Re-Inspiring the Past

Recently I was invited to go to the closing night performance of Mamma Mia on Broadway. I should preface this by saying that I’ve had quite a past with that show and to say I was nervous about attending is putting it mildly. It was as close to a code-red, iceberg straight-ahead, poop your pants moment as I’d experienced in a while.


Mamma Mia is the one and only show that I can officially say I’d burned a bridge.


My mother had passed eight months prior to starting rehearsals for the show and I had somehow successfully convinced myself that I had dealt with it. We were in rehearsals when the events of 9/11 took place, and soon thousands of other people had experienced what I had experienced months before, the horrific feeling of having someone ripped away from you without warning.  My mother’s death was a suicide and I was a ticking time bomb during those months after 9/11, but somehow I would escape into the Greek Isles every night at the Winter Garden theatre, where my job was to sing over 20 ABBA tunes to help me forget about it all.


But navigating between visceral grief and the fantasy world of this light, fluffy show soon gave way to a well-hidden reserve of pain and anger. How anyone could sing and dance while bodies were still being recovered downtown? In my mind, the show was like being trapped on the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney, except with Swedish pop songs and no exit sign in sight. I suffered major stage fright, panic attacks, and I’d be slumped in dark corners of the theatre in tears, thinking that the source of my frustration was the show (hello, projection). I didn’t want to do twenty Russian jumps in the middle of my number, no, sir. I didn’t want to perm my hair for the production designer, absolutely not, and I certainly didn’t want to pretend to have the time of my life while dancing shirtless in a nightclub in Greece toward the end of act one. I couldn’t see that I was one of a very small number of people working during that time. The pain of my own loss combined with recent events threatened to take me under, despite the swat team of healers and therapists I’d been working with during that time. The song “Under Attack” at the beginning of Act II had a whole new meaning for me.


Still, I continued to process my own grief during the day while performing the show at night, and people loved it. They went crazy over the show. Meryl Streep said it was the most joy she’d experienced in the theatre in a long time. Gorbachev affectionately called me an idiot one night after a performance and raved about the show backstage. Everyone seemed to love it despite recent tragedies. But it was too much, and as a result, I was one of the first to depart that original cast.


Cut to fourteen years later.


On the day of the closing of the show, I didn’t want to go, initially. I’d told myself that if I picked up my ticket and I was in the balcony or mezzanine, I could just skip it altogether, no one would know. But my ticket was fifth row on the isle. I had to go. I’d loved the company, but I’d fought with some of the creatives years ago while putting the show up. I hated who I was back then, which was someone doing the best they could while suffering a major loss, and I hated what that period in my life represented.


But that night as I watched the closing performance fourteen years later, I found myself dancing and singing in the isles with other cast members. We celebrated, not having seen each other in years, some had started families, some had put their kids through college, some had moved away from New York altogether. The show provided financial stability for so many people, and had provided a release when New Yorkers needed it the most, including myself (even though I was so far removed from joy, I may as well have been in Narnia back then). The show’s producer Judy Craymer spoke about how much money was raised for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids as well as the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative over the course of the run, one of the things she was most proud of. There was an unspoken bond between our original company that night, and I’d remembered how we were one of the few shows that didn’t close on Broadway after 9/11.


Sometimes the best thing you can do is release the need to figure shit out and just get present. Seriously, when the hamsters start running, stop drop and roll. Get still. There a hell of a lot more joy available if you do.


It’s not every day you get to be a part of a blockbuster hit that runs for over fourteen years and is the 8th longest running show on Broadway. I can say that now because I can finally step into that. By going to that closing performance, I was able to re-inspire the past, the part of me that felt damaged, broken, gasping for air after the death of my mother and 9/11. There was no way I could accept joy back then, I was simply too sad, and it felt like betraying the memory of my mother if I did. But something shifted watching the show after not having seen it in fourteen years. I was a different person, no longer resembling a wandering character in a Chekov play, and I thankfully no longer held the theory that I had to forfeit my own joy for the sake of my mother’s death. Now I can’t get enough joy.


Walking home that night, it began to rain. I’d had no umbrella but I felt my shoulders drop about two inches; years of dense accumulated pain during that time began to wash away with each step.

Tony Howell

Tony Howell is a digital strategist dedicated to helping you design your future—creating offline success from your online presence.