I have seen Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd many times over the years, probably more than any single show. It has thrilled me, scared me, impressed me, made me laugh. I mouth the words, I bob my head, I conduct in imperceptibly small movements of my hands. But until this past Friday night, Sweeney Todd had never made me cry.
Let me back up.
About a month ago, a threatened protest against a production of Sweeney at my old high school, Amity Regional in Woodbridge CT, sent me rushing headlong to a board of education meeting to speak on behalf of the show and the school's drama program. While the opposition turned out to be muted, and my voice simply one of many, my vocal support of the drama program at my alma mater demanded that I back up my words with action, which in this case meant nothing more than returning to see the production.
Now in point of fact, I can't be certain if I ever went back to Amity to see a show after I graduated. Perhaps I saw a show in the two years after I went off to college, when younger friends were still at the school; I have a vague memory of one or two shows that my sister, four years younger than me, may have been involved in. But they made no lasting impression. My recollection of drama at Amity High School always has me somewhere in it, and perhaps that's true for most kids who did theatre in school.
So this is the point in the story where you think: oh, he cried at Sweeney for all the years gone by and the friends with whom he's lost touch. It was more than half a lifetime ago and our lives take us on many paths, far from the friends we had as teens. That's understandable. It happens to us all.
If that's what you thought, you're wrong.
You see, I am still in touch with, and close to, so many of my friends from the Amity Drama Club (and, by extension, the music department, which included the chorus and the band). While I may not see them as much as I would like, they are never far. We call each other on birthdays, gather for family celebrations (since so many of them are as close as family), mourn together (a task which I fear will only increase as days wear on). A few I speak with almost weekly. Facebook has helped with many reconnections of late, as did a spontaneously organized music department reunion last spring. I am the only one who made theatre my sole profession, though my days as a performer ended after one show in college.
My tears at Amity this past Friday night, which persisted for the first 15 minutes of the show, were for the sheer joy of those friends from that time. The moment the Sweeney ensemble united to cry out "Swing your razor wide," I was reminded of how deep the friendships were that were forged on the stage on Amity High School, the intensity of the memories, the importance of our shared youth. Very few of us played sports, but this was our team; we had no championship trophies then or now, but we were and are our own prizes.
Watching the Amity kids on Friday, I wondered about their friendships, even their romances. Would they stand the test of time? I remembered my parents cautioning me as I went off to college that my high school friendships might fall away, as so many do; I was so happy that those friends are now, more than three decades later, still my friends, just as my parents' own school friends remained their friends until they passed away.
In my day, the Amity Drama Club produced My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and Bye Bye Birdie; the fairly recently reinvigorated Amity Creative Theatre, as it's now known, has tackled Rent, Sweeney and Whose Life Is It Anyway?, shows that opened when I was in high school or even years later. I can't compare the quality then or now, since I've not been back for so long and (mercifully) my high school years pre-dated the advent of home video.
But comparison is not the point. The achievement is in the work and the collaboration; though every high school drama club probably dreams of being discovered and whisked to Broadway, it's just a lovely fantasy to be indulged, not a true goal. The lasting legacy is not the photos or videos, but the profound connections and the pleasure (and pain, since no show is ever easy) of the experience.
Also at play as I watched Sweeney was the fact that I have no children of my own, though I have six adored nieces. My niece Lillian played the title role Annie in middle school, but has since shifted over to costume design and construction; four have shown no great interest in the stage other than as members of the audience; my youngest niece, Rebekka, at age 10, has yet to evidence any desire to perform. I support them in their own choices and do not wish that they shared my interests at their ages. Even if I had children, there's no certainty that they would have wanted to be on the stage or play an instrument.
So mixed with my tears of joy for my lifelong friends was an emotion I probably have no right to: I was so proud. I was so proud of the kids on that stage and backstage. That night, each and every one of them was my child and they were all sublime. We don't know one another, yet we share something that is shared by anyone who did a show, or many shows, in high school.
I now know how my mother and father felt watching me; how my Uncle Bernie felt, snapping pictures madly at every show; how my Aunt Dorothy, my godmother, who used to come to our house and play the piano and urge us to sing, felt.
How beautiful, how sweet, how funny, how perfect and how loved you all are. Welcome to the theatre.
Follow Howard Sherman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hesherman