Read Let Me Be Your Star Online

Authors: Rachel Shukert

Let Me Be Your Star

LET ME BE YOUR STAR

By Rachel Shukert

The Delacorte Theater manifests itself in the picturesque
wooded glen on the southwest side of the Great Lawn of Central Park, a small
assemblage of low-slung, warren-like structures, as if Brigadoon had been built
by rabbits.

Also like Brigadoon, no matter how many times I go there,
I’m never a hundred percent sure I’m going to find it again. I know I can’t be
the only person who has spent fifteen years in New York and still finds this
section of Central Park impenetrable. Surely other tipsy and/or careless
would-be theatergoers have taken a minor wrong turn, only to find themselves
spat back out in the East 80s, or hopelessly lost in the darkening mass of the
Ramble, surrounded by condom wrappers and sewer rats visiting their country
estates and the glowing eyes of the feral adolescent rapists your atavistic
lizard mind still tells you are out there even though you are a reasonable
person who watched that PBS documentary exonerating the Central Park Five and nothing
like that happens in Manhattan anymore or in the parts of Brooklyn that contain
anyone who has ever eaten at Roberta’s.

But that hot evening last August seemed magical before it
even began. Not only did I find the theater with total ease, for once “taking
advantage of” all the “cultural opportunities” the “city has to offer did not
mean sitting through four hours of Shakespeare and pretending to laugh at terrible
fucking puns. That night, I was going to see (incredibly, for the very first
time!) my third-favorite musical by my first-favorite person.

I was going to see
Into the Woods.

My ticket was a birthday present from my friend Jesse, a
theater critic who brought me along as his plus one. We had indulged in a
festive pre-show martini at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel. By the time we
arrived at the theater, I was feeling dizzy and funny and fine, shimmering with
the sudden wild hope that one sometimes feels when one is dressed a certain way
on certain night in New York; the feeling that it hasn’t all been for naught, that
maybe on some level you’ve made it after all. Sure, you haven’t accomplished
everything (or anything) that you’d set out to do, but look, you’re still (sort
of) young and still relatively thin and isn’t that Mike Nichols over there, and
maybe, just maybe this is all there is?

The little NBC bell rang, signaling that it was time to take
our seats. We joined the crush at the doors and were strategically maneuvering
around the usual assortment of unwashed college students, moisturized gay men
in tasteful eyewear, and women with purses that need their own seats on planes,
when I felt a strange hand grab my arm.
I’m being mugged,
I thought wildly.
Who gets mugged at Shakespeare in the Park?

Then I heard a voice.

“Rachel. Shukert.”

I turned around, and found myself face to face with Tony
Kushner.

The
Tony Kushner. Genius, modern prophet, winner of
enough to make him, if not quite an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), a very
respectable PET (Pulitzer, Emmy, Tony). Whose first play,
A Bright Room
Called Day,
had made me realize there were other smart Jewish children who
were obsessed with Nazis and also, found them perversely funny; who — through
no fault of his own — had scared the crap out of my timid twenty-year-old self
during my otherwise undistinguished internship at the New York Manhattan Public
Workshop Theater Club; whose beautiful words I had memorized and analyzed and
recited and lived during my countless incarnations as Harper in college scene
study classes. Obviously, I had to be Harper, even though I’m really more of a
Louis. (For the record, Louis is Carrie, Prior is Samantha, Harper is a kind of
Bizarro Charlotte, and Joe Pitt is Miranda, solely on the basis of Cynthia
Nixon’s becoming a lesbian and marrying that woman I have seen at the Container
Store on 60
th
and Lexington no less than four times, and that’s not
even
my
Container Store. Although I suppose a case could be made that
Louis is Miranda, and Joe and Harper is what would happen if Carrie and
Charlotte were forced to enter into a same-sex marriage, like one of those talk
radio hosts we’ve all tacitly given ourselves permission to no longer learn the
names of is probably suggesting the Obama administration plans to make us do.
Roy Cohn is Mr. Big. Is there some sort of abbreviated way I can let you know
I’m aware I’ve gone off on a tangent, without interrupting the flow? We need a
Dayenu-
like
safe word. “LuPone,” perhaps? But will she know I mean it as a compliment? Nah,
never mind. You’ll just have to bear with me.)

Tony Kushner, still holding my arm, was talking to me.

He was telling me how much he loved my recaps of the
television show
Smash
. And then everything went black.

No, I’m just kidding. It only felt that way. I
honestly have no memory of what I said. I’m sure I thanked him and told him I was
a huge fan and all the other things you say when you’re trying not to seem to
obsequious or impressed, even though you are quietly going out of your mind. He
took his seat, and I fled to the public (in a park!) ladies’ room at the side
of the theater, barricaded myself in a stall, texted my father, and burst into
tears.

A few days later, a friend who knew I was going to the performance
that night called to ask me what I thought of the framing device that the
entire show was going on in the head of an imaginative and possibly disturbed child
runaway, much like the series finale of
St. Elsewhere.

I told him I thought it was unnecessary, and left it at
that. I did not tell him that I missed the opening of the show because I had
spent it curled on the fetal position of a park restroom floor sobbing because
Tony
Kushner knew who I was
because of my
Smash
recaps, and also that
Tony Kushner knew who I was
because of my Smash recaps.

Slotted spoons don’t hold much soup, but a slotted spoon can
catch the potato.

This is the story of that potato.

* * *

Hello, my fellow members of the orphan chorus and non-speaking
townspeople.

My name is Rachel Shukert. I’m a wife, I’m a cat owner, I’m
a five-time
Annie
cast member. First and foremost, I am a Wilderness Girl,
but second and aftmost I was the official recapper of
Smash,
NBC’s hotly
anticipated and resoundingly doomed experiment to bring the backstage drama of
Broadway to the American masses, for
New York Magazine’s
famed Vulture
blog. For two full seasons, I wrote, usually between the hours of 11 p.m. and 9
a.m. the next morning, recaps of each of the show’s 32 episodes until its
cancellation this spring.

My recaps were sometimes delirious, and mostly discursive,
and never less than 2,000 words long.
Smash
destroyed my sleep patterns,
my workweek, and, I feared for a brief time, my sanity.

It also changed, and in a certain way saved, my life.

* * *

Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to
start. And in the beginning, there was
Downton Abbey.

I first got wind of everybody’s favorite soap opera about
the benevolent glory of systemic social injustice the way I get most of my catastrophic
news: from my mother.

“Are you alone?” she asked breathlessly, when I picked up
the phone one night in early 2011. I said I was. “Good. Turn on PBS. There’s
this new show about fancy British people fighting about how to hold your fork
right. It’s going to blow your mind.”

My mother is not generally a very enthusiastic person, but
her voice sounded the same as it did when I was twelve and she told me about a
“funny little gay man” who was talking on NPR about being a Christmas elf at
Macy’s in a way that “might change your life.” I wasted no time tracking down
the remote control. By the end of the hour, my mind was not only blown, it was
slowly trickling out my ear and down my neck. The Talmudic parsing of table
manners! The Titanic tragedy being read sotto voce from ironed newspapers as no
tears were shed! The dimwitted, red-cheeked Earl of Grantham, his inscrutable
wife, yenta-like bubbe, and three marriageable (or not-so-marriageable, in the case
of Poor Edith) daughters; it was like a remake of
Fiddler on the Roof
written
by a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl pretending to be Barbara Cartland, which,
when I was a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl, was exactly what I was pretending
be. (Somewhere I have an original romance novel written in spurts at a series
of slumber parties in the very early ’90s. I’ll put it online sometime for you
to download, but it’s going to cost you another buck.)

“I told you,” my mother said. “Now call your aunt Barbara.
She’s having a liver biopsy this week and I’m sure she’d like to hear from
you.”

Aunt Barbara and her liver would have to wait. I had things
to do. Immediately, I went online and stayed up until 5 in the morning watching
the rest of Season One on various streaming sites, heedless of international
law. The Crawleys had corrupted me; their aristocratic entitlement had
transformed me from a dutiful member of the bourgeoisie to an unhinged
libertine who thought only of my own pleasure, like Dame Maggie Smith. And when
fall came that year, and the headlines in the
Daily Mail
(another piece
of retrograde crap
to which I am shamefully, hopelessly addicted)
started to say things like “How Modern Women Have Totally Failed As Wives And
Mothers And Thus Will Always Be Miserable, But Anyway, Here Are Four Easy Ways To
Add Some Edwardian Style To Your Wardrobe, Even Though You Look Old and Fat,
You Stupid Barren Cow,” I knew it was time to do it again with the second
season.

But though I still swooned at the sight of all those men in
uniform and chuckled over poor doomed William’s Ali McGraw in the
Love Story
deathbed scene and wondered, not for the first time, why Carson has not yet
reprimanded Miss O’Brien for going around with her hair made out of a
collection of recycled cat toys, it wasn’t quite the same. Maybe it was the odd
accelerated time warp quality that meant people were always having the same
conversation, dressed in the same clothes, except it was suddenly two years
later. Or the way the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed up to 100 million
people worldwide, was mostly treated as a neat
deux ex machina
so that
Lady Mary could continue her grim march towards Matthew Crawley’s still-fragile
tingle guilt-free and unimpeded. Or how Branson (for my money, the hottest
piece in the whole damn Abbey) kept saying things about Irish independence and
socialism, and yet, we, the audience, were not supposed to agree with him, like
on Fox News when they talk about
Sesame Street
indoctrinating children
with lessons about tolerance and sharing and then realize, with a shiver, that
they don’t see those as
good
things, but it seemed the world had changed.
The tents in Zuccotti Park were beginning to rise. While I was no longer naïve
enough to think that meant anything other than a whole lot of teenagers were
about to get really good at hacky sack, the message of the 99 percent was
suddenly on everybody’s lips. I wanted to write about income inequality and
class stratification and neo-feudalism and how weird it was that Elizabeth
McGovern’s voice sounded exactly like mine when I get drunk and do my
impression of Truman Capote. I wanted to explore the strange celebrity of Sir
Lord Earl Julian of Fellowesby, or whatever he calls himself these days, who,
flush with success, was giving all kinds of interviews to the British press in
which he attributed the success of his show to the peasantry finally waking up
to an atavistic longing for “tradition” and bemoaning, with rancor that seemed
oddly fresh, given the circumstance, the ghastly upset of the ’60s, when
socialism was fashionable and one was persecuted, horribly, simply for who one
was, i.e., a person who didn’t feel comfortable failing to don a dinner jacket
after 6 p.m. (I mean, I have relatives who lived through the Holocaust, so I
understand.)

But mostly, I was just happy I felt like writing about
anything at all. For the past several months, I’d been in a terrible creative
rut. I know, boo hoo hoo, cry me a river, there are child soldiers with no
health insurance getting their legs blown off by drones in Afghanistan, but no
matter how conscious we try to be of these unfortunate facts, eventually we
still have to feel our own feelings, and my feelings were that my life, and my
career, had somehow turned into a great big pile of poo, and I don’t have
health insurance either. I had finished a new book, but due to the vagaries of
the vague professional publishing-industrial complex, it wouldn’t come out for
another year and a half, and there was no evidence that anyone was going to
want to read it any more than they had my first two, so that would be another
three years down the drain. What had once seemed like a promising run as a
playwright had fizzled in the gridlock of practicality: The more I tried to
come up with something I thought someone would actually produce, the more
impossible I found it to come up with anything at all. I found myself
withdrawing from old friends, not out of jealousy exactly, but because their
cheerful,
faux
-anxious chatter about their TV staffing gig or rehearsals
at the Roundabout or the
New York Times
review that wasn’t
quite
a
rave, but didn’t seem to be affecting the option on their movie deal, so
that
was a relief, only served to make own failures starker by contrast. I was
happy for them, but I felt terrible about myself. When I did go out in public,
I tried to keep a good face on things, but I imagined myself growing smaller
and smaller, a disappearing speck on the horizon, just some girl you went to
college with, or used to see around, and whatever happened to her, and I didn’t
even have like, some fucking baby to use as an excuse. Whether this was all in
my head or not is a matter of debate. Normally, this would be the point where
someone says, “hey, maybe some anti-depressants would be a good idea,” but
those someone don’t talk to you unless you have health insurance, which, as
established, I do not.

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