Natasha, Pierre, and the Try-Hard Theater Dorks of 2017

Today, I went to the Broadway Flea Market. It’s a cool thing for Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS where, most notably, the season’s shows have booths where they set up shop with shoes, set pieces, costumes, souvenirs… anything people might conceivably pay money for, in order to give more money to BCEFA. I’ve accidentally gone twice –  once when I just actually stumbled upon it, and once when a friend invited me to join her. This was the first year I planned to go On Purpose.

So I got up early, which I like to do, and headed to Times Square, which I do not like to do. On the train, there were girls sitting across from me in full makeup  –  at 9:25 on a Sunday morning. It looked like they might be heading home from a long night of partying  –  but the makeup looked fresh. What primer was this blonde girl wearing? Because her eyeshadow looked like it had been applied in the past ten minutes  –  and applied badly, I noticed. I don’t wear makeup like I used to, so I don’t know what the Kids These Days are up to, but I know for sure that even I could have blended better.

A few stops down the line, a gaggle of white kids gets on the N, several decked out in Dear Evan Hansen gear. I loathe them on sight. I realize, when they get off at 42nd St and the two makeup-gals follow, that they’re all going to the flea market. I had planned to get off at 49th, so I have a moment without other flea-market-goers to start to think  –  this may be a different scene than I’m expecting.

The reason I’m waiting until 49th is to be closer to the Imperial, where the Great Comet booth will be set up. I love Great Comet, but I’m not there for souvenirs. I’m there to scavenge for drink cups. Great Comet uses Likacup for their show cups, which I think has a far superior lid to Whirley Drinkworks, favored by Jujamcyn theatre bars. Plus, I mean, the logo. Super great, right?

Well. I don’t know why I underestimated this event. I’ve been in a rush line. People care so much about Broadway. It’s sweaty-shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder, and I see tons of teenagers and early-college students in groups, with cutesy political t-shirts and multi-colored hair. There are also the awkward teens who are just absolutely enraptured, some wearing heavy makeup  –  I’m positive, as I look at them, that they’ve wondered whether they might meet a Broadway star and befriend them, or get discovered, even though they probably know it doesn’t work that way.

I’m hit with a wave of revulsion. Dummies.

I walk grumpily through the crowds –  there’s a line for so many of the tables, just to look, Christ on a cracker–  and, after getting two books and a kicky scarf, I hightail it out of there.

I don’t know why I came, honestly. I don’t need anything   –  I’m ideologically opposed to most forms of memento-ism  –  and I hate being in crowds. I also hate being in Times Square. But really, I hate being around theater kids.

This, I’m slowly realizing, is massively hypocritical. Because I 100% was that kid.

My God, do you know how much I cried the first time I saw Wicked? It was absolutely revolting. I couldn’t stop weeping, and my friend and I waited around at the stage door as long as we could before the rest of the choir tour bus took off, and people slowly but surely got sick of our blubbering.

It wasn’t an act. I was that moved. I wanted to stop crying, but I also wanted to revel in the feeling of being so completely invested in something that touched me so deeply. Theater has that power.

So when, I wonder, did I become the person who claims to see younger theater-lovers as losers, try-hards, morons, drama queens, fake… all the things that I most assuredly was?

I wasn’t bullied as a high school theater kid. I was well-liked, and I went to a school where it was fine, even cool to be in theater and choir. We were very into ourselves and our art. Sure, I was bad  –  turns out you can’t just feeeeeel it, you have to show emotion and not rock back and forth shifting your weight –  but I felt like a star. I felt like I was meant to be there. It was my calling.

My brother made fun of me, but he did that for any reason at any time. It wasn’t making fun, exactly  –  it was much colder than that. He insulted me and cut me down. But that was the one source of that sort of sneer. I was cool enough, unless I’m deluding myself, without needing to be part of a particular cool crowd.

But you know who I made fun of? The theater kids who tried harder than I did. Maybe it was because I thought they weren’t as talented as I was (oh boy,) but they certainly put more effort in than I did. You don’t need to dance that intensely, I thought. Can you just tone it down? God!

Of course, in retrospect, they looked better from the audience’s point of view, rather than the hesitant movements and overwrought, always-intense facial expressions that I offered. And in retrospect, I was exactly as dorky as I thought they were. I was not a theater cool-kid, I was a Huge. Awkward, Theater Dork. But to me, they were the ones who weren’t doing well. And it all had to do with them caring too much and not being in their place.

Caring too much is unequivocally uncool. Trying too hard is unequivocally uncool. Plainly liking something that’s less-than-obvious is often uncool. There are exceptions  –  like, say, if you have such advanced knowledge that you’re not just a fan, you’re an expert, or if you claim to like it “ironically.” Which is another way of pushing away sincerity.

Look at the way I talked about my trip to the flea market earlier. Just look at the condescension dripping from my words. I’ve only ever gone before “by accident?” I went at least once as a plan with a friend  –  how is that an accident?

Look at the way I talked about the people who were excited to be at the same event that I, too, had gotten up early to go to. It doesn’t matter that I like to get up early –  no one made me leave the house. And sure, I wasn’t wearing green eyeshadow, but I didn’t exactly just roll out of bed.

You could find countless examples in the first few paragraphs of writing this, and I managed to couch it in my chosen snarky style. I could be kidding myself, since you never know what people think until they read it and they let you know, but already I’ve made the assumption that a reader wouldn’t think I'm anything like the people I've deemed less chill than me, because I’ve carefully cloaked myself in this practiced, ugh-look-at-these-dorks Coolness. I’m counting on that armor.

But it seems to me that this lack of armor is part of what makes people want to be, and makes them successful as, performers in the first place  –  that desire to use an opportunity for eyes on you as a chance to make a deep, human connection with an audience.

 

Even writing that makes me feel embarrassed. But you know, it’s the truth. Live theater relies heavily on creating a community through sincere human connection. You cannot watch a live theater show alone. You can cry alone while watching a movie on Netflix, or while reading Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in your room with the door closed, but if you cry during a show, you are crying in community. There is no hiding from the people around you. If you are touched, you are touched by a real, live human in the same room as you.

And that is precisely why I believe Great Comet is such a resonant, powerful, meaningful musical. After all, the entire plot of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 revolves around a girl who gets completely swept away in her passions, and an aging man, sure that he’s incapable of finding any true passion in life, finding the courage to believe that something is beautiful.

It’s a show that, quite frankly, I’m not sure I’d be interested in if someone described it to me. I can picture myself saying, “So Natasha is engaged to a guy she loves with all her heart, and then she meets a hot slutty blond man and decides to break her engagement and run off with him, while a grumpy old acquaintance of both of theirs skulks around and waxes philosophic about death and his own crankiness? Ooh, I’m spellbound.”

But what Great Comet does so successfully  –  virtuosically, I’d say  –  is capture, in words, movement, music, all of it, exactly what it feels like to be that nakedly earnest. Natasha loves Andrey, and she sings “No One Else,” and you know exactly how she feels, and all you want is for Andrey to come home and complete her. Then she meets Anatole, and the feeling of having been selected, and being special, and experiencing a passion that makes no sense… well, it pulses in the music. Natasha is caught trying to run away, disgraces the family, takes poison, yada yada yada, but in the end is still unbroken  –  she’s tattered and wiser, weakened and tired, but she will not let Pierre call Anatole a bad man.

And Anatole? He’s a sort of Greek hybrid chimera of a sex god –  half-parody, half-real. I can sit in the audience and laugh at the silly spectacle he puts on, this Rum Tum Tugger-meets-Backstreet Boy sexuality, but damn if it doesn’t also work. I saw it in the final week, and at the part during “Goodbye My Gypsy Lovers” where Anatole sits down next to an audience member  –  to endless gales of laughter, allowing the performers to catch their breath post–“Balaga”  –  and flirts with her. This girl was clearly a huge fan, there with her equally adolescent-theatre-dorky friend, and when Anatole sat next to her, all cozy-like, she made a gesture where she pointed to him and then pretended to fan herself. We were all away laughing on a fast camel, let me tell you, and she was the one in charge of the joke.

Then he kissed her on the cheek. She dissolved and hid her face in her hands. Shit got real. The fanning-herself gambit wasn’t a joke anymore. It was an awakening.

Great Comet does that. It sucks you in and forces you to feel. It forces you to remember the jubilation and crushing despair of young love, even when you (and the characters) might be old enough to be expected to know better.

 

I’m a writer. Doesn’t matter that I have never once been paid to write. Who cares. I’m a writer because I write every day, I write even when I’m not “inspired,” and because writing things makes me happy. I care a lot about my writing, and I care a lot about the act of creating, whether it's my creation or someone else's.

And what I write, more often than not, has a deep connection to sincerity. I’m fascinated by the topic  –  sincerity, optimism, joy, any sort of ebullient, unbridled emotion or point of view that challenges the reflex to keep oneself shrouded in self-protection. All I want is to write things that move people to care deeply about the work, so it's endlessly hypocritical of me to give anyone any flak, spoken or in a passing thought, for caring deeply about the work that moves them.

I celebrate those people in the world who wear their excitement on their open, slappable faces. Who wait in lines with their friends at a flea market, for hours on end, to take home a tchotchke or meet a hero. It’s incredibly brave. It’s certainly one thing to go into a situation with balanced expectations and a hope for the best  –  it’s quite another to expect and secretly wish for the best, and bounce back from it. Not everyone has that, and those who have it don't always keep it.

The fact is, everyone gets their knocks that make them less like these theater kids. Everyone has those moments where they’re fully earnest and ready to make a big leap, damn the consequences, and it doesn’t exactly go swimmingly.

But the longer someone keeps that sincerity that makes people like me, who are struggling with their knee-jerk dismissal of others, bristle… well, the braver they are. And the more it makes people who might be a little more battle-scarred from whatever embarrassment life has thrown at them question whether they’re being fair or even whether they envy these open-hearted sincere people they roll their eyes at.

Look, I’m not here to tell anyone it’s Wrong And Bad to be annoyed by people. Especially teenagers, because part of being an adult is being so relieved to no longer be a teenager that you lash out at them whenever possible. Also, sometimes people are really fucking irritating, and being irritated by someone comes and goes like an ever-changing, ever-prickly tide. It doesn’t mean you’re incurably cranky  –  you may forget about them a second later.

But man. Look at the people who irritate you just by being themselves, and practice acknowledging that it’s not them who has the problem. It may be you. And practice admiring them for their unabashed enthusiasm, even if you’re not crazy about how they express it. In a related exercise, maybe forgive yourself for all the times in the past that you were purely and unashamedly excited and hopeful.

And who knows? Maybe if you do this,  you’ll suddenly catch a glimpse of a comet, sailing through the sky at night, and filling you with a deep, powerful, heartbreaking, inspiring, and deeply embarrassing joy.