Nineteen years ago I had the chance to see a musical on Broadway for the first time. (I know – It would sound much better if I could say it was twenty years ago. Twenty is such a nice round number – but it was, in fact, nineteen years ago, and I don’t feel like waiting an entire year to write this, just so it has a nice clichéd opening. But I digress.) As I was saying – nineteen years ago I had the chance to see a musical on Broadway for the first time. Not only was it great show, I also learned a few things along the way: I really can do anything I set my mind to, young love is almost always misguided, and my father has a serious deficiency when it came to hotel nicknames.
I have always been a fan of music. I was in both the band and the chorus in high school and was always a willing participant in both the annual talent show and the Spring Musical. My senior year we did a musical review for the Spring show and I was introduced to the music of “Les Miserables”. I was hooked – but I never had the chance to see an actual musical on the stage. That was something I wanted to change.
The entire journey to New York to see a show on Broadway started out as a misguided attempt to win the affection of a girl. While I was away at college, my love life was not exactly something to write home about (not that I would write home about my love life – that would just be weird). I had not found anyone in Miami that I connected with. Instead, I was still working through the crushes and unfulfilled promises that had been with me all through high school. The good news was – I had a plan.
In a fit of logic that could only have made sense to a 20 year-old, I decided to plan a musical journey to win the heart of the aforementioned girl. Schoneberg and Boubil, the men behind “Les Miserables”, had opened a new show on Broadway – “Miss Saigon”. I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was new; it had something to do with Vietnam. That didn’t deter me. I saw it as a golden opportunity, and my hormone addled young brain quickly worked out a plan:
1. Purchased tickets to “Miss Saigon” in New York
2. Invite the object of my affection to join me in New York for the show
3. Find “true love” and live happily ever after
Astute readers will notice right away that there were a few things missing from my plan. First – given the fact that we had never REALLY dated, joining me for a few days in New York might have been a bit of a stretch for her. Second – given that we had never REALLY dated, the chances of her parents letting her join me for a few days in New York were less than zero. Third – my parents letting me go to New York for a few days (with or without a girl that I had never REALLY dated) were pretty slim. Other than that – it was a great plan.
Still, I forged ahead – determined not to be held back by such small details. I quickly implemented step one of my plan and purchased two tickets for “Miss Saigon” in New York City. Remember, I was in college at this time, and the tickets weren’t cheap. I was really committed to making this happen. Unfortunately, I never got past step one. Fate conspired against me and I never even got to ask my paramour if she wanted to go… (another story for another time). So there I was, all alone – the proud owner of two tickets to see “Miss Saigon” in New York. What was I to do?
Luckily for me, my family decided to take pity on me. Nothing was ever said about my misguided decision to purchase the tickets. Nothing was said about the folly of my misplaced, yet earnest feelings. Instead, my parents quietly made plans for a family vacation to New York City. My brother and I had never been to New York, so we were very excited to see what it was like.
As I’ve mentioned before, we drove everywhere on vacation when I was growing up. This didn’t change when I was in college. Flying to New York was never even considered. Instead, we loaded up the family car, threw a map in the front seat, and took off up the east coast. (Oh, how I don’t miss the days before GPS – at all.) We were on our way to New York.
We listened to a lot of music on that trip. My parents let us control the radio far more that I would have had I been in their shoes. My parents’ car didn’t have a cassette player in it (a CD player was even further out of the question), so we sampled local FM radio stations all the way. Being the summer of 1991, Hair Metal was just starting it’s decline – although we didn’t know it at the time. We heard “Unskinny Bop” by Poison at the top and bottom of every hour for the entire trip – it was like Old Faithful.
It was during this long drive that we discovered something disturbing about my father. As my parents where discussing the lodging plans for New York City, my mother asked a rather innocuous question -
“Do you have the address for the HoJo’s we are staying at?”
“We’re not staying at HoJo’s,” my father replied. “We’re staying at Howard Johnson’s.”
“HoJo’s IS Howard Johnson’s,“ my mother said.
“Ho Jo’s is Howard Johnson’s?” my dad parroted back, disbelief evident in his voice. “Really? Ho Jo’s is Howard Johnson’s? Are you sure?”
My mother slapped him on the arm. “Stop being stupid,” she snapped.
“Ho Jo’s is Howard Johnson’s?” he said yet again – voice rising an octave to signal his confusion. “I don’t think it is. Are you sure?”
By this time, my brother and I were rolling with laughter in the backseat. Surely our dad couldn’t be that clueless, could he? As he and my mother continued to debate the finer points of hotel lingo in the front seat (and by debate, I mean he asked the same question over and over again, and she became more and more exasperated with him), we sat back and enjoyed the show. It became a running joke for the rest of the trip. In fact, to this day, my father will swear that he had no idea that Ho Jo’s was Howard Johnson’s until that trip. It’s become a piece of Rain-Man-like history for our clan – and it ate quite a bit of time between the twice-hourly airings of “Unskinny Bop”.
As we neared New Jersey, our car started to behave strangely. It was not a top of line vehicle on its best day, and we had just driven it far outside of its comfortable weekend driving radius. As we entered New Jersey, the car started to smoke and stutter. Before long, it came to a shuddering, wheezing stop. I was devastated. Here we were, within spitting distance of the Big Apple, and our car had broken down. We were stranded.
As I was coming to terms with the impending destruction of our family vacation, my parents were quickly developing plan B. They found a garage that could fix the car, but it would take a few days. So – they decided to leave the car with the mechanic in New Jersey (making careful note of the exit number) and we rented a car to drive the rest of the way to New York. (I know, I know – it sounds like the start of a really bad joke – but that’s what we did.) After only a minor delay, we were on our way again.
Arriving in New York City was an experience. Growing up, Atlanta was a big city – but it wasn’t, nor is it still, anywhere near the scale of New York. As we emerged from the Holland Tunnel, we were assaulted by two things. First was the sheer size and sound and speed of the city itself. It was like a living creature. Second was a guy with a squeegee, who immediately draped himself across the car and started “cleaning” the windshield. Welcome to New York.
We made our way uptown and found the HoJo’s just off Broadway where we were going to stay. As we pulled up, my dad asked, “Are you sure this is the place? It’s doesn’t say HoJo’s on the sign. I thought we were going to stay at HoJo’s.” My mom smacked him on the ear and we proceeded to park and check in.
While we were in New York, we took full advantage of the city. We were tourists in every way. We did a double-decker bus tour. We went to the Empire State Building. We went to the Statue of Liberty. We went to Central Park. We went to Times Square. It was great. We packed more in to those few days than I thought possible and we loved every minute of it.
On our second night in the city, it came time for us to head out to the show. My brother and I got ready, and my parents walked us over to The Broadway Theater. It was right on Broadway (imagine that), just a block or two away from the Ed Sullivan Theater. I’ve been fortunate enough to see more than a few Broadway shows since that trip – but the first time was something magical. We were on Broadway.
We got to the theater early and just walked around inside for a while. It was a beautiful building. As we were wandering about, the lights began to flash and we realized that it was time for the show to start. We found our seats in the balcony (quite good seats, as a matter of fact), and settled in for the show. As the lights went down and the opening overture started we sat in anxious anticipation, not knowing what to expect. The music was crisp and clear, the lighting was dazzling, the performances where amazing, and the story was enthralling. I really had no idea what the story of “Miss Saigon” was going to be. I had no preconceived notions and found that I was moved by the tragic story of love, loss, and the desire for a better life. It wasn’t until much later that I learned it was a loose retelling of the opera “Madame Butterfly”.
All too quickly the show was over. As we left the theater we bought a few souvenirs – posters, a shirt, and a soundtrack. It was in some ways surreal to take the soundtrack home and hear the same people that we had just seen on the stage. There is truly something special about seeing an original Broadway cast – especially one of that caliber. Lea Salonga, Jonathan Pryce, and Hinton Battle all went on to win Tony Awards that year for their performances.
My parents were waiting for us as we exited the theater. It was a warm summer night, and we decided to walk down to Times Square. They told us about walking around the city and having one of the best slices of pizza ever. (To this day they still have no idea what was actually ON the pizza – but they loved it). As we strolled around Times Square I was a bit overwhelmed by the experience. This had all started as a foolish plan to win the attention of a girl – yet here I was. I had made my way to New York, I had just seen a play on Broadway, and I was now walking around Times Square. It was real – and it was even better than I had imagined.
I’ve been back to New York more than a few times over the years. (In many ways, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the city – but that’s also a story for another time.) Nothing, however, compared to that first trip. It was new, and overwhelming, and magical, and exciting. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, and it taught me three very important things.
First, I learned that my parents were right – I really can do anything that I set my mind to. They always instilled in me a belief that anything I wanted bad enough, and was willing to work for, I could achieve. I got it in to my head that I was going to go see a show on Broadway – and I did. Sure, it didn’t quite work out exactly the way I planned (I never did make the connection I had hoped with that girl) – but I got to New York.
Second, I learned that family is special. Sure, we fought and got on each other’s nerves during the trip – but in hindsight, I would not have wanted to share that trip with anyone else. My parents could have easily told me – “Sorry, you never should have bought the tickets in the first place.” Instead, they supported me and made the trip a reality. They showed me what it really means to be a good parent; a lesson I have tried to take with me as I’ve started my own family.
What was the third thing I learned, you ask? It was most simple lesson of the three, but also the most profound. I learned that HoJo’s is actually Howard Johnson’s. Who knew?
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