Yesterday I spent eight long but gratifying hours at Houston’s Alley Theatre, rehearsing for the Texas premiere of Satchmo at the Waldorf. Then I drove straight from the theater to the home of Lauren and Ryan Dukes, my niece and her husband, where I met Evelyn Grace, their first child, who was born a week and a half ago. When I first saw her picture, I wrote in this space that she looked like “an exquisitely wrought little thimble.” Having seen her in the flesh, I’d now say that she’s closer to the size of a partly used roll of paper towels, but I wouldn’t dream of taking back the word “exquisite.”
Believe it or not, I’d never held a newborn child before last night. Mrs. T, who has done so many times, told me in advance to be sure to sniff behind her ears. “There’s nothing in the world that smells nicer,” she said. I did so, and can confirm that if there is such a thing as the odor of sanctity, it must surely be not unlike the smell of a freshly hatched baby girl.
Mrs. T and I met too late in life to have children. Our only joint creation is our marriage, in which we have joined together to become something vastly bigger and better than either one of us. As for me, I didn’t make room in my youth for sons and daughters: I chose instead to pursue a writing career, and I know far better than to claim that the books and plays and opera libretti that have resulted from my decision to do so add up to anything remotely comparable in significance to the miracle of a family. That said, it does strike me that a playwright who directs his own play, as I’ve done once and am now doing a second time, is engaged in an enterprise not wholly unlike that of raising a child.
In my case, though, the “child” is in a sense an adopted one. I was very much present at the creation of Satchmo, having been heavily involved in all of its first half-dozen stagings, but those productions were directed by other hands. To be sure, my input was taken seriously by the directors in question, but I didn’t have the last word in any of the details of their productions. Now I do. At the same time, though, it’s also true that Satchmo, like a child, has a life of its own, one that in the present case is the product of my ongoing collaboration with Jerome Preston Bates, the star of the show, and the members of the design and production teams.
I feel strongly that the best and happiest stage productions are true collaborations, the kind whose director guides and enables his colleagues rather than trying to dominate them and goes well out of his way to respect their indispensable contributions to the process. I suppose you can get good results running a show with an iron hand if you’re a Jerome Robbins-type genius, but I’m nothing of the kind. I’m a craftsman, and the mere fact that I wrote the script doesn’t make me an absolute authority about the way it should be staged. To the contrary, there is no One Best Way to stage Satchmo. Indeed, the Alley Theatre’s production is radically different from the one I staged two years ago at Palm Beach Dramaworks. That’s what I like most about theater: it’s different every time.
So, too, are children as different as their fingerprints. Yes, Evelyn Grace looks quite a bit like her grandfather David did when he was my baby brother—but she is already her own person. Yes, she’ll be shaped by Lauren and Ryan and all those who play a part in her life-to-be—but she will ever and always be herself. Like an unproduced script, my great-niece is a bundle of potentiality, waiting to be finished by life in the same way that I am spending my days in Houston “finishing” Satchmo at the Waldorf anew.
I thought some of these thoughts as I held Evelyn Grace last night. It also occurred to me that I may live long enough for her to get to know me reasonably well—I will have just turned eighty-two when she turns twenty—and that I might possibly play a role of modest but real consequence in her future life. Or not: it’s at least as likely that she will know me only as the great-uncle she met no more than once or twice and remembers vaguely if at all. She belongs to the future, not to my past.
Still, I’d like to think that when Lauren and Ryan someday show her the picture that is reproduced at the top of this posting, they’ll be sure to tell her that I came to Houston that week to direct a play that I wrote about the life of a great man named Louis Armstrong, and that I made a special point of taking time out from rehearsals to hold her in my arms and marvel at her beauty and sweet-smelling innocence. For next to Evelyn Grace Dukes, Satchmo at the Waldorf, love and cherish it though I do, is just another show.
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Mandy Patinkin sings Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” in a live performance of the original production of Sunday in the Park With George, directed by James Lapine: