“Most mothers with teenage children would be quite well-suited to wrangling the messy lives of spoiled, young celebrities into perfect order.”
The new novel from Small Admissions author Amy Poeppel puts on a show for readers. Limelight is a hilarious melding of family drama and the world of Broadway. Here, Poeppel walks us through her love of the theater and tells us why a mom would be the best person to manage a spoiled pop star.
I was 10 years old when I saw my first West End show at the Adelphi Theatre in London. That probably sounds more glamorous than it really was; my dad was working in Copenhagen for the summer, and my parents, two sisters and I left our small apartment and took a vacation, driving a hundred hours through Bremen, Brussels and Bruges, all the way to England. On the second day of this adventure our car was broken into and our suitcases stolen, leaving us with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. Somewhere in Germany, I got stung by a wasp. I threw up a lot on that trip, a few times in the Volvo and again on the ferry (with a lovely view of the Cliffs of Dover) and one final time in the stodgy parlor of our London bed and breakfast. My family was mortified.
The trip was, for the most part, a flop, but seeing the musical Irene was a high point of my young life, and it stuck with me ever since. I remember the fun of matching the letters and numbers on our theater tickets to the tiny, brass plaques on the velvet flip seats in the balcony, and as the dark, heavy curtain went up, I clapped until my hands smarted. (My sisters shushed me when I didn’t stop.) I was enchanted by the elegant costumes and the sets depicting New York City, and—most of all—I loved being transported into the life of poor, sweet Irene, who herself was being transported into a life of glamour and riches completely unknown to her before. The entire production was a thrill.
About 10 years later, during my junior year abroad, I was invited by a handsome Brit to see Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre, not far from the Adelphi where Irene had played. To make a good impression on this young man and on ’80s British society in general, I dressed up for the occasion. We had great seats in the orchestra, and not long after the house lights dimmed and the musical began, I found myself tearing up during “I Dreamed a Dream” when Fantine was forced into a life of prostitution. I got even more distraught during “Castle on a Cloud” when poor Cosette imagined how much better her life would be if only she had a loving mother. By the time Éponine sang “On My Own” in act two, I was weeping. People turned to stare as I blew my nose in a soggy tissue and wiped my cheek on my date’s sleeve. The show was so moving and sad, and I was consumed by the injustice that was heaped on the peasants of France, awed by the selflessness of the characters and grief-stricken by the perfectly staged tragic deaths. War! Self-sacrifice! Humanity! Unrequited love!
Speaking of unrequited love, my date never called me again, and yet that in no way dampened my enthusiasm for Les Mis. Back in the States, I bought a cassette tape of the soundtrack and sang “One Day More” in my dorm room loudly, unabashedly and completely off-key (presumably to the dismay of fellow Claflin Hall residents).
Theater began to play a bigger part in my life after that. I met my husband when we were both cast in a college production of The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard, playing a married couple (who got divorced during Act One, though our real marriage is still going strong 25 years later). I worked as an actress in Boston regional theater for several years after college, so I found out what it’s like to be in that spotlight, to memorize lines until they are ingrained and to keep going even when things go wrong on stage. (In Crimes of the Heart, I was playing the part of Babe, and the moment came in the second act when I was supposed to answer the phone, but it didn’t ring, marking the longest 12 seconds of my life.) I also relished the backstage camaraderie, the long, arduous rehearsals, the late-night drinks with cast mates and crew, and the jitters and exhilaration of opening night. I felt the satisfaction of glowing reviews and the mortification of terrible ones.
Although I stopped acting in my late 20s when I turned my attention to teaching drama and literature to high school students and parenting my own children, I continue to go to plays whenever I get the chance (and read them when I don’t). I live in New York, so there’s always a show I’m itching to see. And I still make a scene from my seat in the house, whether it’s laughing in The Play That Goes Wrong, crying and feeling anxious in Dear Evan Hansen, covering my eyes during American Psycho, getting goose bumps in The Band’s Visit or Come from Away or staring star-struck at Tony Award winners like Denzel Washington in Fences or Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard. Being at the theater is always an absorbing experience for me; I’m all in, every time.
One recent theatrical phenomenon I have been intrigued by is the casting of big-name celebrity singers in Broadway shows. I started to wonder how classically trained, experienced actors feel about the pop stars who sometimes take the leads in today’s musicals. Are they welcoming? Or are they wary? Do they feel that such casting adds value to a production, or do they view it as a cheapening of the institution of theater? My short career in theater taught me the importance of actors working in an ensemble, and it occurred to me that if a narcissistic star, especially someone who is disrespectful to the process or to the rest of the cast and crew, were to take a big role in a play, it could be a nightmare for the other actors and a catastrophe for the production. As a writer, I felt right away that there was a story there I wanted to tell.
I decided to write a book that combines the three passions of my life—New York City, theater and family—while entertaining an unfounded belief I’ve had for years: that most mothers with teenage children would be quite well-suited to wrangling the messy lives of spoiled, young celebrities into perfect order. I’ve often felt I could convince a child star to make good decisions and behave in a respectful manner (while I’d also remember to schedule his or her teeth-cleaning and dermatology appointments). Writing Limelight was a marvelous opportunity to imagine applying the skills I’ve acquired raising my kids to the role of managing a difficult teenage pop star. The main character, Allison Brinkley, mother and new Manhattanite, gets a front-row seat to the staging of a Broadway musical based on Charlie Chaplin’s 1952 film Limelight. Teen crooner and heartthrob Carter Reid is woefully unprepared to step into his first serious acting role, and Allison discovers she is in a unique position to help salvage his floundering career as the young star faces the biggest challenge of his privileged life. As she tries to take control of Carter’s wildly undisciplined existence, Allison tackles the school crises, break-ups and hormones in her own household, as she and her family find their place in the heart of New York City.
Photo credit George Baier