Little Orphan Cassie
The curtain opens on a world of possibility
By Cassie Bustamante
Live theater has had a piece of my heart for almost as long as I can remember. My love affair, especially with musicals, began the summer I turned 6. My mom had taken me to see Annie at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine. There, I discovered theater has the power to bring dreams to life.
Before that moment, I’d seen the movie and played the album on my Fisher Price record player, singing along while putting myself in Annie’s tattered orphan shoes. Our family dog, a golden retriever named Butterscotch — far from a mangy street mutt — often found himself locked in my bedroom so that I could pretend he was following me, just like Sandy followed Annie.
Once, I tried to sit in my bedroom window to look woefully out at the sky while musically musing, “Maybe far away, or maybe real nearby . . . ” As the window screen gave to the pressure of my leaning body, my feet caught on the very sill I’d been perched on, holding me in place as the rest of me dangled dangerously a story above our driveway. My older brother, Dana, heard my cries and pulled me back in. (And yes, my parents had told me over and over to stay away from the windows, but when it came to being Annie, I followed no one’s rules.)
“As far as I was concerned, you could have had a much less healthy obsession,” my mom recalls. “You were happy being Annie and acting and singing, so, why not?” Plus, she adds, “It was entertaining.” A talented seamstress, she had sewn me my very own red-and-white dress, just like Annie’s. And, along with those live show tickets, my parents had given me a golden, heart-shaped, broken locket for my birthday.
I knew the songs. I had the locket, the dress and the black, patent-leather shoes. There was just one major problem: my hair. It was long, straight and dirty-blonde, a far cry from a headful of fiery red ringlets.
But in that Ogunquit theater during the final moments of the curtain call, something I’d never imagined was possible happened. After clapping enthusiastically for the actors who played Daddy Warbucks, Miss Hannigan, Grace, Punjab and the other orphans, the last actor emerged to receive her applause. Alyson Kirk, who played the role of Annie, walked to centerstage and whipped off her curly-haired wig to reveal a mane of straight hair that wasn’t red at all.
“Look!” I gasped, telling my mom what this meant for me. “I can be Annie!” In that moment, I realized that in the world of theater, anything is possible.
Now, as a mother, there’s nothing I want more than for my kids to see that their own worlds can stretch as far as their imaginations can reach.
Last year, my husband, Chris, and I introduced our youngest, Wilder, to live theater at the Tanger Center — first, to Paw Patrol Live for his 4th birthday. Then, in September, it was off to Blue’s Clues & You Live.
A week before the Blue’s Clues tour stop in Greensboro, I had a chance to chat with Josh Blackburn, producer of Round Room Live, the company responsible for bringing many Nickelodeon and licensed kids’ shows to life onstage all over the world. Like many of us, his own love for musical theater began during his childhood, evolving into a passion “to show kids opportunity” through his work.
Blackburn says his “favorite part” is watching kids enjoy his live shows, and I understand why. Chris and I were more enthralled by Wilder’s reaction to Blue and company than by what was actually happening on stage, despite the “huggable” and “larger than life puppets.” And it wasn’t just us. Looking around that theater, the faces of many-a-parent were aglow with wonder as they watched their own little ones sing along, dance and dream.
We walked out of the theater together that day, holding hands as we stepped into a world that was, indeed, our oyster.
At 45, I’ve long since outgrown the red-and-white dress and black patent-leather shoes. I’ve said good-bye to my beloved Butterscotch. The broken heart-shaped locket has been lost, perhaps now another child’s treasure. But, until my final curtain call, I am going to continue to let my imagination run wild in this world — with or without a red, curly-haired wig. OH
Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.