later when I realize: she’s done me a favor.
Rich learns how the virus travels. He stops having sex, cold turkey. Drugs are so easy on the unit he works; a few pills help him forget his inevitable.
2017. The cast stands, wordless, in a cartoonish witness stand cum jury box. They stare at Dolly who, unawares, devours a turkey leg and deviled eggs with the craven gusto of a person who finally finds pleasure, satisfied.
1995. I’m Crazy for You. Harry and I have so much in common, a boy and girl and an ex-wife apiece; two architects who even drive the same model Ford Focus. We hold hands along Coney Island boardwalk on an eerily warm December day, keep holding them throughout Susan Stroman’s choreographic masterpiece. Two guys on the precipice of middle age with so much child support we can’t afford a single night in New York; forget The Plaza. We drive home in the wee hours. We sing out loud the entire length of Connecticut. Have I ever been so happy?
2017. Red dress and feathers notwithstanding, Dolly Levi has evaporated from the stage; replaced by pure Bette Midler, pantomiming gluttony so ferociously my guffaws teeter on guilt. I understand, now, those clever asides in Act One, priming the audience for complete demolition of the fourth wall. We’re just hanging out with The Devine Miss M; lapping up her antics, her truth, her hysterical honesty.
2007. Harry and I are gay adolescents, we flash and burn. I figure there’ll be another, maybe two or three, before I find the one who sticks, before I settle down. Years pass. Housemates help me cover the mortgage; they’re also a bit of company when I don’t have my kids. I take an occasional weekend escape to Smokey Joe’s Cafe. I’m puzzled by Paul Simon’s Cape Man. I take my mother to the revival of The Music Man for her 75th What a good gay son. I introduce my children to Broadway thrills: accolades for The Lion King, curtains for Tom Sawyer. What a good dad. I cry when they clamor for Rent: commencement to musical theater adulthood.
Rich lives a long time; one of those rare men immune to HIV. He cycles in and out of drug rehab with the same frequency he oscillates between euphoria of being spared and guilt of surviving. Doctors study his genes to determine what key to a cure this man might possess.
A medical group in Haiti seeks an architect to design their clinic. Not the famous one, with Paul Farmer. I respond, offer a hand.
2017. The morning after. Horace Vandergelder is alone, He’s made a lot of mistakes; he’s wearing puce. But beneath his bad fashion sense, there’s life still left in him. It stirs when Dolly walks back through his door.
2012. I first visit Haiti in 2009. I love the people; so rich in spirit. When the earth coughs and swallows up a big chunk of the Magic Island, I cannot simply write a check. I sign on to design an orphanage, then a school. I live there part-time to supervise construction. I don’t get to Times Square much; and when I do, I miss the tarnish of my youth. The place is scrubbed clean as The Book of Mormon. A fourteen-year-old boy could wander here unharmed.
I finish my work in Haiti, but am forever changed. I stop working for money, write a book, become a yoga teacher, ride my bike to 48 states, pen a play. I have no particular skills; I can do anything.
2017. Bette begins the speech that leads to Dolly’s famous meme about manure and money. She emphasizes a prelude I don’t recall. “The difference between a little money and no money at all is enormous…and can shatter the world! And the difference between a little money and an enormous amount of money is very slight, and that can shatter the world too.” Therein lies the genius of musical theater; tuck a proverb into the joy. Sing and dance us into emotional release, and then nail the tenor of our times better than a year’s worth of commentary on Fox, CNN or MSNBC.
2017. I never find another Harry. That stings. Until I learn to count each person I love as a blessing, rather than bemoan that elusive miracle: reciprocated love. When my children leave for college I seek a housemate who will share more than his share of the gas bill. Paul’s long-term partner died; his dog loves the park across the street. We might be a good fit. We’re not married, or even boyfriends, though after ten years under the same roof, everyone assumes so. We know each other too well to consider any commitment of forever; though I suspect we’ll take care of each other for the duration.
Hello Dolly is Paul’s Christmas gift to me. When Bette explains how money’s like manure; no good unless you spread it around, tears stretch across my every pore. I turn aside from my companion; how can he fathom the depth I mine from this cheery little tying up of the plot. He doesn’t know Rich and I saw our first Broadway show across the street. He doesn’t know I came to this same theater the night I asked Lisa to marry to me. He doesn’t know Harry and I went Crazy for You from the balcony above. He doesn’t know that he’s adding to the litany, the meaning, of my life, another winter Wednesday on Broadway.
It’s been almost fifty years since I first saw Bette as Tzeitel, right next door. Since then, she and I have both traveled the world. Bette has gone farther than me, no doubt; probably worn fishnets more often as well. Still, I’ve managed to go further than my teenage self ever imagined.
I have visited New York City more than any other place on earth; more than all other places combined. I’ve been to Broadway more often than I can count. I’ve fingered my great-grandfather’s name carved onto Ellis Island, ditto my World War II uncle honored at The Battery. I’ve visited MoMA and the Met, Whitney and Guggenheim; Yankee Stadium and Shea; Harlem and Chelsea; SoHo and Dumbo; Riverdale and Brighton; the Empire and the Chrysler; the Queensboro and the Brooklyn Bridge. The Big Apple has served up my fanciest meals, and my best slices. I’ve walked these streets in the dangerous ‘70’s, the go-go 90’s, the anger of Occupy, the exuberance of Pride, and the reverent hush in the wake of 9/11. I just love this place.
More than eight million people live in New York City. I have never been among of them. But like so many Americans, my personal history is tied to this rocky island and its surrounds. I am not from New York, but New York is etched in me. Which is why, when Bette descends those stairs and starts greeting all of her old friends, she’s not the only one glad to be back home where she belongs.