I still have nightmares. My subconscious has a favorite iteration of the classic anxiety dream: I walk onto my junior high school stage and recite every single one of Peter Pan’s lines with the confidence and magnetism of no one else who’d ever played the part before. Suck it, Mary Martin! The trouble is that there are no other Lost Boys on stage, no pirates, no Indians. The other kids are performing an entirely different musical, one that involves glamour and dancing and feminine whimsy. My peers are fabulous showgirls with long legs and tiny tapered waists and big, gorgeous everything-elses. And I? I am a little boy.
These nightmares are the psychic remnants of being a manically overachieving 12 year old. While my classmates were delighting in the new freedoms of hanging at the mall unsupervised and participating in marathon weekend sessions of Spin the Bottle, I was busy honing my craft. I had no time for frivolous pursuits—I was a THEATRE person, spelled with an “R-E” because I was fucking serious. I was so intense, I made Rachel Berry look like a dilettante. The spring of 7th grade was a particularly prolific one—I had won the title role in my school production of Peter Pan as well as the lead in the local JCC’s staging of 42nd Street. I was pretty much like Winona Ryder that year when she starred in Mermaids AND Edward Scissorhands. I was not, however, dating Johnny Depp.
Twelve is a good age to play Peter Pan, that beacon of perpetual youth, of willful dismissal of both responsibility and puberty. Thing I faked when playing Peter Pan: Flying. The intermediate school had neither the budget nor the inclination to pony up for suspension cables and harnesses. Better to just bend at the waist and extend your arms—to suspend nothing but your disbelief. Another thing I faked when playing Peter Pan: being a boy. It was easy. Pin my hair back, throw on a green felt costume, under which the only curves of my body were composed of pure baby fat. The role required an utter lack of sexuality. I was in no position to disoblige.
But I wasn’t a prude or a tomboy. In 6th grade I had a rather successful run as Audrey, the downtown girl with the heart of gold in Little Shop of Horrors. The role required plenty of leather and gold lame and fishnet stockings, and a fraught scene or two with the 11 year-old girl who was playing the part of Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend, the dentist. I believe I pulled off the role of the perkiest victim of domestic abuse in musical theater quite convincingly. Put a platinum blonde wig on nearly anybody and they automatically mature, it seems.
So my other role that year (was tame in comparison) wasn’t a total stretch. I was playing Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street, the ingenue. The chorus girl who goes out there a youngster, but comes back a star. There was a lot of tap-dancing and a bunch of chaotic production numbers, and even a few duets with real life actual boys. Thing I faked when playing Peggy in 42nd Street: making out with Joey Sutton, who played the man who provides Peggy with her star-making turn. Joey tilted me back very convincingly, in a classic stage embrace, positioning my head so the audience couldn’t quite see me. And then he leaned in and put his face very close to mine, and kind of… breathed on me for a few seconds. This was around the same time I first heard the term “blow job”—apparently my ex-BFF had blown some high school guy she met at the mall arcade. I thought maybe she had done something similar to him. Put her face very close to his, and breathed out, deeply.
How does it happen? How does a girl shed what’s left of her starry-eyed youth and become…someone who’s been around? For Peggy Sawyer, it involves going out on stage and singing a show-stopping song about 42nd Street. “Come and meet those dancing feet.” The show takes place in the Depression era, when the glitz and glitter of Roaring Twenties Times Square was giving way to gambling and prostitution and all sorts of other unwholesome entertainment. But I mean, it wasn’t like Peggy was singing about Times Square in the 70s or 80s, when 42nd Street was all peep shows and crack dealers. Peggy didn’t take a stroll near the Port Authority and meet up with Robert Mapplethorpe and become a dominatrix. Her transition was more subtle. Maybe it was simply the idea that so many different walks of life could be found side-by-side and she was in the mix: 42nd St was a magical place where the underworld and the elite could hang out. Where losing one’s innocence could be a little bit dangerous and more than a little exciting.
So there I was. Two nights a week I was rehearsing to play a little boy whose closest female friend was an invisible fairy represented onstage by a flashlight. A boy who didn’t want the beautiful Wendy Darling to be his girlfriend, but his mother. And two nights a week I was able to act out some version of growing up—what it might mean to be more than an ambitious 12 year old whose social life consisted of listening to original cast recordings with her brother’s parakeet, all the while dreaming of playing illicit games of Truth or Dare in classmates’ basements. Whose peers were doing things to boys that she could barely conceptualize. Whose only real experience with the opposite sex involved some chaste hugging with her 42nd St co-star, a talented song-and-dance man who’d probably done more with Joey Sutton than just fake-kissing.
You might think that this conflict between childish impulses and grown-up desires would take the rest of my high school career to work itself out. Not so. In fact, the very weekend after 42nd Street closed the situation was resolved. It happened like this: I had one final performance for which I’d been preparing for years. It required arduous rehearsal. Special hair and makeup. The perfect costume. Very specific choreography. A legion of adoring fans. I stood up in temple and recited my Haftorah, and then I did the Electric Slide and the Roger Rabbit at a tasteful afternoon reception at a country club, ate some chicken fingers and received some Israeli bonds. And that was it. I was a woman.