I remember walking as a seven-year-old onto a Broadway stage during the intermission of the play Godspell. The actor playing the role of Jesus had captivated me, his voice surging forth while the dialogue flowed to and around him. As I stood on the stage, he did a magic trick and handed me a red balloon. I felt a deep and immediate sense of place and wonder, a feeling that returns even now whenever I walk into a theatre.
Because my parents were active theatre goers, I was blessed as a child to see many shows and to learn early the power of music and its connection to storytelling. Beyond my parents, a gifted choir master named Paul Eschenauer helped me in this discovery. “Mr. E” as most called him was a passionate, progressive teacher and an incredible piano player. While many let music linger only in the background, Mr. E created a world for his students where music was the center of the experience.
One day when I was in first grade, Mr. E called across the loud speaker for me to come to his choir room. I walked the long hallway that led there. I could hear voices growing louder and felt my heart rate quicken as I tried to guess what would be asked of me on the other side of the door.
The room teamed with people. It was loud. I was terrified yet excited. Mr. E was playing the piano with one hand and gesturing to me with the other. The 8th grade girls stared down from the risers like older sisters looking at a younger brother. Mr. E. introduced me and asked me to sing a song. It lasted for a minute or two. When I finished, the group clapped and Mr. E asked me to join the choir. I set a new precedent that day—first graders could now join the choir—and learned an important lesson: there are moments when you will be called to bring your voice forth and let your talent shine through the veneer of self-imposed fear. Managing fear is a lifelong effort that began for me in that choir room.
Recently, a beloved mentor asked me if I could remember the first time that I felt truly recognized by another person. I was transported back to that choir room where I had first felt seen and deeply heard. My career has taught me how important recognition is to every soul I work with, and I know I am lucky to have felt it so strongly at such a young age.
THE CASTING CALL
In the fall of my fifth grade, Mr. E received a casting call from a Broadway company. Mine was one of many Long Island grammar schools with a choir, and the producers were seeking young male singers to comprise an a-Capella group.
I took a day off from school and drove into Manhattan with my mom and Mr. E. As we walked into the theatre, I felt the familiar sense of place and wonder. There was a warm energy and excitement in the air: a new work of art was in mid-creation. Savvy-looking kids with branded file folders teaming with glossy pictures and creative resumes were scattered about backstage. I had nothing to hold and nervously pointed it out to my mom. Her voice calm, she said I didn’t need that stuff, just sing and they will pay attention.
The two boys before me in line were called to audition, one by one. Both got to perform for no more than twenty seconds before a voice erupted from the dark seats: “Thank you… who’s next?” I felt an intense pressure pushing down on me, but it drew me to the stage, not away. I told my fear I could do it.
I walked up the stairs, strode across the stage, and handed my sheet music to an aloof pianist. I turned to center myself on the stage and take a breath. The pitch-dark room was punctured with powerful white light cascading down on my face. Someone called out my name and told me to begin. The music started. My heart was racing, but the familiar song Mr. E had chosen calmed me. I made it to the last note without any interruption. “Thank you. Who’s next?”
I rushed back up to the balcony and was greeted by bright smiles from my mom and Mr. E. They had heard every word I had sung, even up so high in the back of the theatre.
I was asked to wait for an afternoon call back. This time they asked twenty of us to work as a group on the stage. Rhythm exercises. Pitch exercises. Tone exercises. Clapping exercises. Dancing exercises. When it was over, we were told to await a phone call in the next few weeks. My excitement grew. Would they choose me? Would music become my life? Could this be happening to me? What did it all mean?
On the car ride home, Mr. E shared that he had discovered the play was to be called Nine. It would star Raul Julia and was being directed by the legendary director and choreographer Tommy Tune. “He may have been watching you today, Daniel,” Mr. E said. My mom said that I’d have known if I’d seen him. “He’s incredibly tall.” Days later, Mr. E called to tell us I had made it to the final round of auditions. At the age of ten, I had a true shot at a spot on Broadway.
We drove back into Manhattan a week or so later. Mom had bought me a thick, dark green Izod sweater with a red alligator logo to wear. I overheated in seconds. We ate tuna sandwiches as I waited for my turn to sing. The other kids were warming up around me, no more folders in their hands as they prepared for their moment.
I took centerstage and the heat from the lights felt hotter than they had during the first audition. My sweater was like a green microwave. Again, I handed my music to the pianist. Again, I sang a choir song. This time I could see the shapes of many adults watching me. I could see their legs but not their faces. The longest pair of legs projected out towards me. “That’s probably Tommy Tune,” I thought to myself, not knowing why he was already a legend on Broadway.
I felt calmer this time. Again, I was allowed to finish the song. I could hear my voice echo off the walls of the empty theatre. When I finished, there was a long pause before a voice called out, “Thank you, Daniel. We will be in touch with your parents when we have made our decision.”
THE PHONE CALL
Weeks passed. Then, one afternoon while my mom was out shopping, the phone rang and I answered. “Is this Daniel?” a female voice asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is your mom home?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, we have some news for you about the play you tried out for.” There was a heavy pause before: “You did really well in the try outs, and your voice was strong and beautiful to hear. We loved having you there. However, we believe your voice is very close to changing, and this play will go on for several years, Daniel. We have chosen other singers. We are sorry, Daniel, and we wish you luck in your music career.”
I was too shocked to cry and too young to understand how close I had just come to a life changing moment.
Nine opened in 1982, ran 729 performances, and won five Tony awards, including best new musical. It’s hard not to look back on those incredible weeks and wonder what would have been if luck had gone another way. (Especially since my voice didn’t change for three more years!) But losing the role in Nine at such a formative age taught me something far more valuable: You get right back up. And while a loss will sting for a bit, it will also fade.
I am grateful now that I didn’t get that role because it allowed my life to unfold in new ways and it allowed me to discover other talents and other stages. Most importantly, it taught me to see loss as transient and never defining.
ONE MORE STAGE
Decades later, I found myself on another Broadway stage, this time with my own children. After an afternoon performance at the Richard Rodgers theater in New York, we had the opportunity to walk onto the Hamilton stage to meet the entire cast. I felt transported back to my childhood—to Godspell, to the auditions for Nine—in awe of the gifted actors and singers we spoke with and of the actors’ view of the massive and now empty theatre. I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched my children grab some autographs: What are they feeling now on this stage? What stages in life will they stand upon? How will they handle the inevitable rejections that accompanies any life?
When we got home, I Googled the name of the theater where I had auditioned as a child. Hamilton plays on the very same stage. The remarkable coincidence brought me both tears and a smile, reminding me of the powerful, painful, and joyful lessons that stages have taught me.