As I prepared to go to Trumbull CT last month to see the high school’s production of Rent, many people asked, or wrote me to ask, if I would be writing about it. My consistent reply, “I doubt it,” was met with surprise by one and all, who asked, ‘Why not?’
I had been very vocal in my support for the show when it was canceled back in the fall, and I know that I played some role in helping to turn the tide back in favor of the production, though it was the students and adults in the community who really carried the day. But in anticipation of the show, I had no idea what might move me to write. After all, I was already “in the bag” for the production – delighted that it was happening, loving it even before I saw it. What, I wondered, would I have to say other than that it was great? It was great, incidentally, to the degree that I watched with even a shred of objectivity.
The night, however, had an entirely unexpected effect on me. It all happened after the final curtain call.
* * *
I drove up to Trumbull with Jonathan Larson’s father Al and sister Julie, who I have known since, during my tenure, the American Theatre Wing negotiated for and ultimately took over the responsibility of giving The Jonathan Larson Grants. Though I didn’t consult the Larsons or ask for their support as I undertook my advocacy in Trumbull in the late fall, I did keep them posted. The day the show was put back on the schedule, they said they would come in from Los Angeles to see the production and we made plans to go together, several months hence.
The only people who knew that the Larsons were coming to that first of four performances were Jessica Spillane, the teacher who runs the drama program in Trumbull, and Larissa Mark, the student president of the Thespian Troupe. It seems they really know how to keep a secret. After the performance, Ms. Spillane instructed the students not to rush to take off their costumes, but to gather in a corridor directly behind the stage. She did not tell them why.
So when she introduced Al and Julie, the reaction from the cast and crew was stunning. The most extraordinary mixture of shock, joy and tears erupted in equal measure, as some 60 or so students realized that they had just performed for the family of the late composer who died before most of them were born.
Julie, following my own tendency in such situations, withdrew to the sidelines, though she graciously spoke with anyone who approached her; I stood by her with the extra barrier of my camera, as I tried in vain to capture the entirety of the scene. Al, however, was immediately surrounded, as one by one students came up to thank him, to shake his hand, and most remarkably, ask if they could hug him.
I understood yet marveled at their compulsion to commune with the father of the writer they would only know through his words and music. This was as close as they could possibly come to Jonathan, and this kindly gentleman in his late 80s, who I have no doubt couldn’t hear a great deal of what was said to him, gave them each a turn, as crying teens tentatively stepped up, and then boldly embraced a man who was a stranger only minutes before.
I have never discussed the experience of Jonathan’s death with the Larsons in the years I’ve known them. It is a sad tale well known to anyone who knew about theatre in the mid-90s and there was no reason for me to inquire after details. That said, in bringing the grants to the Theatre Wing, I felt a great responsibility for Jonathan’s legacy and it brought me close this family that endured a terrible loss even as they saw Rent triumph. Seeing those students so raw with emotion, so desirous of connection, so profoundly moved to try to convey their own sense of loss was perhaps the only way in which I have ever participated so emotionally with Jonathan, with his family, and with Rent.
* * *
Eventually, it became time to pull Al away from the students, who would have surely kept him there all night. It was getting late, we had to drive back to Manhattan, the whole experience of the day had to be as exhausting for Al and Julie as it was for me. We made it out of the corridor into the larger school hallway, but Al and Julie proceeded by inches while I moved unfettered. A few parents who spotted me offered their thanks; one or two revealed themselves to be siblings or spouses of people I had gone to high school with, 34 years ago and a few miles away.
As I casually leaned against a wall, a young man approached me, and asked if I was Howard Sherman. Recognizing him as a Facebook friend, I quickly offered up, “And you must be…” and indeed I was correct. But this young man, who I’d not met before, was not some random social media connection.
I had gone to high school with the young man’s uncle and his aunt; I had first met his father, who is several years younger than me, when the father was perhaps no more than 8 and I was a much older 13. Most important though, is that I knew his grandfather, who was my scoutmaster in my Boy Scout days.
Boy Scouting, by and large, is not a vivid memory for me. I was not driven to achieve a top rank, I don’t have close friends today who I knew from the activity. But there is one aspect that I will never forget: the day that this young man’s grandfather died of a heart attack on a camping trip, when I was 17 years old and a senior leader in the scout ranks.
I wasn’t on the trip. I had skipped it in favor of performing Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” at my school’s annual Pops Concert, although that was accidental; another friend had been grounded and couldn’t fulfill the commitment, so I stepped in. I learned of my scoutmaster’s death only a few hours before the performance and I actually followed the dictum of “the show must go on,” performing a comedy routine while in sorrow, even though it could have easily been excised from the performance.
I have always felt pangs of guilt over not having been on the trip. Not because I believe I could have done anything to help medically, but because there were so many younger scouts who were there when this sudden passing took place. I should have been there to support them. Who knows whether I would have been able to do so. I will always wonder.
I skipped the cast party and remember sitting at the kitchen table late into the night talking about this death with my parents. I remember saying to them how sad I was that I never got to tell my scoutmaster that I loved him. Wisely, they explained that such occasions didn’t arise under everyday circumstances, but that surely he knew from my loyalty that I cared for him and that surely it was mutual. It was the night I resolved to always try to let the people I care for know it at all times, in action and in words.
So here I was standing with a grandson who never knew his grandfather, a man whose loss I’ve never forgotten. Via Facebook, I knew that the young man was in a show at his own high school nearby: Carousel. As he is a senior, I asked the standard adult question, “Do you know where you’re going to college yet?” He replied that he was still working it out.
Jokingly, I said, “You don’t plan to go into theatre, do you?” I regretted my jest as soon as he said he was. I immediately said that he should call me any time for advice or help, and I meant it sincerely. I hope he takes me up on it. It’s the very least I can do.
When he stepped away, I began sobbing. It would be easy to say it was just the late hour, or a release of emotions from what I had witnessed earlier in the corridor. But I knew that I had been thrust back into that Saturday night in 1979 when a commitment to perform both took me away from somewhere I perhaps should have been, even as it placed me where I belonged, and where I’d spend my life.
* * *
That one night at Trumbull was a roller coaster (a ride I studiously avoid). I had stirrings of pride in something I felt very separate from when it actually happened, since my role had ended back in December. My perception of theatre was bound up with grief that night, through this young man – who I hope to know better – and his family, as well as through the members of the Larson family, both present and absent, and also through the Trumbull thespians, so profoundly in touch with their emotions so openly and so suddenly.
Many will be quick to tell you that part of how we experience the arts has a great deal to do with what we bring to that experience. I unwittingly brought a lot to Trumbull that night and I came away with more. It may be too soon know exactly how much. I may never know. But whether in high school auditoriums or Broadway houses, I’ll keep seeking. Who knows what I’ll find, where I’ve already found so much in the darkness and embrace of the theatre.