My Mother, the Theater, and Me

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Tracy Danoff

My mother was strong, smart, independent and funny. She could also be infuriating. Widowed at a young age, she was solely responsible for bringing up my brother and me. I liked that she was strong, but sometimes she was a little too strong. It could make our relationship difficult at times, but there was one place we always got along - the theater.

My mother took me to my very first show. It was the out of town tryout for Annie at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. I was just a little girl, but I was dazzled. I begged my mother for the cast recording, and when she got it for me, I practically wore it out. I was hooked. At nine years old, I even organized the neighborhood kids, and we attempted to put together a production of the show. The production never really came together, but I didn’t care because I had fallen in love. Just the effort alone gave me joy, and I knew from that time on that the theater was my happy place.

Throughout the years, my mother and I made many more trips to the Kennedy Center as well as other notable DC theaters. I was my mom’s theater date. As a result, I got to see some fantastic shows including: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Dreamgirls, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Phantom. We enjoyed our times together in the theater. It was like we were finally on the same page. Unfortunately, we continued to butt heads in our real lives. I didn’t fit the mold of the daughter she envisioned. I didn’t look the way she thought I should look. I didn’t do the things she thought I should do. My brother was a popular football player while I was the quiet girl watching Gypsy for the twentieth time. However, despite the criticism and the arguments, we continued to go to live theater together. 

As I became a young adult, we almost entirely stopped going to the theater. She had remarried and had her own life. I was living on my own for the first time, and I had my life to live. We spoke often, but at best, we saw each other once a month. Our relationship continued to be difficult. Then something happened in 1998. That something was Ragtime.

A friend had recommended it to us, so we decided to make the trip to New York to see it. I had only ever seen two other shows in New York, and I couldn’t wait to see this one. The show was amazing. Marin Mazzie was luminous, and Audra McDonald was moving, but it was Brian Stokes Mitchell that shook us both to the core. My mother and I walked out of the theater stunned and practically speechless. This was the beginning of our love affair with New York theater. It was also the beginning of the building of our relationship.

There were many trips to New York after that. We saw The Producers, Hairspray, Avenue Q, The Odd Couple, and The Addams Family to name a few. (She became a huge Nathan Lane fan!) As time went on, we still had our problems, but our relationship improved, and the trips continued. Some trips were better than others, but our very best one was in 2011.

The sole purpose of the trip was to see Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway for my mother’s birthday. My mother had an enormous crush on Hugh Jackman, and when we got to the theater, she was as giddy as a little girl. Her “little sweetie pie,” as she referred to him, gave a fabulous performance. My mother’s eyes were glued to the stage, and a smile was plastered to her face the entire time. I was having a good time just watching her. After the show, we walked around the city, and she was exuberant. It was close to Christmas, and she thought every decoration was more beautiful than the last one she had seen. As we approached Macy’s, we spotted the Salvation Army folks dancing and singing in front of their kettle. My mother ran up to them and danced with them. We walked through Times Square, and she wanted a picture with Cookie Monster - until I told her we would have to pay for it. We went to Junior’s and had cheesecake. We walked around the city laughing and talking. We were connecting.

A little more than a year later, we had tickets to see Porgy and Bess. The day of the performance, I arrived at my mother’s house so we could catch the train to New York. When I knocked on the door, she didn’t answer. I called her phone, banged on the door and repeatedly rang the doorbell but still no answer. Finally, I called 911. It turns out that my mother had just suffered a seizure. Later that day, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It turned out to be a glioblastoma, the deadly form of brain cancer that afflicted Senator John McCain. This is a very aggressive cancer. Life expectancy isn’t long. My mother was given a year if she had treatment and that was being optimistic.

My mother went through the usual – surgery followed by chemo and radiation. It did nothing. If anything, she was getting sicker. She never got to return to her home, and she spent the last months of her life in a care facility. One day while I was visiting her in the facility, the staff announced that a local choral group would be performing a concert version of West Side Story. At this point, my mother couldn’t walk or talk, and she didn’t understand a lot. Still, I asked her if she would like to go. She nodded yes.

I wheeled her into the all-purpose room and found a good spot for us. As we settled in and those first familiar notes began to play, I looked over at my mother. She smiled. This was not a great production. The music was canned, and the singers didn’t have the range to sing the score, but it didn’t matter. Once again, we were back in New York. We were back on our common ground. When the actor playing Tony started to sing “Maria,” I took my mother’s hand, and she looked at me and started to cry.

My mother lasted for seven months before falling in a coma and passing away. It’s been over five years since she has died, and while I still remember the difficult times, I choose to concentrate on the good ones. I remember how excited she was to meet Stokes at the stage door or how she couldn’t stop talking about Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick cracking each other up during The Odd Couple. Most especially, I remember my mother getting to see her “little sweetie pie” during that very special weekend. Those times overshadow any problems we had.

Now that I’m older, I realize that she only wanted what she thought was best for me. She just didn’t communicate it well. How could she? We were trying to speak to each other in everyday mundane terms when all the while that wasn’t our language. Our language was the theater.