the thrill of a first visit
Endless reflective windows meld into crumbling brick walls, colored tarps cover construction sites, and LED advertisements illuminate a frigid night. The expanse of Manhattan unfurls its skyscraper-clad curtains and opens into my reality. I am swept into the giddy tourism, the excitement of a first visit. My expectations swell as names I’ve only seen on my Hamilton Pandora Station light up 45th and 46th streets.
I am about to see my first Broadway show.
With Google Maps pulled up on my phone, I walk with my mother, who lived in the city decades ago. We wind through the wide sidewalks and numbered streets. She tells me how Broadway used to look before the city sculpted it into an ideal of lights, restaurants, and shops. “You never wanted to just walk around,” she explains, scanning the road ahead. She has pulled her purse to her chest instinctually and shivers in the cold. I mention to her learning about that in one of my classes. We check the address of the theater again.
It is odd to face a city that has lived in your head all your life, to fit the fragmented portrayals into a physical position relative to others, and then yourself, within this map. My mother’s life as a nanny on the Upper East Side, the shimmering Times Square and Broadway Theaters, the glamour of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, and countless other token components of the city. I watch them connect through streets and subway stops in front of me, excessively close together and surprisingly far apart.
A flashing screen illuminates a woman in white twirling around the stage. “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” the bold script below her reads. We arrive at our theater, printed tickets warped from the rain. The cold follows us as we are directed through the theater. The hallways bend around the orchestra, stage, and mezzanine, lit by small artificial lamps. A staff member hands us the yellow Playbills and shows us to our seats. We sit on winding banquettes directly on the stage, with open spaces woven between us for actors to move through. I ruffle the shiny paper of the program, and I am again confounded by the sudden normalcy of holding a Broadway theater program in my hands, of reading a program on a Broadway stage. My mother and I scan the pages, follow the dense cast descriptions and audience notes. I imagine the hundreds of hours of work it must have taken to bring the performance to this night. How are we to be a part of this?
The stage is made to resemble a Russian opera house, with scattered tables and fake paintings hanging from the crimson walls. Brilliantly delicate chandeliers hang above, illuminating gold accents in their refractions. Everything is meticulously crafted, drifting between the realism of the Russian setting and a romantic backdrop for the characters. Beside me a stranger taps me on the shoulder. “Do all Broadway performances look like this?”
“They built the whole thing for the musical,” I respond, recalling the research I did for the show weeks earlier. Still, a single production hardly seems to justify the suspended areas of the stage and complex seating arrangements. The stranger nods, gaze frozen in awe. I imagine I look the same.
Before the lights dim and the first haunting note is played, before actors erupt onto the stage in perfect coordination, I am holding my mother’s hand and looking at pictures we’d taken earlier that day. She smiles tiredly, and I grin back at her. We are here, in New York City, where she used to live and where I’ve never been. We are embedded in this landscape. I close my eyes and feel my small, small place on the stage.