The road to Stephen Sondheim is paved with Disney musicals.
Seven years ago I bought Broadway tickets for “Aladdin” in New York to take my first grandchild to their first musical. Lukas was 3, almost 4. The child was attentive for maybe 15 minutes before declaring in a loud voice that Jafar was a bad guy and it was time to leave.
In December, before the omicron variant forced the cancellation of performances, I had Broadway in Chicago tickets for “Frozen” so my granddaughter could attend her first musical. Tilly is 3, almost 4. She was rapt for 15 minutes before her attention faltered, after which she bounced from lap to lap among the three adults who escorted her.
Children need to be exposed to the arts early and often. It takes more than one arts experience for children to understand that theater doesn’t always originate as a Disney movie. Van Gogh immersive events are no substitute for museums in which Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings hang. Classical music transcends “The Lord of the Rings” film score, and there are greater ballets beyond “The Nutcracker.”
Parents establish priorities for extracurricular activities, and grandparents provide enhancements. When my children were growing up, they received dance and music lessons. In the beginning the lessons were paid for by my mother, their grandmother, who was a pianist and musical theater director. She supplemented what wasn’t in our budget, an example I took to heart.
Our children attended dance, theater and music performances in the Midwestern cities where I worked as an arts editor. In Dayton, Ohio, we saw “Hello Dolly!” with Carol Channing and an Urban Bush Women dance performance with founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and a performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris with White Oak Company in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We had great seats for “Madame Butterfly” at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre and nosebleeds for the second tour of “The Phantom of the Opera” in Chicago at the Auditorium.
While on a company trip to New York, I flew my 15-year-old son in to see a performance of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which influenced his career and college choices.
During our Chicago years, while her brother attended New York University, my daughter became my plus one at many Broadway in Chicago events. She saw “The Producers,” “Tick Tick … Boom!” “Lion King” and “Spamalot,” where, magically, she caught the bouquet at the end.
After viewing Robert Falls’ luminous production of “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” starring Brian Dennehy at the Goodman, I insisted my New York student attend the Broadway version that added Vanessa Redgrave to the lineup. This production was so notable, former New York Times critic Ben Brantley cited it just days ago as a reason to love theater.
In the end, I raised a dancer who can write, and a writer who hears the music in language.
But the truth is I didn’t take them to Broadway shows when they were 3 going on 4. They were at least 6 — or maybe 5 going on 6 — which probably makes me a smarter mother than grandmother.
Still, I don’t live in my grandchildren’s cities, I don’t see them every month, and my time with them, ultimately, is limited. And COVID-19 adds yet another complication with shutdowns, cancellations and advance testing for children who are too young to qualify for vaccines.
With “Frozen,” I figured since Tilly had watched the movie version often, she could handle sitting through the musical. But the movie is one hour and 42 minutes, while the musical version is two hours and 15 minutes. Also, I didn’t count on the Broadway version adding 12 songs, many of them ballads and containing far less action.
To still Tilly, we stuffed her. Here’s what she ate during the musical: an adult-size package of Twizzlers, multiple single-serving packages of goldfish, dozens of pretzels and several fruit leathers and cookies.
At intermission, frantic mothers, including my daughter, and grandmothers marched to the merchandise counter to buy $35 Anna or Elsa dolls, hoping to keep the children occupied during the second half. This turned out not to be the case.
In the end, spending hundreds of dollars on Broadway tickets for 3-year-olds could be viewed as a mistake, and yet I, at least, have vivid memories.
The image of little girls parading around the Cadillac Palace wearing Elsa and Anna costumes accessorized by their COVID-19 masks will stay with me forevermore. Tilly, decked out as Anna, was part of that “Frozen” zeitgeist, and to make sure she remembers, I framed a photo of us standing outside the theater.
Tilly’s brother is 7 months old. Will I drag him to the theater at 3 going on 4?
Christine Ledbetter, a former arts editor at The Washington Post, is a journalist now living in downstate Illinois. She is on the board of Quincy Community Theatre in Quincy, Illinois.