Tony Award Winner Danny Burstein (Moulin Rouge) stepped into my classroom on a cold Monday morning in February and his warmth radiated throughout the room. I watched the kindergarten and second grade children applaud as he entered and I playfully asked them, "Who is this?!" They enthusiastically replied, "Danny Burstein!" To them, he was already a friend.
We'd been studying his career for weeks. Show by show, character by character, theme by theme...we watched, learned, and questioned. Children in both grades became immersed and engaged in different aspects of his work. The kindergarten students were fascinated by the energy and vibrancy of the Can-Can from Moulin Rouge, while the second graders probed deeper into the why's behind his career choices. I smiled at the thought of what they'd take away from the morning. How would it affect them? What memories would stay? And I remembered a somewhat similar experience from my childhood.
When I was a young lad in school all of the students were called to gather in the auditorium to watch a performance by a troupe of modern-day minstrels. It was unannounced. There was no fanfare or preparation. I didn't know what we were seeing, but our attention was directed to the stage as the house lights dimmed. Soon after the curtain opened, I heard the lilting melody of Try to Remember for the first time.
The opening notes were like a siren song calling my spirit closer. I was lost and nothing else around me mattered. The lyrics, the music, the mood, the insight, the longing, the loss, the hope, and the beauty of this song spoke to the deepest parts of me. This was live theater?! Holy Shit!
I was hooked! It was a transcendent moment that has stayed with me. I still think Try to Remember is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. It is all mine. I've established a firmly rooted sense of connection. I'm so glad I went to school that day. I can't imagine missing that unexpected performance of The Fantasticks.
That intangible sense that there are feelings and connections bigger than I could possibly fathom and can never properly articulate is one of the driving forces behind Broadway Books First Class. It's a delicious sense of wonder and possibility. It can not be manufactured, but it can be cultivated by presenting opportunities for students to feel the pull of the extraordinary. The kind of magic that can be found in a performance or in the pages of a book. We never know what small moment or passage may reach out and touch the heart of a child. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have the support of so many members of the Broadway community to help me realize this impossible dream.
Of course, Danny Burstein delivered beautifully. Everyone told me that he is one of the nicest people in show biz and this "boy from the Bronx" proved that this is indeed true. His energy, warmth, and humor were on display in every interaction.
First, in his reading of the the imaginative children's book classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. Talk about wonder and possibility! Harold takes us on an adventure unbounded by the physical. Clever word play is combined with simple line drawings to usher children into Harold's unfolding adventure. Page-by-page we were drawn into the story by Danny's invitations to sample a bit of Harold's world. "What's your favorite kind of pie?" he asked when Harold left us with 9 varieties to choose from. Together, Danny and Harold ushered us into a world wherein we could go anywhere and do anything.
Danny chose this book because it was one he read to his own children. I love when guest artists suggest favorite books they have a deep connection to for reasons that are rooted in loving memories. Children feel and feed off of that joy. I see it every time I read my beloved Curious George. They want to ride on the waves of our enthusiasm. It helps them build their own connections and I envision them one day sharing it with their own children. The story goes on.
The fact that each child took home a copy of the book with a personalized message from Danny only strengthens the bond to the book and the experience.
And what an experience! Our students had a front row seat to an exclusive interview and performance by an a man with seven Tony Award nominations (winning in 2021 for Moulin Rouge). He shared his long-held passion for performing and his desire to keep challenging himself with different roles. For example, deciding to move on from his celebrated role as the Latin lover Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone (his first Tony nomination) to successfully explore vastly different characters in other plays and musicals (including Golden Boy, South Pacific, Follies, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.)
Prompted by the students, Danny sang us a bit of If I Were a Rich Man from his 2016 Tony nominated performance in Fiddler on the Roof. He set up the song by giving the children a bit of background. We'd previously studied the big themes of the show when Jessica Hecht visited. She played Golde to his Tevye on Broadway. It was thrilling having them both visit us just a few months apart. Danny gave us more insights into the show from his (and Tevye's) perspective.
Again and again I find that the best way to build understanding and connections between ourselves and the things we love is through relationships. This is true in facilitating an understanding of the nuances between characters in shows, between the issues presented in them, and it is also true in the impact the visits have upon the students. It is such an incredible privilege to welcome Broadway guest artists into the classroom. The impact and magic of the visits are not lost on the children. These are moments, I believe, that will shape their lives.
For a little over an hour my students had the golden opportunity to connect with Danny Burstein. And for that, we are all grateful.
A Visit with Danny Burstein
Broadway Books First Class