As determined as I was to avoid attending The Nutcracker last holiday season, once again on a mid-December afternoon I found myself sitting at the theatre with my wife, daughter and mother-in-law ringing in the season with everyone’s favorite ballet.
There were four tickets and I drew the short straw, so my son and father-in-law were at home watching football, while I on the other hand was suddenly awash in moms, grandmas and little girls in frilly dresses, each immersed in her own little dreamworld of leaping, spinning ballerinas and ballerinos frolicking about the stage to the Tchaikovsky masterpiece.
I sat quietly, taking in my surroundings, imagining the moms were dreaming of their little girls growing up to be graceful, beautiful ballerinas, the grandmas dreaming of their granddaughters becoming what their daughters never did, and the little girls wondering what on earth the little boys were doing up there dancing around like little girls.
As the lights dimmed and the first act began its monotonous march forward, I too drifted off into a dreamland of my own, only I veered toward a mental state that’s sole purpose was to keep me from dozing off. I figured I’d have to look at and analyze everything in order to keep my mind sharp enough to keep my chin from bruising my chest or avoid slipping into a coma.
The first thing that grabbed my attention was the little ballerinos, the boys. There were a dozen or so them marching around with faux instruments pretending to be a marching band at the big holiday party that opens The Nutcracker. Cute. But all I could think of was “what on earth will little Johnny say when his teacher asks the class the requisite ‘So what did you do on your Christmas vacation?’ upon his return to school in a few weeks?”
“Can we write an essay about it instead?” Johnny will undoubtedly ask.
“No Johnny, just tell the class what you did?”
I imagined that Johnny would probably leave the part about prancing around in tights with 11 other boys out of the story. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but Max and his buddies from the football team might find the story interesting enough to bring up for the next 10 to 15 years, usually at the least advantageous moments for Johnny.
“…I just went to the movies,” is how I imagine Johnny would respond.
“Ah. The movies. Yet another place I could be,” I thought to myself. I could be watching car chases, gun fights, and giant explosions. But instead I’m delighting in light, airy, paper snow that is dancing its way down to the floor, frilly costumes attached to flying and spinning dancers, and a creepy Rat King that is hellbent on having a fake sword fight with the ballet’s protagonist…the Nutcracker himself.
“If I were up there fighting the Rat King, could I take him?” I wondered, remembering how dominating I was at fake sword fights as a child. The inner roll of Christmas wrapping paper always made for a good weapon…at least for a few minutes. When it would finally fold over and go limp, I’d swing harder, and then declare victory over my younger brother as it unraveled. But I never did this in tights, so I quickly dismissed the idea of fighting the life-size rodent ballerino.
I was ready, though, to stand up and start a fight with the person sitting right behind me. If I’m going to be there, I might as well experience the show as the show’s producer intended. And I’m pretty sure the producer did not script people eating candy from a crinkly wrapper so loud and obtrusive, it overwhelmed the music coming from the orchestra pit. Like the woman next to me, who had thin eyeglasses hanging on a chain and was thus an obvious patron of the arts, I did a quick glance over my shoulder to hint that there was a problem with the noise. Then it came again, and me and my new patron friend glanced over again, this time holding our poignant positions just a fraction longer, hoping that the hesitation would be the signal that would end the outrage. It didn’t.
After a third and then a fourth episode, I turned and finally spoke.
“Can you please be quiet?” I said through my teeth with hushed authority.
The shaken look on the poor seven-year-old girl in the frilly dress caught me by surprise. I was expecting an adult, so I quickly shifted my gaze and question to the adult next to her. The clueless look on her face made me suddenly realize not all in attendance were seasoned theatre goers like me and my new compadre.
With the candy wrapper issue finally resolved, I could refocus on the performance. The music from the pit immediately caught my attention. I must have heard if before, because it sounded so familiar. But where?
Then it dawned on me, I probably heard it where all Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers (like myself) first heard classical music. Cartoons, of course.
Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Popeye, and a host of other cartoons used classical music as audio backdrops. Like many of my fellow middle agers, I spent prepubescent Saturday mornings in front of the TV getting in as much as I possibly could before my parents emerged from their bedroom to ruin my weekend with demands of chores, homework and whatnot. I had watched them all. So I know my classical music. Or at least the classics that were once matched with animation.
My foot started to tap along in rhythm while my mind — trying desperately to keep my bottom and top eyelids from going back to the tryst they had had early that very morning — began releasing long-stored Looney Tunes memories.
I haven’t been able to hear “Flight of the Valkyries” since without hearing Elmer Fudd sing, “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!”
“In the cartoons when we were kids, wasn’t there a frog who could sing?” I started whispering in my wife’s ear.
The now-righteous mother of the seven-year-old behind me took full advantage of the situation and overtly “shushed” me. The sarcasm was as thick as the fake fallen snow on stage. Of course she was right, so I did shush.
A seemingly endless parade of new scenarios that are part of young girl’s dream sequence filled the stage for another 45 minutes.
The sequence in my mind was not the same. Instead of following the storyline, I wondered how much a ballerina makes in a year. Aren’t the dancers going to slip on the paper snow? If they sold 2000 tickets at $125 each, less the cost of the production, how much would the ballet actually net off this show? Where do I know the conductor of the orchestra from? Do they turn on the air conditioner to make it cold in here so it feels like winter? Why am I here again?
Then the curtain drops, the lights go up, and I see the shear delight on the face of the seven-year-old candy-eating girl, and I know exactly why we are all here. Tis the season for Nutcracker.