In late August of 2016, I was enjoying the last days of summer with my two littles and mentally preparing myself to become the mommy of a kindergartner (!) soon. We were spending lazy mornings cuddling, long afternoons playing outside, and cool evenings by the fire pit making s’mores. It had been a pretty great summer. Unbeknownst to any of us, our quiet life in upstate New York was about to get a bit more interesting.
One Tuesday afternoon as I was driving into our neighborhood I got an email that would change, well, everything. The subject line read: “ELLA HAS A BROADWAY AUDITION.” I have loved theatre since I was a child, however, in recent years I had been buried in mom life (and laundry) and was completely out of touch with anything related to Broadway. I even admit that I had to Google “Waitress the Musical” that night.
On Thursday I dressed Ella in her overall shorts and fixed her hair in pigtails before we drove into New York City. The audition seemed to go well, and afterward we walked a few blocks to The Brooks Atkinson Theatre, just to see where Waitress calls home. I remember thinking “What if she actually got this part?!”
Ella had only been on a few auditions prior to this (and nothing this big), but in general, if she booked something, we would hear within 24-48 hours. In the world of auditions, no news is bad news. A day passed, then two… A week later, I was busy getting school uniforms ready and stocking up on school supplies, but I still couldn’t shake the knot in my stomach that would keep me awake at night. What if?
Then the phone finally rang! Ella’s agent excitedly relayed that she was in the final three girls and that two would be selected to share the role of ‘Lulu’. The producers wanted to chat with the parents to make sure they understood what would be required. A few minutes later, I found myself talking with one of the producers. I was told they expected to make a decision by the following day. I spent the next 24 hours hoping I passed ‘the crazy test’ (which I assumed was the real purpose of that call) and trying not to be a nervous wreck. And then… nothing. No. News. At. All.
6 days passed and it was now just two days until the start of kindergarten. Ella couldn’t wait to ride the school bus and begin school on Thursday! We’d had quite an adventure to end the summer, but now it was time to start packing lunches and getting used to early bedtimes. Just when I had put thoughts of Broadway out of my mind, I received yet another phone call… Ella was being asked to come in for a final callback with the director, Diane Paulus, on Thursday. Wait, Thursday? The first day of kindergarten? Um, yes.
On Thursday morning Ella excitedly dressed in her school uniform, we took the requisite first day of school pictures, and as she climbed up the bus steps at 7:15am her dad and I wiped away the tears (ours, not hers). She started kindergarten that morning at 8:10 with the rest of her friends. 45 minutes later I picked her up at school and off to NYC we went. Her callback went well, and we crossed our fingers as we walked down the street to spend a little time at the playground before our drive home. 20 minutes later I got a call from Ella’s agent and my heart skipped a beat. While it wasn’t THE call, it was still promising. The director really wanted to make sure we would be able to make the schedule work since we live a ways outside of the city. I gave our assurances that we would do whatever was necessary and that we took a commitment like this very seriously. And again, we waited… We spent the day in the city and drove home that evening.
As we drove into our neighborhood, the phone rang. As Ella slept soundly in her car seat, I answered the phone to hear her agent say “IT’S BROADWAY CALLING!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! After weeks of waiting, wondering, giving up, moving on, waiting again, thinking maybe I failed ‘the crazy test’, losing sleep, and wondering “what if?”, I was suddenly hearing the words that our four-year-old was about to be on Broadway. And there would be no more waiting because they wanted her at rehearsal the very next day. She would meet her ‘Lulu’ counterpart, Cate Elefante, and, if everything went as planned, they would have their opening nights a week later.
After carrying a sleeping Ella inside, we woke her up to tell her the news. Her half-closed eyes suddenly shot wide open, and she squealed the highest pitched, most excited squeal I’d ever heard in my life. Mommy and Daddy wiped some more tears (ours, not hers). After we got Ella to bed that night, things began to happen in fast forward. Calls with the Production Stage Manager, texts with her agent, texts with her teacher, texts and calls with family and friends and writing Ella’s bio which would appear on the Waitress website and in the Playbill… holy moly!
Cate’s mom, Caryn Elefante, would later tell me the thought that kept running through her mind that night was “How did this happen?” The last thing I remember thinking before falling asleep on that whirlwind of a night was that our lives just completely turned upside down – and it was the most terrifying and exciting thing ever!
The next morning, Ella excitedly boarded the school bus and headed to her second day of kindergarten. A little over an hour later, I picked her up and we headed into the city for her very first Broadway rehearsal. As we walked through the stage door of The Brooks Atkinson Theatre, I remember thinking: thank goodness Ella has no idea what a big deal this really is. She was a bit quiet as she took everything in and as she met the cast and crew, but after meeting the other ‘Lulu”, Cate, and running lines on stage for the first time, Ella was right at home. I’ll never forget watching these two tiny four-year-old girls playing amongst the rows of red velvet seats in this revered Broadway theatre as if it were just a normal day.
I didn’t realize the irony of this thought at the time. The very definition of ‘a normal day’ had already changed for Ella.
Over the next week, Ella and Cate continued their rehearsals, and it quickly became apparent that they were two peas in a pod. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship for these little Broadway besties. Behind the scenes, I was busy figuring out childcare for Ella’s little brother, rearranging appointments, arranging local housing for us, figuring out our travel schedule, and working with Ella’s teachers to cover the school work she would miss during rehearsals week. Cate’s mom and dad are both full-time public school teachers and said the most challenging parts of these early days were “figuring out the commute, getting used to really late nights (and very early mornings), and basically how to fit in an additional part-time job.”
Rehearsals week passed by in a blink and it was time for these two tiny actresses to take the big stage. Cate’s opening was on Thursday and Ella’s on Friday. While the girls seemed to be completely unfazed by the excitement, the moms might have been a tad bit more nervous (read: emotionally unstable).
On the day of Cate’s opening, Caryn says “I told my husband that I was going to be the Zen of the family. He said he’s never seen me so calm.” Caryn’s priority was to keep Cate calm “all day and night.” The moment the stage manager took Cate on stage for her cue, Caryn says her “whole body began to convulse. All my pent up emotions and nerves came out as soon as [Cate] was out of sight!”
The following day I let Ella sleep late and kept the day as relaxed as possible. We ate her favorite lunch (Chipotle), took a nap, and then picked up her dad at the train station. It was time for my four-year-old to head to work! She skipped as she went out for her cue and I wiped away the tears (yes, again mine not hers). I kept wiping away the tears while I watched on the backstage monitor as my little baby, my first born, my sweet Ella Dane performed for her opening night on The Great White Way. It was completely and utterly surreal.
Ella and Cate would go on to spend the next 12 months in the cast of Waitress. They would each perform four shows a week, racking up over 400 performances between them.
Ella would celebrate many life milestones with her Broadway family – like her 5th birthday and losing her front teeth! She would meet countless celebrities and legends in the world of entertainment. She would get to perform live in The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and on Good Morning America. She would get to work alongside incredible artists like Sara Bareilles. Moreover, she would make many incredible new friends. While I don’t know what the future may hold, what I do know after watching Ella grow and thrive while on Broadway, is that she loves the stage and she loves everything about the world of theatre. One stage manager observed that she had “found her people.” That statement continues to resonate with me to this day. How lucky would any of us be to find our people, to find our tribe, at the age of 5? I can only hope and pray that Ella continues to find her people in life and follow her dreams, no matter how big they may be, ‘cause in the words of one of her cast mates, “Kid, you set the bar pretty high for yourself!”