Guest Post: Emma & Musical Theater

[written by Emma Ratshin – 10/2/14]

The assignment

The assignment was to write a speech on a topic that we know a lot about, and I picked musical theatre. It’s not supposed to be persuasive.

The Speech


Close your eyes. No, really, close them. Okay, now imagine this: You’re four years old,and you’re in New York City. It’s crowded and hot, and you’re low to the stained concrete as your grandmother clutches your hand and pulls you through the crowd of Times Square. The sun is high—it’s midday (you’re too young for an evening show), and it’s so humid you feel like your little red curls are already extra frizzy. Finally, you reach your destination: The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. You can barely see it in the thick of the crowd, but the sign says Beauty and the Beast in a serif font, and your heart just leaps. You are handed a ticket, and you subsequently hand that ticket to the nice lady at the door, who smiles at you, scans it with a beep, rips off one end, and admits you. Your grandmother pulls you through the gilded lobby and into the theatre itself, where you stand, stunned, for a moment before she grabs a flower-patterned cushion and plops you down upon it. A tall man sits in front of you, and you strain to see the red velvet curtains over his head. In an instant, the lights dim, and you hear the tremolo of the overture, and your heart soars above the second mezzanine and right into the story. It’s your first Broadway show, and it’s magical.

Okay, open your eyes. All that I just told you—it’s a lie. I honestly don’t remember a single thing about seeing Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. I vaguely remember having seen the show, but I had to Google which theater it was in and listen to the overture on YouTube. I mean, come on. I was four years old. This is 2003 we’re talking about. But the grain of truth that lies within the fabrication is that exhilarating rush of seeing a Broadway show.

I have to come clean about something, folks: I am a musical theatre addict. I keep a list of the shows I’ve seen on my computer, and it’s currently at the rough estimate of seventy-four. That’s right, seventy-four theatre productions, from William Finn’s obscure off-Broadway flop A New Brain to the lauded Les Misérables, and everything in between. Not all of them have been on Broadway (only 21%). In fact, most are regional productions or touring companies that come through Seattle. And my family, instead of running an intervention, just perpetuates the problem by taking me to more shows!

I don’t know what exactly it is about theatre that draws me in. It doesn’t have the CGI magic that movies do, or the episodic plotlines of TV shows. Even the most extravagant sets are minimal at best, due to the lack of space on a single stage versus a Hollywood studio. I guess what’s so special and magical about the theatre is that it’s different every night. Phantom of the Opera has been running on Broadway for twenty-six years, and you will see a different show every time. Different actors, different mistakes, different musical riffs—no show is exactly the same as another. Sometimes, it’s because of big flops, like how one night in the current run of Les Miserables, the guy who plays Marius (the romantic lead, if you haven’t seen the show) fell down an entire flight of stairs onstage. Yes, that actually happened. Sometimes, you could see an understudy, or a swing, and the show is completely different. Musical theatre is just so variable, and I love that. I’ve seen three different productions of my favorite show, and all three have their own strengths and weaknesses and I appreciate them for that.

But the nerdiness doesn’t even stop there, because not only do I love to watch musical theatre, I also love to participate in musical theatre. Those of you who are close friends of mine can attest to this insane obsession, because you’ve probably heard me mention the words “at theatre camp” about twelve thousand times since the year started, and that’s probably an understatement. I love the feel of the lights on my face, finally getting that one pivot step in the choreography, the irreplaceable and irrevocable bonds I form with cast mates, and, most of all, when the harmonies finally come together in rehearsal and I can just sit in the music and revel in what we’re creating as one body with one voice, rather than twenty separate people. Like a ship, a show can float peacefully to shore or crash into an iceberg and sink (haha, get it? Because Titanic is a musical. No? Okay), but no matter what happens, in the immortal words of High School Musical: We’re all in this together.

– Emma Ratshin 10/2/14

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First World Problem: The Kindle

[from  “Uncle Bonsai’s: More First World Problems” web site]

Back story: You wouldn’t know it from listening to her on the phone but my mom understands technology. For years she worked for a publisher that moved to the mac when it was still the 512 — in fact, I seem to recall they had a serial number that was something like 00004 — and she’s had Macs ever since. So, when I have to walk her through something basic online, I never know if it’s because she’s older and losing her mind or if it’s more that she’s impatient and would prefer using mine.

I think it’s hard ’cause the family’s spread out a bit. My sister’s lived in Boulder for as long as I can remember and I’m starting my 33rd year in Seattle. [And we ain’t leaving as long as Emma’s in high school. After that, maybe we’ll follow our daughter wherever she goes, so that we can stand outside her classrooms and wave.  Ha . . . she thinks we’re kidding!]  Though we fly in and see her as often as possible, we really don’t get to spend as much quality time together as we’d like. So, these long-distance-how-do-I-change-the-font-in-InDesign phone sessions — that’s actually a cheap shot…she was one of the first Pagemaker 1 adopters and knows about fonts . . . resizing graphics, that’s a pain for everyone — are just an opportunity for us to fit into our old roles again. Today, the role of “Oh, Andrew” will be played by me, forever the youngest child!

Location: New York —> Seattle —> New York —> Seattle —> etc.

First World Problem: It’s difficult to register a new Kindle if you can’t remember your password.
Mom: “Thank you so much. What would I do without you?”
Son: “I don’t know, read a book?”

Outcome: Solved!  “Now, did everyone write down the new password? Good!”

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First World Problem: The Plane

[from  “Uncle Bonsai’s: More First World Problems” web site]

Back Story: I have certain dietary restrictions. Not as many as I should have but, nonetheless, I watch what I eat.  All right, not so much “watch” what I eat, that’s not a fair representation ’cause, if you want to be literal about it, I watch an awful lot of stuff go into my mouth and, subsequently, take its place in an ever-growing part of my anatomy . . umm, where was I?  Oh yeah, dietary restrictions.  Forget health for a moment, and if I’m anything I’m a guy who lives in the moment, I’m actually allergic to certain fruits, vegetables, and nuts. I also don’t really eat sugar so, as you can see, my options are limited somewhat  . . primarily, I’m into bacon-based products. But this isn’t about gluttony, certainly one of the more popular first world problems, this is WAY stupider than that.

Location: Flying from Seattle to NY a couple of months back, I was pleased to see that the airline was offering lunches/snacks for sale and included a basic chicken wrap.  They also had fruit trays, vegetable trays, and some sort of halloween-stash-sized collection of candy . . . none of which I can eat.

First World Problem: I was sitting in row 21; they ran out of chicken in row 19. No chicken!  Let me repeat, in case you missed the urgency . . . no chicken.

Outcome: I am forced to eat all the food I brought with me!

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Growing old with Green Day . . . not so easy

We’re Green Day fans over here and thought it might be fun to take our daughter to the concert here in Seattle in November, maybe even take one of her friends along. After all, we try to expose  her to all sorts of experiences . . . she’s seen a lot of shows, recitals, museums, and been to quite a few concerts.  She likes Green Day, WE like Green Day . . . and it’s on a night during a school break! Perfect opportunity, right? So, when 10:00 am rolled around, I was going to jump online, armed with the secret advance code that everyone else would know as well, and fight my way through the slow servers and grab tickets, any tickets. Unfortunately, in order to fight scalpers, they put so many regulations that we couldn’t even try.

You see, since scalpers buy huge quantities of tickts, leaving the “real” fans out in the cold, they made a few changes to the ticket purchase process.

First, all tickets will be held at “will call” starting 3.5 hours before the show. So, a lot of people will be standing in line right? NOT SO FAST!  There’s a little catch to this rule . . . ALL members of your party must be with you when you pick up your tickets so they can immediately be fitted with wristbands. You can not leave the window with the wristbands, they must be put on right there and then, only those with the wristbands can enter the building. So, now we’re talking 2800 people in that line and, of course, if you want to get into the building before the show ends, you’d better take advantage of that whole 3.5 hours.

All right . . . let’s say I can deal with that. I’m going to get tickets, and we’ll all just have to go and wait with everyone else . . . a pain in Seattle in late-November — not sure if you heard but it rains here sometimes — but we can rough it.  Oh, but wait . . there’s one other little rule for ticket purchasing:

A maximum of 2 tickets can be purchased and they’ll check credit card numbers and addresses.  That’s right, anyone who buys tickets can only buy a pair of ’em. So, basically, The Paramount (STG Presents) and/or Green Day, has decided that the only people who want to buy Green Day tickets are couples or someone looking for an easy date. (“Hey baby, I got tickets to Green Day . . . wanna come?”)

No families.

Green Day’s entering their 24th year . . . don’t they realize that some of their fans might have gotten older?

To put it another way, Billie Joe Armstrong would not be able to take his wife and kids to his own concert.

Oh well . . at least they stopped the scalpers!


– and so to bed

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and so to bed

So, our daughter’s been fooling around on this amazing web site (Khan Academy) and was doing some basic algebra stuff.

She was doing some linear equations and got frustrated with one problem.  So, I was looking at it and it suddenly started making sense. And then she explained how to do some of it and THAT made sense too . . . it all started making sense, even though I didn’t know some of the terms.  It’s ’cause there’s really no “math” involved ’til the very last step when you finally “solve for x” . . . it’s just a matter of organizing the information so that you can do some very basic math.

Anyway, I pulled it up on the computer again tonight and was playing around with it, with our daughter there, just looking at the screen and doing it in my head.  It was amazing for me ’cause my brain LOVES organizing that kind of stuff. The last “math” step’s easy, and I couldn’t care about it, but I just look at the equation and understand what I have to do.   She was really excited for me, since she knows I don’t know ANY of this stuff . . . but then I started getting a little weepy and even a little pissed.

This past year, our daughter had a couple of struggles with math and would go to the teacher for further explanation. She always told him she was “sorry for bothering him again” and he would protest, loudly, that he LOVED that she would come seek him out. He LOVED talking to her about this stuff and leading her through something if she was stuck and he kept stressing that he hated when kids didn’t come get the help they needed.  He knew that she understood everything and, more than likely, was just stressing herself out about a detail, but he always took the time to show her the way.

In 7th grade, when I believe some of these concepts were first introduced to me, I was lost and never asked for help. As I’ve told our daughter time and again, one of the hardest things to do is raise your hand in Middle School and say  “I don’t understand!”  You feel stupid and embarrassed and, to be honest, I didn’t need more of that!  So, I failed test after test and never caught up.  I had a teacher who, I’m sure, was a nice enough guy.  But I don’t think he ever took me aside and tried to explain something to me.  The most I ever got from him was the “note to the file” he wrote, which I saw in my permanent record after graduating.

The entire note read:
“Mr. Thomas expressed concern over a recent 35 on a math test.”

That’s it . . . no mention of help or meeting me. I don’t remember anyone trying to explain anything.  I know I wasn’t much of a student, and I certainly couldn’t have been easy to work with, but now I’m looking at this stuff and it’s bothering me ’cause my brain is SO wired for this kind of logic.  Once I got the concept, I could look at the page and have the answer.  And I know this is really basic material but I’ve never even thought about how to do it before . . . no one ever showed me.

And so I failed math for four years and the high school, and New York State, actually waived 11th grade math ’cause we all agreed “it was just silly to continue.”

It’s 41 years later and it’s a strange kind of sadness that I’m feeling . . . the idea that THIS is something my brain IS wired for . . . and no one ever explained that, or saw that, or cared about that.

It’s really a shame.  It probably would have made no difference in my life. I still wouldn’t have studied or done my homework; I still would have been unable to focus on things and I still would have been that geeky outsider. Still, I look at what our daughter’s getting and can’t help but wonder what a little self-esteem (that’s what it’s called, right?) would have done for me at 12 years old.

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