The summer air is thick on West 45th street.
Sara and I are pressed up against the metal barricade at the stage door outside of the Al Hirschfeld Theater, sweating our asses off. We’re suffering for even a glimpse of the luminous, Tony-award-winning diva, Ella Rose.
We’d seen her shine as the tap-dancing chanteuse in last night’s revival performance of Anything Goes. It’s all we’ve been able to talk about since. Especially because we stayed through the rapturous curtain call and missed our chance at getting our commemorative playbills signed.
Back again today, I realize Sunday afternoon in the city is even more cramped and cacophonous than Saturday night. I check my phone for the time as the stocky man behind me tries to wiggle his way to the front.
Not going to happen, sir, I think. We leave today and I’m not missing this opportunity.
Sara juts out her exposed, milky white elbow to create a barrier. We have just about an hour to get our autographs (and maybe a picture) and get out. Our train leaves from Penn Station at exactly 5:24 PM. We’ll need to run, but we’ll make it.
“Do you think she’d let me take a video for Nene? She played Reno in the Buttonwood Camp production of Anything Goes. I think she’d just about die if she got a personal message from Ella Rose herself,” Sara says. The crowd has grown larger since we arrived. Ninety-minute matinee ladies crowd around out of curiosity, and devoted fans who couldn’t afford tickets to the sold-out performances creep forward, iPhone cameras primed and ready.
“Ms. Rose won’t be able to stop for any photos or videos. You can take pictures of her and she can sign your playbills and posters,” the burly, bald security guard dressed in all black says. “And, no, Ms. Rose won’t be signing any promotional materials for her Netflix miniseries, so better luck next time, pal.”
The dripping man behind me holds a see-through bag containing dozens of postcards advertising Ella Rose’s star television turn. He scuttles out of the group, angry he won’t get to make a quick buck.
“Too bad, so sad,” Sara whispers to me.
“There’s always a few of them,” the security guard huffs and the group laughs. “Didn’t I see you two out here last night?” he asks us.
“We got here too late and got shoved to the back,” Sara says.
“First time, huh?” he asks.
“Nah. We’ve been to this rodeo before,” she says, puffing out her chest proudly. We’re Broadway nerds all the way, just check out our TikToks. “But, it’s never been like this.” She gestures around us, nearly smacking an old woman in the face. Sara’s just like that. Carefree to the point of obliviousness.
“Ms. Rose does have a devoted fan base,” he says. “You two look a little young to be in her target demographic.”
“You’re never too young to appreciate greatness. Besides, this one turned seventeen last Wednesday. This was his birthday present,” Sara says, shoving my shoulder.
I begged my parents to spring for a weekend trip to New York City to see this show. Of course, my best friend had to tag along. Sara and I have been joined at the hip since elementary school when we spearheaded the first ever drama club. It was there that we wrote our own Aesop’s Fables musical. We spent countless nights rewriting the lyrics to classic pop songs to be sung by tortoises and hares, foxes, and owls.
I feel so independent right now. Seventeen and living my best life, away from the monotony of suburbia. I’ve always had the big city fantasy nestled in my heart, but my mom is an Anxious Annie and believes it’s not safe.
“Be aware of your surroundings at all times,” she says constantly. “Keep everything in your front pockets. Don’t make eye contact with strangers. Do you have the pepper spray I gave you in your stocking last Christmas?”
She doesn’t see the glittery wonder or the magic.
I’m about to witness some serious magic right now as the cast starts pouring out of the ajar door, hands ready with uncapped Sharpies. The excitement fizzles up inside me like I swallowed a sparkler. My shaky hand outstretches my playbill as I congratulate a brown-skinned, light-eyed ensemble member on a well-performed show.
“Mrs. Brumbach is going to be so jealous when we get back to class in a few weeks,” Sara says. She squeezes my forearm, practically squealing.
“We should send an email with a selfie holding up our signed playbills on the ride home. She’s always saying she misses us during the break,” I say. I’m having a hard time keeping my voice from breaking. I know Ella Rose is moments away from emerging in her street clothes.
My mind races with the million things I’d like to say to her. How she inspired me to start taking voice lessons, and acting lessons, and tap lessons. All the lessons, basically. How her breakout role was the first professional musical I ever saw. How I can’t wait for her to make her film debut, so I can go to the midnight premiere with a bucket of popcorn and see her up on the big screen.
Other queer boys my age stan pop princesses and superhero actresses, but I stan an alto with the best Broadway belt known to man. I swear I’m not a stalker. I’m just a boy with an overwhelming amount of passion for musical theater. As Nathan Detroit would say, call a lawyer and sue me, sue me.
“This is it,” Sara says. The security guard gives us a knowing wink. I brace for impact as Ella’s signature millennial pink hair wrap appears in the window of the door.
She steps out into the blinding sun, Mother Nature’s natural spotlight. I’m awed at the magnitude of her presence. I feel tears coming on, but I won’t be that embarrassing. I can’t be that embarrassing.
And then we hear it. A bang eclipses the moment. A sound I’ve only heard in action movies and crime dramas rings out.
A gunshot. It’s tinny and jarring. It came from only a few blocks away.
The pulse of the city stops in an instant. We’re flat-lining. Fast.
The security guard springs into a defensive stance. Ella retreats inside, wide-eyed and worried. Nobody else moves a muscle.
“That was probably nothing,” Sara says. I’m used to following her lead, on stage and in life, so I ease at her suggestion.
But, then it comes again. Louder. Closer.
Shrieks pierce the air above the sound of traffic. Sirens blare. Blood rushes to my head, making me dizzy.
A herd of people barrel down in our direction. Fear shocks my system into action. But, what action? The group scatters. But, where to go? We’re just two teenagers pretending to be adults.
I look to Sara, but she’s gone blank, slack and staring into the distance.
The security guard senses our panic and ushers us inside. He shoves us into the first open room and tells us to stay put. My heart rate won’t stop spiking at random, erratic intervals. Sara won’t let go of my clammy hand.
It’s not until we flick on a light that we realize we’re backstage in a real Broadway house. It’s the place I’ve always wanted to be, but not like this. I’m sweating through my shirt, yet not from a rigorous production number.
“Eh-hem.” Someone clears their throat behind us. We turn to see a wardrobe woman dressed in her crew blacks huddled next to a muscle-built, Black woman in a millennial pink hair wrap.
Oh. My. God.
Sara can feel the star-struck energy radiating off me.
“We’re so sorry to disturb you, Ms. Rose,” Sara says as evenly as she can. She turns to exit the room, seemingly forgetting we’re hiding from actual danger. Leaving isn’t an option at this point, but I’m too scared to say so.
“No, no! Don’t go out there. Stay in here. You heard what Stew said,” Ella chides in a stage whisper. Stew must be the name of the kind security guard.
I wonder which emotion is going to win out right now. The excitement of being in the same room as my favorite performer or the fear of what’s ensuing outside on the streets?
Sara looks at her feet as she says, “Thank you.”
There’s a long beat where I look around. We’re in a dressing room, but it’s not Ella’s. It must be one for the ensemble. Numerous stations of mirrors are surrounded by bulb lights and family pictures. Sailor costumes hang on racks. Makeup brushes and microphone tape litter the counters. There’s a musky odor, but it’s not an unfamiliar one. High school drama rooms smell no better.
We all wait to hear more. I’ve been inside enough theaters to know that a loud siren or a car horn could pierce into the dark, communal space at any moment. If another shot rang out, we’d hear it.
“Did you two see the show?” Ella asks as the wardrobe woman fans herself and tries to right her breathing. I can tell Ella is trying to distract us from whatever news-worthy episode is taking place just beyond the brick wall to our right. None of us know what’s acceptable in a situation like this.
“We did. Last night,” I say finally. “We loved it. Every minute of it.”
Sara beams at me, proud I even got a word out. There were nights I had panic dreams that I’d choke up in front of my idol. Now, my stage confidence shines out of me because the fear-induced adrenaline can’t filter me.
“We’re, um, big fans,” Sara says.
In the chaos of running in here, Sara and I must’ve dropped our playbills. They are surely stamped into the sidewalk by now. I wait for the upset to settle, but it doesn’t. It hits me how selfish that thought is when there could be an imminent threat mere feet away from where we’re standing.
Ella fiddles with the beading on the edge of her lavender tank top. “I’m sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances.” There’s a hitch in her usual, professional voice, the one I’ve memorized from countless YouTube interviews and Broadway World features.
I wish there was something I could do to make her feel better. Even more, I wish there was something I could do to make the chilling sounds from outside stop, to keep everyone safe. I want New York to return to the perfect snow globe centerpiece I have on the mantle in my mind.
“Are you two alone?” Wardrobe Woman asks.
“My parents took an early train back to New Jersey with our luggage. We stayed behind to…well,” I say. I don’t feel I can finish that sentence. Now, sharing the same air as Ella Rose without a proscenium between us, I’m confronted with the fact that she’s human—not the goddess I’ve worshipped as my phone background for so many years. She’s raggedly breathing, just as scared as we are. Somehow, celebrity status makes flesh and blood feel indestructible, yet she bleeds just like I do. She could die today just like I can.
Ella notices she’s still holding the silver Sharpie in her manicured hand. An idea appears in her eyes. “Do you two act?” she asks. Sara and I nod in unison. “Good. Let’s do a little scene, shall we? Let’s pretend we’re outside the theater. The sun is shining. Everything is calm…”
“Or, as calm as midtown can be,” Wardrobe Woman interjects.
Ella laughs, high, light, and crisp. “Right. Anyway, shall we try it?”
I look to Sara for confirmation that we’re about to do this. She doesn’t even hesitate—until she realizes we don’t have our playbills anymore. She feels in the pockets of her light gray jeans but comes up empty.
Wardrobe Woman pops up from her perch, more confident now. She’s shorter than I assumed with a blue streak running through her dark hair. She finds a pair of napkins under an eyeshadow pallet and runs them over to us. The outside fades away and for five glorious minutes, we all agree to exist inside a set of imaginary circumstances like a Stanislavski exercise.
“What are your names?” Ella asks, standing inches away from us. I swear my heart might give out.
“I’m Sara and this is Will,” she says. Feeling bold, she puts up a cupped hand and stage whispers, “He just turned seventeen the other day. His birthday wish was to see you.”
Ella smiles when she sees the red blush rushing up my neck. She places a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “I’m so glad I could help you celebrate.” The anxieties stilting her movements upon our arrival have dissipated. She is present in this fake moment where we all act the parts we were supposed to play today.
“You, uh…” I start, but the words escape me. “You inspired me to…”
Come on tongue. Don’t crap out on me now!
“What was that, Will?” Ella asks, leaning in to hear me.
The sound of my name stokes the embers of my passion. In full voice, I’m able to say, “You inspired me to start doing theater. I was kind of a quiet kid before I saw you in my first Broadway show. Without you, I’d have never met Sara or started a drama club. I’d have never gone to sleepaway camp or come out as gay. Because of you, I feel like I have purpose.”
It’s a load of clichés, but they’re all truths, too. There’s no awkwardness in Ella’s response. Her hands find her sternum on a humble exhale.
“That’s the loveliest compliment a lady in this business could ever receive,” she says. Then, she does something I don’t expect. She places both of her hands on my chubby cheeks and looks me right in the eyes. “Never lose your sense of play and wonder. The world can be a cruel, scary place, but it can never take away your hopes and your dreams.”
I shake with emotion under her touch, tears threatening to turn my eyes into water slides. I sniffle slightly and she smiles wider. That sight inspires me to pull myself together just as the door behind us swings open with a thud.
All four of us jump back.
It’s only Stew and another security guard looking somber, but more relaxed.
“False alarm,” Stew says. “A motorcycle backfired twice in Times Square. Everyone thought it was a gun or a bomb. Rightfully so, right now. Nobody was hurt, thank God. The NYPD cleared the scene. All the theaters were mobbed, but no one was trampled. It’s safe to go now, Ms. Rose.”
The bubble of my fantasy bursts. Had this all been a fever dream?
Stew nods for Sara and me to follow him out. Before we go, Ella calls after us, “Take care, you two. Be safe.”
“You, too,” I say.
Stew opens the stage door for us. We step onto the far side of the barricade, the side reserved for triple threats at the top of their careers, not confused kids like us. The still-shining sun makes it hard to find my directional bearing, but Sara grabs my hand and marches us towards Eighth Avenue.
Our footprints add to the collection impressed upon dozens of discarded playbills cluttering the walkway. People pass us by like nothing happened, yet something massive inside of me has shifted. My innocence is one of those playbills: a remnant of something shiny and new, now lost forever.