How I know when I’m seeing something great.

When I was a teen, I used to take day trips from suburban Massachusetts to the city to see shows.  I’d drive to New Haven, CT and board a Metro-North train bound for Grand Central.  My heart would start pumpin’ as we passed stations with those giant posters (which I now know are called “3 Sheets”) advertising Broadway shows.  I’d catch a matinee of a show I bought tickets for in advance, and then I’d call my Mom and beg her to let her 16 year old blue-blazer wearin’ son stay in the city to catch an evening show.

She always said yes.  I think she knew then that I was destined to do what I do, even though I didn’t have a clue.

I remember getting back from one of these trips and a fellow theater-nut friend asked me, “So was THE SHOW I SAW good?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, utterly confused.  “It was a Broadway show.  They’re all good.”


Ahhh, what twenty years and over three hundred Broadway shows will do.

Obviously I was still in the honeymoon phase of seeing Broadway shows back then, when Broadway could do no wrong.  You remember what that was like, right?  🙂

Pretty quickly after I moved to the city for school, I started to see more shows and as a result my critical eye got sharper.  And not every one of the shows was good.

And now, well, it takes a heck of a lot for me to say a show is good.  And that’s because watching theater is a different experience for me than it was.  I’m constantly analyzing, whether I’m listening for comic beats, or counting cast members, or looking into the grid to check for moving lights.

I don’t laugh as much as I used to.  I don’t smile as much as I used to.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not enjoying it.  I just often find myself saying things in my head like, “That was funny,” or “This is a good tune.”

And when I do laugh?  Or when I do cry?  Well, damn, that’s when I know something is truly special.  And usually I end up producing it (the upcoming Spring Awakening and Daddy Long Legs are two perfect examples of shows that got to the sixteen year old in me).

During my first year at NYU, I remember the Dean of Undergraduate Drama, the esteemed and awesome Arthur Bartow, said, “After decades of theater going, I know I’m enjoying something when I’m not analyzing anything.  When I’m just sucked into the experience and when it’s over, I realize I wasn’t thinking about whether someone was a good actor, or whether the set adequately represented the director’s vision.  I just . . . enjoyed.”

I didn’t think I’d ever understand what he meant.  But I do now.

It’s hard for all of us to just enjoy the theater like we used to. And that’s ok.  It’s a different experience.  You’re older, wiser, and you’ve see Lestat.

But when you do enjoy something?  Well, that’s when you should do something about it.


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  • Michael DiGaetano says:

    what i love about this post is that during the phase of my career where I was writing and producing comedy series shot before a live audience, I never laughed out loud whereas my then writing partner and others sounded like they were about to have a stroke. I knew what was funny or well-acted. I just nodded and made a big check mark in my script

  • Tom Evans says:

    Sometimes a script may be excellent, but not well cast, set or staged. Watching such productions I am making notes all the time about how properly to direct the piece. However, when a show is brilliant I forget to watch carefully, forget to make mental notes about how it was achieving its brilliance. I just get swept away.

  • Tom Stretton says:

    I absolutely agree. And you describe my experience exactly.

  • Thomas Heath says:

    “DID THE STORY SUCK ME IN?” As a fellow NYU Alum Ken, its great to be reminded of the simple summary from Arthur Bartow that propels me as a playwright to create something that makes an audience forget there is acting, lighting, sound and the such… All presence is on the story.

    Keep motivating us Ken with these simple truths.

  • Jay says:

    I’m with you! My first summer in NYC I saw everything and I liked everything. Looking back some 15+ years later I probably would have thought differently. Interestingly I’ve started seeing more and more West End shows in recent years and (surprise, surprise) I like everything. Perhaps because it’s a rare treat for me to hop the pond and see a weekend full of shows. As this becomes the norm for me, I’m sure I’ll start looking at their theatre with a cynical eye as I have the broad-way but for now let me enjoy it.

  • Dan Weber says:

    I grew up in the city, so for my brother and me it was all about praying for that awful snow storm or hurricane to hit and wait for the ‘bridge and tunnel’ crowd to cancel. It’s how a12 to 15 year old got the best seats to Dreamgirls, the Wiz, a chorus line. I’ll never forget those days and how special they made me feel.

  • Ellen Orchid says:

    I recently saw a show that really moved me, “The Amazing Brightness of Leonard Pelkey”, which is written and performed by James Lescesne. It’s at the Westside Arts Theater. I strongly recommend the story, the acting, and the writing. Mr. Lescesne (which I was told is pronounced le-scene), plays all the characters and shifts back and forth between them quickly. It is a very good performance. Ken, have you seen it yet?

  • Klay Rogers says:

    After attending a reading they asked the audience, “Why do you attend musicals?” One young lady said, “Because I want new experiences. I want to feel things I’ve never felt before.” This was so very odd to me because I had learned as a teen to oppress my feelings for fear of being hurt. Yet here sat a lady embracing her feelings! Her comment truly changed me. If I don’t become emotionally invested in a show then it didn’t give me what I came for. I came for the emotional journey. And I want to walk out singing a tune that I can’t get out of my head for three days. Ken, I agree with you and your esteemed Dean, its only good when you are drawn into the experience and simply enjoy it.

  • art Fidler says:

    Nail hit on the head. I crave theatre experiences that take me right out of the world of evaluation, and leave me unaware of my bum on the seat. Then I want to be alone at intermission and for some time after the final curtain, just to stay suspended for as long as I can. A few years ago, I was thrown back into that young, fresh world (I’m 75). I’d been through heart and lower spine surgery, and right out of the live theatre world for almost a year. I knew some people in a local community production of Annie Get Your Gun, and decided I should go. Because of my spine issues, I arranged to stand for the show, in the far rear entry. As I stood there alone, I was conscious of leaving my body and going into a zone of pure delight. What was happening on that stage, drenched in light, just seemed so beautiful, and I realized that I had tears in my eyes. I was 18 again and seeing a Broadway show as if for the first time, taking me back to the kid I was in1962, transported by Little Me with Sid Caesar. That’s what I’m searching for.

  • Dawn says:

    Ouch. Way to knock on Lestat.
    Then again, it was among my first Broadway shows (read: honeymoon phase) and based on a series I was obsessed with (Exhibit A: My cat is named Lestat). Still, seeing that show was my big 21st bday present, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

  • Janet Miller says:

    Yes and yes. Exactly…I even say the same thing, “That was funny” instead of laughing out loud. Now back to rehearsal…

  • Ken,
    I smiled all the way through this post. It could have been written by me, only ending up with being a critic.
    I know when I am seeing something great when I stop taking notes. I know I am seeing something extraordinarily great when I feel like I have been blown out of my seat. It takes a lot to do that, given the amount of shows I see (and with so many of them being good) . When it happens I am amazed once again at the joy theater can bring and grateful to be a part of it.

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