By Hilary Thomas:
“Barf Bag Letter” was the title of an email I recently received from Lotte, a former student. I got really excited when I read the subject line because I hadn’t taught Lotte for years, but clearly she had remembered things I’d talked about in class. I could never have imagined that at the end of the email I would find an attached image of a love letter, written on a barf bag, that she had written to actor Ted Danson (who happened to be on her plane). Even more shocking was the attached image of a barf bag love reply written to Lotte by Ted Danson and his wife, Mary Steenburgen. And all because of a story I told in class back when she was in 8th grade.
But really, this dates back to April 29, 2016.
It was the 20th Anniversary of the opening of Jonathan Larson’s RENT. I didn’t know it at the time, but I totally should have considering that RENT has been one of my greatest inspirations, obsessions, and personal life soundtracks for the past two decades. So I was boarding a plane, flying home from a magnificent weekend in New York with my sister. We saw shows, went dancing, and rocked that city like we always do together.
She and I had seen the original cast of RENT perform on Broadway in 1996. After the show, we walked outside with the crowds of young people who were all incredibly psyched because this musical had totally changed everything. Outside the stage door, the baby-faced, totally unknown cast—including Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Adam Pascal—signed our playbills. What was it about that show that was so magical? It brought edge and truth and AIDS and crossdressing to Broadway in a way that had never been done. Jonathan Larson did that. He was a young composer who dreamed of changing the face of musical theater. Well, he nailed it. Unfortunately, he never knew.
On the day of RENT’s first preview performance, Jonathan died suddenly of an aortic dissection. This heartbreaking story may have added to the hype that was RENT; who knows? Nevertheless, the story of RENT and the story of Jonathan Larson’s abbreviated life are inexorably linked forever. And I’ve jokingly (although over the years, I think it’s less and less of a joke) talked about my own personal religion called Larsonism. Most of its doctrines can be found in RENT quotes. "No day but today. Forget regret or life is yours to miss. Measure your life in love." Keeping love at the forefront of my mind, my activities, my choices, really keeps me beautifully afloat. I’m not here to evangelize, but everyone ought to try Larsonism on for size. Our world would be rad. Before Jonathan wrote RENT, he wrote TICK TICK BOOM, an autobiographical piece about his desire to write a rock musical that would alter Broadway forever while coping with this neurotic fear that time was running out. So freakishly prophetic.
Back to that April night. I was heading back to L.A., where rehearsals were going to start for TICK TICK BOOM. My dream of directing and producing musical theatre was finally coming to fruition. And what better show to start with than Jonathan Larson’s not-so-well-known baby? It’s a great first step toward my ultimate goal of directing RENT. But that’s another story . . .
So I’m boarding the plane, Jonathan Larson all over my brain as I plan to use the flight to sketch out the whole show. Looking left to find my seat number, I take in a mini, hopefully unnoticeable gasp when I see Adam Pascal: original Roger in RENT, the once-unknown-rocker-turned-Broadway-star-but-not-so-famous-people-on-planes-usually-recognize-him (unless they are part of the musical theater geek club of which I happen to be president) heart-throb extraordinaire.
I sit down in my seat, totally shocked and confused. I know this is a chance to do something, but I don’t know what. I decide it’s obvious that I need to write a love letter to him. But I have no paper.
So I grab a barf bag and go to town. I wrote: “Dear Adam, Your voice has been a major part of the fabric of my personal history.”
I explain that I was about to direct TICK TICK BOOM and that any time anyone asks what religion I am, I say “Laronism.” The last thing I put in the letter is a total shot in the dark. I say, “I’m not sure if you are ever in the L.A. area, but I’m directing TICK TICK BOOM and would love to hear a little about Jonathan Larson from someone who knew him. If there is any way we could meet for a brief coffee, I’d be so grateful.” I don’t think the letter was as creepy as it sounds when I try to explain it, but I do think it was complimentary, thorough, and detailed. And totally weird.
Okay so I’m sitting on the plane with this barf bag in my hand, literally shaking because I don’t know what to do with it. Then Adam gets up to go to the bathroom. My anxiety escalates, and I know it’s now or never. When he returns from his pee, I stand up, intercept him, hand him the barf bag, smile, and very awkwardly say, “Hi. I wrote you a letter. It’s on a barf bag. Thank you for everything.” He looks at me and laughs, takes the letter, and says thank you.
I watch him sit back down, turn on his reading light, and read the whole thing (it takes a little while, and at this point, my fight-or-flights are totally in full effect). Then there is a 5-second pause that feels like 5 years as I imagine how dreadfully mortifying it would be for him to have to sit on the same plane with a Larsonism-spouting crazy person just four rows behind him. But he stands up and walks toward me.
He says, “I actually have an empty seat next to me if you’d like to come over and talk.”
Well, that is certainly not what I expected. Obviously, I get up and sit down next to him. He has fresh spearmint gum tucked in the back of his mouth. Dressed super casually in a t-shirt and jeans, he looks as young as ever. Exactly the same as his 1995 Time Magazine cover shoot.
Over the next hour or so, I have the most surreal, intense, moving, fascinating conversation with Adam freakin’ Pascal about all things RENT. And more. Let me share some highlights. (Only read the next part if you represent that small but wonderful percentage of the population who loves RENT):
He always feels bad because he came into the cast late, about six weeks before opening, so when people ask him about Jonathan, he feels like he is not the best authority.
He and Idina lived in the same hood growing up. She told him to come audition. He was a total rocker at the time and really wasn’t that into musical theatre.
He talked a lot about the night Jonathan died. It was opening night and everyone was understandably shocked and emotional. All they knew was that they had to do the show. It’s what Jonathan would have wanted. So they decided to just sing the show—no blocking, choreography, etc. By the time they got to "La Vie Boheme," Anthony Rapp, who played Mark, couldn’t contain himself and busted out dancing. From that moment on, they did the full show as they’d rehearsed.
He talked about how crazy it was to go from being a no-name garage band dude to performing for the president and Prince. Totally surreal. He said that he’s had some good conversations with the cast of HAMILTON, who is experiencing this same whirlwind now.
I shared my ideas about TICK TICK BOOM, and he offered advice about which direction I should take.
As our conversation comes to an end, he tells me that at that very moment the cast of HAMILTON is singing "Seasons of Love" to honor the 20th Anniversary of RENT. And I am on a plane with Adam Pascal, who is telling me that he really likes the barf bag and that he is going to keep it forever!
It’s truly one of my better stories, even for audiences who have never heard the name Adam Pascal—let’s be honest, that might be the majority of folks out there. But when I tell it to 8th graders as part of my storytelling unit each year, it really doesn’t dawn on me that the big take-away is barf bag love. So when I receive these photos of Ted Danson’s barf bag love reply (he actually replied to her on a barf bag!!) to Lotte, I feel a bit like an all-powerful prophet whose sermons on the mount have finally taken off. And she’s not the only one. Many people have since shared barf love stories with me. Letters to mothers, friends, teachers, the occasional celebrity on a plane. It just tickles my heart.
Remember in love. Figure in love. Measure in love.
Watch out world. Larsonism is is spreading.
One barf bag at a time.
Hilary Thomas is the artistic directory of the Lineage Dance, a contemporary dance company dedicated to raising awareness for nonprofit organizations and to making the arts accessible to all. In 2010, the company opened the Lineage Performing Arts Center (LPAC) in Old Pasadena as a community hub designed to encourage community awareness through the arts. LPAC created the DANCE FOR JOY free classes for those affected by Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimers, Stroke Recovery, Cancer, and Autism. Hilary has also been on faculty at Flintridge Preparatory School, teaching science and dance since 2001.