For me, it was GODSPELL.
I had no interest in theater. I was a sports kid, played football since I could walk. Lettered in soccer and basketball in high school. One fall a soccer teammate said I should check out this show he was doing. He was a senior and I, a lowly sophomore, idolized him and figured I’d see what he was on about.
Shortly after the lights went down, I heard as clear as a bell from the back of the gym/theater, the a-cappella strains of “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord…” the iconic opening refrain from GODSPELL. As I strained to see who was singing, I was shocked to see it was my teammate. Dashing, athletic, and the best center halfback I had ever seen, he also had a stunning, beautiful singing voice.
I’ve told this story before and I’ll likely tell it again but this was the moment that kicked off my lifelong love of theater. GODSPELL was the gateway to a big wide world I would eventually become engrossed in and it would lead to many of the best things in my life.
Years later, my wife and I would see LES MISERABLES, RENT and THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (starring a young Natalie Portman) all during one whirlwind Broadway weekend. It would be the first of a half-dozen times that I’ve seen Les Mis, my all-time favorite show. RENT would also assume a special place in my heart thanks to that weekend (the less said about Ms. Portman’s show, the better…).
With the touring show of RENT playing in town this weekend, I was interested to find out that it was a show of specific interest to both Lin Manuel-Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. when they were young. It was a gateway that woke them up to the potential of theater and, years later, Manuel-Miranda would realize that potential, first with IN THE HEIGHTS and then enlist Odom, Jr. as part of his HAMILTON juggernaut.
There is no doubt that HAMILTON is inspiring thousands of youngsters these days and, in five or ten years, the next big theater phenom is going to point to it as the door they went through that started them on their creative journey.
While GODSPELL, RENT, and HAMILTON are all incredible in their own ways, I think it’s also important to realize that inspiration can come from smaller, weirder or more obscure places. When theaters produce shows that challenge as well as entertain, they may be lighting a fuse that burns slowly over many years before exploding in some fabulous artistic outburst by the next theatrical genius. Prepare ye...the next HAMILTON is percolating out there right now.
PS: Fun GODSPELL facts -- That first image above is the cast of the movie GODSPELL performing "All for the Best" on the roof of the not-quite-finished World Trade Tower in 1973. You can see the whole thing on YouTube. And playing Jesus is Victor Garber who would go on to star in many things, perhaps most famously in the TV show "Alias" and more recently in "The Flash."