This story was originally posted on my Facebook page, May 20, 2016.
Word on the street is that Hamilton tickets are difficult to acquire. In mid-March, the box office said 4-14 tickets are released every day and sold at face value. The 10 or so people that day began lining up at 6am. A scientific method for obtaining tickets. Arrive early enough and you’re in!
Then Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Pulitzer. Then the show broke records with 16 Tony nominations, of which 4 were for him. Michelle Obama called Hamilton: “the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life.” Ben Brantley’s New York Times review suggests it “might just be worth” mortgaging your house and leasing your children to acquire tickets. People began camping out in tents on the street to acquire those 4-14 released seats. Professional line standers appeared. Rules cracked down. No tents, no chairs, no leaving the line, no substitute line holders.
Wednesday, May 18 was my Hamilton day. I wrote it into the family calendar weeks ago. Lin-Manuel Miranda was scheduled to perform. Warm enough to wait on the street for 14 hours with comfy, cushioned seat and snack foods packed along with a dense book (The Hare with Amber Eyes), I set off at 5am.
I arrived to find a line at 5:50am. The first 4 people had been waiting since 2:30pm on Tuesday. The next 4 had arrived at 11pm Tuesday night. Surveying the line, it was a toss up whether I should stay. I would have tickets 15&16, if that many were released on a 2-show day.
The guy in front of me, a student who left CT at 4:00am by car, convinced me that I had an excellent chance and that it would be fun waiting together. One of the women who’d been waiting all night bought bagels and cream cheese for everyone. A Russian grandmother from Brighton Beach joined the line at 6:30am. She saw the show in March, she said. After standing in the ticket release line on a freezing cold day, she was offered a single premium seat for $477. “I was jumping up and down I was so excited. It was for Orchestra row L which was very far away. But it was worth it.”
Uh-oh. What would I do if I was offered 2 seats for $477? Would I kiss $1,000 goodbye to see a play I could listen to at home for free any time? Not to mention the investment of a day of my life. Am I a lemming?
Then, my husband Steve joined me for the lottery which took place at 12:30pm for $10 front row seats. We didn’t win. At 1:55pm, the first 6 people got matinee released tickets. A couple of them were standing room (after being up all night) for $40 a pop. We were now tickets 9&10 for the 8pm.
Two of the people in front of us were professional line standers. With the new box office crackdown to eliminate professionals, the box office ended up releasing tickets after 7:55pm. At that point, it was too late for these guys to notify their clients. So at the last minute, they paired up to see the show together, which moved us to positions 7&8.
At 7:57pm, the first two people in line were ushered inside for tickets, then the second two. We were now positions 3&4. Then the box office asked for only the next person. One ticket left? Former professional line stander #1 went in. A minute later his partner in crime disappeared inside. Steve and I discussed. We were next, if there was a next. What if only one ticket was available? We can’t turn it down. No way! Who goes? He said I should go since I’d been waiting 6 hours longer.
“Next in line. Only one of you.” Steve pointed to me.
It’s 8:01pm. I go inside and approach the window.
“Two,” I hear myself say.
“$354 please.” I fumble for my credit card, give it to him, he hands me a receipt to sign, I sign. He gives me the tickets. I go outside.
Steve is waiting #1 in line for the next single ticket. It’s 8:02. I hold up the tickets and motion for him to join me. The Russian grandmother thinks I’m holding a ticket for her, too, while Steve hesitates, not understanding. I motion again. Confused, he follows me. “You got TWO?” Yes.
We rush in, hand the tickets to the usher at the entrance. “Sharp right.” We make a bee-line right. I expect to see stairs to the nose bleed seats. After all, these are $177 tickets. The door leads us to the orchestra. We must be in partial view seats off to the side, I think, as I hand the tickets to the next usher. She points to the Center Section, Row G. I drop my stuff, the 2 professional line standers are next to us. They’ve never seen the show.
I climb over them to get to the bathroom. The bathroom attendant tells me the show is starting. I return just as the lights are coming down. I’m in my seat as the first actor walks onstage. I’m breathless. I don’t know if I’ll faint or cry. I can’t believe these seats! Row G is raised above F so that not a single head blocks the periphery of the stage.
Act 1 is bliss. At intermission I can’t move. I stand up to let people out, still stunned by the experience. The lady behind us tells us this is her 23rd time seeing Hamilton. “I come every two weeks. I’m a little embarrassed when so many people can’t see it and I’m on #23. The presidential candidates should be required to see this show. When people ask me how many times I’ve seen it, I tell them, ‘not enough times.’ This is why I got rich. Some women buy designer high heels, some fancy cars. For me, it’s so I can come back and see this. At 3 o’clock this afternoon, my seats were over $3,000 on Stubhub. By 6:30pm, they dropped to $1,500, so I bought them. I do that every time.”
At this point I’m very curious about how she got so rich. She asks our names. We tell her. “I’m Rosie. This is my daughter and it’s her 3rd time seeing the show. What do you do?” We tell her. Violin is her favorite instrument. She bonds with Steve over the amazing violin in Hamilton. She tells me she produced a one-woman show downtown at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre. Had I heard of the show? It rang a bell. I’m very much doubting this lady got rich producing a one-woman show. She tells me she’s thinking of doing her own one-woman show. Her background is comedy, stand-up. She won a talent search award on TV when she was 20. She hosted a TV talk show for six years on VH1.
“Is that how you got rich?” I ask. Yes, she says. She’s made a few movies, too. Comedy. Next week she’s opening for Cyndi Lauper.
She tells us about “Hamiltome,” the book in which Lin-Manuel Miranda explains it all. “It’s like open source,” she says. “He does this brilliant work and explains how he did it so you can do it too. Incredible.” The show is starting again. We drop to our seats. The two pro line standers come back. They flip when they see Rosie as the lights come down. She promises they can have their photo taken with her after the show. They’ve already gotten shots of themselves with Steven Spielberg.
Act II is perfection to the millionth power. The show ends. Steve rescues a Hamilton memorabilia cup somebody left under their seat with half a drink. Rosie taps our shoulders and says, “Nice meeting you.” We head out into the night dizzy with wonder.
“Did you include the story about how Mother and I got out of Austria?”my dad’s cousin Julius asked yesterday over brunch at his house in Half Moon Bay.
Did I include that story? It’s the culmination of the play Felicitas I’m performing on Tuesday at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse about the life of his mother Felicitas Sofer, an infant nurse from Vienna. He will see the play for the first time Tuesday – the play in which I portray his mother, based on stories he told me, accompanied by Steve May’s mandolin music.
Felicitas Sofer was my great aunt “Lizi”. Her nursing territory included my Northern New Jersey hometown. In fact, she was the nurse who attended my home birth.
My mother describes how when she was in labor, Aunt Lizi instructed her to walk up and down the hallway of our home, periodically dropping with her hands around Aunt Lizi’s neck to hang with full weight dangling for a minute, then back onto her feet to walk some more. I was expected the same day as one of Aunt Lizi’s other baby clients, but conveniently waited an extra day to accommodate the other baby.
After writing two shows about Lizi’s older sisters – my grandmother actress Lilia Skala and great aunt, dancer Elizabeth Polk – it seemed hard to conceive of how a baby nurse might prove to be a worthy subject for the stage. Lizi’s work and life were very private. She never talked about her baby cases. I saw her only at Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas. I couldn’t remember the sound of her voice or accent.
What was there to write about?
In 2007, I interviewed her son Julius hoping he might shed some light on her life. There were a couple of clues indicating she had a story to tell. One was that although she called herself Mrs. Sofer, she had never been married. Interestingly, the brief interactions I’d had with her on holidays were almost always about marriage.
“There’s no reason why you can’t marry a prince. Grace Kelly was an American girl like you and she married Prince Rainier. It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is to fall in love with a poor man,” she said.
When I was five, I remember mentioning that my feet were sweaty. “Your husband won’t like that in bed,” she warned.
It was only in junior high that my mother mentioned Aunt Lizi had never been married.
“But she has a son!”
“If I’d known about the skeletons in your father’s family closet, I would have thought twice about marrying him,” said my mother.
When cousins came for the holidays, Lizi pointed out that “it’s perfectly legal to marry your first cousin in many states.”
Aunt Lizi once bought a wedding dress on sale at Filene’s Basement for her 16-year old niece Grace, even though Grace had no thought of marriage and hasn’t married to this day.
Was Lizi so focused on marriage because she regretted not marrying?
“No,” says her niece Grace, “she was focused on marriage because that’s how you get more babies.”
When I asked Julius about his mother’s life, a fascinating woman of selfless nobility emerged. He filled me in with juicy details about what motivated her decisions, who his father was, how he left Austria with her in 1939. I recorded and transcribed everything.
And yes. These stories in addition to those from Lizi’s baby nurse clients will be revealed in Felicitas Tuesday night.
After years of hearing about the value of career coaching, I decided to take the leap and sign up for six months of coaching with iCadenza, a performing artist consultant group. Before beginning, I was asked to answer a number of questions to help define my values and mission so that the next steps would become clear. Here are some of the questions and answers.
In 1938 and 1939, my dad’s family arrived in batches as political refugees into New York, leaving forever their homes in Vienna, Austria. Great Aunt Elizabeth “Lisl” Polk (subject of my show A Time to Dance) was the first to arrive with her husband Harry in 1938. They were largely responsible for acquiring affidavits for the rest of the family.
At first, they lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem, which they shared with refugee friends Illa and John Banner. Illa was a fellow dancer who quickly made it to Broadway, while John was a mostly unemployed actor. Aunt Lisl said, “That was a happy marriage, Honey! Every day, when Johnny came home from work, he lifted Illa off the floor into his arms and declared, ‘This woman’s feet should never touch the ground!’ Then he began to eat. Illa would say, ‘Stop eating so much, Johnny, you’re getting fat.’ He would reply, ‘When I get fat, I’ll be successful.’ They divorced. He got fat and eventually became famous playing Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes.”
Aunt Lisl began scouting for a new neighborhood to settle in with Harry and the soon-to-arrive extended family. She rode the 7 train daily to work at Waldes zipper factory in Long Island City, a company her father helped build from Europe. One day, she took the 7 train past her regular stop and spied a station called 46th/Bliss Street. “Bliss!” She got out and discovered blocks of charming English-style brick houses with community gardens. This was Sunnyside Gardens. She and Harry found an apartment there and by 1944, purchased a house on Bliss Street, 3 blocks from my grandparents’ home. “Sunnyside” and “Bliss” promised them the solace they yearned for after a dark night left behind.
A dance school was opened in Aunt Lisl’s basement for neighborhood children dreaming of becoming ballerinas. I look daily into its large, framed mirror now hanging on my living room wall. One day my grande-dame-actress-grandmother Lilia said to her, “Lisl, do you want to spend your life in the basement? Is that why God put you on earth – to live and work in the basement?”
Lisl thought about it and realized someday she’d have to answer for what she’d done with her life. Did she want to say she’d taught neighborhood children in her basement? Or rather that she’d contributed to society in a larger way by helping those in need? She chose the latter, which led her to The Lexington School for the Deaf where she began a career teaching dance to special-needs children. She went on to help found the National Dance Teacher’s Guild and the American Dance Therapy Association. She left teaching when she was 90, and three years later, in 1995, she received a lifetime achievement award from the American Dance Therapy Association for “chief pioneer in the dance therapy field.”
In 2005, I began writing A Time to Dance, a play based on her entertaining life stories, using music from Wake UP! Calm Down, a set of LP records she produced and sold to members of the dance therapy field. In 2006, A Time to Dance opened at the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival and in 2007, it won “Best Solo Performer Award” at the London Fringe Theatre Festival. That year it came to NYC where Herb and Liz Reynolds of Sunnyside Gardens Preservation Alliance saw it with a group of neighbors. A month later, thanks to their devoted efforts, Landmarks Preservation Commission designated Sunnyside Gardens a NYC Historic District.
Which bring us to last month. On September 21, 2013, a National Register of Historic Places plaque was unveiled on the former home of my great aunt Elizabeth Polk at 39-48 46th/Bliss St, Sunnyside, Queens. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer presented her daughter Grace with a framed Proclamation of her achievements and community service. Former dance students and colleagues celebrated alongside neighbors and the charming new owners – the McKnight family with their 8 children. The day was capped with a performance of A Time to Dance at Sunnyside Reformed Church where Pastor Neil Margetson welcomed guests and provided refreshments. It was a memorable day indeed, and I was proud to take part in this historic event. Photos are below.
On Saturday, October 26, 2013, my grandmother actress Lilia Skala will be honored with a National Register of Historic Places plaque and a special tribute by Sidney Poitier in honor of the occasion at 39-19 49th St in Sunnyside, Queens, 3 blocks away. I’ll perform LILIA!, my play about her life at Sunnyside Reformed Church, around the corner. Refreshments will be served. Admission is free, donations are welcome.
Written 9/20/11 on a plane to Calgary to perform A Time to Dance at Fire Exit Theatre with Corps Bara Dance Theatre.
As I revisit A Time to Dance for the first time in a year – not having looked at it, performed it, or had it at the forefront of my thought because I always think of Lilia! as my primary piece which seems like the easy sell. The grandmother-granddaughter relationship, the Academy Award nominated actress, etc.
As I revisit A Time to Dance, I am so touched by that piece – the heart of the story, the life of my aunt Lisl.
Do you ever feel like the good in your life gets clouded over with distracting cares, irritations and annoyances, by the little foibles and imperfections in yourself and those around you?
Well, my Aunt Lisl was like that. She could be scary sometimes. She’d have these sudden outbursts accusing my cousins and me of being spoiled, for instance. She’d endured tremendous hardship as a sickly child without parental affection. And when she saw parental affection expressed toward us, and the slightest hint of parental disrespect in return, she would explode. These explosions tried to color my view of her.
In writing the piece, I included an explosion, and the feedback I received from those who heard the excerpt was so discouraging, I realized people don’t want to hear about that stuff. She was so delightfully charming without it. They couldn’t get enough of the other side of her.
My portrait of Lisl is very much an idealistic view. Perhaps her own take on her best self. It’s not dishonest so much as how I imagine she would like to be viewed, how she views herself and frankly, how the public would like to view her.
So, in having weeded out the negative scary part, I’m left with the ability to hear her stories, her perspective, her life from the purest standpoint. I suppose, it’s how we all would like to be remembered and thought of – with our faults behind us, dropped from the record – the way we really are – or would like to be.
As I hear her pure story without distractions of the darker moments, I’m struck by how much beauty there is. Because the good is all true. None of that is fabricated. It’s just with the bad struck from the record. Condemned, cast out.
This is not only how she would like to be – but how I would like to be. When I review my history, I want only to recognize and acknowledge the good in it, and discard the less than stellar, have it struck from the record, unable to haunt or cause rumination. To be there only for the purpose of the lessons to be learned.
Her words, as I go through the script this time around, hit me. “To move is to live, to express life, individuality, vitality!” she says.
I’m humbled by that. Especially as I think of the seductiveness of a sedentary life in front of the computer. And how video games have people going on virtual adventures. But is there actual movement – expression of Soul in a virtual adventure?
I’m struck by Lisl’s premature birth before incubators were invented, and how everyone sat around waiting for her to die. “But I won’t die!” she muses.
That absolute spark of life. That vitality that animated her always, that made her entertaining company until her last day on earth, that prompted her to dance the Macarena at her hundredth birthday party — That drive to live, to move, to instigate children (who didn’t know they had a foot or an arm) to gain dominion over their limbs and bask in the joy of rhythm and movement with her – to discover the life that animates us all — (winning her a lifetime achievement award from the American Dance Therapy Association) —
I’m so moved by that, as I’ve spent so much time over the last year in a sedentary position with my laptop, answering the fire hose deluge of emails, learning to forgive myself for not keeping up with them despite heroic efforts.
I’m moved by Lisl’s description of her papa Julius who viewed her as an extra mouth to feed, and in his desire to feed it, sought opportunities beyond familiar territory to build bridges, resulting in wealth for many people through the manufacturing of snap fasteners. The expansion of that business enabled the extended family to come to America when their lives were threatened in Austria.
That spark Lisl embodied, that desire to live – opened the way and built lives for so many others. Her life, when distilled, truly is an illustration of Life in its most essential form and meaning. Giving – doing – being. Thriving. Forgiving. Learning from mistakes. Being able to laugh along the way. All those things are true about Lisl.
A Time to Dance will be presented by The Times Square International Theatre Festival on January 17, 20, 22, 2012 at Roy Arias Theaters, Off Broadway Theater, 300 W. 43rd St. & 8th Ave. in NYC. Click for tickets. Festival info: www.tsitf.com