On Opening Night Jitters
by Patrick Lavery
I was recently asked to give a guest lecture for a public speaking class at my alma mater, The College of New Jersey, and one student asked me how I calm my nerves before a speech. Fortunately, as the afternoon news anchor at New Jersey 101.5 radio, I speak to the public 44 separate times in a week. Even with that frequency, and having been in the radio business for more than a decade, there are still plenty of times, like during big breaking news or on an election night, when some nervous energy starts flowing.
But on this particular Zoom call, I thought my experience in theatre might be more relatable to the students than my radio job. Onstage, you can see your audience (to some degree). You might even know some of the people in the crowd. It's that unspoken connection of relative familiarity that, at least for me, can be most nerve-wracking.
And never is that more evident than on an opening night.
I'll be the first to yield that my first Opening Night was not typical. I'd been in dance recitals and school plays, but none of that can prepare a 7-year-old for the out-of-body thrill of being on a Broadway stage for the first time, which I did as one of the first replacements for the role of Chip in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" in December 1994. The story, in short, is that I was a kid who gave impromptu concerts at family functions (basically, forced them on people), auditioned for a talent agent, got sent on calls all over New York City for a year, and had finally booked my First. Big. Thing. -- and now I was having an existential crisis.
In the half hour or so between the overture and Chip's first "entrance" (wheeled in on a tea cart, of course), I lost count of how many times I paced back and forth across the greenroom of the iconic Palace Theatre, saying some form of "what did I get myself into" or "did I make the right choice" or "can I do this?" The great-grandson of a vaudevillian, about to traverse the same boards where Will Rogers had spun his rope (and where "The Will Rogers Follies" had just played a few years prior), where you could still access Harry Houdini's specially-designed escape hatch, where Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and everyone in between had appeared.
How was I worthy of any of that?
Luckily, my parents and others assured me that despite just two weeks of rehearsal time (foreshadowing my time at MMT...?), I was capable and ready. I knew inherently that that was true; I was a voracious reader who had taken those two weeks to not only learn my lines, but the entire script, front to back, by heart. Still, transportation from brain to mouth does not always go smoothly. In my talk with the TCNJ kids, I said my best advice would be to nail the first thing you have to say. As a speaker, that puts you at ease, streamlines your thought process, and sets you off and running. So on December 20, 1994, I took a breath, smiled, said "I think I scared him, Mama!," spun my neck 180 degrees to face a sold-out theatre, and never looked back.
That's not to say all my other opening nights that have come after haven't been nailbiters. How would you like to step out on stage, survey the crowd, and fatefully focus your eyes on the girl you've had an unspoken, presumably unrequited crush on all school year...sitting in the front row? That's happened to me. How about 10th grade, when the high school across town from yours has to replace nearly all the leads in their show with teachers, because kids got caught drinking backstage during dress rehearsal, and now you're hoping your cast won't be that kind of stupid? That, too, is something I had to deal with.
Or perhaps you're doing your first show in a new environment, barely having met the people you're working with, you haven't done a musical in five years, you somehow caught a bad cold in the middle of the summer, you fought through it so well that no one seemed to notice, but now it's opening night and you're feeling fully healthy for the first time in a week and a half and...to test out your voice, your first entrance is to come down from the back of the house and sing completely alone and a cappella?
Yes, even after more than 25 years, I still get those butterflies on opening night here at MMT. When you know that Nathan Detroit has to cross to Nicely and Benny with a full head of steam and not drop that energy once in three hours, that's pressure. When you haven't tap danced worth a lick in 15 years and you overhear some of the most experienced dancers in your cast say, "Guys...I'm not so sure about these steps...," that's straight fear. When Eddie Honan looks at you and says, "I get my first note from whatever you sing when you come onstage, so you'd better be right," that's the weight of trust.
But that's also, strange as it may seem, why we all do this. It's why we fell in love with performing in the first place. And it's something we can't wait until we can all do together, again, soon.