If you have had enough of politics and pundits this week, come with me for a nostalgic trip through the golden age of Broadway musicals. I was carried back to those heady days of the 1950s by a recent New York Times article about the lost art of sneaking in for the second act, impossible today due to post-9/11 security. Now I don’t know if you have ever indulged in this type of larcenous activity, so I will explain how it worked — at least for me and my merry little band.
I attended junior high and high school at 68th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The subway was right at the corner of our Gothic-style building. This is important information for you to know in order to follow our exploits. The other bit of vital info is that our school day officially ended each afternoon at 2 p.m., rather than the usual 3 p.m. for the rest of the schools under the New York City Board of Education’s auspices.
Shortly after I started in seventh grade, I fell in with a happy group of kids who lived across town, on the Upper West Side. While that was decades away from what we know today as the highly cultured and worldly UWS, nonetheless these kids were a lot more culturally savvy than I was. Every Wednesday, which is of course matinee day, they would slip out of our last class some 15 minutes early, slither quietly through the side door of the school and make a beeline for the subway stairs 20 feet away.
Somehow I came to be included in this precocious group. We would ride the local to 59th Street, descend to the lowest level of the station, which in those days housed the BMT line, ride it through Midtown to 49th Street and Broadway and arrive at the predetermined show of our choice just as intermission was ending and the smokers were returning to their seats for the second act.
No one ever checked the tickets for the second act in those days. And there were always empty seats sprinkled throughout the theater that we claimed for our own. If the real seat owner arrived, most often the usher would help us find another seat since it was fairly common practice for young people to move closer to the stage in those days if there was opportunity. I doubt the ushers realized they were helping scofflaws.
In this way, I saw some of the most famous plays with their original casts during what turned out to be the most memorable period of American musical theater. Of course I didn’t know that then, I just knew I was having a fine old time and we didn’t even have to pay the subway fare because we had student passes.
Of course I never told my parents what we were doing every Wednesday afternoon, and somehow we never got caught leaving school early. Perhaps the faculty understood where we were going and thought it more important than the last 15 minutes of classes.
But my parents may have wondered from time to time because I seemed too knowledgeable about the current musicals, their actors and composers. There were the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics: “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” (the latter two with Mary Martin); Frank Loesser and his “Guys and Dolls,” “The Music Man,” “West Side Story” and Chita Rivera; Ethel Merman, Gertrude Lawrence, Yul Brynner, Gene Kelly and Gwen Verdon; Irving Berlin and Cole Porter — they were all in my world.
And then there was the best of the best, its eloquence, melody, intelligence and heart standing at the head of those magnificent musicals, Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady.” I can still hear the music, with its clever lyrics, playing in my head. Led by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, it was the longest running show on Broadway for years thereafter. And we saw them all — at least by half.