When I first tell people I meet that I love theatre (and musicals in particular), they always ask me the same question:
How did you first get interested in them?
I know they mean well, but I always find this question perplexing; if a person is really into sports, or world history, or birding, would I ask them the same? (Well, probably if it was birding). But my typical response is: My mother was playing show tunes for me ever since I was in the womb.
This is probably not true. I mean, Walkmans (Walkmen?) weren't around until after I was born, and while I know my parents had a record player with a healthy collection of Broadway cast albums (I liked playing Jesus Christ Superstar as soon as I could reach the turntable), I doubt they hooked up headphones to it and wrapped them around dear Mama's belly.
But musical theatre was ever-present in my life from the get-go, and from my dad's side too; I always found it surprising when he would tell me of the roles he played in different shows as a younger man. And while adulthood resulted in his being the "walking video camera" for the productions my brother and I did as we went through school, my mother did an occasional show here and there (I clearly remember her as Lola in Damn Yankees in my early teen years). I didn't have to ask my mother where her love of theatre came from, because I already knew the answer: my maternal grandmother, Sally.
My grandparents owned a house on Lake Massapaug in Sharon, MA, a quiet suburb about 30 minutes southwest of Boston, and this was the site of our family's annual summer reunion. Not surprisingly, all of the cousins, uncles, aunts, and whoever else showed up, would come together there to do a little song-and-dance variety show, often with some loose theme. (One year, it was "Cool Dudes," where I was Bart Simpson and my cousin was a Ninja Turtle.)
It was during one of those endless summer days that my grandmother and I were sitting on the back porch and pointed at the house next door, where a nice old lady lived with her grown son.
"I used to live there," Granny Sally said to me.
I didn't understand this comment, thinking that she had somehow been evicted from that house, or asking why she was living here if her house was there. I later came to understand that her family had sold that property, and now, in her senior years, she had moved back and built a house on the land she used to play on with her friends, one whose name was Leonard, or Lenny, as he was known.
It turns out that Lenny was Leonard Bernstein. Yes, that Leonard Bernstein, the composer whose scores include West Side Story, Candide, and Mass, among others.
Of course, I was too young to really understand this amazing connection, but I still had an inkling that it was a big deal. Granny Sally told me about how Lenny, as a child, would come from his home across the lake and play piano in her house (the one we were looking at less than 100 feet away). Apparently, Granny Sally's mother was friends with Lenny's mother from synagogue, thus their children connecting across the big, blue lake. There's all something very Marvelous Mrs. Maisel-ish about it (specifically, Season 2 in the Catskills, and substituting Lenny Bruce for Lenny Bernstein), but it still wows me all these years later.
That wasn't the end of her friendships with future musical theatre stars, either; when she attended Wheelock College in Boston, her roommate was none other than Margaret Hamilton, aka The Wicked Witch of the West in the original film of The Wizard of Oz (who I was told, and I quote, "Was a very energetic woman.")
All of this is to say that I'd like to think that, because my grandmother knew Lenny as her friend, she found her love for theatre. She then passed it on to my mother, who then gave it to me.
That's probably a very simplistic explanation, and more like the one you'd find in a play or musical, as a matter of fact. But it's one I'm happy to believe as truth, although it begets a more troubling question as a result: If Granny Sally hadn't met and known Leonard Bernstein or Margaret Hamilton, would she have loved theatre as much as she did to make it a part of her daughter's life, and by extension, my own? What would my life be like without this passion that has so defined who I am?
I'd like to believe that Granny Sally would have loved musicals even without the single degree of separation from theatre icons, because I saw it on her face in one of our final times together before she got sick. I took her to a touring production of Camelot in Boston, where Robert Goulet had graduated from the young Lancelot to the stately Arthur. As Act One ended, I turned to Granny and asked her, "Are you enjoying the show?" and she smiled before replying, "It's musical theatre with my grandson. How could I not?"
Thinking back on that statement, it reinforced everything
I knew to be true about why I fell in love theatre: Because of the memories it makes with the people you love. From the rinky-dink little shows my family performed each summer, to the stories about Lenny, to sitting in the audience at The Wang Center, I have my grandmother to thank for all of it.
Sally Dvlinsky Glickman
September 28, 1923 - January 14, 2009