Behold America's theater capital, twinkling, preening, clanging, stoking ambitions and devouring tourist dollars.
Now behold the drama students of Verdugo Hills High School, their parents ferrying them from the San Fernando Valley to LAX, their jet nosing eastward, their headphones tuned to the Broadway channel. There are 14 of them, 14 to 18 years old, and this is their biggest field trip ever, a five-day blitz of Broadway shows and Manhattan landmarks.
Their jet zooms into Newark, N.J. Their bus rumbles through the Lincoln Tunnel. Their teacher-chaperons, John Lawler and Katherine Morrison, march them through Times Square to a late dinner. Bright lights, big city, no parents.
"It was beautiful!" 16-year-old Joshua Archer writes in his journal that first night. "The city was flawless with lights, billboards and the smell of fossil fuel!"
This is a rite of tourism -- your first Broadway show, your first circuit of Manhattan landmarks, your first chance to reconcile the real metropolis with the one you've read about and seen in so many still and moving pictures.
But things may have changed since you did it. Now, an undiscounted Broadway ticket routinely costs $110. Four of every five audience members are tourists. Little Italy is increasingly Chinese. Chinatown is increasingly Vietnamese. And Times Square is increasingly sleaze-free.
The kids are different too. Instead of relying on such films as "West Side Story," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" or Woody Allen's "Manhattan," this group's idea of New York mostly comes from such sources as "Law & Order," " Sex and the City," "Rent" and the New York street on the Universal Studios tour.
One Tujunga girl is startled to see so many Amish here. (No, she is told, they are Hasidic Jews.) Another arrives fairly sure that Manhattan is built on a floating island of landfill. We're a long way from Tujunga and from the Manhattan of their fathers and mothers, and there are questions.
Will they sleep? Will they be bored? Will they get mugged? Spend all their money on souvenir junk in the first six hours? Swoon under the spell of big-city magic? (Here are your spoilers: Not much; no; no; very nearly; and -- cue the Gershwin clarinet -- yes.)
"Something washed over me, and I connected to the spirit of the city," writes 16-year-old Sara Saavedra of the first night. "I sat in Virgil's BBQ a different person."
And that was before seeing any shows.
The next afternoon, after prowling the Museum of Modern Art and a stand-up lunch from a hot-dog-and-pretzel cart on Fifth Avenue, they file into a matinee performance of "Young Frankenstein." Most of these students have just put on their own show -- a three-day run of the musical "Footloose" -- so they're not just watching the gags and songs; they're noticing the spotlight operator, the choreography, the effects.
They exit the theater all grins. Megan Mullally's singing, the monster's soft-shoe dancing, the 34-year-old movie jokes by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, the deafening effects -- the whole daffy, glossy package works for them. On the sidewalk afterward, while waiting in vain for some old theater-world buddy of Mr. Lawler's, Chrissa Villanueva, nearly 18, spots the actor who plays Igor and has a picture taken with him. Annie Welch, 15, gets an autograph from the Village Idiot. Sarah Stone, also 15, gets one too, along with a pen, a "Young Frankenstein" soundtrack CD and a "Please Don't Touch Me" T-shirt.
To raise the $1,600-per-person cost of this trip, these teens held a car wash, rummage sale and bake sale, cajoled their parents and counted heavily on Lawler to work school district funding sources. Though the neighborhood around the Verdugo Hills High campus in Tujunga includes many ranch homes and spacious lots, about 56% of the student body has family incomes low enough to qualify for reduced-price lunches. Universal Studios may be 15 miles away, but the atmosphere is more horsy than Hollywood.
In the city, they sleep three or four to a hotel room (in the tidy, efficient Wingate by Wyndham on West 35th Street). They travel by foot or subway, rely on the free hotel buffet for breakfast and eat a lot of hot dogs and pizza. Using group rates, they're paying about $50 each for their show tickets. Lawler and Morrison have lived and worked here, so they know the subways, the theaters and a lot of theater people. By 21st century standards, it's a pretty cheap trip.
Or it would be, if you didn't count the souvenirs. By the time they've capped their first full day with a ride to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, the kids have taken on freight that includes T-shirts, backpacks, purses, sunglasses, an ashtray, a pocket watch, a yo-yo, shoes from Charlotte Russe and a charcoal portrait from a quick-sketch artist near 42nd Street.
"It was gonna be $100," says a triumphant John Seward, 16, grinning along with his likeness. "But I got him down to $20."
DAY 2: STURM, DRANG AND FLASHCARDS