One day back in the eighties I was walking down a hallway at the State Capitol and ran smack dab into actor Tony Randall. I’ve always said when you’re a reporter it’s better to be lucky than good and on this particular day I was very lucky because I was in the building with my cassette recorder and microphone doing interviews for WTRY radio. Being a huge “Odd Couple” fan I knew who he was in an instant and blurted out, “Mr. Randall, what brings you to Albany?” He told me to turn on my recorder and prepare for the briefest interview of my life. “I’m here lobbying money for the arts. Son, we spend more on one B-52 bomber than we do on the arts in this country. Enough said.”And with that he walked away.
I wish I’d had more time with Tony because I wanted to tell him I was on his side. I look at how our tax dollars are doled out and the arts are always at the bottom of the list, if they make the list at all. Music, dance, acting, painting, sculptures – all of it can touch us in a way material things cannot. Or to quote Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) from “Dead Poets Society”: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Right on Mr. Keating.
Since CRL Magazine is dedicating part of this issue to the arts I thought it was time I made a confession. What I’m about to tell you may force me to turn in my “man card”, but here it is. I’ve never watched a UFC cage fight, a Nascar race or spent a day in the woods hunting. I don’t know who is going number one in this year’s NFL draft nor do I care.
What I can do is sing, verbatim, every word from the Broadway show “Rent”. The same goes true for “Jekyll and Hyde” and I’m about 80 percent there with “Les Miserable”. In the bookcase of my living room are Playbill holders filled with evidence of the 50 or so shows I’ve seen since I was a old enough to drive to The Great White Way.
The first show I ever saw was “Evita”. I didn’t have a clue who Eva Peron was, but by the time I was passing Catskill on the way back up the Thruway I was singing under my breath, “Don’t cry for me Rensselaer County, I’ll be home to you in no time. Some Hot Dog Charlies, not much to ask for. You give me onions, I have my breath mints.” If you know the song you’re probably smiling right now.
My favorite show by far is “Rent”, having seen it a dozen times over the years. I know that sounds ridiculous to most of you, but I enjoy watching different people play the roles since no two Mark’s or Mimi’s are ever the same. Plus, music to me can be like religion – if you get inside the lyrics and attach them to your own life they can swoon the soul. I’ll never forget the first time I heard them sing, “There’s only us, there’s only this. Forget regret or life is yours to miss.” For a guy who at the time just had life rear up and kick him in the face like an angry bull, “Rent” came to me when I needed it the most. I know I’m not alone when I say some of the darkest nights of my life have been spent lying in bed listening to a piece of music, surrendering my troubles to the songs. Music connects us and in the simplest way can tell a lost or troubled person, “Hey, I’ve been there too. You’re not alone.”
I’ve always been impressed with anyone who can pick up an instrument and make magic. I’ve been to Carnegie Hall and heard the world’s best, but for me the most beautiful piece of music my ears ever experienced came 20 years ago at the historic Clermont home in Germantown. I was taking a tour at Christmas time and in the parlor was a 14-year-old girl playing holiday music on her violin. Just a little girl and her violin. Hearing “Silent Night” echoing through the halls, across the grounds and down to the river below brought tears to my eyes. It was that moving.
If you’ve been to a wedding you’ve seen your share of bad dancing, but have you ever stopped to watch a ballet? You walk by pictures and paintings all the time, but have you ever gone to a museum and stood three-feet from an original Monet or van Gough and just looked at what he’s trying to say to you? It’s like time travel without the DeLorean because you can see the world as the artist did centuries ago. I’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan a dozen times in my life and I experience something new each time. And if you’re a “guy’s guy” I highly recommend the armor room where those shields, swords and blades, once held by knights, reveal themselves as artwork of their own.
Here’s the thing: our minds and hearts are a lot like the castles those knights once protected with high walls and iron gates. The art to discovering art is you have to take down those walls and open yourself to it. If you make an effort to read a classic, see a play or take in a museum the experience will change you. That’s the point. That’s why the artist poured their sweat and blood into it. Everyone jokes about the starving artist, but when they do create something special, something that connects with us, well, in a way they’ve achieved immortality and that’s pretty cool. So turn off the TV, log off of Facebook and go get some artistic passion in your life, would you please? To borrow a line from my favorite show, “There’s no day but today.”
John Gray is weekely columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org