The Play that Changed My Life: Mary Darcy

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Editors Note: “The Play that Changed My Life” series came from an idea Patrick White developed in collaboration with Nippertown, InPlay, and the local theater community to share memories of life altering theater experiences.

Contributed by Mary Darcy

I’ve never seen the play that changed my life. Not on a stage, at least. I saw it on the screen. Not even the big screen. It was a 24 inch Panasonic in a Brooklyn living room in the year of our lord nineteen seventy something or other. But I still think it counts. To be fair, West Side Story was one of two plays that changed my life. But it was my first introduction to the work of Stephen Sondheim. 

Screen from West Side Story (1961)

My parents were in the dining room, having post dinner coffee and cigarettes with relatives. My siblings were running around pummeling each other. But in the living room a weird little nine-year-old was sitting too close to the television set, captivated by Shakespeare’s story, Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics and Robbins’ choreography. I was far too young to question the logic of NYC street gangs Jetéing around playgrounds. I was no stranger to musicals. The Sound of Music was my Frozen. But this was different. The playgrounds looked familiar. The dialogue sounded familiar. But the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics. I wasn’t a One hand/One Heart girl. For me it was all about Officer Krupke and When You’re a Jet. But the Quintet absolutely owned me. I had never seen anything like it – the entire conflict laid out from all perspectives and heightened with music that fit like perfect puzzle pieces. My idea of what storytelling could be was changing before my eyes, though I was too young, and too in love, to notice. 

In the last moments of the film, my dad came looking for me. It was bedtime, but he let me watch the end. He saw what was happening – that change that comes over a kid when they’re exposed to something deep and wonderful for the first time. So he sat with me until the lump of tears welled up in my throat and until they slipped through my eyelids at the orchestra’s final ache of a note. 

“Gotcha a little, huh?” he said in Brooklynese. I nodded. 

With one look and one question, I felt my father was somehow proud of me for getting it – for feeling and understanding the story. I will never forget that look. It’s the first time I remember an adult treating me like I had grown up a little. And it was the first time I realized that art was important – that those feelings that rose up in me as the credits rolled were valuable – to adults as much as to me. 

December 1956: (L to R) Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins discussing the Broadway opening of West Side Story.
(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Ten years later, in my parents’ living room in Upstate New York, on a large color Panasonic, I saw the next play that would change my life. I’ve seen it many times since. Not surprisingly, it was also by Stephen Sondheim. On a visit from College, while the rest of family slept, I discovered Sunday in the Park with George. And once again the master upended my ideas about storytelling. 

But that’s another story. 

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