I drove myself to the building where I did theater in high school for the first time this fall. (A perk of being home for 10 months was having time to practice for, fail and finally pass my road test.) My destination was a COVID-safe production of “All Shook Up,” a 1950s jukebox musical adaptation of “Twelfth Night” set to the songs of Elvis Presley.
I met my best friend outside the makeshift theater, an open-air tent in the parking lot. I’d been seeing him once a week on walks and in backyards, but we’d been anticipating this performance. Our director told us she’d saved the good seats in front for us. We walked around the tent’s perimeter until we found them right next to the dad who makes the show videos. I wriggled into the sleeping bag I thought I would use as a blanket, and he and I talked and leafed through the program.
When the music shifted from a playlist of Elvis songs to the first notes of an instrumental track, the cast ran onto the stage. It was freezing, but their 1950s costumes were cobbled out of cuffed jeans and white T-shirts, accessorized by surgical masks. The choreography was mostly recycled steps I recognized from past shows — ponies, pivots, shimmies — but the moves were fueled by pure joy and adrenaline. My friend and I made sure to have the most fun of anyone in the audience. We screamed in shock and delight, exchanged a running commentary of sideways glances and applauded wildly after every number.
I thought about a musical that was on Broadway in 1981 called “Merrily We Roll Along.” It follows three best friends as they journey toward and away from their dreams of making it in theater. The night they meet, the trio vows to change the world together in the song that sourced my yearbook quote, “Our Time.” They sing, “Years from now, we’ll remember, and we’ll come back, / buy the rooftop, and hang a plaque: ‘This is where we began / being what we can.” The show goes backward; “Our Time” is its finale, and we already know the promises they make will sour and dissolve. The original production of “Merrily” was a disaster — it closed after two weeks, devastating the teenage performers and destroying the decades-long creative partnership between Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince.
The promise and horror of “Merrily” lingered in the air of my youth theater program. In “our little corner of the world,” as our director called it, “Merrily” was sacred. Her brother-in-law had been in the original cast, and performances of the show were reserved for special occasions. When I was a junior, we learned “Our Time” for a concert. Singing it with my best friends made me feel sick, but I was enamored. Despite the unofficial monotheism of the predominantly Jewish program, Sondheim was the closest I had to a second god. He wrote about fairy tale characters and demon barbers and so many bitter, disillusioned married people with unfathomable complexity. In my quest to digest every detail of his work, I internalized its philosophy. Its cynicism dominated my young psyche, basting normal, happy moments with nostalgia for my future self.
Children’s theater is an exercise of equal parts nostalgia and absurdity. Casting musicals with only middle and high schoolers can lead to teenagers playing staggering alcoholics with mid-Atlantic accents, despite never drinking more heavily than a sip of wine at a bat mitzvah. That said, things like high schoolers leading the revolution in “Les Mis” or brothers embracing as father and son become more salient.
“All Shook Up,” too, peddled in absurdity. For obvious reasons, the scenes that culminated with kissing, which made up the bulk of the second act, were a challenge to stage. Instead of strange masked miming or skipping over the moments entirely, one of the younger girls in the ensemble was tasked with throwing confetti in the air to symbolize each kiss. The first time, it was unexpectedly hilarious and endearing. Then, watching her wait at the side of the tent, lunging and clutching her Ziploc bag, became my favorite part of the show. While overseeing the musical’s quintuple wedding conclusion, she ran frantically across the stage, covering the floor with scraps of paper. Her part was absolutely insane and perfect for the circumstances.
After the show, amid distanced mingling, my friend and I congratulated and effusively air-hugged the cast members we know. On the way out, I ran into a mom I got to know when I was in the program. She asked me how college was and if I was still doing theater. I said yes and explained that I’m taking the semester off. She told me that seeing me at the show makes her feel better about sending her son to college next year; he’ll come back, too.
I might not do theater again. That’s a lie; I’m in a virtual play this semester. But I might not act after college, and I’m not sure if that means I’ve given up on my teenage self. Being on Broadway was never the dream, explicitly, but I never thought that there would be a distinct end to the days I would get to be in musicals. This could be the pandemic talking; I might end up pursuing theater professionally. Either way, watching “All Shook Up” with a potential ending of my own in sight spurred a sort of homesickness. I miss the possibility that the feelings I’d get from doing theater with my friends could last forever. The shows would come and go, but in theory, that was infinite.
I checked the time on my phone before heading out to my car. Almost 10:30. Part of me expected missed calls and “Where are you??” texts from my mom waiting in the car. She used to read and doze off in the driver’s seat when rehearsals inevitably ran late during tech week. I opened the door, braced and ready to apologize profusely, but the car was empty. I waved goodbye to my friend in the parking lot. I watch him back out and pull away from my rearview mirror before putting the car into drive.
Rebecca Salzhauer | email@example.com