Biographies & Memoirs


Chapter 27

The End

Two weeks before my final show, two very important things happened, one good, one bad. The first was a routine doctor’s appointment—or so I thought.

Both of my knees had been bothering me on and off ever since the injury. But in April, my right knee (the one that hadn’t torn) became really inflamed. I had to go back to PhysioArts, but after just one session, they sent me to Dr. Hamilton.

“It’s just the Osgood-Schlatter stuff, though, right?” I asked him.

“Yes,” said Dr. Hamilton. From his tone, though, I knew there was something more. “But it’s bad this time. I’m worried you’re about to reinjure yourself. I need to take you out of the show for the next few weeks.”

“Dr. Hamilton, I’m only in the show for two more weeks,” I said.

“That’s unfortunate, Alex,” he replied with a heavy sigh. “But we have to put your health first. I’m sorry, but I can’t allow you to perform. I’m taking you out of the show.”

I couldn’t believe what Dr. Hamilton was saying. After five months of preparing myself to leave in May, had I just been suddenly thrust out the door? Had I already done my last show without even knowing it? I was prepared to leave, but I didn’t want to be gone already. I wanted to have my family see my last show, and to say good-bye to my new family from the show. This would be such a letdown. After all the work I’d done, I couldn’t believe it was all going to end like this.

No, I decided. I won’t let that happen.

Panicked and scared, I did the first thing I could think of. I called Mom. Together, we called Stephen.

“He’s got to perform,” Stephen said as soon as we explained the situation. “Maybe he can take the next month or two off, and then come back for a special return engagement?”

At first, that seemed possible, but the more we thought about it, the less it worked. I would have to remain in rehearsals that entire time, just to keep up to speed. And it would be hard for the rest of the cast and crew to revert to working with me as Billy for just a single performance. No matter how much we tried to justify it, it just didn’t make sense.

“What if I take off a few days, and just do my last show?” I said. I could deal with being out a week or two, so long as I could still have that final performance.

“That could work . . . ,” Stephen replied.

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Mom said, when Stephen trailed off.

But you’ll need to find a doctor who’ll sign you back in. Dr. Hamilton won’t. So here’s my advice: rest, heal, and get a second opinion.”

Rest? Rest was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to make the most of every moment I had left in the show. But Stephen was right. And I already knew the doctor I would go to: Dr. Mysnyk, our old neighbor and Dr. Hamilton’s colleague. I’d have to fly back to Iowa, but if it meant I could do my final performance, I’d have walked back. That’s how much that last show meant to me.

In fact, now that I was at the end of my time in Billy Elliot, every performance felt special, and I wished I didn’t have to miss a single one. Every time an understudy went on, I thought, This might be the last time I hear them do this part. The crew and cast all knew I was leaving, and everyone went out of their way to talk to me, hang out with me backstage, and wish me luck. We really had become like a family. I’d seen these people every day for two years, and now? Now I was leaving, and they all wanted to know where I was headed next.

But I couldn’t answer them. I still didn’t know what I was doing. I’d figured out certain things: I’d keep studying ballet, probably in the Pre-Professional Division of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre in the city. But I was going to take a little break first. Since I was out in May (maybe), I could take a month off before starting classes in the summer. My knees, I knew, would thank me for it. I would continue homeschooling and apply to college at the normal age.

“That’s a pretty full schedule,” Mom said to me. “Maybe that’s what you do for the next year.”

“Maybe,” I said. But it felt like something was missing, like there was something I should be doing, but I just couldn’t figure out what it was. I wanted something artistic, but not a show. And I wanted something that felt good, like doing charity events. I wanted to help people, especially kids like me, who had a dream they wanted desperately to fulfill. But I couldn’t figure out the right way to do it.

The next day, Mom came home from work at the usual time. I heard her keys in the door and began to pack up my schoolwork so we could get ready for dinner. But then I heard her talking to our neighbor Ellen Stern. Ellen was a writer, and she kept an odd schedule, much like I did, so she’d become close with our family. In fact, whenever Mom went away, Matt and I would spend the night at Ellen’s apartment. Whenever we saw her in the hall or elevator, we’d chat for a minute about the show, or the book she was working on. But tonight, she and Mom stood in the hallway talking for nearly twenty minutes, and when Mom came in, she had a thoughtful look on her face.

“What was that about?” I asked her. “Is everything okay with Ellen?”

“Hmm?” Mom said. “Oh, yeah, Ellen’s great.”

It was clear that Mom was distracted by something. I waited while she puttered around the house, putting her stuff down. Finally, she sat on the couch.

“Alex,” she said. “What would you think if I wrote a book?”

“That would be cool,” I said. “What kind of book? Like a novel?”

“About you,” Mom said. “Or rather, what it takes to raise a successful Broadway actor. It was Ellen’s idea. I don’t know—she wants me to talk to a friend of hers about it, another writer. Would it be okay if I wrote about you? Would that feel weird?”

I thought about it for a second. There were probably a lot of embarrassing moments in my childhood that I didn’t necessarily want the whole world to read about, but aside from that, I actually thought it was kind of cool. I wish we’d had a book like that when I was little, some kind of guide.

“So it would help families like us?”

“Exactly,” Mom said. “Normal people with talented kids who want to raise them right.”

Mom had never talked about writing before, but I thought it would be great to have an author in the family. I loved writing, and even though dance was my main passion in life, I’d always imagined that I would study writing in college. That’s why I wanted to go to Yale, because they had such a strong English department. So I urged Mom to go for it.

Mom met with Ellen’s friend, who referred her to an agent named Charlotte Sheedy. A few days later, Charlotte called Mom.

“I love the idea,” she said. “And I’ve seen Billy Elliot a dozen times. Alex is incredible.”

“Oh, thank you,” Mom said. “But I just don’t know. I’m not a writer.”

“But you have a great idea.” Charlotte tried to convince her. “And the expertise to back it up.”

“Maybe. Couldn’t someone else write it? Ellen?” Mom sounded uneasy about the idea.

There was a long pause.

“What about Alex?” Charlotte said finally. “Would Alex want to write it?”

“Alex?” Mom said, surprised. “But he’s . . . just a kid.”

“My daughter wrote a bestseller when she was twelve,” Charlotte said. “In fact, it launched her career. You might know her—she’s an actress. Ally Sheedy?”

That was enough to convince Mom, who loved The Breakfast Club, which was Ally Sheedy’s best-known role and one of the movies that had defined the 1980s.

“Would you want to write a book?” Mom asked me that night. “About the show, and how you got on Broadway?”

“I mean, sure, but . . .” I trailed off. Writing seemed like the kind of thing you did when you were older, more experienced, after college at least. I wanted to be a writer someday. But was I ready to be one now? I didn’t want to do it unless I knew I could do it well. “Can I do it?”

“Charlotte seems to think so,” Mom said. “She wants to meet you. She asked if you were free on . . . oh, wait, I wrote it down somewhere.”

Mom rummaged through the papers on the kitchen table.

“Here it is!” She held up a Post-it in triumph. “May sixteenth. Lunch. What do you think?”

May 16. The day after my last show. Suddenly everything clicked. I’d found it, the thing I was supposed to do next. I smiled.

“That sounds great.”

But first Mom flew me back to Iowa to have Dr. Mysnyk look at my knee. Michael Kohli was kind enough to look after me while I was there, so Mom didn’t have to take time off from work. I got new X-rays, a second MRI, the whole nine yards. In his office, Dr. Mysnyk showed me my file.

“Are you injured?” he said. “Yes.”

My heart shrank to about half its size.

“So I can’t do my last show?” My voice cracked. This was my last chance, and I’d failed.

Dr. Mysnyk ran his hands through his hair and sighed.

“No,” he said. “That’s not what I’m saying. Are you injured? Yes. Do I think you should perform anyway? Yes.”

“What?” I shot up in surprise.

“You deserve this, Alex. I’m not taking your last show away from you.”

He turned to Michael.

“He isn’t fully healed, but he should be fine,” he said.

“Are you sure?” Michael sounded worried. She knew how much this meant to me, but my health came first.

“If he were my child, I would let him go on. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the chance of any injury is very low. I’m going to give you a topical gel that will help with the pain and the swelling. And after this, you take a break, you hear?”

“Yes, sir!” I said. “Absolutely. That’s the plan.”

He quickly wrote a prescription on the pad by the desk and tore it off with a flourish.

“Ta-da,” he said. “A star is born.”

“Thank you, Dr. Mysnyk!” I couldn’t stop myself. I leaped out of the chair and ran around to hug him.

“Knock ’em dead,” he said.

After that, it was just a matter of waiting. There were only five days left until my final performance. I invited everyone—my family, the friends I’d made in New York, all my mentors and dance teachers throughout the years. Stephen told me he was coming, and so did Kenny Ortega. Mom, Matt, and John would be in the front row. Aunt Pat was flying in, as was Michael Kohli. And Dad would have the best seat in the house.

“So it’s almost done,” I said to Dad in my prayers the night before my last performance. “I’m almost out of the show. It feels weird to imagine life in New York without it. Isn’t that strange, Dad? We live in New York now. I’m a New Yorker. I don’t think I’ll ever move back to Iowa. I wonder what you’d think of me now.”

But I didn’t really wonder. I knew. He was proud of me, as proud as he could ever possibly be. When I closed my eyes, I could feel him in the room with me. I could hear his laugh, smell his cooking, feel the sandpaper scruff of his face against mine when we hugged. For just a moment I let myself pretend he was actually with me. I kept my eyes closed tight as I got into bed.

“Good night, Dad. I love you,” I whispered to the empty room, which didn’t feel empty anymore. Dad was there, in my heart, where he would always be.

Mom took me to the theater that night. When we arrived, she took one look at the big poster of me and started to cry.

“Oh, Alex,” she said, pulling me into a hug. “I’m so, so proud of you, honey.”

“Mom.” I pretended to protest. “I’ve got a show to do.”

She laughed.

“Always the professional,” she said. “That’s my little boy. Oh! You’re not so little now, I guess. Get backstage before I start crying again.”

She let me go, but I held on to her hand. Every step of the way, from Iowa to Broadway, Mom had been at my side. She brought me to my first dance class and every gymnastics competition. She stood up for me, fought for me, sacrificed for me. Everything I had done in my life was because of her.

I pulled her hand, bringing her back to me for one more hug.

“I love you, Mom,” I whispered.

“I love you too, Alex,” she said into my hair. I could hear the excitement in her voice. I squeezed her hard one last time and then ran into the theater, knowing that tonight—like every night—she’d be watching out for me.

The first person to notice me backstage was Kate Dunn. She’d had her baby while I was injured and was back now. As I walked in, she started clapping slowly. Jess, my dresser, joined her. Somehow Stephen was there too, and Joan Lader, and David Chase, and they were all clapping. Soon the whole company was applauding for me, from the ballet girls to the stagehands. We’d put on a show like no other. The men and women in that room had made me a professional and taught me what it meant to be on Broadway. If anyone should have been applauding, it was me. I felt so humbled by the love and support they had shown me.

“How do you feel?” Stephen asked, after the applause died down. I thought about it for a second. How did I feel about tonight? About leaving the show? About everything that came next? I was going to ask what he meant, when I realized that the answer was the same regardless.

“Ready,” I said. “I’m ready.”

“Good answer.” He laughed, and clapped me on the shoulder. “So when do we get to read all about this?”

I’d told Stephen about the book idea, and he was as excited as I was. Billys had gone on to do lots of things, he’d said, but none had written a book about being in the show yet.

“I start tomorrow,” I told him. He shook his head with pride.

“Nothing slows you down, does it?” he said admiringly. “Now get out there and show them what you’ve got!”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. Still, I took my time in warm-ups, stretching my knee and making sure I was ready. Truthfully, I wasn’t worried, I just wanted to relish the last few moments. Billy Elliot had been my first job, my first big role, my first show on Broadway. Billy Elliot brought me to New York and sent me to the White House. I’d met celebrities and politicians—and most important, friends I’d have for the rest of my life.

When the call for places came, I started to tear up. Thankfully, Jess appeared at my side.

“Here,” she said, handing me a small pack of Kleenex. “I thought you might need these.”

“How do you always know?” I laughed despite my tears.

“That’s my job.” Jess smiled. “Now it’s time for yours. You’re great, Alex. Blow them away. We’re all rooting for you.”

I hugged her and hurried to my mark. The orchestra started and the audience quieted. One by one, members of the ensemble walked past me, just as they had on my first night in the show. Only this time, each of them said good-bye as he walked past, or reached out a hand to shake mine. Soon they were all onstage and I was alone in the dark.

In just a few seconds, it would all start again. My father would grab my hand and drag me out on that stage for the final time. I’d say the words and dance the steps, just like always. It would fly by like lightning and I would remember every second of it in slow motion for the rest of my life.

But tonight would be different.

When I first started the show, I played Billy as a kid: young, innocent, excited. Like he is in the beginning. After my injury, I was more like Billy later in the play: older, experienced, more determined than ever. But tonight I would be neither of those boys.

Instead, I’d play the role a new way: as Billy from the last moment of the show. Billy about to embark on something new, suitcase in hand, staring off into the future, excited and uncertain. Billy on the verge of being a young man.

Tomorrow I’d meet with Charlotte, and a whole new phase of my life would begin. I had no way of knowing what was coming. But I’d learned that we never do, and our uncertainty does nothing to slow life down. It just keeps coming, beautiful and awful and everything, and we make the most of it, because it is a gift from God. The gift from God.

In the dark, waiting in the wings, I stood on the threshold between today and tomorrow, between my past and my future. As I waited, I could feel the excitement growing inside me. It was coming. It was coming.

A hand grabbed mine. I closed my eyes.

It was here.

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