Footloose on Broadway
Behold America’s theater capital, twinkling, preening, clanging, stoking ambitions and devouring tourist dollars.
Now behold the drama students of Verdugo Hills High School, their parents ferrying them from the San Fernando Valley to LAX, their jet nosing eastward, their headphones tuned to the Broadway channel. There are 14 of them, 14 to 18 years old, and this is their biggest field trip ever, a five-day blitz of Broadway shows and Manhattan landmarks.
Their jet zooms into Newark, N.J. Their bus rumbles through the Lincoln Tunnel. Their teacher-chaperons, John Lawler and Katherine Morrison, march them through Times Square to a late dinner. Bright lights, big city, no parents.
“It was beautiful!” 16-year-old Joshua Archer writes in his journal that first night. “The city was flawless with lights, billboards and the smell of fossil fuel!”
This is a rite of tourism -- your first Broadway show, your first circuit of Manhattan landmarks, your first chance to reconcile the real metropolis with the one you’ve read about and seen in so many still and moving pictures.
But things may have changed since you did it. Now, an undiscounted Broadway ticket routinely costs $110. Four of every five audience members are tourists. Little Italy is increasingly Chinese. Chinatown is increasingly Vietnamese. And Times Square is increasingly sleaze-free.
The kids are different too. Instead of relying on such films as “West Side Story,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” this group’s idea of New York mostly comes from such sources as “Law & Order,” “Sex and the City,” “Rent” and the New York street on the Universal Studios tour.
One Tujunga girl is startled to see so many Amish here. (No, she is told, they are Hasidic Jews.) Another arrives fairly sure that Manhattan is built on a floating island of landfill. We’re a long way from Tujunga and from the Manhattan of their fathers and mothers, and there are questions.
Will they sleep? Will they be bored? Will they get mugged? Spend all their money on souvenir junk in the first six hours? Swoon under the spell of big-city magic? (Here are your spoilers: Not much; no; no; very nearly; and -- cue the Gershwin clarinet -- yes.)
“Something washed over me, and I connected to the spirit of the city,” writes 16-year-old Sara Saavedra of the first night. “I sat in Virgil’s BBQ a different person.”
And that was before seeing any shows.
The next afternoon, after prowling the Museum of Modern Art and a stand-up lunch from a hot-dog-and-pretzel cart on Fifth Avenue, they file into a matinee performance of “Young Frankenstein.” Most of these students have just put on their own show -- a three-day run of the musical “Footloose” -- so they’re not just watching the gags and songs; they’re noticing the spotlight operator, the choreography, the effects.
They exit the theater all grins. Megan Mullally’s singing, the monster’s soft-shoe dancing, the 34-year-old movie jokes by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, the deafening effects -- the whole daffy, glossy package works for them. On the sidewalk afterward, while waiting in vain for some old theater-world buddy of Mr. Lawler’s, Chrissa Villanueva, nearly 18, spots the actor who plays Igor and has a picture taken with him. Annie Welch, 15, gets an autograph from the Village Idiot. Sarah Stone, also 15, gets one too, along with a pen, a “Young Frankenstein” soundtrack CD and a “Please Don’t Touch Me” T-shirt.
To raise the $1,600-per-person cost of this trip, these teens held a car wash, rummage sale and bake sale, cajoled their parents and counted heavily on Lawler to work school district funding sources. Though the neighborhood around the Verdugo Hills High campus in Tujunga includes many ranch homes and spacious lots, about 56% of the student body has family incomes low enough to qualify for reduced-price lunches. Universal Studios may be 15 miles away, but the atmosphere is more horsy than Hollywood.
In the city, they sleep three or four to a hotel room (in the tidy, efficient Wingate by Wyndham on West 35th Street). They travel by foot or subway, rely on the free hotel buffet for breakfast and eat a lot of hot dogs and pizza. Using group rates, they’re paying about $50 each for their show tickets. Lawler and Morrison have lived and worked here, so they know the subways, the theaters and a lot of theater people. By 21st century standards, it’s a pretty cheap trip.
Or it would be, if you didn’t count the souvenirs. By the time they’ve capped their first full day with a ride to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, the kids have taken on freight that includes T-shirts, backpacks, purses, sunglasses, an ashtray, a pocket watch, a yo-yo, shoes from Charlotte Russe and a charcoal portrait from a quick-sketch artist near 42nd Street.
“It was gonna be $100,” says a triumphant John Seward, 16, grinning along with his likeness. “But I got him down to $20.”
DAY 2: STURM, DRANG
Sarah stands along the waterfront, gazing at the sea.
“I’ve never seen the Atlantic Ocean,” she says. “Wow. It’s dirty.”
“Santa Monica Bay is way dirtier,” says Joe Kinney, 18.
They’re on their way to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, a visit that will yield lockets, mugs, key chains, statuettes, one rubber Liberty mask and more than a few photographs. (Chrissa is already well on her way to 900 images.)
On the subway back to the hotel, at least five of the 14 fall asleep. But a few hours later, they’re on the march again.
The first stop is the Drama Book Shop, a longtime stage folk hangout where Lawler treats the graduating seniors to $25 gift certificates. Ian Campbell, 18, considers a collection of Agatha Christie plays. Chrissa, who is wearing green fishnet stockings and purple shoes tonight, reaches for monologues for women. Dylan Smith, 17, her boyfriend, peruses the monologues for men. John buys a set of flashcards bearing quotes from Shakespeare’s plays and immediately sets to challenging his classmates, teachers and the booksellers. Others climb to the loft to paw through musical scores, half-singing to themselves.
Then comes “Spring Awakening,” which won eight Tony Awards last year. Adapted from an 1891 play, the show is a coming-of-age story steeped in passion, wit, death, regret and crashing electric guitars. In other words, it’s about 10,000 miles from “Young Frankenstein.”
Before it’s over, there’s a suicide, a botched abortion (offstage) and another death. By the close of the first act -- an intense teenage love scene, no holds barred -- the kids are riveted, the girls intent, some of the boys spooked and squirming in their upper-balcony seats.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” says Michelle Miner, 14, during intermission.
Nearby, Joe arches his eyebrows, and Luke Martinez, 15, concentrates on his Rubik’s Cube.
“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Sarah says. “I could not find one thing I didn’t like.”
After the audience has cleared out, the show’s resident director, Beatrice Terry, invites the kids onto the stage for a tour. The off-Broadway version of the show had an even higher body count, she tells the group, and the new producers “didn’t really like that. So we changed that.”
The kids file past the props and gawk when 20-year-old star Kyle Riabko, on his way to get a drink from the water cooler, pauses to say hello. Chrissa -- who has watched scenes on YouTube and even auditioned for the show in Los Angeles -- smiles like a climber who has summited Everest.
But outside on the sidewalk, two of the boys are soon weeping. They stand separately, each overwhelmed for his own reasons, and each accepts comforting words from a teacher and a classmate or two. Eventually, eyes dry, they head off toward dinner and turn their attention to a more comfortable adolescent question: pizza or burgers?
The pizza people head to Famous Famiglia for slices. The burger folk, intrigued by the “Harold & Kumar” movies, head across 8th Avenue for some of those tiny White Castle patties.
DAY 3: AND NOW A WORD FROM THE MONSTER
“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” John says.
He has the Shakespeare flashcards out again. Lawler and Morrison have steered the group, by subway and on foot, to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. While everybody flops on a bench and sunlight filters through the trees, an unseen saxophone player starts his day with something slow and soft.
In SoHo, Morrison gives a little talk on the neighborhood’s iron facades and industrial architecture. They get lunch in Little Italy. And at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, they get advice.
“If you can imagine doing anything else but theater, do it,” says Nicki Genovese, general manager of the Public Theater. “If you can’t imagine doing anything else, you have to try.”
Genovese leads them from venue to venue in the Public Theater’s complex, including the stage where “A Chorus Line” was born in 1975. In a workshop area, they find prop master Sean McArdle and . . . a horse.
A facsimile horse, that is, which will costar in the new Sam Shepard play “Kicking a Dead Horse.”
“You can see his neck has this flexibility,” says McArdle, pointing out the beast’s fiberglass legs, its foam under layer and the electronics that will help it move realistically.
Outside, thunderheads are massing. But Lawler, having finally made a cellphone connection he’s been working on for days, orders the kids toward Madison Square Park. As a deluge begins, Lawler points his troops toward a tall, bemused man with cargo pants and a Whole Foods bag under his arm.
“Follow Frankenstein!” Lawler says.
The man is Shuler Hensley, a Tony Award-winning actor who since November has portrayed the singing, dancing Frankenstein’s Monster. A pal of Lawler’s from their days seven years ago at the Sundance Theatre Lab, Hensley herds the gang into a Starbucks and holds court for about an hour, telling how he started as an opera singer and somehow wound up on Broadway, blurting, moaning and stomping around on 4-inch-high boots.
Hensley, 40, recalls muddling through day jobs such as bartending and answering phones at Fox (where he accidentally hung up on Rupert Murdoch) and emphasizes the importance of listening when you’re on stage.
He leaves them with this advice:
“One word: patience. And perseverance. OK, two words.”
Then it’s off to “Xanadu,” a singing roller-disco film parody that’s just as lightweight as it sounds. The Southern California references amuse them, but they seem more demanding now than those newbies who stumbled off the plane three days ago.
“It was just shtick,” scoffs Luke, who played the male lead in “Footloose” back home. Nicole Malmen, 14, gives “Xanadu” a 7.86 on a 10-point scale.
After post-show pizza, they slouch back down 8th Avenue toward the hotel, scarcely casting a second glance at the lights of 42nd Street. Been there, done that.
DAY 4: UNSCRIPTED TUMULT AT THE DINER
From the beginning, the teachers’ mischief-minimization strategy has been a many-leveled thing: a buddy system to prevent sAt New York’s Hilton Theatre, Chrissa Villanueva and her classmates caught a matinee performance of Broadway’s “Young Frankenstein.”
trays; a stiff regimen of walking from morning until nearly midnight; and firm roommate assignments.
It seems to be working. For their last full day in the city, Lawler and Morrison lay out a marathon itinerary: Grand Central Terminal to the Guggenheim Museum, across Central Park to the American Museum of Natural History, then back into the park for a backstage tour of the open-air Delacorte Theatre. The kids groan and hit the street.
With the souvenir-acquisition clock ticking down, penguin puppets are purchased, and chopsticks, an origami kit, a shot glass, ear studs and something called Galactic Ooze. Shawn Frost, 18, and Adrian Contreras, 14, have come up with a toy turtle.
At the Delacorte, production manager John Frasco talks about how he keeps the Central Park raccoons from eating his props, then leads the group below the stage to see miles of wires and cables. Dylan, who is still sorting out his interests in lighting, puppetry, dance and props, watches carefully.
“Now that I’ve seen all this, I’m gonna be busting my butt completely,” he says. “For my age, I’m behind.”
In theory, they could see another show. A 3 1/2 -hour production of “Hamlet” starts in a few hours at the Delacorte.
But tonight their teachers have given them a choice, and the kids have chosen a celebratory dinner instead -- to signal the end of the trip and to mark three birthdays.
The venue is Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway at 50th, where the servers sing, sometimes while standing atop tables. It’s two levels, the booths upholstered in vinyl, the tables nearly full, the walls covered with posters from shows and concerts. The Tujunga group, too big for one table, scatters among three.
Then the birthday threesome is called to the front, and after they blow out candles, somebody cues the “Footloose” theme on the sound system. A waiter starts singing.
“I been working so hard. Been punching my card.”
But the kids have something more in mind.
Chrissa, celebrating her 18th birthday, waves for the rest of her Verdugo Hills cast mates to come up. From three directions they converge, scrambling to the front of the counter, forming a ragged chorus line. Then, beaming, they snap into the choreography from their show -- jumps, claps, kicks, turns, the works.
This is more audience participation than the waiters were expecting, more climax than the teachers could have hoped for, about as much exhilaration as the kids can stand. It ends in a burst of applause with a waiter hollering, “Congratulations! You’ve just performed on Broadway!”
“This,” Sarah says, “is the best night ever.”
Back at the hotel, Chrissa pulls out her journal and tallies up the adventure. Three shows, three backstage tours, one interview with an off-duty monster, four museums. Next summer, she vows, she’ll look for a theater internship in New York. This trip, she writes, “has changed my life.”
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If you go
THE BEST WAY TO BROADWAY
From LAX to JFK, nonstop service is available on American, Delta, United and Virgin America, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on Northwest, US Airways and Continental. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $418. Nonstop service to Newark, N.J., is offered on American, Continental, Delta and United;
connecting service is offered on AirTran, Midwest Express, Northwest, US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $398.
WHERE TO STAY
Comfort Inn, 42 W. 35th St.; (212) 947-0200, www.comfortinnmanhattan.com, has 131 rooms, with Brendan’s Bar & Grill and Anesis Cafe downstairs. Doubles from $129 with continental breakfast.
Hotel Metro, 45 W. 35th St.; (800) 356-3870 or (212) 947-2500, www.hotelmetronyc.com. The hotel has 180 rooms. Downstairs is the Metro Grill restaurant. Summer rates from $295.
Wingate by Wyndham, 235 W. 35th St.; (800) 228-1000 or (212) 967-7500, www.wingatehotelnyc.com. There are 92 rooms and, downstairs, the Luxe restaurant. Rates from $299 with continental breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT
John’s Pizzeria, 260 W. 44th St.; (212) 391-7560, www.johnspizzerianyc.com. Housed in a former church (two levels, stained-glass windows), this eatery is part of a three-location Manhattan chain that’s a sit-down pasta and pizza place, not by the slice. Pizzas, $12.75 to $17.50; other entrees, $9.25 to $13.95.
Ellen’s Stardust Diner, 1650 Broadway; (212) 956-5151, www.ellensstardustdiner.com. If you have teens or preteens to entertain and a tolerance for loud show tunes sung by strolling servers, look no more. Dinner entrees, $10.25 to $23.95.
TO LEARN MORE
NYC& Co., the city’s official marketing agency, www.nycvisit.com.
The Broadway League, which represents major theaters, www.livebroadway.com.
The kids of Verdugo Hills High take on the Big Apple; photo gallery at latimes.com/broadway.