I still get nervous when I see my children perform. It’s almost a reflex, a parent’s prayer to a higher being that they will enjoy it, that they will do their best, that nothing will go wrong and, if it does, that they’ll get out of it unscathed.
Over the past several years, I’ve seen my four kids perform in school plays, dance recitals, in college concerts, at venues across the country, and on Broadway. The same reflex kicks in every time.
But on June 30th, after a tumultuous 18-hour period, storms on the runway flying to Louisville, Ky., four hours of sleep, and 4½ years of waiting/hoping/praying, I was almost too numb to be nervous.
Ben was finally going to be Billy Elliot.
My wife, Jill, and son, Nicholas, were sitting with me in the center orchestra section in The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Ben’s manager, Linda Townsend, and her companion were on the same row. Also in the theatre were Ben’s road guardian, Ginno Murphy, his tutors, several cast members’ parents, and a number of Billy “super fans” who traveled long distances to see the show.
The night before, Jill and I sat on the runway at National Airport as the huge storm whipped through the greater Washington, D.C. area, leaving 1.2 million people in the area without power and forcing the cancellation of our daughter’s dance recital that was scheduled for that weekend. We took off after sitting on the small USAirways jet for two hours, and did not arrive in Kentucky until almost 2 a.m.
As we were catching a cab to the hotel, my phone rang. It was Ben. He could not sleep. He was nervous. Could I stop in his room when I got there?
I dropped off Jill, who had just finished an 80-hour work week and was at the end of a 20-hour day, in our room and knocked on his door. There was my little boy, now 14 and about to embark on a journey few have dreamed. He wanted to talk – something he shares in common with his dad – and he wanted me to rub his back like I have done thousands of times before when he could not sleep. I happily obliged.
Ben asked which number I was looking forward to the most. I said the finale, when Billy leads the cast in a fabulous tap curtain call. He asked why and I told him simply, “because then you’ll be done.”
After 15 minutes or so, I left and saw Nicholas, Ben’s older half-brother who served as his guardian during the final two weeks of tech rehearsals. Nicholas, now in college and also a talented performer in his own right, did a great job of taking care of his younger brother. The two discovered a deep bond during that two-week period, developing a new-found appreciation for each other.
Flash forward 11 hours. Bleary eyed, we’re sitting in the audience, the resident director has introduced Ben and our family, and the curtain comes up.
Almost three years before, Jill and I sat in the Neil Simon Theater in New York, with tears in our eyes as the curtain came up in Ragtime. Ben was the understudy to Little Boy, a principal character who opens and closes the show, and was performing on the first Saturday night of the Tony-nominated (though much too short-lived) revival.
We held on to each other through every scene, and I don’t think I exhaled until the cast took its final bow. There have been lots of curtain calls since, a few disappointments, and some trying times for our family as we juggle parenting, jobs, and the dreams, hopes, and setbacks of our children.
While he was training, Jill said she would not believe Ben was Billy until she saw it with her own eyes. Now, there he was on stage.
For the Billy character, the first act is relentless as he has some role in every number – “The Stars Look Down,” “Shine,” “Grandma’s Song,” “Solidarity,” “Expressing Yourself,” “The Letter,” “Born to Boogie,” and “Angry Dance.” Act II has fewer numbers but is no less strenuous for Billy, with the “Swan Lake” ballet sequence and the show’s finale, “Electricity.”
I teared up twice. The first time was at the end of “Solidarity,” when the audience sees Billy discovering his talent for dance. After a full day of school and a performance in the “Billy” Broadway company, where he played Tall Boy and understudied Michael, Ben performed the turns endless times in the middle of the night in our New York apartment. Despite our orders to go to bed, he kept pushing himself, working on the perfect turn.
The second was during “Electricity,” the show stopping number at the end of Act II. It was the first song Ben learned from the show and one he practiced relentlessly. He had failed with the song and he had succeeded, and there he was performing it on stage.
In January, when the show closed on Broadway, I stood in the balcony and watched as the four Billys performed the number. At some point, I looked to my left and there stood Stephen Daldry, the show’s original director, a person I met twice. He patted me on the shoulder and winked before leaving. I wonder if he had something in his eye.
As a parent, there is no prouder moment than seeing your child work toward something and succeed. At the end of “Electricity,” Ben received a standing ovation, an amazing show of support from the crowd. We had come full circle.
It was time for the finale, an appropriate end to a perfect beginning. And I wasn’t nervous any more.
Read other articles in Glenn Cook’s column ‘Stage Dad.’