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Show Music Takes Its Toll

Looking for a musical-theater-literate toll-taker is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

By New York City

It started five years ago, when I was playing the cast album of big while driving in my car. The song "Fun" was playing as I approached the toll booth at Exit 16E of the New Jersey Turnpike and, by the time I reached the toll-taker and handed him my $20 bill, the part of the song was on where Josh and his boss-to-be dance on the giant piano keyboard and plunk out "Chopsticks." As the toll-taker dutifully counted out my change, I saw him momentarily stop, his eyes widening between bills six and seven. I chuckled because I knew what had happened: He'd overheard that section of the song blaring out of the speakers and had thought to himself, "Who would ever want to listen to a tape of 'Chopsticks?' "

I thought about explaining that it really wasn't "Chopsticks" but an original cast album of a brand-new Broadway musical. With a bevy of cars behind me, though, I just shuffled off to the Lincoln Tunnel. But then I started wondering: Was there any toll-taker in the land who might have said to me, "Oh, wow! You're listening to the original cast album of big!"

Since then, I've tried to find a toll-taker who would. And it hasn't been easy. Like Diogenes, who was always looking for an honest man, I went hoping that I'd find someone who could recognize "Oh, Diogenes!" from The Boys from Syracuse and other show tunes. But no one has yet yelled out, "Hey! That's 'Where You Are' from Kiss of the Spider Woman," or, "Omigod! You're listening to 'Some Say' from Once on This Island." While I can't say that I've conducted a scientific survey, the circumstantial evidence I've compiled would suggest that there aren't a lot of musical theater enthusiasts in tollbooths.

All right, we can't expect many people to be able to identify "Sez I" from Donnybrook or "Sweet Danger" from Kean--not until those cast albums are put out on CD, anyway. But I still lived in hope that someone might be able to identify something. There was the time when I approached Exit 129 on the Garden State Parkway and "Standin' on the Corner" from The Most Happy Fella was playing on the car stereo. This would be the time, I knew, because this was a famous song--one that even made an episode of I Love Lucy. But, drat! The toll-taker was a mere teenager who wasn't around for that song's heyday, so he just gave me my change and sent me on my mournful way.

Then there was the time when I was driving on Route 95 and the title song of Rent was playing. "Toll--1 mile," said a sign, and I sped up, hoping that I'd get there in time for a teen toll-taker to recognize the tune; but I was met at the booth by a woman old enough to have seen the original production of The Student Prince. She didn't bat an eyelash while a chorus of kids who could have been her great-grandchildren were wondering how they were gonna pay this year's rent, not to mention last year's and next year's. I drove off in sad silence.

Still, I persevered. I avoided exact change lanes, even when I had exact change. Despite frigid weather, I rolled down the windows a good distance before reaching the booth and upped the volume so that the collector could have an extra few seconds to identify, say, "All That Jazz" from Chicago. And, at the risk of infuriating drivers behind me, I more often than not handed over a $20 bill no matter what the toll, figuring that the toll-taker's getting and counting out an abundance of change would give him that many more precious seconds to hear and identify, say, "Dice Are Rolling" from Evita. But no dice. The closest I came was at Exit 9 of the New Jersey Turnpike, where Jasmine said, "Hey, that sounds good!" while returning my change. "It's 'Louisiana Purchase,' from the show of the same name," I said. A loud, humiliating horn beep behind me told me to stop the chitchat and Jasmine was denied the rest of her musical theater lesson.

Many times, of course, I've found myself competing against music from the booth itself, where a radio blared out a song sung by what sounded to me like four hermaphrodites wailing in hell. Other times, I've found a toll-taker wearing headphones. While that meant he wouldn't hear, let alone identify, what I was playing, at least I didn't have to hear what he was playing.

Here's the irony: One time, while I was paying my toll at the Holland Tunnel as "One Day More" from Les Miz was playing, the toll-taker did not recognize the song but did recognize me because I review plays every Thursday on News 12 New Jersey, a cable TV station. She even asked for a business card and an autograph; though it was rush hour on a Friday, I gave her both. Miraculously, not one car behind us beeped a horn--which meant that she had no hindrance to hearing and identifying "One Day More." But she did not.

I'll admit it: I finally got discouraged and got an E-Z Pass for my car. This means that I no longer stop at tollbooths but now stroll through, thanks to an electronic device that's plastered to my inner windshield. Still, wouldn't it be funny if, on my trip to Boston this Thanksgiving weekend, the E-Z Pass lane flashed me an electronic "Go" just as that "Go-Go-Go" lyric was playing from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]


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