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It absolutely could be you

So, the Tonys happened, and the host, James Corden, opened with a very sweet and inspirational bit about fulfilling his childhood dream to be a star of musical theater.

Stop wondering if that could be you—it absolutely could be!

Inspiring stuff.

Of course, those twenty people—bless ’em!—were among the thousands and thousands of kids who once looked at the stage and wondered if that could be them up there. Which leaves… let me count… thousands of kids with a dream minus twenty nominees… that leaves thousands of kids who dreamed of being up there, and eventually stopped wondering if that could be them, because it couldn’t. Because no matter what there are going to be thousands of kids with dreams and twenty nominees. And yes, there will be another twenty nominees next year (although of those twenty, only 13 were up there as first-time nominees) but there will also be another twenty thousand kids who start to wonder if that could be them up there. And it could! It will! For twenty of them. For almost all of them, it couldn’t and it won’t.

Why am I saying these terrible things? Because I am a theater nerd, and I am incredibly happy, and I am playing Malvolio this summer, and I am not wondering if that could be me up there.

I think it’s great that we recognize some of the people who have done amazing work. I think the Tonys are fantastic. I think it’s beyond great that theater nerds are inspired by those twenty actors. And as for the diversity of the nominees and winners, I think it’s so far beyond fantastic that it becomes hard even to remember where fantastic was when we passed it. And I was moved to tears (OK, that’s easily done, but still, I just watched it again and wept again) by that scene where kids-with-a-dream transformed into adults-with-nominations. But I also wanted to reach through the internet and grab each one of those thousands of kids who are wondering if it realio trulio could be them up there and say It doesn’t need to be you up there; it could be you anywhere.

It could be you, in a community theater in suburban Connecticut, putting on a hell of a Shakespeare production for no pay and no glory and then shambling in to your day job the next morning. It could be you, in a storefront theater singing Reno Sweeney to twenty-five people, mostly relatives of your castmates. It could be you, in the parking lot behind the building, painting the fourteenth layer of paint on a flat that isn’t flat any more. It could be you, in a senior center rec room with a staged reading of your newest play. It could be you, climbing the ladder during intermission to refocus an elderly fresnel while the ticket-holders munch their M&Ms. It could be you, an amateur. And that could be awesome.

Is that a terrible thing to say? It probably is a terrible thing to say. But I was one of those kids who wondered if it could be me up there on Broadway, singing and dancing, playing Nathan Detroit and M. Alban and Professor Harold Hill. I don’t have that dream any more—not only because I can’t sing or dance, and not only because it turned out I would rather give up that dream than spend four hours a day practicing those things. Mostly that second one. But also because it turned out that there is a different dream, a dream that I can just do theater, wherever I am. That I can do a good job, and enjoy doing it, and then keep doing it. That I can be happy without being discovered, without being famous, without being nominated.

Now, I do know that kids aren’t going to be inspired by that dream, any more than they will hone their tennis skills because tennis is fun and they enjoy it and could enjoy decades of time playing tennis. They dream of Wimbledon, and that’s right. Theater nerds dream of Broadway; artists of the Louvre (or the Bienniale, I suppose); architects of a Taj. It’s a Good Thing to have those dreams, and after all, the Cynthia Erivos and the Lin-Manuel Mirandas do have to come from somewhere. I’m not really going to grab any kids by the lapels (which of course they would not have, because even theater nerds aren’t wearing anything with lapels) and shout at them not to dream of Broadway. No nine-year-old should dream of one day doing community theater with a bunch of great people for no tangible reward.

And yet… most nine-year-olds will not be up there on Broadway. Most nine-year-olds will never be President of the United States; most nine-year-olds will never bring down the President of the United States with a historic front-page article. Most nine-year-olds will never win the World Series. Most nine-year-olds will not ride the horse that wins the Kentucky Derby. Most nine-year-olds will get to Carnegie Hall only by taking 56th Street to 7th Avenue, no matter how much they practice. That will never change—that’s just math. There isn't a way to fix the world to make it not so. If you take everyone who has won an Oscar, a Grammy, a Pulitzer, a Templeton Prize, a MacArthur fellowship, an Olympic medal, a Nobel laurel, a Fields Medal, a Kyoto Prize, a Newberry Medal, a Eurovision contest, a Miss America tiara, Spiel des Jahres, a Sakharov Prize, a Tiptree—pick a hundred awards and another hundred more, and a generation worth of winners, and that’s a smaller percentage of the population than, oh, let's just say all those wonderful award winners could probably fit in Beaver Stadium.

It could be you, up there. But it probably won’t be.

And when it isn’t you, up there, you may think that it isn’t you anywhere. That you’re nowhere. And it would have been nice to have been told (tho’ I wouldn’t have believed it at the time) that it could be me anywhere. It can be you wherever you are.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,