Steve Griffiths: Life truly is a ‘Cabaret’

Audra McDonald won a Tony for best actress in a musical for her role in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" in 2012.
Audra McDonald won a Tony for best actress in a musical for her role in "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" in 2012. Invision

On my 13th birthday, my parents and I dined at a glorious but well-worn restaurant, Tail o’ The Cock in Los Angeles before seeing “A Chorus Line.” Soon, I was scared by a grown-up song that cannot be quoted here. I lived in my parents’ house, yet by the “Eleven O’clock Number,” I had a new home: theater.

A glistening mirror: text, music, lyrics, lights, creativity, energy – all from divine red velvet chairs. Observe, disagree. With prime chairs now topping $350, there is a sad disparity between economics and exploration. The Broadway community pursues affordability, but those ideas can be compared with airport standby. Wait until the last minute.

I’ve been privileged to see 1,369 performances. Friends ask about my favorite, a question as impossible as unfair. But some clues:

▪ “Angels in America”: Tony Kushner’s construction of complex relationships in the era of AIDS. (Prior: “Bye, now.”) That epic encouraged me to be proud I am gay.

▪ “Chess”: A history of international championships, tangled by the rivals’ lovers, first produced in 1980. (Florence: “Everybody’s playing the game, but nobody’s rules are the same. Nobody’s on nobody’s side.”) With the forthcoming Supreme Court marriage ruling, nothing could resonate more today.

▪ “Elaine Stritch at Liberty”: A poignant autobiographical account of 50 years on stage. (Elaine: “The makeup. I hate it; I need it.”)

▪ “Evita”: Patti LuPone revealing the early power of women. (Evita: “It doesn’t matter what those morons say; there’s only 20 of them anyway. We’ll – you’ll – be handed power on a plate …”)

▪ “Golda’s Balcony”: A Russian, portrayed by Tovah Feldshuh, who becomes Israeli prime minister. (Golda: “Survival is a synonym, maybe, for being Jewish.”)

▪ “Next to Normal”: Musical mental illness (yes) with Alice Ripley and bare-chested beefcake. (Diana: “Do you wake up in the morning and need help to lift your head? Do you read obituaries and feel jealous of the dead?”)

▪ “Side Show”: A challenging musical of conjoined twins and their lovers in a circus. (Cast: “Come look at the freaks.”)

▪ “Sweeney Todd”: Stephen Sondheim’s volcanic exploration of economics, crime and conspiracy.

▪ “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”: The Martin McDonagh tragedy about brothers who suspect each other had killed Wee Thomas, a bitter argument about beloved cat. (Mairead: “There was nothing unhygienic about my … cat!”) Spoiler: After the brothers fight to their bloody deaths, the cat walks out on stage.

▪ “The Will Rogers Follies”: A satire thrust against the Depression with Keith Carradine. (Will: “My father always told me to get an education; that way you won’t ever have to worry about winding up in Congress.”)

▪ “The Year of Magical Thinking”: Joan Didion’s account of her husband’s and her daughter’s consecutive deaths, expertly interpreted by Vanessa Redgrave. (Joan: “I know why we try to keep the dead alive; we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves … we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”)

Theater complicates life, as our nation tries to simplify things. Red states, blue states. But we need more capacity to learn and to listen.

Sunday will be my 26th attendance at The Tony Awards. It all began because of Tyne Daly’s performance as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.” I saw it repeatedly on tour, then in New York. After Daly was nominated for best musical actress, I needed to be there. Daly won. And a thrilling annual imperative began.

I’ve been there to see Audra McDonald win six Tony Awards. Once, she noted her rise to recognition from Fresno. From the third row, I lost decorum, calling out “Go Fresno!” She immediately smiled: “Yeah, go Fresno.”

Geographically, performance never is distant. We have Broadway in Fresno, Good Company Players, Fresno Grand Opera, community companies, even high school plays.

My first Broadway show was the Joel Grey revival of “Cabaret,” second row aisle. At 15, I was scared again: couples, and a girl in a red pea coat with her parents. Everyone had someone. I was alone.

One early lyric resonated. “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come to the cabaret.” One actress sang directly to me. I no longer was alone.

That impossible answer? I note “Caroline, or Change,” the musical about Lake Charles, Louisiana, from Mr. Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, about a boy and his maid played by Tonya Pinkins. After the curtain, I exited, then stopped to lean against a light pole. Overwhelmed, I used my asthma inhaler.

Good theater provokes the mind. Great theater leaves you breathless.

Steve Griffiths, once news editor at The Bee, lives in Lemoore. The Tony Awards begin at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS.