Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Starring Sam Gravitte

The Berlind Theater was packed, each one of the nearly 400 seats filled.

Beyond the top level of the orchestra seats, there was standing room around the railing. Most of those who stood up there were members of the Princeton men's lacrosse team.

If you wanted to see what intercollegiate sports are really all about, then the Berlind Theater was the place to be.

It was Friday night, right around 8. The occasion was a production of the stage version of the movie "Once," which begins with an informal 10 minutes or so of Irish music on the stage and then moves into the main part of the show. 

And it began with Sam Gravitte and his guitar, center stage, all alone.

TigerBlog was in the audience. Before the first note came from the guitar, TB had counted about 25 men's lacrosse players, two coaches and one academic athletic fellow. He knew that some of them had been there for earlier productions of the show the weekend before. He's pretty sure that every member of the team would end up going to at least one of the six shows that ran.

Here's what TB was wondering: How many of them are into theater?

How many of them had ever been in show in high school? For that matter, how many had been to Broadway shows?

TigerBlog has been around Princeton lacrosse players for nearly 30 years. He's heard them talk about all kinds of subjects. He can't remember one time that he heard any of them talk about a love for the theater.

And yet here they were, jammed into a theater. Why? Because it was their teammate's big night, and when it's your teammates big night, you're there to show your support, even if it's taking you way out of your comfort zone.

And that's what intercollegiate sports are really supposed to be all about, right? Yes, it's about competition and winning championships. More than anything, though, it's about the people you compete alongside, and practice alongside every day, and just how strong the bond that is formed from being thrown together, almost randomly, as 18 year olds on a common campus grows over a four-year stretch. That bond lasts forever.

TigerBlog has always been a huge fan of musical theater. And of sports. He sees the similarities between them, with the preparation behind the scenes that culminate in a final display that is open to the public and with the strong connections that form among the players, whether on the field or on the stage.

Jim Barlow, the men's soccer coach, introduced TigerBlog to "Once" a long time ago. TB has seen the movie at least 20 times, and he saw the stage version on Broadway.

It's a great story. Set in Dublin, it tells the story of "Guy," who is never named, and "Girl," who also has no name.

He works in his father's guitar repair shop. She works as a maid. They have little in their lives, other than a shared love of music, which he plays first at night on the Dublin streets and then later, with her, in a music store and eventually in a recording studio.

The movie has some great music ("Falling Slowly" is the most famous of them; it won an Academy Award for Best Song) and some amazing scenes. The show requires some leaps of faith about sets and settings, and it also requires wildly talented actors and actresses, all of whom have to be able to sing, dance and act - all while playing an instrument, as there is no pit orchestra.

This was the ambitious show that Gravitte was part of the last two weekends in Princeton.

Sam Gravitte is no ordinary Princeton student or ordinary Division I lacrosse player. His mother Debbie is a Tony Award-winner for Best Actress in a Musical for "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." Let that sink in a little. A Tony Award. His father Beau is, among other things, an actor and director.

Sam himself has been in shows in high school and here at Princeton, even on the stage at McCarter. He is an anthropology major, but he also is earning certificates in theater and music theater. 

As a lacrosse player, Sam Gravitte is a superior athlete. He is a strong and fast. He is also versatile. During his career, he has played close defense and longstick midfield with a longstick and shortstick defensive midfielder with a shortstick. He's faced-off and played the wings on face-offs and has also played man-down.

To TB's knowledge, or at least off the top of his head, he can only think of two other Princeton players in the last 20 years or so who have done the same - Ryan Schoenig and Chris Berrier. Apologies if he's forgetting someone.

The show Friday started at 8. A few hours earlier, Sam Gravitte was at lacrosse practice. That's a big balancing act.

And then it was time for the show to start. Sam started playing the guitar and singing, and from Note 1 he had the entire audience awed. The same was true of the female lead, Maddie Meyers, another senior, who was just as amazing. And if you've never heard the music, these are not easy songs to sing. They require some pretty serious range.

In all the cast consisted of 13 people, of whom 12 are Princeton undergrads. They were all incredible.

As for Sam Gravitte, he carried the production, something that isn't easy to do. It requires talent, and it requires star power, and he has plenty of both.

Afterwards, TigerBlog hung around to greet Sam and to meet Sam's mother.

She was genuinely impressed with her son's performance, and she was clearly touched by the overwhelming support of the men's lacrosse players.

And speaking of them, they were in the theater lobby too. As Sam talked to a few people, they waited patiently for him. They eventually started a soft chant of "Sam, Sam, Sam," and he walked across to where they were standing to a big group hug.

It reminded TigerBlog of the reaction that a player gets after scoring a goal. There's always the hug.

It's an acknowledgement that one of them did something special, and it's a reminder that the one is part of a larger whole.

On Friday night it wasn't on a lacrosse field. It was in a theater.

But the lesson still resonated.

This is what being a team is all about.

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