A few months ago, Austin came home from school and announced that he was going to try out for the school musical.
We were a bit surprised. Claire is the performer in our family. For years, when Claire would put on shows for our family, Austin was the stage manager. He never really seemed to mind.
And now he was trying out for a musical!
I asked him if his friends were trying out. “A few of them,” he said, but when I pressed him further he acknowledged that none of his closest group of friends would be doing it. Those kids – the ones he hangs out with every single day after school, the ones he plays on basketball and baseball teams with – they didn’t want to perform in the musical. But Austin wasn’t deterred.
Chris and I were thrilled, and so was our friend Brian, who was volunteering as the musical director (which should win you a Presidential Metal of Freedom, but I digress.) They would be performing Newsies, and Austin was cast as Racetrack.
I’ve never seen Newsies, so I didn’t really know what it meant that Austin got this part, but it seemed to be a big one. Austin was really dedicated to learning his role. We listened to the soundtrack every single day, and sometimes when he didn’t think I was around, I stopped to listen to him sing.
Musical practice was three days a week after school. The other two days, Austin usually headed to one of the homes of his best group of friends where they jumped on the trampoline and threw the baseball to each other. He’d come home from these days sweaty and eat dinner with our family, but afterwards, I’d hear him singing Newsies songs as he washed dishes.
Austin was clearly excited about the musical, but never too over-the-top. It was the quiet kind of excitement that I’ve come to appreciate from him.
In fact, until the final rehearsals when I came to help, I didn’t even know he had a solo.
The day of the musical, Austin was nervous. He woke up excited, but also unsure. How was it going to be? I assured him that he was ready.
It was a big production with 40 kids, and the first number was with all the kids. It was fun and spirited and Austin looked great along with everyone else. But then the stage cleared, and he stood in front of the audience with just two other kids. It was time for him to sing “Santa Fe”. So many of the Newsies songs are upbeat, but this one evokes such a sense of longing:
So you ain’t got any family
Well who said you needed one
Ain’t you glad
Nobody’s waiting up for you
When I dream
On my own
I’m alone but I ain’t lonely
As he sang, I started crying. Yes, the entire premise of Newsies is about kids – many of whom are orphans – trying to make it on the streets of 1890s New York. (Because of course it’s about orphans – it was a Disney movie first!) And there was my sweet and soft-spoken boy belting out the words to hundreds of people. Yes, of course, Austin has so many more privileges than any of the real-life Newsies did. But I couldn’t help but think of how he’d survived loss, too. It was as though he was singing it for me.
Which, of course, he was. At least partially.
The next day there were two showings – one in the early afternoon and one in the later afternoon. Austin would be missing his baseball game with his friends, as it was going to be right in the middle of the last performance. He wasn’t too bothered by this. Claire and her friends helped backstage, getting makeup on the cast, and Chris worked on the set. I prepped for the cast party and we all marveled at how excited the kids all were.
And I watched, yet again, as Austin sang his sweet song. And I cried, yet again.
“I’m alone but I ain’t lonely,” he sang, and I thought about how much I identified with this phrase. But to him, I figured, it was just a song.
There were so many times when Austin was alone in his early life. His 3rd grade VIP day? I did that by myself. The talent show? He didn’t want to try out, because when Claire did it, she had her dad Shawn by her side and he would have to do it alone. Baseball games? Only one parent in the stands for many years.
And yet, that’s not totally true. Austin’s godparents (who are now his aunt Becky and uncle Josh) came to his VIP day. And he didn’t do the talent show, but he did the musical. I bet that was because, at least in part, he’d spent so much time with Brian after Shawn died, who encouraged him to do it. And baseball had kept going because of the parents who coached his team and picked him up for practice. Yes, he’d been alone in some ways. But he’d been surrounded by a community who loved him, too.
As the first afternoon performance was about to start, I saw his group of best friends finding their seats. They were all dressed in their baseball uniforms. “They wanted to come, but the game is right afterwards,” their coach Marty told me, as he sat with them. When I thanked him for bringing them, he said, “we had to cheer on Austin!”
And so they did. As the show ended and Austin took his bow, I heard yelps from little boys at the back of the auditorium. “Go Austin! Ya Austin!”
It wasn’t just them cheering for my boy. It was everyone.
He was a Newsie in that moment. But he definitely wasn’t alone.
Image Credit: Jenn Reid.