Someone recently asked me to name my favorite show of all time. Looking back over decades of attending live theatrical performances, I really couldn’t single out just one show. What does come to mind is a collection of “moments”—individual performances that were so stunning and so powerful that I’ll never forget them.
Some of these moments are quite recent; others occurred years ago and now linger as hazy, dreamlike memories. All of them will stay with me forever. Here are just a few:
The Trip to Bountiful (2013)
It happens in the second act. Cicely Tyson (as Carrie Watts) has momentarily escaped the suffocating disdain of her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae. Late at night in a nearly deserted bus station, Carrie raises her arms and rapturously sings an old hymn, “Blessed Assurance.” Spontaneously, the many church ladies (black and white) in the audience began to sing along. The feeling shared by all of us with a character up on the stage was so true and so powerful. It was a moment. (And Tyson took home a Tony)
This moment is the big payoff of an entire show of moments. Patti LuPone as the fame-obsessed, driven Mama Rose, sings “Rose’s Turn:”
“Hold your hats and hallelujah.
Mama’s gonna show it to you.
Ready or not, shhh, here comes Mama.”
Except there’s really no way to be ready for this Mama. I felt as though LuPone had literally ripped out her guts and spilled them on the stage. She was so fierce, her pain so intense and real, that the audience could hardly breathe. It was a moment. (And LuPone took home a Tony).
Dream Girls (1982 or 1983)
You’ve probably seen Jennifer Hudson’s stunning Oscar-winning performance in the film version of Dream Girls. (I thought Eddie Murphy should have won too, but that’s another post for another day). However, nothing compares to Jennifer Holliday’s amazing, live rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the original Broadway production. She reaches down into the depths of her soul to simultaneously plead, cajole, and threaten, as her lover and mentor replaces her in the group with a more glamorous singer. As with Ms. LuPone’s performance in Gypsy, the audience is so stunned by the honesty and rawness of the performance that it becomes almost too much to bear. It was a moment. (And Holliday took home a Tony).
Hair (Revival, July 11, 2011)
The original Broadway version of Hair ran from 1968 to 1972. I saw the Public Theatre’s excellent Diane Paulus-directed revival twice as part of Shakespeare in the Park and once in a later hit production at the St. James Theatre. Hair is a mythic show that captures the zeitgeist of its era while remaining entirely relevant today. But that’s not the basis of my Hair moment.
At the end of the show, audience members are invited up on the stage to sing a reprise of “Let the Sun Shine In” with the cast. I had brought my 20-year-old son with me to see Hair, because I knew he’d be moved by its anti-war, life celebrating message. We were seated in the 6th row of the orchestra. I said, “Will you go up on stage with me?” He looked doubtful. I added, “When else will you have a chance to be on a Broadway stage?” He took my hand, and we joined the cast on stage. It was a moment. (We didn’t win any Tonys, but it may have been my best “moment” of all).