It’s clear to me now that I have just turned 40: I no longer know what I want to be when I grow up. For me, a neurotic alpha male with seemingly unquenchable alpha male desires which include, but are not limited to, success, conquest, victory and, most immaturely, linear narratives, I feel as if I’m in free-fall, kept aloft only by the most tentative of parachutes. I’ve spent my professional life as a theatrical producer, unflaggingly determined, with confusion and ambivalence not on my agenda. Not so as I enter my fifth decade. A seismic terror engulfs me but also strangely unshackles me. The edifice has crumbled and nothing but rubble remains. A beautiful, jagged pile of regret, agony, triumph, hope, ecstasy and youth. George Bernard Shaw notably commented that “Youth is wasted on the young.” I think Shaw could have elaborated further. Youth isn’t just wasted on the young, it’s also severely misunderstood.
Frequently, all I hear is “40 is the new 20” or “70 is the new 50,” as if subtracting everything by 20 somehow makes it so. These bumper-sticker-sized shots of denial are so desperately “with it,” they don’t really make you feel better but instead make you realize that even irony can actually be uncool. I’m not saying that getting older is good or bad. After all, I can’t assess what the years ahead will actually be like and I find it curious that people older than me and even younger than me feel obliged to tell me otherwise. Nor am I singing a dirge for this seminal advance in my personal calendar. All I am saying is that everything I thought I knew I really don’t know anymore, and that’s just fine. Actually, it’s more than fine — it’s exhilarating. Exhilarating for me, indeed, this now-chastened control freak who foolishly thought the successes of his ’20s would guarantee him the assurances of his ’40s. Even as I write “assurances,” I should correct myself since, alas, there’s no such thing. I’m writing this essay to express myself — something free-flowing and anarchic, not hemmed in by expectation or judgement. To paraphrase Joan Didion, I’m writing for the first, terrifying time in my life from a blank canvas. I am writing what I know, or rather what I really don’t know. I’m writing “what I fear.”
It all started with a phone call. Veteran producer Margo Lion phoned me with a question. The day was crisp, if not entirely cold. Radiantly sunny. And I said yes! Yes, of course, yes! Hairspray as a musical? I hated the movie as a 13-year-old, but on that September day in 1999, just weeks following my 25th birthday, I gave my resounding approval. This potential hit musical, based on the “Pope of Trash” John Waters’ 1988 film had a pastel-hued palette of color and an expansive heart that I instinctively knew I couldn’t resist. A joyous, ebullient antidote to the British pop-operas of the 1980s, replete with dance, overflowing with optimism, the irresistible mood-lifter. And Hairspray: the Musical was just that: a grand, jubilant Broadway smash, an American fantasy. My own (temporary) fantasy. And it ran and ran until it ended. It was sublime, it was surreal and then it was over. I had other shows, for sure, but Hairspray was over, and life was prosaic again, and the lights went out. Goodnight Baltimore. (Watch from 2:10:00 to the end.)
The only thing scarier for me than being young, successful and sure of myself in New York was being not as young, a failure, and having my heart broken in New York. Or, I should say, having my heart broken by New York. The city has a particularly manic narrative to it: you either feel you’re floating above it, almost celestially, or you don’t. It’s as if you can render gravity moot, you can conquer it. And if you also have financial success, you can feverishly revel in it. On the flip side, it’s a pretty darn earthbound, extraordinarily unforgiving, prohibitively expensive city, peerless as an epicenter of anxiety. If New York is just about mere survival, and it is for most of its bustling, peripatetic denizens, the only guarantees seem to be thwarted ambitions and the ubiquity of grime and soot.
There was a long period when tirelessly advancing toward my goals in New York — being a redoubtable, prolific impresario — were all that mattered to me. My life was defined by show business. As I reflect back, I see that my self-esteem, sadly, was also just about, well, show business. Legendary playwright and director Moss Hart once speculated that theatre people are forever children, petulant, immature, demanding and, like the proverbial fly to amber, forever at home in that artistic pose, despite whatever arrested a state of development they might be in. If theatre was a sanctuary for the miserable child, I wanted to grow up. New York demands an inordinate amount from anyone, not the least of which is the need to grow up, and I certainly complied. Once I had failed in New York, I no longer wanted to be there as a hopeful, dewy-eyed delusionist. Failure gave me my identity. It made me real; it humanized me. I no longer had my “career” to hold onto, nor did I care. The issue was no longer which show was a hit, which show was a flop — and I endured my painstaking and painful flops. What did I want? Failure gave me the confidence to say no. While it was dejecting, it was paradoxically refreshing and gratifying. Moving on was essential, because in truth, I no longer wanted to produce anymore. Setbacks and challenges are essential, and more often than not, the unsung heroes of our lives. Failure is scorned and stigmatized when it should be celebrated.
The American narrative is so much about running away from our failures, the “can-do” sloganeering, the “everything is going to be OK” taglines of obvious self-help books and the “happy ending” childishness of so many hackneyed Hollywood movies. I should know from Tinseltown, since after Hairspray I spent five years in Los Angeles, where life always seems “busy” by meeting for a “latte” and cultural benchmarks are synonymous with the opening of Dunkin Donuts, which — cue torrents of confetti — has finally migrated west. When I left New York and moonlighted (if that’s what it’s called these days) in the movie business, it really didn’t matter what you “did.” Waiter, barista, assistant, whatever: you were a “producer,” “actor,” “consultant.” So long as you weren’t a “failure,” which was another way of never identifying what you do, how you make a living, who the hell you are. No matter. I fell in love in L.A. (in the land of loneliness, that part worked out) and the time for introspection and self-evaluation was crucial. I no longer wanted theatre, and the vacuous shtick of Hollywood seemed preset for a particular kind of asshole, so I thought it time to move on. Natch, as the kids say today.
When Joan Didion wrote what is now regarded as her seminal essay, “Goodbye to All That,” she spoke of her youth in New York (as a writer for women’s magazines) where “nothing was irrevocable,” and “everything was in reach.” Although she penned that swan song of lament in 1967, I read, reread and consoled myself with it in 2008, the year I left New York. Like Didion, I had much to be wistful about: the life I knew for 16 years expired. While Didion was born in Sacramento and very much the California native, I was a Miami boy who always had reveries for New York and Broadway and their infinite possibilities. Like Didion, I knew the bliss of being young as a 20-something in New York. Her essay reads as the most eloquent nervous breakdown ever recorded, and I appreciated that. I had a nervous breakdown, too. Perhaps a different nervous breakdown, but a collapse unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I endured many a sob and Chardonnay-drenched night while devouring Didion, who wrote as ruefully as I felt.
Like Didion, I don’t know if any singular event indicated the end of my time in New York. So much went wrong, so much emotional disarray then, so much professional aversion. But the stench of disappointment wafted toward me until I knew my time was done. A limpid clarity descended upon me — one not cluttered by ambition or “promise.” So I left New York so I could think and, even more so, feel. What did New York, Broadway and the theatre mean to me after all those years sheathed in unusual, unexpected success? Now, I live in London: less furious than New York but equally as daunting and clearly un-American, which means I can try and discover myself. I’m unattached and unhindered by a national identity, not defined by expectation and very much my own. Goodbye to all that, indeed. I’m 40, I’m scared and I’m free.