Earlier this month my family took a trip to New York City. It was our kids’ (Sarah, 26 and Will, 23) first trip to New York and their first Broadway play. Although I traveled to New York on business several times (more than 20 years ago) and we visited Rick’s sister when she lived there (more than 30 years ago) this was our first visit to the city as “tourists.” Frankly, we were a little nervous about how it would go (Rick and I drove into the city on a Wednesday and the kids flew up a day later) but it was much easier than we expected. We had a great time! And despite years of our laid back southern lifestyle, Rick hasn’t lost any of his NYC driving moves.
A motivating factor in making the trip was the recent opening of Steve Martin’s and Edie Brickell’s musical – Bright Star, starring Carmen Cusack in her Broadway debut. Not so much because of the famous writers and actors but because the stage musician on banjo is Bennett Sullivan who grew up right here in Greensboro, NC. Ah yes, I’m proud to say, “I knew him when . . .”
I’ve been a fan of bluegrass music since the 1970s. The banjo has always been my favorite instrument. I love the sound of it so much that I even tried to learn to play it, but I have ZERO musical ability and it was a struggle for me to pluck out the most basic tune. I was out of luck if my banjo ever got “out of tune” because I couldn’t “hear” well enough to tune it. It didn’t take me long to realize that my ears were my “instrument” of choice. (But I can whistle and yee-haw with the best of them and anyone who knows bluegrass knows the importance of an appreciative audience.)
I was thrilled when three of my daughter’s friends started a bluegrass band in 2003. Beaconwood (their band) had quite a local following (all three guys were pretty cute not to mention being very talented musicians) so there was no shortage of adoring teenage girl fans. But they earned the respect of serious bluegrass musicians as well and even played at Merlefest in 2005. The band dissolved when the boys went off to college but fast forward to a couple of years ago when Bennett caught the attention of another banjo aficionado – Steve Martin. So much so that after hearing Bennett play, Steve chose him to be a stage musician for the new musical he was writing. Bright Star opened at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego last year, had a month long run at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in December 2015 and officially opened on Broadway on March 24, 2016. What a treat for my kids’ first Broadway play to feature someone they know.
Even though I am NOT a big fan of plays and despite the ridiculously high price of Broadway tickets for a family of four – I can honestly say that I was mesmerized and enchanted throughout the entire performance. I would have happily gone again the next night. Perhaps the most telling comment was from the theater’s bartender who has seen his fair share of Broadway plays. He predicts that Carmen Cusack will win a Tony award for her performance.
It was heartwarming to see someone I’ve admired since he was a teenager playing on a Broadway stage and to watch others around me enjoying his remarkable talent. All of the music is great but the banjo is critical to setting the mood and telling the story. Bright Star wouldn’t have the appeal that it does without such a skilled musician on the banjo. (Okay, maybe I’m biased but if you check out some of the You Tube videos for Bright Star you’ll see that Steve Martin also understands the importance of the banjo.) It’s a true testament to hard work and following your dreams. I am so proud of you Bennett!
The play itself is heartwarming. It draws you in and you feel the emotions and turmoil in the lives of the characters being played out before you. The design of the set is pure genius and the choreography and minimal props are important to the story line. Sure it’s one of those old-style, feel good musicals that some people call sappy, but it has enough tension and darkness to keep it from going too high on the saccharine scale – including an intensely dramatic end to the first Act.
So if you happen to be planning a trip to New York and you can’t get tickets to Hamilton (or even if you can) – I promise that you won’t be disappointed if you see Bright Star. And be sure to take special notice of the extraordinary banjo player – Bennett Sullivan – our hometown boy who’s making it big in the big city without losing any of his boyhood modesty and charm.