On Mother’s Day, we musical theatre freaks often talk about our favorite mother characters in musicals – or the most monstrous – but I’ve never blogged about my own mother, Joan Zobel, and all the ways she helped me travel the weird, wild, wonderful road I’ve been traveling pretty much since birth.
I’m a starving artsy, so I can never get Mom much of a Mother’s Day present. This year, my present is a very public Thank You.
It comes with Free Shipping!
So here are the Top Ten Ways My Mom Supported Me on My Road to Here and Now (I know, I know, that title is too damn long, I’ll work on it)…
When I was 15, I wrote a letter to Bud Culver, the president of the Muny. I told him I was going to spend my life making musicals and I wanted to be a Muny usher. (I had auditioned for the Muny one summer and saw quickly that would not be how I’d end up working at the Muny.) At the time, most of the ushers were kids of board members, donors, and other rich folks. But I got a call a week later, and I was a Muny usher for eight years. It was an amazing experience and it was there that I learned the literature of my art form.
Mom went Above and Beyond that first summer, driving me to My Dream Job and picking me up every night. And after that, letting me take her car 4-5 nights a week – back when the Muny season was 11 weeks long!
Spring of my Freshman year in high school, I got cast in my first “real” musical (i.e., a show that had run on or off Broadway), the great Anything Goes (the ‘62 version). I was Bishop Dobson, who gets arrested in the first scene, and I was in the tap chorus! I had the time of my life! Mom got a Navy recruiting post to donate the sailor costumes for us, and she took me out and bought me tap shoes! I was in musical comedy heaven. (Funny side note: the afternoon we got my tap shoes, I also performed in a Steve Martin Act-Alike Contest at Streetside Records and won Second Place!) She was so proud to see me tap dancing in the show! That was the most fun I ever had on stage.
To my great delight, I got to work on Anything Goes again this spring with New Line. What an amazing, joyful piece of theatre.
When the rest of the kids at Affton High School were getting “Affton Football” and “Affton Hockey” jackets, I told my mom I wanted one that said “Affton Theatre.” She wasn’t keen on the idea. “Oh honey,” I remember her saying, “No one else will have one and then you won’t want to wear it… And do you have to spell theater that way…?”
Poor Mom. She gave in and got me the jacket. I wore it so much, she had to buy a replacement by the time I got to senior year. One other kid got an “Affton Theatre” jacket too. But I would’ve been fine being the only one. I don’t think Mom understood yet that nothing on this earth was going to prevent me from spending my life making musicals. And telling the world about it. When I went to college, she had a “Harvard Theatre” jacket made for me.
My mother is pretty unflappable when it comes to my musical theatre. After twenty-seven seasons of New Line, not much shocks her anymore. But back in high school, I could still shock her. Junior year, I discovered and fell in love with Hair, and I played the movie soundtrack night and day. I’ll never forget one day, I was playing it loud and “Sodomy” came on. I heard my mother calling from downstairs, so I stopped the stereo and she said, “Is that song saying what I think it’s saying?” I assured her it was. She sighed and replied, “Well, could you at least close your door?” and she went back to whatever she had been doing. Score one for musical theatre and cool Moms!
When Mom came up to Harvard to see me graduate, we took a short trip afterward to New York to see some shows. We saw the original La Cage aux Folles, Little Shop of Horrors, and the revival of Sweet Charity with Debbie Allen and Michael Rupert. All three shows were so wonderful.
Seeing La Cage was interesting. I had figured out I was gay by then, but hadn’t told my family yet. And Mom was not raised to feel great about gay people. But I’ll always remember after the curtain call, she turned to me, her face full of revelation, and she said, “They really did love each other, didn’t they?” That was huge for me.
And now New Line is producing La Cage next season. I. Can. Not. Wait.
We also saw Little Shop off Broadway at the Orpheum Theatre in the East Village. I’ll admit the neighborhood seemed awfully dicey, but I wasn’t missing this for anything. The show changed my life. It was the first time I had seen a show that took an inherently ridiculous story and played it hyper-serious. Years later, I would invent a label for shows like that – neo musical comedies. I’ve directed a lot of them.
Before the performance started, Mom noticed some canvas wrapped around pipes overhead. She asked me what they were, and I lied and said I didn’t know. Then at the end of the show, on the last word of the finale (“Don’t feed the plants!”), those canvas wraps were released and giant plant tentacles dropped down into our faces, literally slapping my mother. She laughed and laughed, and kept saying “You knew! You knew!”
When I was a senior in high school, I wrote my first musical, Adam’s Apple. And honestly, from the moment I wrote my first song, I knew I wanted to do this forever. And I will. The Affton High School drama department produced my show in fall 1981, and the television news magazine PM Magazine, came out to shoot a segment about me and my show.
The producer and cameraman spent the whole day with me at school, then followed me home and filmed some more. Then, to my mother’s huge surprise, they clipped a mic onto her sweater so the host Jann Tracy could interview her. Mom was totally freaked out by this, but she did an excellent job. See for yourself…
Years ago, I mentioned to my mom that a friend’s mom had made her a quilt out of t-shirts from high school, and someday (hint, hint), I’d love a quilt made out of musical theatre t-shirts. A few years ago, she made me that quilt. It’s a mix of Broadway show shirts and New Line show shirts. What you can’t see in the photo is that the quilting is in patterns of eighth notes and treble clefs. So cool. My cat Hamilton loves it as much as I do.
I will always remember once in middle school when the high school drama kids came down and did a preview of their production of Godspell, which totally blew my damn mind! I had never seen anything like that! So I convinced Mom to take me to see the show, and a while after we got home that night, around midnight, I asked her if she’d drive me up to Peaches Records and Tapes (open till 1:00 a.m.) to get the Godspell cast album. And she put her shoes on and we drove over and got it.
I listened to that recording nonstop for months. I always remember that night when I see young people at a New Line show…
Years later, I’m sitting backstage at the Edison Theatre at Washington University with the great Stephen Schwartz, composer-lyricist of Godspell, because I got to host a discussion and talkback with him while he was in town for a concert. I brought that Godspell album, told him that story – it was the first cast album I ever bought – and got him to sign it for me.
My folks started me on piano lessons when I was four. I got good enough to play octaves before my fingers were long enough to play octaves. But damn, did I hate practicing! Mom and I would fight about it, and I’d cry, and she’d say, “You still have ten minutes left to practice.” So I’d go practice for ten more minutes.
The piano was in the basement, and I’d take the kitchen timer down with me, so I’d know when a half-hour was up. I’d play one piece, set the timer ahead a little, play another piece, set the timer ahead a little… eventually, coming back upstairs triumphantly after 17 minutes or so, “finished” practicing, not fully comprehending that there were clocks in the house, so she could easily tell I was cheating, though I vehemently denied it.
I unintentionally got my revenge though. Even at age five or six, the only way they could keep me interested in my piano lessons was to let me work on a show tune every week, in addition to finger exercises and a classical piece. At first, it was “Easy Piano” arrangements, but soon I could play real sheet music as long as it wasn’t too complex. And my first real sheet music was “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. I spent months working on it, so for months, my family had to listen to me joyfully pounding away in the basement – bum-PA-PA-bum-PA! bum-PA-PA-bum-PA!
They were sure wishing then that I’d turn that timer ahead…!
(Notice the Peanuts artwork on the wall, in this picture of me as a tiny pianist. Mom made all that for my birthday party that year, along with painted, plywood Charlie Browns and Snoopys she cut out on the jigssaw, for each kid at the party to take home!)
Today, I am so grateful they started me that early and forced me to stick with it. I literally learned to read music as I was learning to read words, so I’m a pretty great sight-reader. I love that I can buy a theatre score, open it up on my piano, and play and sing through it. There’s a lesson for you, parents!
This has to be Number One on the list.
I was up at college when I turned 21. And a few weeks before my birthday, I got a letter from Lucie Arnaz and Larry Luckinbill, wishing me a Happy 21st Birthday, and mentioning that they’d see me the next time they were performing at The Muny.
But I didn’t know Lucie Arnaz and Larry Luckinbill. And how did they know I was turning 21…?
As more birthday greetings started arriving from theatre and film celebrities, I realized my mother was behind this. I ended up getting birthday wishes from Jerry Herman, Gwen Verdon, Leonard Bernstein, Priscilla Lopez, Robert Preston, Hal Prince, Marvin Hamlisch, Betty Buckley, Tommy Tune, Len Cariou, and quite a few others – even Frank Sinatra! You can see all of them here.
Is that not the coolest birthday present ever? And this was in 1985, before the internet…
Luckily for me, my mother is very artsy. She never really trained at any of her talents, but she has a lot of them. In retrospect, it was so valuable to me that, from the earliest age, in my house creativity was both something normal and something to celebrate. Combine that with the fact that 90% of our family’s LPs were Broadway cast albums, and it’s a miracle that only one of the three boys turned out this way.
My parents got divorced when I was twelve, but that was also important for my development as an artist. My father had a hyper-practical capitalism fetish, and had I been living with him when I was in high school or college, I could not have pursued the pure (and poor) artist’s path that I did.
I figured out what my Real was at a very early age. Mom knew it. Mom was an artsy. My father, not so much.
She has almost never missed a show of mine. The only exceptions are two monstrously vulgar shows I told her not to come to, because they really would’ve bothered her – Jerry Springer the Opera and Bukowsical – and even though I told her not to come, she felt guilty missing my shows. Other than those, she sees it all, and over time, she’s even grown to prefer my kind of musicals over the old-fashioned classics… One of her favorite New Line shows has always been Floyd Collins.
The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree…
The older I get, the more I think about how I got to this moment in my artistic journey – one of these days I know I’m going to be finally, inexorably drawn to Merrily We Roll Along – and it’s really interesting, and sometimes surprising, to look back to when I was a kid. It all started back then…
How did you get there from here, Mr Shepard?
What did you have to go through?
How did you get there from here, Mr. Shepard?
How did you get to be you?
Bending with the road,
Gliding through the countryside.
Everybody merrily, merrily,
Sing ’em your song!
You can now go back to your discussions of mothers in musicals… and by the way, my FB buddy Adam Feldman wants to know, if that one tree in Into the Woods is Cinderella’s mom, then are all the trees in the forest people’s parents…? Did I just blow your mind?
Thank you for everything, Mom! And Happy Mother’s Day, Everybody!
Long Live the Musical!
from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre http://newlinetheatre.blogspot.com/2018/05/happy-mothers-day.html