You Don't Forget Your First

They say you don't forget your first. I know that I never will.

I loved theatre music forever – there's a video of me in fourth grade singing "Getting To Know You" in the talent show where I could not be bothered with pesky things like lyrics, tone, pitch – really anything. The first paycheck I ever got from my first job, I bought two cassettes: Dionne Warwick's Greatest Hits 1979-1990 (because it had "That's What Friends Are For" on it), and the Beaches soundtrack. The first two CDs I bought were the cast album of The Rocky Horror Show (the Roxy cast, thank you), and the Bette Midler soundtrack of Gypsy. There is a theme here. (When I would get into vinyl years later, I bought the cast albums of Nunsense and Little Shop of Horrors first.)

VHS tapes of musicals played all the time – I'm sure my mom was really over me watching the wedding scene from The Sound of Music over and over, and many of the tapes were recorded from Turner Classic Movies (with RuPaul hosting Gypsy and Funny Girl). And yet, I didn't see my first Broadway until 1994, when I was 17. 

Rosie O'Donnell & Jason Opsahl

Rosie O'Donnell & Jason Opsahl

My long-suffering first boyfriend Jason and I boarded a Greyhound bus so that I could finally go to my birthright, TKTS. And of all the shows listed at the half-price booth that day, I chose my first: the 1994 revival of Grease, starring Rosie O'Donnell. (I should caveat here that I had seen one other show in New York prior, The Ridiculous Theatre Company's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I had played Puck with four days of rehearsal, and wanted to see what the show looked like when it was done correctly. Turns out, much better than the claptrap I was in.)

Times Square was very different in 1994, and apps like TodayTix didn't exist, so we waited in the long double line for TKTS. The sun shone down as a man played steel drums (over and over – we heard "New York, New York" at least three times. I remember vividly the bottle of Coke that would open up and a straw would pop out, the Cup O' Noodles sign that steamed, the Howard Johnsons. We procured our tickets, and ate some dollar pizza at the little place that used to be across the street from the Shubert Theatre (how I miss that place). We made our way down to Footlight Records, which I had heard about on America Online's Playbill Online chatroom (which was basically a M4M room with Barbara Cook references). But the whole time, I just had that nervous excitement that I was going to see my first Broadway Show.

We got to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, which had been painted over in neon pink (the Weissler's would later paint the St. James over in neon yellow for the stalled Busker Alley). We were handed our Playbills, with the ads and stories that I had memorized from teachers old Playbills that I would pore over back home, of long-forgotten places like Mama Leone's, and read all the bios of this cast that would go on to become all-stars: Rosie O'Donnell (who I knew from her VH1 show Stand-Up Spotlight), Megan Mullally, Sam Harris, Billy Porter, Hunter FosterRicky Paull Goldin, Susan Wood, the dearly departed Marcia Lewis – this cast was STACKED. There was a dance party that would happen pre-show with Brian Bradley as Vince Fontaine acting like a Corny Collins, talking to us and playing 50s hits.

And then it began, with that new baroque arrangement of Rydell High's "Alma Mater" and we were off. This crazily talented cast tore into a high-energy production (billed mysteriously as "The Tommy Tune Production", although he was not the director or choreographer of this production – his protégée Jeff Calhoun served as both) that was as DayGlo as the building's facade. John McDaniel's fabulous arrangements, thankfully preserved on not one but two cast albums (Brooke Shields would substitute vocals for Rosie O'Donnell on the second one when she replaced as Rizzo) imprinted on me, and to this day the album remains my go-to Grease.

I loved everything about it, even the watered-down lyrics. I was in a theatre with 1,100 other people seeing my first Broadway show. We laughed together, we cheered together, we were sharing this communal experience together.

For years afterwards, I would tell people that my first Broadway musical was the revival of Damn Yankees, because it seemed to have more substance than Grease. (My first three musicals were all revivals – the 1995 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was the third.) But looking back at it, it was exactly what I needed it to be – the 1994 Grease was my gateway drug. I left that theatre buzzing and I couldn't wait to come back.

I will forever be grateful to Jason, to Greyhound, to TKTS, and to Grease. I saw the revival a few times during the run, and it was always infectious. I can't help but think of the other 1,100 people in the audience each time, who were filled with that same joy. Musical theatre has given me many things over the years, but the joy it gave that first time has rarely been bested. 

What was your first Broadway show? Was it magical for you?