May I Help You Find Your Seat? We Sat Down With Broadway's Longtime Ushers Every year, NPR's Jeff Lunden talks to some of the hardworking people in the theater biz who aren't eligible for Tony nominations.

May I Help You Find Your Seat? We Sat Down With Broadway's Longtime Ushers

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/481544502/481750739" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Winners for the 70th Annual Tony Awards, Broadway's highest honor, will be announced tonight. It's been a record-breaking season due, in part, to the overwhelming success of "Hamilton," which has an unprecedented 16 nominations. Tonys are awarded to actors and playwrights, musicals and plays. But there are some people who never get nominated. And every year, Jeff Lunden talks to some of them. This year, he visited the ushers.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: There are actually four other musicals besides "Hamilton" up for a Tony tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

LUNDEN: One of them is "School Of Rock."

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "SCHOOL OF ROCK" )

ALEX BRIGHTMAN: (As Dewey) Yeah, come on in - come on, fast, fast, fast. You, Zack, you ever play electric guitar?

BRANDON NIEDERAUER: (As Zack) No, my dad won't let me.

BRIGHTMAN: (As Dewey) Oh, really?

NIEDERAUER: (As Zack) He thinks it's a waste of time.

BRIGHTMAN: (As Dewey) Oh, yeah? Well, let's waste that time together, shall we?

(Singing) Take a hold of your axe and try to pluck out this riff.

LUNDEN: One of the first people you meet when you walk through the door of the Winter Garden Theater, where that show is playing, is Elizabeth Reed.

ELIZABETH REED: Hey, guys, I just need to see everybody's tickets.

LUNDEN: Reed is part of a battalion of part-time workers who meet, greet and seat audience members at Broadway's 40 theaters.

REED: What we really try and do is enhance the patrons' experience from the moment that they walk in the door to the end of that performance.

LUNDEN: Reed became an usher when she needed to pick up some extra money while she was in grad school and has stuck with the job for eight years. For others like Rufina Shayne who works at the Cort Theatre, where "Bright Star" is playing, it was simply a matter of geography.

RUFINA SHAYNE: Everybody from the neighborhood works on Broadway. So I guess I just asked somebody and they said, yeah, call this number. It was the union.

LUNDEN: That's right. Like all of the jobs on Broadway from actors to musicians to box office personnel, ushers are union members.

MICHELLE GONZALEZ: Local 306, I am the shop steward of this theater, as well - newly elected (laughter).

LUNDEN: That's Michelle Gonzalez who works over at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, home of the musical "Waitress."

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL "WAITRESS")

UNIDENTIFIED #1: (As Jacqueline, singing) The day starts like the rest we've seen, another carbon copy of an old routine.

UNIDENTIFIED #2: (As Becky, singing) Days keep coming.

UNIDENTIFIED #3: (As Dawn, singing) One out, one in.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As character, singing) They keep coming.

LUNDEN: She's been an usher for 11 years.

GONZALEZ: Well, my grandfather worked backstage at the Neil Simon when "Hairspray" was there. And that's how I came in. I came in when I was 16 with "Hairspray."

LUNDEN: And with good pay and steady hours, Broadway's ushers stick around for a long time.

DENNIS SCANLON: I'm Dennis Scanlon. I'm the chief of staff at the Music Box. I started here 48 years ago when I was 14.

LUNDEN: It's kind of the family business.

SCANLON: My grandfather and my father - I worked here with them when I first started. My grandfather started here 84 years ago and my father 74 years ago. He started 10 years after my grandfather. And my daughters work here with me, too.

LUNDEN: They're ushers at the Music Box where "Shuffle Along" is playing. And like every usher on Broadway, on average, they spend about 15 seconds greeting and directing each audience member. Back at "School Of Rock", Elizabeth Reed says most people are friendly.

REED: You get your one or two people - you know, it's raining. They're coming in. They don't know where they're going. They're kind of grumpy. You just have to kind of, you know, put them in a mood of, you know, this is a happy show. Come on in. Enjoy yourself.

LUNDEN: And sometimes, she's had to run interference for celebrities in the audience like Jack Black, the original star of film who came to see the Broadway version.

REED: One of the people in the audience recognized him (laughter), said hi, Jack. Everyone in the theater literally stopped and pinpointed this poor man. So I had to get his son. And luckily, he had gotten a booster seat, one of the cushioned booster seats for his son, so I just promptly picked that up and kind of, you know, used it as a defensive blocking shield for the people who were kind of trying to, like, jump on top of him.

LUNDEN: Another recent problem, she says, is people clogging the aisles taking selfies. But really, aside from handing out playbills and telling people to turn off their cell phones, the biggest part of the job is answering questions.

REED: Number one question - where's the bathroom? Second question - where's the bar (laughter)? So as long as I have those two places measured, like, they'll figure out the seats (laughter).

LUNDEN: With a little friendly help. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.