When Jenna Gavigan made her Broadway debut at age 16 as a member of the ensemble in the 2003 revival of Gypsy, she shared the stage at the Shubert Theater not just with stars Bernadette Peters and Tammy Blanchard, but with Tim Federele, who was also making his Broadway debut – and also, presumably, with a family of mice. Federle has since become the author of the Nate series of young adult novels peering backstage at Broadway.
Now Gavigan has made her own contribution to the genre with “Lulu the Broadway Mouse” (Running Press Kids), a book geared to readers age 9 to 12, about a young mouse named Lucy Louise who wants to be a star on Broadway.
Unlike most other such dreamers her age, Lulu (as everybody calls her) is as savvy about Broadway as it’s possible to be. She lives with her family in the Shubert Theater. She doesn’t just watch the currently running (and unnamed) musical on stage every night; she’s friends with the cast and with other theater professionals involved with the production. She acts like a backstage helper, going so far as assisting one of the actresses nightly in putting on her false eyelashes.
She seems to know every show that’s been on Broadway, quotes Shakespeare (albeit sparingly) and manages to drop the names of both theater luminaries (Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim, Audra McDonald et al) and landmark shows (Mame, Les Miserables, etc.) in the silliest of ways: e.g. “Faster than you can say ‘And the Tony goes to Hamilton,’ my life changed forever.” (The closest to an actual description of any of the name-dropped luminaries: “Elaine Stritch is a show business legend. Get permission from a legal guardian, then Google her, immediately.”)
Lulu even throws around some French and Yiddish words she’s picked up from her theater friends.
As glorious as it is for her to be living in a theater surrounded by the theater people whom she loves, Lulu is not happy, because she doesn’t have the one thing she wants more than anything: “I’m a mouse. A darn cute and talented one but, well, mice can’t be on Broadway. At least, none of us ever have been.” She wants to be the first.
And by the end of this book, Lulu gets to be. Amanda, the mean if talented starlet, gets sick, and a new (human) understudy named Jayne is too nervous to make her Broadway debut alone. So she carries Lulu on stage hidden in her mic belt, to help her with her cues, and to steady her nerves. But circumstances force Lulu to face the bright lights of Broadway, unhidden.
“Lulu The Broadway Mouse” is short both on plot and (perhaps needless to say) plausibility. It was not enough for the author to make a mouse a beloved friend of all these theater people. Lulu’s mother is actually in their employ; Mom mouse works as an assistant to the seamstress, just the latest of a long line of rodents who’ve worked for decades at Shubert for crumbs – surely a situation kept secret from the NYC Department of Health and the New York State Department of Labor.
Perhaps it’s churlish to point out that Lulu is NOT the first rodent to perform on Broadway — there were several in A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
I’ll admit the author scored big points for me when she had the star actress explain to Lulu the difference between “envy” and “jealousy,” and then reiterated the lesson several times.
What the book does best is share some backstage lore and life – some of it well-known (never say “Good luck,” or “Macbeth” in a theater), some more obscure, at least to me, such as that Broadway actors have to buy their own makeup, and whistling is forbidden because the stage crew used to whistle to cue the curtains. We learn what angel cards are and a ditty bag and a fly room.
“Lulu The Broaday Mouse” ends with a kind of appendix that includes Lulu’s list of theater etiquette, as well as her advice and recommendations. I’d be ridiculed for pointing out that the average lifespan of even a pet mouse is only two years, far too short to have seen all the shows she recommends. But I think I can be forgiven if I use Lulu the mouse’s recommendations for eateries in the theater district as a guide to places I should avoid.