Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 20

In and Out

Little by little, opening night crept closer. I was fitted for costumes and had publicity photos taken. The summer ended. John went off to college, and I entered tutoring again. For the first time in a while, I was in “school” with other people—the other Billys in the show. To meet our educational requirements, we had to do a certain amount of tutoring per month, so company management provided us with teachers and space at Ripley-Grier Studios. Given our packed schedules, it made sense to do as much as we could in the same place where we rehearsed.

At one of the first sessions in September, I arrived at Ripley-Grier to find the room empty except for a guy about my age who had dusky skin and thick, curly black hair. He slouched comfortably in one of the chairs, tapping a pen on the arm.

“Hi,” he said, leaping up to shake my hand as I entered. “I’m Liam Redhead.”

He said it as though he expected me to know who he was, but I had no clue. My eyes drifted up to his hair, which was anything but red.

“You’re—”

“Not a redhead.” He smiled. “I know.”

“I was going to say, you’re in the show?”

“I’m playing Billy!” he responded proudly.

“Me too.” I smiled. I’d heard there were new Billys coming, but I didn’t know they’d already been cast. It would be nice not to be the new kid anymore. “I’m—”

“I know you!” Liam interrupted. That’s how he was, always full of energy and bursting in a million directions. “You’re Alex Ko! I watched the Meet the Billys video on you.”

I blushed. “Ugh,” I said. “I was a mess that day!”

“What what?” Liam laughed. “You were awesome! So what do I have to look forward to?”

For a second, I had a weird feeling of déjà vu. This was just like me with Trent two months ago, except now I was the one answering the questions. How quickly things change around here! I thought. One minute I was the new kid, and the next I was the old hand.

“It’s intense,” I started. “Really intense.”

I told Liam all about the rehearsal process, or what I knew of it so far. In return, he told me that he was from Canada, had never been on Broadway before, and was mostly a dancer, not an actor. I was excited we had that in common. At first, I found Liam kind of pretentious, but within minutes I realized he was just excited and nervous. By the time our tutor showed up, he and I were fast friends. Of all the Billys on the show, he was the one I was closest to.

I never knew who I would run into while doing things for the show. Once, in between rehearsals, I heard some of the ballet girls whispering backstage.

“She was the voice of Princess Jasmine!” said one of the younger girls, giggling.

I looked where she pointed. A tiny, beautiful Filipino woman stood serenely talking to one of the male dancers. If she really was Princess Jasmine, I had to go introduce myself. I’d grown up watching Aladdin!

“Hi,” I said to the woman’s back, “Excuse me, but—is it true? Were you Princess Jasmine?”

The woman turned and laughed. “Yes,” she said. She stared at me for a long moment, then broke out a dazzling smile. “I’m Lea. Lea Salonga.”

“Alex Ko,” I said, and shook her hand. “I play Billy.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but Lea Salonga was a huge deal. She’d been in everything—Miss Saigon, Les Mis, you name it. She hadn’t just voiced one Disney princess, she’d done two, Jasmine and the title role in Mulan. Meeting her was an honor.

“That’s a tough role for someone as young as you,” she said, giving me an appraising stare.

I nodded, suddenly bashful.

“Something tells me you’re up for it, though,” Lea continued. She reached out to stroke my hair. “Here,” she said suddenly. “Let me give you my number. I have a good feeling about you.”

From that moment on, Lea became a huge supporter of mine. Though she was incredibly busy and frequently traveling, she made a point to see me every time she was in New York, and she made sure to come to my opening night.

Not long after meeting Liam and Lea, I had my first dress rehearsal and started getting ready for my put-in. A put-in is the first time you do the full show, with all the real actors, musicians, and lights—everything but the audience. That’s why they call it a put-in, because they literally put you into the existing show. Mine was scheduled for the last day in September, exactly one week before I opened.

The night before the put-in, Kate called me at home.

“How’d you feel about dancing at Lincoln Center?” she asked without preamble. My heart skipped a beat.

“Great!” She didn’t have to ask me twice. “Why? What’s up?”

“You and the other Billys are getting the Arts and Letters award from the YMCA on behalf of Billy Elliot. We want you to dance ‘Electricity’ at the reception. It’s two weeks after you open.”

That meant it was in . . . three weeks! I couldn’t believe it. In the space of a month, I’d be dancing on Broadway and at Lincoln Center. Now all I needed was Carnegie Hall!

When I told Mom, she called everyone we knew in Iowa. Most of our friends and family had arranged to see my opening night, but this was a great alternative for those who couldn’t make it.

“It’s like I get two opening nights,” I told Dad in my prayers. “And you get to see both of them.”

Buoyed up by Kate’s call, I sailed through my put-in. By the time my first performance rolled around, I was nervous but confident. Kate, Stephen, Julian, BT, Joan, Ann—everyone did an amazing job of preparing me.

Opening night was fantastic. Absolutely, positively one of the best nights of my life. Not just because I was dancing on Broadway, or because all of my family and friends were there, or because I’d mastered tapping on a raked stage, but because I’d made good on my promise to Dad. I had found the best teachers, studied as hard as I could, and finally, I had made it.

But that’s not to say it was all fun and games. Immediately after opening night—while I was on my way to meet my great-grandmother and the rest of my family and friends at a nearby restaurant to celebrate—Stephen grabbed me.

“I hate to do this to you,” he said, “but Trent is sick. He was supposed to go on in tomorrow’s matinee, and we need you to replace him.”

Of course, I said yes, which meant I had to go to bed immediately. I was at my own party just long enough to drink a cranberry juice, order a Caesar salad to go, and thank everyone for coming. They were disappointed, but they understood. The show, as they say, must go on.

So I danced in the matinee the next afternoon, and in the Friday-night show after that. Mom came to every one of my performances, and each felt easier and more natural than the one before. I spent the weekend rehearsing, training, and trying to beat Matt at Wii Sports. On Sundays, Mom, Matt, and I always got bagels from our favorite bakery. As I sat at our small dining table smearing cream cheese on a toasted cinnamon-raisin bagel, Mom looked at me.

“You’re scheduled for the Wednesday matinee this week,” she said. “How do you feel about it?”

“Great! They’ve been giving me notes, but so far everyone says I’m doing really well.”

“That’s awesome!” said Matt. “I liked it.”

“If you’re feeling comfortable, I might not come to this performance,” Mom said. “But only if you feel okay with that.”

“That’s cool,” I told her. I’d known it would happen sooner or later, and I felt ready.

Mom looked at me with a doubtful eye.

“No, really, Mom. It’s fine.”

“If you say so,” she replied. “But call me as soon as you get out. I want to hear all about it.”

“Break a leg.” Matt laughed. “Or, well, don’t.”

Mom rubbed Matt’s head as I devoured my warm, freshly baked bagel.

It was the little moments like this that made me miss Dad the most. Sometimes I dreamed he was just in the kitchen pouring himself some coffee. I’d catch myself listening for his footsteps, or wondering why he was taking so long, and then I’d remember. If someone had told me two years ago that one day I’d forget that he was gone, I’d have thought they were crazy. But you can’t stay sad forever. At some point, the huge ball of hurt and loss that I carried inside me had dissolved. It was only after those moments when I entirely forgot Dad had passed that it all came rushing back.

“You miss him, don’t you?” Mom said quietly, her bagel forgotten on her plate. She put her hand on top of mine. “Remember, he’s always with you. Whether things are at their best or at their worst. He’s here.” She tapped my chest, right above my heart.

“I know,” I said. “I just . . . wish he were here the way he used to be.”

“Me too.” Mom sighed. “But at least we have each other.”

“Yeah,” said Matt, putting his little hand on top of ours. “And a Wii.”

We all laughed and my sadness passed. But Mom’s words would soon be tested in a way none of us could foresee.

On Wednesday, I arrived at the theater a little before twelve thirty, or, as they say on Broadway, “an hour before half.” Half means the thirty minutes right before the show starts. If you’re called, you have to be at the theater an hour before that. So for a two-p.m. matinee, I had to get there at twelve thirty.

“Hey, Alex.” Robbie, from the ensemble, greeted me backstage. He was one of Kate’s dance captains, so he frequently led my warm-ups when she wasn’t around. He was short, but really buff, like a gymnast. “Ready to get started?”

“Yup!” I slapped him five. “Kate didn’t give me any specific notes last week, but I thought maybe we could work on some of the hard stuff in Act Two, like ‘Electricity.’”

“Good by me. Let’s start with the acrobatics back here, and when we get onstage we can work on your turns.”

We always did the first thirty minutes of warm-up at the back of the house, so the stage was free to be set up. But they made sure I had at least fifteen minutes onstage before every show.

“Electricity” was my favorite dance, because it had been choreographed especially for me. During this scene, Billy is being asked by a bunch of judges (who already don’t like him) what it feels like when he dances. It’s Billy’s moment to shine, so Kate made a different version for each actor, to show off our unique strengths. Mine centered on the flips, cartwheels, and aerials that I’d learned in gymnastics.

But I had to go right from tumbling into a series of difficult turns one after another. Now I knew why they’d drilled us on our turns in the audition.

“Remember,” Robbie said encouragingly, “spot before you turn.”

I did three, four, five turns in a row before something happened. I heard a loud pop! and suddenly I wasn’t moving. In fact, I couldn’t move. My left knee felt like it was made of stone. It wouldn’t bend it at all. Carefully I slipped to the ground.

“Alex!” Robbie yelled, frantic.

“I’m fine!” I said. “I’m fine!

“What was that?” Bonnie, the stage manager, came running from the wings and nearly tripped over me. “Oh my God, Alex, was that you?”

“I’m fine, really,” I said anxiously. I didn’t feel anything. I couldn’t move my knee, but it didn’t hurt. “It’s nothing. I just need a minute.”

“I heard that backstage,” she said. “You are not okay.”

“We need a sub for Alex,” I heard Robbie say. “Call BT and let him know. You okay, buddy?” He crouched down next to me.

I opened my mouth to tell him I was fine and could do the show.

That’s when the pain started.

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