The Greatest Gift

I found out last night that Don died.  He died in October, just as I was getting off Fezywig.  Tomorrow I’m going to Karen’s memorial service.  She died in June, while my family and I were at sea.  They both changed my life.  They both believed in me.  They both encouraged me.  And I believe encouragement is the greatest gift we can give to anyone.

I first met Don at a restaurant, over ten years ag, while working out-of-town in Virginia.  A mutual friend flew out with him and joined us, to make the introduction.  Don was passionate about theatre and wanted to commission a musical.  I wrote musicals.  We got acquainted, talked about ideas, and ultimately became friends.  It wouldn’t be until years later that I would actually write a script commissioned by him, but he was encouraging from the get go.  He believed in what I was trying to do, the importance of it, and—perhaps most importantly—he believed in me.

Attending an arts conference together.  Don is in the back in blue.

Attending an arts conference together.  Don is in the back in blue.

Later that fall I was back in NYC, working on two shows.  I was a junior manager on the Les Miz tour.  And I was trying to produce my first musical in the city:  Berlin.  I’d written Berlin in college, had done a workshop of it, and was now eager to see it on its feet.  I had booked a theatre and a director, but didn’t have any money.  I was producing the show on a shoestring, but even a shoestring needs a little thread.  I told him my business plan, pitched him the show, and sent him a short two to three page agreement.  His only question:  “Am I liable in any way?”  The answer:  “No.”  He wrote a check.  My first investor.  With any project, any undertaking, the first money is always the hardest.  No one wants to look stupid.  No one wants to make a bad investment.  Don risked some money.  But he risked something even greater.  

He reminds me of this closing monologue from Pixar's Ratatoilee.    

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”  - Anton Ego

Don wasn't a newspaper critic.  But he took a risk:  the discovery and defense of the new.  And for that I am grateful.  When I heard Don died I was sad.  I am sad.  It’s still fresh.  He died of leukemia. 

Karen also died of cancer.  Go back in time even further.  I met Karen almost sixteen years ago.  I was still in college.  She'd been sent to scout out a show I was producing in D.C.  My "production office" was in my parents’ basement.  I was home for the summer.  I was funding the show on my credit card.  I had no industry contacts what-so-ever, and I was trying desperately to get someone—anyone—with influence to come see my show.  Closing night, I waited.  I hoped.  Would that woman named Karen come and pick up her ticket?  After the show started, I went to the box office.  The ticket was gone.  She was in the theatre, somewhere.  I had no idea who she was.  I'd never met her. 

After the show she found me.  She waited patiently.  Friends, family, and supporters all gathered around to congratulate me on our little production.  Karen waited ‘in the wings’.  After the familiar faces dispersed, this new stranger approached.  “Hello, my friend asked me to come see your show.  She said that if I didn’t like it, I could just slip out afterward.  But if I liked it, I could introduce myself.  My name is Karen Walter Goodwin.” 

I came to learn Karen was a Broadway producer.  She'd been a behind-the-scenes partner on some of Broadway's biggest hits:  Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, and many others.  At the time I knew nothing about how world of Broadway worked.  She helped me understand the industry.  She taught me the fundamentals of producing.  And eventually we became producing partners.  But most importantly, we became friends.  

As I write, I’m sitting at my desk overlooking Broadway and the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park.  We’ve lived here for fifteen years.  We’ve raised our children here.  We’ve built a life here.  I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her. 

Today I’ll go to Karen's memorial service.  I look forward to honoring her memory and her legacy.  Don passed away in Arizona.  I don’t know the details, but I’m sure he was surrounded by his loving children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  He was a great man.

Last night I sang Harvest Time to my kids as they went to bed.  I wrote it a while ago, but I thought of these two amazing people, as I sang the last verse:

We are here
And they are there
They’ve all moved on
And this earth feels so bare
What we know
We cannot see
But we’ll plant again
Just you and me 

I miss you Don.  I miss you Karen.  You gave me the greatest gift: encouragement.  I’m sure you’re growing something beautiful where you are now.  I’ll try to do the same.