When we left Springfield, Missouri, we took my sister Beth with us in Bessie and had our girls overnight at the alpaca farm in Oklahoma. Beth’s husband, Don, drove to Arkansas for a solo hike and campout. We all met up again in Tulsa, including Dad, who got a ride to go see “Billy Elliot.”
My Dad’s neighbor, Sharon, has a grandson who’s been performing on stage since he was six. Ford is 12 now and recently landed the lead in “Billy Elliot” with the Tulsa Project Theater. Sharon auditioned with him and got the role of Billy’s grandmother in the play. Tulsa is three hours from Springfield, so Sharon and Ford have been living temporarily in Tulsa during the show.
I kept the play’s run dates in mind when we scheduled our visit to Springfield, and it worked out just right to stop in Tulsa on our way west. My sister, Beth, wanted to see it, too. So we got tickets for the three of us, and for Dad.
I’d been hearing from Dad for years how talented Ford was. He’s a well-known star in Springfield’s Little Theatre. But this was an exceptionally challenging role. Not only did he have to sing, but he had to learn how to dance tap and ballet as well. And he is the star of the show.
The play was in a small arena theatre in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, and the production was small. But we were all astounded by Ford’s performance. He had the cockney accent down perfectly. His singing and dancing was great. But his acting was stupendous. You never got the sense that he was playing a character. He just was Billy Elliot, and the audience was right there with him, feeling every moment.
Dad was a director. He doesn’t give compliments lightly. And I think he’s right about this kid. He’s going somewhere. Sharon also did a great job in the show, especially considering she hasn’t acted since high school. She’s got a strong voice, good comedic timing, and had the audience in stitches with her song about her late husband. I was so glad it worked out to see this show with them both.
David Amram is a composer and musician in his 80s. He’s collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Dizzy Gillespie, Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson, and hundreds of other famous musicians. In 1963, he composed the music for Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, Lincoln Center’s opening show. My dad also worked on that production, as director Eliah Kazan’s assistant, and he wrote a book about his experience that year (www.makingthefall.com). His book included photos and stories of David Amram, as well as a detailed chronicle of the play’s production.
We were on our way to Tulsa when Beth said she’d seen that David Amram was performing at the Woodie Guthrie Green in Tulsa, as part of an all-day event of free outdoor music. Beth’s a big fan of Amram’s and has seen him perform several times. She would have loved to see him again, but more importantly, she wondered if there was any way to connect Dad and David, even if for a moment. Unfortunately, Amram was scheduled to perform at the same time as the Billy Elliot matinee.
While we were at the play, Beth’s husband Don arrived in Tulsa and went to David Amram’s concert. He texted Beth during the next set (right after Billy Elliot) and said, “Amram’s set is over but he’s on stage again, jamming with another group.”
Kate ran and got the car and drove us the three blocks over to the green. I’d just happened to bring a copy of Dad’s book on our trip, and I handed it to Dad as we leapt out of the car. We got to the stage in time to watch Amram play penny whistle and drum for another band, and at the end of the song, he started offstage. Dad, dressed all nice in his suit, strode right onto the stage to meet him. Beth and I passed a look of child-parent horrification, but Dad knew what he was doing, I guess. It was a moment that had to be seized with confidence and he took it.
It was so touching to see them reconnect. I’m not sure David remembered who Dad was exactly, but when he saw Dad’s book, his face lit up bright. “I wrote the music for this play!” He gave Dad one of his CDs and they talked about that Lincoln Center production over 50 years ago. They are likely the only survivors of it. Arthur Miller, Eliah Kazan, Jason Robards, Barbara Loden, Zora Lampert… all long gone. So for them to meet again, at 85 and 87… what an amazing thing. They might have gone for a drink and talked into the night if David’s manager hadn’t dragged him away to his next event, saying, “David Amram, you are in so much trouble!” But she let down her mad face long enough to take a photo of all of us.
Dad went off to meet Ford’s family for dinner, then catch a ride with them back to Springfield. Beth and Don used to live in Tulsa, and they were meeting friends for dinner, but we hung out at the concert a bit longer, postponing the inevitable goodbye (this time for a long time). At the end of the set, we headed back to a nearby Walmart for the night, where we’d left Bessie and the fur kids.