I'm twelve years old when Mom & Dad tell me we're going to New York. I've already got the theatre bug - they've been taking me to see touring productions since the days I'd fall asleep at their feet - and I'm beside myself. I've already memorized Les Miz and Phantom, and the idea of actually seeing Broadway blows my preteen mind. We're still two months away from the trip but I think of nothing else. The summer days go by slowly as I count down the minutes till we depart.
We fly into New York on a Friday night in August. It's late, but I'm not tired. As my parents sleep, I lie on the hotel's roll-away with my eyes wide open, amazed that I'm actually here. If this is the city that never sleeps, I figure, why should I?
Saturday morning all I can think about is passing the time till we can go to the theatre. I dump out my suitcase, suddenly mortified that I haven't brought an outfit that befits my first entrance into a Broadway house. But Mom & Dad delight me with the announcement that a special occasion warrants a special purchase... and off we go Bloomingdales. It's New York just like the movies I've seen - yellow cabs and Bloomies and Broadway - and even though it's my first time in Manhattan, it's like I've come home. We spend the afternoon on 5th Avenue then have dinner on Restaurant Row; and then, finally, it's time.
The show is Crazy for You. It's at the Shubert and I'm torn about whether to dance down Shubert Alley. I resist and walk with measured steps, smoothing my new dress and reminding myself that I'm not a kid anymore, that I've grown up enough to be worthy of the Broadway experience. But there is no tempering the enormous smile on my face. I feel like I've won the lottery, and we haven't even entered the theatre yet!
Dad holds the tickets as we walk in; the usher points down the aisle. I look at Dad with wide eyes as he gives me a sly, proud smile that means he has another surprise - and soon we are seated in the front row, close enough for me to touch the stage.
I'm agog from the opening notes of the overture. The sound of the orchestra, the look of the sets, and especially the glittery dancers in tap shoes are exactly as I've imagined Broadway to be. I've already learned (from scouring the Playbill before curtain) that the show's female lead, Jodi Benson, is also the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, my favorite movie; I've seen the film 50 times and feel honored just to be breathing the same air as its star.
The show only gets better. I love the dancing girls and the Gershwin tunes and even the hokey mistaken-identity storyline (I'm twelve, remember). But there is one moment that becomes the definition of my formative Broadway experience - and that's when Jodi Benson, as the cowgirl Polly, dances to the side of the stage exactly in front of Mom, Dad & me, and plops herself down on the lip of the stage. She's sitting there dangling her cowboy boots right in front of me, singing her face off, and my smile is so wide she could fall into it. At one point, I swear she catches my eye and smiles back; my twelve-year-old heart soars, and I'm hooked for life. In some ways this is the birth of BroadwayGirlNYC.
After the show I can barely form words, but I can't keep quiet either. All I want is to watch it all happen again. Mom & Dad exchange a look that says "we've created a monster," but I know they're delighted. I'm not sure they've ever seen me love anything this much.
It is pouring rain outside the Shubert when we exit, but when Dad points out the stage door, I beg my parents to let me stay to meet Jodi. (This is years before "stage-dooring" becomes a verb; there's not a barricade in sight.) They acquiesce ("Juniors will still be there in 20 minutes"), and we station ourselves in the alley, all three of us sharing an umbrella.
Harry Groener (Bobby) and Bruce Adler (Bela) and a young Beth Leavel (Tess) walk out, signing our Playbills and agreeably posing for pictures. And then, finally, out she comes - the gorgeous, wonderful Polly herself: Jodi Benson.
As she walks through the golden Shubert stage door, suddenly I'm shy. I half-hide behind Dad, holding out my sharpie and trying to get up the nerve to say hello. But before I do, she speaks to me: "I know you... I saw your pretty smile right there in the front row!" I die. My shyness disappears. She signs my Playbill and we pose for photos. I tell her I want to work on Broadway, and she tells me I can do anything. I believe her.
It's the first of four shows I see on Broadway that week; I love them all but not the way I love Crazy for You. I use my allowance money to buy a show poster and a tape (!) of the Original Cast Recording, which becomes all I listen to for months. When I get home I write Jodi a letter, enclosing the double-print of our photo together, thanking her for the performance and saying I'm going to remember her forever. Much to my surprise, she writes back, enclosing an autographed glossy photo featuring side-by-side images of Ariel and herself, with a hand-written note reminding me to practice "the three P's": patience, persistence and prayer.
It's over a decade after attending that show, and meeting that actress, before I officially christen myself BroadwayGirlNYC; but the seed of the passion was planted in me that night, at that performance, in that brand new dress in the front row of the Shubert Theatre. And still every time I walk by, I can picture Jodi Benson coming through that door, spotting me there in the alley, and making me a part of Broadway's magic.
PSSSST (Rumors! Gossip! Scoop!): Will another Tony-winning musical follow Avenue Q to New World Stages? My sources say yes...