Performing ‘on Broadway’

11 Minute Read

Or How I Inadvertently—and Then Intentionally—Impersonated a Secret Service Agent at a Special Preview of The Phantom of the Opera.

(To Sarah, Kenneth, Addie, Ian, Ella, and Anders)

This post was written in January 2023 to mark the 35th anniversary of Phantom’s Broadway opening. I am reposting it today to mark the show’s 13,981st—and final—Broadway performance.

Think of me, think of me fondly
When we’ve said goodbye.

Charles Hart, Think of Me

As I hit the Publish button on this post, it is curtain-up. My daughter Sarah, her husband Kenneth, and their four adorable children are sitting in New York City’s Majestic Theater for one of the final performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Today’s show marks the 35th anniversary of the night I sat in the same theater for its final preview before opening the following day, January 26, 1988, to unanimous, rave reviews. The popular show known simply by its international, household sobriquet “Phantom,” will close its doors on April 16th of this year. The next time Phantom plays on Broadway, it will do so as a “Revival.”

Unlike members of my daughter’s family, who have looked forward to this day since the morning Ella read a Christmas gift card that began, “Far too many notes for my taste … And most of them about Christine,” before unwrapping an official Phantom sweatshirt stand-in for the real gift, I had no advance warning. In the city that week for business, I was just looking for something to do that night. Little did I know that when I asked the concierge about the possibility of finding a ticket, I would, only a few hours later, be standing face-to-face with the future Sir Andrew himself.

“I’m so sorry, sir, but with tonight being the final preview before tomorrow’s opening, the only possibility might be the Cancellation Line likely already forming down at the box office.”

A short block away, the line had indeed begun to gum up, and with the day off before starting my class, I spent the next several hours sitting in it—or on it as the few dozen of us waited patiently on the concrete sidewalk, our backs against the theater’s brick facade. At least I wasn’t bored. When my seat mate who had apparently seen Les Mis in every city of the world, wasn’t telling us how much more splendid the production had been in Singapore than Sydney, he was chatting up one of New York’s Finest overseeing some kind of in-the-street construction project from the saddle of his service animal about. Pestered to the point of submission about what the crew was building, the professional but kindly police officer allowed, a little too wryly, that there had been a rumor of a possible guest appearance that night by the mayor.

“We’re just setting up a few things. You know, for security.”

As he spoke, a couple of black-vested theater staff began unrolling a 50-meter red carpet down the sidewalk. But I was outta there, my single cancellation ticket in hand.

“Hey, Scott!” called my seatmate—my cancellation ticket had been one of a pair, “Let’s meet up a little early and get in on the fun!”

Still jet-lagged after my flight from California, I went straight back to the hotel and took a nap.

What a night, what a crowd!
Makes you glad, makes you proud!
All the crème de la crème
Watching us, watching them

Richard Stilgoe, Masquerade

When I woke up about an hour before curtain up, I was ambivalent about whatever pre-show might be on offer down on the street. I had plenty of time to shower and dress before showtime, but as I yawned away the cobwebs, the prospect of any red carpet “fun” ranked low on my list. Having skipped lunch to sit for the ticket, there was dinner to consider. And I had too much respect for the theatre to show my un-shaven face wearing only jeans and a tee-shirt.

“Oh, brother! Do I have to?” I did not say out loud. “What do I care about the mayor of a town I’ve only visited a few times?”

“Come on, Scott!” It was my Adventure Muse. “Starting tomorrow, you’re teaching a class on artificial intelligence to a bunch of tech-heads like you, who, if they ever get m to Singapore or Sydney, will be dressed as R2D2 at a Star Wars convention. You need to get out more. Chill out and enjoy someone else’s show before your own four days of pure bleh!” (“Bleh” was my muse’s technical term; it basically means Bleh!)

Still clearing my head, the next time I looked at my watch, it was 7:20.

“Whatever…” I did say aloud. And giving no thought to where it might lead, I threw on a mauve trench coat to hide my disrespect and headed downstairs to find a pretzel and see a show.

The Phantom of the Opera is there
Inside your mind

Charles Hart & Richard Stilgoe, The Phantom of the Opera

As I approached the theater, from a distance, it looked like it might be raining. The sky was clear, but the random, non-stop flashing around the Majestic’s entrance looked genuine enough. Getting closer, I realized the flashes were coming not from cumulonimbus clouds but from the popping flashbulbs of a gaggle of paparazzi cordoned off on the far side of the theater entrance. When I joined the press just outside the theater, I looked up from the red carpet across the street to where the construction team had been working that morning; I spied propped up by fresh pine, what could only have been a sniper’s nest resting atop the fire escape. Inside the nest stood a black-clad sniper holding a black-clad assault rifle. Maybe the mayor was coming after all.

On the actual street, I saw that while there were no cars parked on either side for half a long block, a stream of limousines pulled up every two minutes or so to disgorge their parade of over-dressed—by my jeans-and-a-trench-coat-standards—somebodies, none of whom I recognized but with each exit the paparazzi flashed away. As I slipped into my observation post next to a clean-shaven, clean-cropped young man with a clipboard, I began to sense a little FOMO (whose acronym was still three decades away). This crowd had not gathered just for the mayor. But who were all these A-listers?

Not a New Yorker—I had rarely been to the city—and certainly no social elite, I didn’t recognize a soul until a vintage checker cab, as though making a grand entrance against the stream of long black limos, pulled up. As soon as it stopped, Norman Mailer came round from the street-facing side and opened the nearside door to reveal the still gracious (and much taller than I thought) Lauren Bacall before the power couple passed within a body-with-clipboard’s width of my false paparazzi perch. I had recently watched a TV re-run of The Maltese Falcon and was momentarily surprised to see Bacall in living cover. (Although pale as she was, and wearing all black…) Mailer I had seen a few years earlier on the set of the film adaptation his The Executioner’s Song. My cousin, the shows cinematographer had sneaked me in. But Mailer and Bacall, as iconoclastic as they might still seem, were not exactly today’s news. The ninja with the gun had not scaled the fire escape for their benefit.

When the next limo pulled up, and the flashes popped again, I came up empty. Who were these people? As I scratched my head, I thought I saw Clipboard put a checkmark by what could have been a name. Was he expecting someone? Or someones? I couldn’t make out the names, but the list was long, and as the next limo pulled up, he flipped the page to write his check. This was not my grandmother’s Meet the Mayor night.

A few limos later, I recognized my third A-lister. Senator Ted Kennedy and his date—several voices behind me exclaimed, “Maria Shriver!”—passed right before my eyes. But after that, everyone else looked a complete stranger. Who was I kidding or trying to be? I should just abandon my post and get on with the show I had sat for hours to pay to see.

“If you have a ticket, please proceed inside the theater. If you’re not coming to the show, please move along.”

It was Clipboard. He had taken a break from checking off names and, for reasons I was not yet clear-headed enough to grasp, was obviously trying to thin out the crowd. Was he a theater usher? (He wasn’t dressed like one. In fact, he was wearing my same trench coat. What other names might there be on his clipboard? Maybe if I leaned in when he was looking the other way.

“John Lithgow.” “Arthur Schlesinger Jr.” “Tom Brok—”

“Ahem,” Clipboard said, but only by way of his body language as he turned his broad shoulder slightly away and between my prying eyes and his namesake. As he did so, I noticed for the first time that behind his left ear hung one of those squiggly wires you see on plain clothes watchers like police officers and—uh-oh! What if he was Secret Service? Time to mind my own business and just slink away into the theater.

Just then, Clipboard’s polite but firm warning was echoed by an older man wearing a black vest that matched those of the folks taking tickets behind me.

“If you have a ticket, please proceed inside the theater. If you’re not coming to the show, please move along.”

He must be part of the staff. But if so, where was Clipboard’s black vest? And then Clipboard picked up the mantra.

“If you have a ticket, please proceed inside the theater. If you’re not coming to the show, please move along.”

Kurt Vonnegut is the only other person I’ve heard say that we live behind our very own peephole. And from it, we observe a world that, if not intended for our singular consumption, can come pretty close to being there just for us. Like Vonnegut, my daughter Sarah who would have been all of four years old by then had taken to asking Kari and me when sitting in her rear-facing car seat whether we were traveling with the red cars or the white cars. As I stood fast behind my peephole that night, wondering whether I was coming or going, a part of the mob, one of the ushers, a camera-less paparazzi; another question began percolating up from behind my unique point of vantage.

What had not anyone asked me to get off the sidewalk?

It was only a matter of time before someone official noticed my lallygagging. But I had been standing there for a good twenty minutes, countless gawkers being whisked along all around me. But somehow, standing there in my jeans and trench coat, just as Vonnegut had predicted, I had somehow become invisible to everyone else.

Despite my resolve not to look his way again, I suddenly turned to Clipboard, still standing only a few feet away, and looked a little closer at what he was wearing besides his squiggly earpiece. Scrolling down my own mental clipboard, I checked off what I had already begun to suspect. Mauve trench coat. Check. Blue jeans. Check. Dark-colored tennis shoes: Check. Clean-shaven face. Not so much.

And then, in a New York Minute—I’m not from the city, and my jet lag mine slowed everything down that night—everything fell into place. The theater staff thinks I am with Clipboard, and Clipboard thinks I am staff. And at that moment, I have a decision to make.

“If you have a ticket, please proceed inside the theater. If you’re not coming to the show, please move along.”

The words spill out from somewhere inside me as if spoken by a completely different person than the grown-up version of the boy who had once repeated every week the words: A scout is trustworthy; loyal; helpful; friendly; courteous; kind; obedient; cheerful; thrifty; brave; clean; and reverent.

But certainly, impersonating a member of a United States senator’s secret service detail had not been anticipated on such an honorable list. Had it not been an act of bravery to remain on the red carpet when all the other obedient onlookers had heeded the call to get off the sidewalk? And wasn’t my asking people to clear the way for any remaining celebrities a gesture of helpfulness? Maybe I should be more cheerful. But there wasn’t any mention of being honest in the Scout Law, was there?

“If you have a ticket, please proceed inside the theater. If you’re not coming to the show, please move along.”

Did I just do what I think I just did?

That’s it. I gotta go find my seat before I end up spending the rest of my life behind bars.

“If you have a ticket, please proceed inside the theater. If you’re not coming to the show, please move along.”

I moved along.

Inside the Majestic, the show within the show has begun all over again. There is Senator Claiborne Pell, seated next to Tom Brokaw, and a row behind, Arthur Schlesinger, all of them bunched close up in center orchestra. As I look around for the Kennedys and the rest of the A-list, I remember from Clipboard’s clipboard, I see, presiding over it all, the future Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, his lavender tuxedo setting him apart from us all—especially me—grinning and waving to his fans from a box seat just as the lights begin to dim.


I remember little about that first of several times I would end up seeing that enigmatic yet enduring show. There was the beautiful—and beautifully voiced—Sarah Brightman; the former Condor Man Michael Crawford; “Lot 666, then—a chandelier in pieces;” And a cymbal-crashing monkey atop a curious little music box. The show seemed to be about a raving madman stalking and threatening to kill people and then actually killing people (no black-clad sniper to stop him). There were two almost identical sopranos whose roles I couldn’t tell apart, like the two divas in Evita, who, with “another suitcase in another hall,” separate from each other: one to stardom, the other to oblivion, and here we go again. And, of course, the music, most of it anyway, to die for. Not to mention that theater-rocking organ.

No, what I took away from my first experience with that show was not the show itself but my impression of its audience. Impressive as so many of them were outside the theater, inside, you could almost see their self-impression melt away in deference to Webber’s masterpiece of magic and moment.

At intermission, my gregarious seatmate conned me into becoming a prop for insinuating himself into their exclusive lives during intermission—”Mr. Broderick, this is my friend Scott Knell. He absolutely adored your Bueller—Did I? And Ms. Grey, so marvelous to see you, blah, blah, blah.” What was I even doing hanging with this guy? As soon as I saw my opening—it came as soon as my seatmate launched into his story about Singapore and Sydney—I made my excuses and wandered off to find my seat and glue myself into it.

Will you still play when all the rest of us are dead?

Richard Stilgoe
Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Phantom of the Opera

Gary Rosine’s art of trespassing notwithstanding (see Faucets), my “on Broadway” performance—the street, not the stage—that evening 35 years ago was a study in what I can only term imposter-ing.

In Act One, I was the atypical tourist looking for something to do on a Monday night in a town where most theatre venues were closed. On hearing for the first time of something called a Cancellation Line, sitting in one for hours, and learning that the mayor might be coming to the show, I make a weak resolve to show up early only to crash on a hotel bed, possibly even hoping to sleep through the night.

Act Two found me still in the wrong time zone, late for an event I half-heartedly considered attending, throwing on a trench coat so anyone who might see me at the event—think no one—would not think ill of me for not dressing for the occasion. This is the act where, despite my better judgment—and jet lag, and a slowly percolating case of imposter syndrome—I pretend to be a secret service agent looking out for the safety and security, not of the mayor—what did she or he even look like?—but a couple of U.S. Senators and a host of other non-imposters that looked, and dressed, and walked, as though they were quite at home on a red carpet.

In Act Three, I was finally settling into a play whose plot I didn’t quite understand because I couldn’t be bothered to at least skim the Gaston Leroux novel ahead of time because I had not planned to be sitting in that theater, on that night, like everyone else, because that’s what theatre people do—they plan. And so when my new best friend introduces me to Jennifer Grey and Matthew Broderick, the only people in the world that night who would actually look me in the eye—and at the trench coat I am still wearing, who wears a trench coat inside a theater?—all I can do is stammer something like, “Yeah. Bueller. Gotta get back to my seat.”

And Sir Andrew? What made me think I belonged anywhere near only one of the most wildly successful creatives of all time, whose show would open the next day to universal applause and multiple consensus Tony Awards on its way to becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history?

I can think of something.

Before curtain up, I noticed in Webber’s face a very different theory about the theatre he was about to experience. (See Schrödinger’s Cat Burglar for how theory and theatre share the same Greek root). As I stood before and slightly below him—his was a box seat, mine in the adjacent mezzanine—wondering how someone, doing at that moment every inch of what he was born to do, might have anything in common with me.

There I was, nothing but an interloper to his grand moment, who, upon hearing the Manchurian code words, “If you’re not coming to the show, please move along,” had just stared down the stage fright—not to mention the possibility of federal and criminal charges, and impersonated a secret service agent of the United States government—because I just wanted to see how the 0.001% of humanity I would never meet got out of their limousines. (One foot at a time, as it turned out.)

As I consider the absurdity of the juxtaposition, I catch in Webber’s countenance the briefest mix of overflowing giddiness and a twinge of what almost looked like childlike nerves. And as I register his moment of vulnerability, the future Sir Andrew turns his shoulder—not away from me, but in my direction—and smiles at me in the way strangers wonder if they might have something in common. In that mutual moment of wonderment and terror—mine behind me, his yet to come—I instinctively smile back, responding to his unanswered question without speaking.

“Like mine, your performance is already behind you. And if you’re happy with yours, then so will I be with mine.”

2 thoughts on “Performing ‘on Broadway’

  1. One of my most memorable experiences ever, happened on Long Island. I drove my ancient, decrepit 10-year-old Chevy Chevette to a garage to get a tune-up, but it took 7 hours. I had nothing to do and no way to get back home, so I grabbed this hideous, greasy, rotting London Fog raincoat from the trunk and walked 3 miles in the pouring rain to a nearby grocery store, just to sit and wait. Which I did, outside on the curb, just people watching.

    Then a homeless fellow comes up to me, sits down right beside me, but doesn’t say a thing. After maybe about an hour he says to me “I had a good day. I got 50 cents so far. If I get another quarter, I can have a burrito.” I still remember those exact words.

    My first reaction was that he was hitting me up for money. But then I realized, we had been sitting together for over an hour, I looked MUCH worse in my greasy, rotting, soaked raincoat than he did, and he just took me for another homeless person. So somehow in that moment we bonded – or at least I bonded with him – and I really felt like I was somehow on a different (but very nice) spiritual plane.

    I don’t know exactly why, but I treasure that short time I spent with him.

    1. Ken, thanks for this. Reminds me something I once read about Arthur Miller after he wrote Death of a Salesman. He would sometimes find men camped on his doorstep just to tell them how grateful they were to be finally understood so deeply by someone.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: