My Favorite Professional Theatergoing Experiences

Patrick Connolly

You ever have those theatergoing experiences that become so memorable to the point of lingering in your mind forever? I can think of at least five professional theatergoing experiences right off the bat—experiences that have cemented my love for theater as an artform. Now, me being a musical theater guy, all five of them on the list are musicals; I’ve sadly yet to see a professionally performed play such as War Horse, Hand to God, or The Curious Incident of the Dog in Time. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to see them soon, whether it’s professional or amateur.

For now, here is my list! Starting with:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (October 16th, 2008; The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)—This touring production of Sweeney Todd was no ordinary production. Whereas traditional productions of Sweeney Todd would just consist of the actors performing the characters as is, THIS production also consisted of the actors doubling up as the orchestra, meaning they also had to have a knowledge of how to play instruments as well. Some would argue it to be a theatrical gimmick, but when all you can hear is a pin drop moments before the finale began, you know you’ve seen a work of art. I have never seen another production like it, and I probably never will. I was shaking as I left the theater, feeling inspired by the wealth of talent that was on display that night. 

{Fun little side-note: Merritt David Janes, the actor who played Sweeney Todd that night, also played Robbie when I saw The Wedding Singer in Atlantic City. I bring this up because as I was walking around the theater that was putting on The Wedding Singer, an usher—so curious as to why a theater geek of thirteen years old would be so impressed—brought me backstage to meet him before the show began. I swear, Ushering is an underrated profession nowadays)
Matilda the Musical (July 27th, 2014; The Shubert Theater, New York, NY)—Ah, the wonders of Standing Room. This was my first introduction to it, and I don’t think it will be my last (at least, if I can’t find any more seats in the theater). There were moments when the characters were coming from the back of theater, running in the aisles until they arrived unto the stage. Not a dull moment to be had during this experience; it kept me on my toes throughout the entirety of its two-and-a-half hour running time. Come to think of it, the whole show kept me on my toes throughout its running time. The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin represent some of the most impressive songwriting to come out in quite some time (I may or may not have memorized “Quiet” in its entirety), and the story is incredibly moving, touching on the importance of embracing individuality no matter what obstacles stand in your way.  And by god. That set design. THAT. SET. DESIGN. Just look at it:
Next to Normal (April 2nd, 2011; The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)—I still remember it to this day. It started off as a very cloudy day, with nary a sunbeam to peak through. This was the day I was about to witness one of the most influential musicals I will ever see in my life. Throughout the whole of Act One, while I was being amazed by what I was seeing, I will admit to not fully comprehending what was going on. Without going into too many details about the plot itself, I didn’t know why some of the characters were—for lack of a better term—acting the way they were. That is, until mid-way into Act Two, when everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—all came together, so much to the point where all you could hear were sniffles and a cellphone alarm daring to destroy the impact of the production. When that last note was over, I stood up and applauded while my soul was shaking before the curtain call even began. And what topped off a professional theatergoing experience like no other? The sun was shining bright as the characters’ hopes for a brighter future.

Coincidence? I think so. 

The Lion King (June 14th, 2008; The Minksoff Theater, New York, NY)—I’ll give you a few reasons as to why this is dangerously close to being my favorite theatergoing experience of all-time. 1.) I went to see it the day after I just completed my middle school career. So long, VCMS! 2.) It was my first Broadway experience sitting in second row Orchestra seats. The overall concept sounds amazing enough when you haven’t experienced it before, but when you are literally sitting in those seats, prepared to watch what will be one of the greatest musicals ever made by civilized humanity (no, that’s not hyperbole; it truly is), there isn’t quite another feeling like it. Except for 3.) Kind of a spoiler alert, but it must be written: there’s a moment in “The Circle of Life” sequence when those dressed in the animal costumes come down the aisles to get onto the stage. One of those animals was this gigantic paper elephant that, I don’t know, four or five people were controlling, and the elephant’s paper slightly hit my mom’s shoulder. That’s how close we were. I kid you not. If there ever is a show on Broadway right now that deserves to be seen in the Orchestra section, it’s this one. Hands down. It truly is an experience I will remember forever. 

Now the rain after the show? That’s something I want to forget.

Memphis (July 14th, 2010; The Shubert Theater, New York, NY)—You are probably wondering why I put this over something like The Lion King as, in my opinion, my favorite theatergoing experience of all-time. Well, the thing about The Lion King is that I knew it was going to be an unforgettable theatergoing experience. I was hyping it up to be so in the first place, and lo, it matched my unreachable expectations. Even after finding out this production won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, I had barely any expectations going into it. So despite hearing a couple of songs from the show, and being quite impressed with them, I kind of went into this one cold.
And then came the element of surprise.

Within the first minute, I repeat, THE FIRST MINUTE, as I was shaking during the first song “Underground”, I keep on saying to myself “This, right here, might be my new favorite musical of all-time.” 

Yes, you could argue that the plot is a bare-bones mixture of Hairspray and Dreamgirls wrapped into one, which would ultimately make the show “unoriginal”. At that point in time, I didn’t care in the slightest. This is a musical that created an electric spark within my soul—a spark that said “Yes, I want to possibly do something like this in my life. Maybe not exactly like what’s on stage, but I want to be INVOLVED with this in some way”. I saw performers that were giving the absolute best performances I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage. I heard songs—written by the legendary David Bryan—that were simple enough to strike a soulful chord that I hadn’t felt in my life. Without question, this is the one that cemented my love for (musical) theater, and I don’t think such a love will go away anytime soon. 

Experience. That’s the difference between a clip of a show on YouTube and actually sitting in the environment of where the show is being performed. And I am so grateful to have been to these five shows. It’s like being alive in some way. 

Which reminds me, I need to see a live production of Company some day. 

Honorable mentions (in yearly order):
Mary Poppins (May 14th, 2008; The New Amsterdam Theatre, New York, NY)
Jersey Boys (February 12th, 2009; The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)
The Phantom of the Opera (May 7th, 2009; The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)
Shrek the Musical (June 27th, 2009; The Broadway Theatre, New York, NY)
South Pacific (April 21st, 2010; The Bushnell, Hartford, CT)


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