I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
The first time I went to see a Broadway show was on my eighth birthday, in the spring of 1977. I was obsessed with magic acts and magicians because I’d seen a lot of them on the prime-time comedy variety shows that were hugely popular at the time, and the performer I had seen most often was Doug Henning. He didn’t wear a top hat and tails; instead, he was a shaggy hippie with a big mustache, rainbow suspenders, and leotard tops, and he was effervescent and smiley and super-earnest. Only in the ’70s would he have been put on TV. In interviews and onstage, he avoided the word “tricks” in favor of a drawn-out “illuuuuusions,” and it was such a distinctive tic that the phrase turned him into a Saturday Night Live character. Most of all, he was (and still is) widely credited with bringing magic out of the dusty vaudeville trunk and back into the TV mainstream.
A couple of years before that, Stephen Schwartz — who’d had big hits with Godspell and Pippin and later would have an immense one with Wicked — had co-created a musical called The Magic Show. It was a vehicle to get Henning, who could not sing, onto a Broadway stage, and it was built like the jukebox musicals we see now: The illusions were stitched together with dialogue, as the songs in Mamma Mia! are, to construct a plot. (The show received mediocre reviews but it was a commercial hit, running for more than four years and going on tour.) By the time my birthday came around in 1977, I had never been so excited to see anything in a theater, and I was only mildly disappointed when I learned from the posters outside the Cort that Henning had left the show months before. Didn’t matter. His replacement, a young guy named Joseph Abaldo, was more than good enough. After the show, I coaxed my parents into buying me the cast album as a souvenir.
I remember barely anything about the day itself. What I do know is that I played the LP a thousand times thereafter, on my little yellow-and-orange plastic Radio Shack phonograph, and one particular song embedded itself in my head. It’s called “West End Avenue,” sung by Dale Soules — you know her now as Frieda Berlin on Orange Is the New Black — and you should listen to it here before we proceed.
I have no blessed idea why this song got to me. It has nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with a small child’s life. It’s about Cal, an Upper West Side native in her 20s who struck out on her own, couldn’t quite make it, and moved back in with her parents. That line “you subway to school with kids whose folks all live in 20 blocks / In a high-rise rented carton or a co-op brownstone box”? I had never been on a subway. I had never heard of a co-op. I had no idea what a brownstone was. “Delis and laundries and gay bars” is rhymed with “Only a block away from Zabar’s,” two references that, as far as my comprehension went, may as well have been in Bengali. There’s a joke in the lyrics about alternate-side-of-the-street parking, for god’s sake. The only faint idea I can come up with for why I kept listening is that the song has a great propulsive piano line, and I had just started taking piano lessons myself. Maybe I liked that part. Still doesn’t explain why I knew all the words.
But listening now, what strikes me is that the song is so weird about New York City. You’d never hear it in a musical today, because it is so out of whack with the way we perceive urban life. In that era, West End Avenue may have been a somewhat privileged place to grow up, but it was also in a slightly seedy neighborhood where you stood a decent chance of being mugged or burgled. (In the song, “brownstone box” is rhymed with “double locks.”) The idea that you would grow up in the West 80s and be desperate to get the hell out of there, to make it somewhere else less provincial, is all but alien now. The Richistan New York in which I live is a place where people turn themselves inside-out to hang onto a little sliver of rented real estate. You’re a lot likelier to get defeated by New York and leave than you are to be defeated by the larger world and land back in Manhattan. The idea that it would be crushing for someone to move to West End Avenue sounds a little far-fetched.
The more I thought about this, the more I wanted to hear it from the source, so I called up Stephen Schwartz. He himself lived on West 81st Street as a young man, but now he’s in Connecticut. He was clearly tickled to be discussing a show that is neither Pippin nor Wicked, and he explained where the song originated. “There was a character that [book writer] Bob Randall created,” he recalls, “who was the streety wannabe girlfriend of Doug — who was his assistant but whom he never noticed as a girl, just kind of as a buddy. Her frustration at this was the romantic core of the little plot that was devised. And at a certain point in the show, she’s so exasperated at the attention he’s paying to a pretty girl that she stalks out, and she has a song, and that became ‘West End Avenue.’”
I remarked to him about what I hear in the song now — that you wouldn’t expect such a worldview from a native New Yorker today — and although he didn’t entirely disagree, he seemed slightly surprised. “I have to say, I haven’t really thought about it in those terms,” Schwartz told me. “But I knew a lot of people who grew up in the same sort of circumstances as this girl, a somewhat privileged life on the Upper West Side, upper-middle-class, and kind of ran off to join the circus.” And don’t forget that the bougie West Side was a little different then: “Particularly in those days, that was a very homogeneous area. If you grew up there, you’d feel like trying something else. But the comfort and safety of it is seductive.” And, he added, there is a certain universality to the longing for something else, no matter where you grow up.
The funny thing is, I internalized the song, but I didn’t accept its message. A decade or so later, as a young adult, I was driven to move to New York, and I did. Although gay bars aren’t my thing, I would have been entirely happy a block from Zabar’s. I did not, in fact, end up like Cal — I have never felt trapped by New York City. Instead, what I’ve become is, I guess, her dad.
I have a son of my own now, and he is growing up in the middle of everything, much as this character did. I occasionally wonder whether a New York apartment existence will wind up seeming dull and overly familiar to him as well. Will he eventually seek out some magic circus life of his own? When he’s grown, will he crave a standalone house with a lawn, one where the washer and dryer aren’t coin-op? That I cannot know. But I do know one thing: A couple of months ago, four decades after my birthday trip to The Magic Show, my wife and I took our 8-year-old to see his first Broadway show. He is still talking about it.