We saw Jersey Boys on Broadway not long ago, and it was a grand show, but of course we’re Italian-Americans from northern New Jersey, my husband and I, and our two boys, so naturally we’d love it. Frank and I are just old enough that we remember Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons not as part of our musical generation exactly, but that of our older siblings, the one we first listened to, trying to stay out of brothers’ and sisters’ ways, longing to join their friends dancing in basements, lip-syncing around the radio. The play tickets were a birthday present for my husband, who loves musicals; though we live just across the Hudson River in New Jersey, we rarely get to the theater anymore. But Jersey Boys—that one mattered.
About six years ago, my mother bought us all tickets to the show, and we were two blocks from the theater, eating dinner in Rosie O’Grady’s with Mom when everything fell apart. But wait, we have to backtrack much farther than that. Back to my Jersey childhood when my parents introduced me to Broadway, at an early age. I think my first play was Shenandoah, then Jesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell. Many others.
Mom encouraged me to dress up for the theater—that was what was done in the 1960s and early 70s—and to read the Playbill, note the actors, buy the cast recordings. Her enthusiasm continued even as she and my father moved 2700 miles from New Jersey, where I stayed and raised a family. On each return visit, she’d ask, “What’s good to see on Broadway?” Sometimes Frank and I, my parents, and his parents, and assorted other friends and relatives made a night, or Sunday afternoon, of it: La Cage Aux Folles, The Producers, Gypsy, so many more.
When my mother aged, and even after she lost my father after 59 years of marriage, and her visits dwindled, and she found it hard to walk too far, she still asked, “What’s good on Broadway?” Around 2009, on a springtime visit, she wanted to see Jersey Boys, and told me to buy good seats for us all – Frank, me, and our sons, then about 16 and 12. By then, the only way for my family to afford “good seats” (or any Broadway seats) was to nab a discount deal online for the coldest midweek nights in February.
She was about 80 by then, and suspecting it may be her last time in Manhattan, we made a day of it; she’d always hankered after a trip to Madame Taussaud’s (though she lived in Las Vegas for 28 years and could have seen the more spectacular Vegas Taussaud’s museum anytime), and when we got there she even consented to a wheelchair so she could see every floor, every statue. Next, she looked on as the boys explored (the very noisy, very non-senior-citizen friendly) ESPN Zone. We stopped for a rest and an iced tea in the sprawling lobby of a hotel, then crossed the street for a casual meal at Rosie O’Grady’s, chosen partly because it’s only one block from the August Wilson Theater.
About halfway through dinner, sirens screamed outside and two firetrucks and two police cruisers sailed by. It’s New York, who thinks twice about that? We finished our meal as more sirens squealed, and a greater police presence grew outside the large plate windows. By now, concerned that there might be a bomb scare, some terrorist threat, or maybe even something benign like a fire, we just hoped whatever it was wasn’t at the August Wilson Theater.
Word dribbled in, as it does in a crowded restaurant in midtown, via wait staff, bar patrons, cell phones, other pre-theater diners. The problem wasn’t at the theater. It was in the street in front of two theaters. A manhole had exploded, flooding the streets with steam, gasses, who knows what all. My husband—sent to investigate—returned with the bad news that both theaters had cancelled that night’s shows.
For a moment, I thought about how my parents had been in their seats at a Broadway play in August 1977 when the lights went out all over Manhattan and northern New Jersey, and how they’d gone right back to see the show the next week.
But this was different.
For many more years, I will recall the exquisite mix of emotions on my mother’s face. First, irritation and annoyance, followed quickly by sadness and then, nearly imperceptible before she stashed it behind a que-sera mask, I saw the resignation, the recognition, that this was it. The curtain had come down on her Broadway life.
And, indeed, it had.
The ticket prices were fully refunded on my credit card, and before she flew home, on what would be the final westbound flight of her life, Mom told us to keep the money, to buy ourselves a new batch of tickets to Jersey Boys, and to do it soon. “You never know,” she said.
But we didn’t. We thought about it, but time passed. We saw other Broadway productions—Rain, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, Tarzan, Motown. Each time I thought about Jersey Boys, I tried to think of something else. But Frank kept mentioning it.
When we all saw Mom for the last time on our final visit at her quiet Vegas home, we watched old movies with her on television, and she told us about the film actors and which of them also had done time on the Broadway boards.
She asked if we’d seen Jersey Boys yet, and when she kept asking why not, I couldn’t think of a reason. And yet, I waited still. Three more years. Finally, wondering what to get my husband for his 60th birthday, I looked to Broadway, where I’d spent so many happy birthdays as a child and teenager.
At a few points in the play, when Frankie Valli talks about how his mother won’t move from her old neighborhood, when Nick DeVito says Jersey boys never lie to their mothers, when Tommy DeVito is banished to Las Vegas, when Bobby Gaudio says all he wants to do is write songs and be at home with his family, I thought of my mother.
I also thought of her when, earlier in the day, my 93-year-old father-in-law was hospitalized for pneumonia, and I wondered if Frank would want to cancel our plans. I thought of her when we found our way, up three flights of stairs, to our far-from-excellent seats—and how she’d never have sat there, but which I’d selected with the next college tuition payment in mind. I thought of how she’d be amused by the lobby warning sign that the play contained “Jersey profanity,” and by how she’d not be amused at all when the words she’d never say out loud flew around the stage.
Mostly though, I thought of how we’d all always have the story about trying to see Jersey Boys and not seeing it and then, finally, seeing it.
As I readied myself for bed that night, with the words and melody of “You’re Just Too Good to Be True” still in my ear, what I remembered was my mother’s look in that restaurant when she understood what she’d lost. It reminded me of a Sunday matinee when I was a teenager and we’d just settled into our excellent seats to see Richard Burton in a return of Camelot, and how excited my mother was about that. Burton took the stage, alone, sword drawn, but a few slurred and sloppy sentences into his opening monologue, the curtain fell on his drunk countenance. There was a hushed pause, and my mother’s face told me something awful was happening; an understudy, an unknown, and not the great Burton, would perform. The public address announcement that followed, informing us of what we already knew (though they called it an “illness”), also added that we could choose to stay or to go and be granted tickets for a future performance when Burton would, theoretically, be back in form. Go, Mom said. Stay, my father insisted. And because she, they, were of a generation in which housewives didn’t argue with their wealthy husbands, we stayed. But the look on her face—of understanding she had lost what might have been, that she’d never again get the chance to see what she might have seen, from an excellent seat, from any seat—that was the same look I’d see on her face some 35 years later, in a restaurant, sirens screaming outside, the street closed, the curtain coming down.
I didn’t see the image of that look in my head, thankfully, in the August Wilson Theater last spring when I watched Jersey Boys with my husband and our two boys. I didn’t see it, as I had feared, in my memory in the car on our way home to Jersey either. I saw only her face lit with enthusiasm as it was at the start of every play I recall, back to Shanendoah, and as we drove home and the four of us talked about how we should go to plays more often, I only heard in my head, her curious, ageless voice: “What’s good on Broadway?”