28 July 2010

The Performance That Changed My Life

Spend time in theaters and concert halls, and you start to keep a list, close to the heart, of great evenings or mere moments when an artist transformed the world for you. You count yourself lucky to be alive, at the right time and the right place, to enjoy such an experience. My list starts with the night I saw Beverly Sills in Rossini’s Siege of Corinth (which is why I talk about it all the time), but the list keeps growing, to the present day and, I hope, beyond.

We collect these performances. Some people call this a scrapbook, but I call it my autobiography, written in the voices of others.

Recently, though, it’s become clear to me that the performance that changed my life most, is one that I didn’t actually witness.

When my mother was young, she made a trip to New York City, where she saw Mary Martin in Peter Pan. That performance didn’t inspire Mom to go on the stage, or anything else so obvious as that, but it changed her perspectives forever.

Having grown up in a small town, she hadn’t seen many plays, let alone full-scale Broadway musicals. She’d seen her share of movies, I guess, but before that trip to New York, she had little experience of being in the same room with the people who were singing and dancing and making her laugh or cry.

In short, she had little preparation and less warning for the phenome­non that was Mary Martin. Years later, Mom remembers, “She just sat down on that stage and sang to me.”

You may feel the same way, as you watch this.

It’s a matter of recorded fact that Mary Martin’s Peter Pan was magical.* She made us believe in magic, in eternal youth, in flying. And even in fairies: I doubt that anyone ever was born who didn’t clap for Tinkerbell when Mary Martin asked it. She was irresistible. To see her today in “Neverland” is to conjure a special nostalgia, not only for our memories of her, and of who we were when we first saw her or first heard this song — but also for a time when belief was easier.

Older now, we know that “thinking lovely thoughts” can keep us young, though it can’t entirely prevent our growing up. My mother might have arrived at this conclusion independently, without help from Mary Martin, but surely corroboration from another cock-eyed optimist from Texas encouraged my mother’s pursuit of happiness.

I oughta put up a statue … but somebody else already did.
The Mary Martin statue in her hometown, Weatherford, TX

How did Mary Martin’s performance affect me? Well, each time I have prepared to fly off on some theatrical adventure, I have seen Mary Martin in my mother’s eyes and heard both women in a single voice. I have, for example, announced that I was not going to look for another paying job just now, but instead I was going to sign up for a non-paying job on a Broadway musical. I have declared that I was going to drop out of graduate school on a mere promise of getting to stage an opera. I have stated my intention to travel halfway ’round the world, just to hear somebody sing — and when I was younger, that meant asking my mother to drive me there.

Each time I make such a pronouncement, my mother draws back, just a little teeny bit. I can see the wheels turning as she runs through all the practical reasons I really should not follow through on my hare-brained schemes. Work on a Broadway show? Why not just run away and join the circus?

But quickly then she is transformed. Her resistance falters; she melts a little, perhaps. What might have been a lecture, or even an argument, is not merely choked back or sighed away, it evaporates. And Mom ends up saying, “How wonderful!”

She is thinking of Peter Pan, and the magic that she felt in Mary Martin’s performance, all those years ago. Then suddenly, my ambition makes sense to her: He wants to be a part of that, too.

Though I saw this process many times, it took me years to understand it. At last I asked Mom: “You’re thinking of Mary Martin, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, “I am.”

So here’s to Mary Martin, and the performance that changed my life. And so long as I’m lifting my glass in a toast —

Happy birthday, Mom.

*NOTE: That Martin’s performance was not only magical but also perhaps the most dangerous in history, we know because the television network had to pull the program off the air: Martin persuaded far too many little children that they, too, could fly, and they were jumping out of windows and off of rooftops across the country. When NBC remade the program in color, the same thing happened, all over again.


Anonymous said...

And as my own sons pursue degrees in theatre, I think the same thing. If you can't dream when you are young, when can you?


Alex said...

Another great story.

It's wonderful that your Mom recognized intuitively that wishing and taking steps to realize your dreams is always transformative and magical... even when the dreams don't turn out exactly as you thought they would.

Mikebench said...

I recently digitized the classic Mary Martin TV performance and put it on a DVD. Do you want it?

William V. Madison said...

Aw, shucks, I feel guilty enough watching copyrighted material on YouTube! (Though I note that the DVD of Peter Pan is out of print….)

Joe Hage.com said...

What a lovely post and tribute to your mom. Smiled throughout.

Thanks for sharing!