The other night, I pulled the I.V. outta my hand, bandaged it up and drove cross-town to perform in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding – Off-Broadway in Times Square. I took my pneumonia and walked out with nebulizer meds and loaded on Prednisone, “which will give you a Superman feeling like you can do anything,” my nurse told me.
In our dressing room, I wore my hospital robe as I got into my wig, makeup, and costume and performed. I’ve performed sick and with fevers before, high fevers. If I was the type to wait until I was “well” in life, I’d never do anything, and so, sweating – and breathing deliberately – I perform. I got through college with a tumor the size of a basketball in my chest; so nothing will stop me now – unless it truly stops me. Performing is the cure. Living is the mandate. This show has a deep level of devotion for a reason no one can know unless we tell you, so here it is. We are all here for many different reasons but with a common root: that this is the cherry on top of the struggle for survival – a belief that what we are doing has a spiritual and life purpose and is for the good in the world. I’ve heard at least one actor express this in spiritual terms: it’s a sense of mission to make people happy and to bring joy to hundreds.
I have a deep spiritual connection with my producers, Joe Corcoran and Karen Cellini. Here’s our story. I was teaching a theater workshop at my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. I brought my favorite prop with me, a branch from my grandmother’s peach tree. I have the branch covered with red, white, and blue wool fringe and brass keys that ring like bells. One woman in the class, Karen Cellini, took her turn with the grandma branch, and as soon as she held and danced with it, we were both hit with the same feeling and words: “when are we gonna work together?” In our first meeting to talk one-on-one, Karen said, you have to meet my husband Joe Corcoran. And the rest was destiny, and now, it’s theater history.
Joe and I connected immediately about our shared medical history. We are both alumnae of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He had lung cancer, and I had Hodgkin’s Disease at eighteen years old and later Thyroid Cancer as a result of the radiation treatments. Joe and I shared, on a deep level, this question of – given a lifespan challenged and threatened by grave cancer, what are you going to do with the god-given time you have? And we both have the same friggin’ answer: “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding – Times Square 2014.”
Catharsis cures. You gotta live while you’re alive. That’s the bottom line we agree on. Otherwise, what’s all the suffering good for? You have to go out and have a good giant laugh and cry. This is ancient. You gotta dance around the fire and open your lungs. We all need this and we need it together. I know if you talk to all 27 cast members, plus the crew, you’ll find more stories with the same rally cry: we need to do this. It makes life worth it. And it’s this deep bond that shines this show to a radiant sheen. You will shine when you leave and carry that with you.
Chances are I’ll end up back on the east side in urgent care, and I know that when I do, I’m gonna rip off that hospital bracelet and head west to Times Square for showtime. I’m gonna keep going west, to the stage. To Broadway. To 44th and 7th Ave. To the fun. The gioia di vivere. To Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding to become Grandma Nunzio, who never was sick a day in her life! I’m gonna keep doing the tarantella, eating garlic and boil ginger, and taking my herbs and yelling and clearing my lungs. As we used to say in the Bronx in the 60s, I will “keep on truckin.”
See you on the dance floor!
Annie Lanzillotto a.k.a. Grandma Nunzio
(Photo: Carolina Kroon Photography)