Perhaps it’s my out-of-town origins, but it still thrills me whenever I enter a Broadway theater. It just doesn’t get old.
It began during my high school years in Scranton, Pennsylvania. All students had to take a foreign language for four years, and most chose Spanish or French. I chose Russian. I heard through the student grapevine that the teacher, Mr. Peregrim, was really nice and funny, and that it was a small class. Most importantly, my good friend and I would be able to be together in that class; it would be our first year in public school.
Mr. Peregrim gave us all Russian names, and I became “Svetlana.” Names like Susan, Michael, and Kathy were easy to match, but Esther? Not so common in public school. So, during those four years, I was Svetlana. Even when he’d see me outside, Mr. Peregrim would ask me, in Russian, “How are you, Svetlana?” I don’t remember him ever calling me Esther.
Teaching Russian wasn’t the only thing Mr. Peregrim loved to do. Every year, he managed to charter a bus for the two-hour ride to New York so we could go to a Broadway play together. We all contributed, and he got us a group student rate.
It was a big deal.
He planned and talked about the Broadway trip for months, and also about going to a famous Italian restaurant, Mama Leone’s, for lunch. So the kosher kids ate the sandwiches that we brought from home, then we scrambled around Manhattan, on our own, until we met for the matinee.
It was so much fun.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember much Russian. Maybe 20 words. I also remember how to say “Thank goodness it’s Friday” with a decent accent, as I imitate Mr. Peregrim, who uttered that phrase, with a huge smile, every single Friday.
But I was bitten by the Broadway bug.
During the last covid-ridden two years, most of us haven’t been able to catch a Broadway show. Now people are trickling back to the beautiful old landmark buildings and returning, as they say in old movies, to the “theataah.”
A few months ago, when theaters finally opened their doors again, it took me a while to get on board. Covid has made us tentative and afraid, perhaps even a little PTSD-ish. It feels like we’re tiptoeing back into our lives.
What pushed me over the edge was curiosity and my desire to see the new and updated version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It is one of my favorite movies, based upon the wonderful and classic novel by Harper Lee and starring Gregory Peck as the main character, Atticus Finch. I had heard that the versatile actor Jeff Daniels rendered an interesting and powerful portrayal of Atticus in the play now on Broadway.
So I bit the bullet and ordered tickets. Protocol certainly has changed all things Broadway, in ways bordering on the bizarre. Before entering the theater, everyone was asked to show vaccination cards and picture IDs.. When the usher handed me the Playbill, it felt a bit like coming home, although everyone in the audience was strictly mandated to wear masks. At one point, I lifted my mask partially to pop in a hard candy, and an usher pointed to the sign, “Masks Up,” staring me down until I properly replaced it.
The usher stood in front with that silly sign searching for unmasked bandits until the show began.
As I was looking around, I remembered being in this theater, the Shubert, to see the revival of “Hello Dolly” a few years ago. How could I forget the very annoying guy sitting next to me singing along with Bernadette Peters, as Dolly Levi? He got mad when I shushed him.
Finally, the seats gradually filled up, and the lights went down.
There’s still magic when the lights go down and the stage comes alive. A few seconds later we heard, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the theater,” followed by loud audience applause.
Then absolute silence descended, as the scenery and stage were set for Act 1.
When the actors began their lines, all prior protocol annoyances faded away, and the audience blended with the play. Then Jeff Daniels, as Atticus Finch, appeared center stage, again to boisterous applause.
We were transported into Harper Lee’s characters and story, which is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression. Many of the characters who live in Maycomb are racists. Atticus, a lawyer, has the impossible task of defending Tom Robinson, a Black man in the deep South, who is falsely accused of assaulting a troubled young white woman. Although Tom is proven innocent of any wrongdoing, he still is found guilty. When he tries to run away, he is killed.
The narrators of the story are Atticus’s children, Scout and Jem, who watch as their widowed father pursues justice against great odds. The strength and durability of this story is in the timeliness of its themes of prejudice and the pursuit of justice, even under the most difficult circumstances. It is also a coming-of-age story of children who are growing up and learning about their father’s complexity and integrity.
Because Broadway shows are live, you never know what can happen. Drama onstage can extend to the audience. At the end of Act 1, the actors suddenly stood still, stopped the performance, and looked out at the audience in silence. Something was wrong.
“Does anyone have a flashlight?” someone shouted. At that point, we all realized that there was a medical emergency. Jeff Daniels stepped toward the end of the stage and said, ”OK folks, we’re going to go into intermission now.” The curtain quickly closed and the emergency was taken care of.
The second act proceeded without a hitch. After the actors took their bows and the curtain came down, everyone proceeded through the exit. Usually, I’d wait to meet the cast as they filtered out through the doors. Over the years, I’ve gotten my Playbills signed by Matthew Broderick, who was kind enough to let me take a picture of him. I also met Kelly O’Hara, and even Sutton Foster, when she played the lead in “Thoroughly Modern Milly.”
But it was a freezing night, and all I wanted was some hot soup and to take my mask off. Hopefully, next time I’ll wait. Hopefully, that’ll be soon.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist and writer.