There was a videotape. The stage show Cats. It had been filmed and edited and packaged and somehow found its place on the shelf in my grandparents’ house. I would watch it over and over, fascinated that, somewhere in the city I lived in, such things were happening every night. There was a videotape, and that’s how it began.
For my childhood self, theatre was always an anticipated treat. Every Christmas, we’d dress up and our grandparents would take us to see something. Through these trips I came to know basic Shakespeare, The Snowman and numerous shows based on my favourite books. In between visits, I would sit in my grandparents’ living room, and discover Giselle, and Oliver!, and Annie.
I loved the ballets and the poetry of Shakespeare but my favourite parts were the huge ensemble numbers, where entire casts would come together and sing. The years that followed were full of dance shows, and joining whichever choir my school had invented that week. I was enthralled by the idea of performing but it was always just for fun. Although I loved to sing, I thought maybe I preferred it when I could just listen.
While theatre had momentarily caught my attention, it was never the direction I planned upon and in the years that followed, aside from occasional theatre trips, musicals dropped almost entirely off my radar. It just wasn’t something I ever thought about. Until a Saturday morning in early December of the year I turned 18, when a boy whose taste I trusted implicitly sang a single line from a show about witches. And it began again.
I was lying on my bed the first time I heard Idina Menzel sing. Interest piqued, I typed her name into Youtube, found the videos with the most hits, and began my education. I started, predictably, with Wicked but it was later, when I strayed away from witches and into New York’s East village, that my awe was solidified. That was the night I first saw RENT.
Since that first night in my bedroom, I’ve seen the show all over the world. When two of the original cast returned to Broadway, I flew to New York and fell in love with a city. I saw RENT live for the first time at the theatre that had become its home and I felt, in a way I never had before, that theatre was… important. This wasn’t just something I enjoyed, it was something I was supposed to do. There is a moment in RENT where 15 spotlights light the empty stage. The cast walks out, each standing beneath one, and, facing out to the audience, they sing.
As I sat in my seat, I remember thinking how do you create a moment like that? And then: I want to find out.
The first time I listened to The Last 5 Years, I thought it beautiful, and intelligent, but there was no real impact beyond that. It was not as if, somewhere between The Schmuel Song and A Summer In Ohio, a voice could be heard whispering, ‘Hey, this show will change your life one day’. I had no idea.
When I heard it was returning to the West End, I was far more excited by the accompanying production of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…BOOM! by the same company. I almost didn’t buy a ticket. It almost never happened.
During the rehearsal process for the two shows, I spoke to my friend Leon, who had been cast in Tick, Tick…BOOM! He asked if I was seeing The Last 5 Years.
“Should I?” I asked.
“You have to” he said.
I saw the final matinee. It was four years ago, almost, and still there are moments I remember like they happened only yesterday. After the show, I saw Leon. “Wasn’t it amazing?” he asked, and I said, “Who are those people?”
Who are those people who make me want to be a part of something?
He told me about Paul, the actor playing Jamie and a producer of the show. He told me about Notes from New York and everything the team were doing and what wonderful people were involved. He told me, standing in the street, just another Sunday night.
And I knew.
A change of continent distracted me momentarily, but on my return to the UK, my friend Nicci called asking if I’d like a few days work. “Let me just tell you who it’s for” she said, so I let her. “Speckulation Entertainment, the guys behind Notes from New York -” she began, and I’d heard enough.
A few days became three years.
Everything that has happened since: the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen, the dreams I’ve watched come true, was born of that time. In 2012, Speckulation Entertainment produced Jason Robert Brown in concert. He sang from his albums, from his musical 13, some new material – and from The Last Five Years. As Jason sang his final song of the night, I rested my head on Paul’s shoulder.
“I listened to this song in a rainstorm in America,” I said.
Before I knew any of this would happen.
“And now here he is, singing it,” Paul replied.
And I thought, here we all are.
October 6th, 2011. The day after my 23rd birthday. Having slept only a few hours, inhaled 4 coffees and travelled halfway across London, I stood in the wings at the Royal Albert Hall. Just a few minutes previously, I’d placed several bottles of water at the foot of the conductors podium and been thanked, with a smile and a hand on my back, by Marvin Hamlisch.
Now, sound checking a song from the first show I had ever seen her perform, Idina Menzel stood, hair scraped back, her voice ringing out around the empty auditorium. I was still, taking a tiny moment of peace in what had been the most exhausting few days I had ever known. But now there was a second of quiet tranquility as I watched her sing to the arena, where, over three years before, I’d seen her for the first time. And then it passed.
As I made to move, to respond once more to the ringing phones and barked orders and general chaos involved with Doing A Show, I remember thinking nothing, no matter how strong, or sad, or scary, can ever take that away. I’d have those few seconds, that defining something, for the rest of my life. And there would – I knew – be awful, soul-destroying things to come, both on that day and in the future, but who was I to complain? For a few seconds, didn’t I have it all? For those moments that are barely visible to the naked eye, those you-had-to-be-there days, those stories to tell, wouldn’t it always be worth it?
Ava Eldred is a production assistant in London and blogs at www.likealullaby.com.