During the summers of high school, I was heavily involved in the repertory theater scene. On the coast of Maine, such places were often tiny, mildewy and without a large budget — but what they may have lacked in structural integrity they made up for in raw talent.
During those sultry summers spent backstage succumbing to the smell of greasepaint — or onstage, sweating off whatever I’d painted onto my face under glare of a spotlight — I worked with some of the most fascinating artists I’ve ever met. And that includes the years I lived in New York.
But one of them, back when I met him, was whatever the equivalent of an ingénue is for lighting designers: an eager, dark-haired, lanky and wide-eyed kid a few years my junior named Morgan Cates.
We were both “up-and-comers” who knew that we wanted to make a life in the arts somehow, and as such, we spent those summers dutifully bopping around the rep circuit. I was usually stage managing if I wasn’t acting, so such was the case that we would often find ourselves either the last sorry suckers in the theater at night, or the first ones to arrive hours ahead of call.
Cates was studious, hardworking, serious — but also amiable and chatty, particularly with me. He could, and often did, hold vivacious conversations while programming the board, or be crooning along to whatever music he was piping through the speakers (preferably not whatever score was being burned into our brains every night when we were working on a musical, however).
One afternoon in particular stands out in my memory: I was begrudgingly sweeping and mopping the stage (the most unglamorous of stage manager duties) while he was running through some lighting and sound cues from the booth. We were chatting about all the things we wanted to do when we were no longer paying our dues in the industry and he became immediately animated about a project he’d been conceptualizing:
A Beatles Tribute show.
But not just any Beatles tribute show — like, a really damn good one.
Cates actually resembles a young Paul McCartney. It can be unsettling at times; one wonders if that whole Paul is Dead theory might have some weight to it, if only so that he could reincarnate himself into this plucky Maine teenager.
When Cates first relayed his plan to me, I remember thinking that it was already extremely well-developed, given his age and relative level of professional experience. I had no doubt that he’d be able to pull it off.
It wasn’t a question of if — but when.
And certainly if he could step into the Brit, bowl-cut, Beatle shoes of McCartney he’d have a winning production on his hands. That is, assuming he could find the right blokes to cast as the other three.
How could one ever expect to find a teenage boy who could completely embody, not just in musicality but spirit, John Lennon?
How would he find someone with the drumming chops of Ringo?
Did anyone in his age group even know who George Harrison was?
A couple of years passed and Morgan Cates, not unsurprisingly, ascended beyond the rungs of community theater. He was finishing high school just as I was moving to New York for college. Sooner or later, though, we ended up back in the same state, in the same town no less, and we caught up for coffee back in 2011. He had just graduated high school and I had returned home from school to recover from an illness, from which I would never recover, of course — but that’s a different story.
Cates had not only finished his concept for his Beatles tribute — which he entitled, A Day In The Life — but he’d also cast it, brought on a stellar crew — and he wondered if I might take part. How many emotions passed through me at that moment! To know that this young man had seen his creative passion through to the finish and was now realizing it. Of course I wanted to be part of it — how could I possibly say no?
When the show debuted in 2011, it was more than a hit — people were dancing in the aisles, the show was standing-room-only every night, and after, when I would snake my way through the lobby like a proper little house manager, I would hear the remarks of breathless audience members, one of which I remember quite vividly.
An older gentleman who had, in fact, seen the Beatles in their heyday, remarked on not just the extraordinary resemblance of this cast to the real deal, not just the talent of the musicians, or the engrossing, historical multimedia journey that swept the audience away between sets, or the unfathomably detailed costumes — but something else, something that Morgan Cates could simply not have planned on, no matter how hard he had worked to make his dream a reality: he had taken this man back — way back — to the forgotten days of his youth.
The show had become, in that moment, more than music, more than entertainment: it was bonafide reverie.
Five years later, after the show had made its mark, Cates graduated from the University of Maine and set about to plan for the rest of his life. In general, Cates is still heavily involved in the world of performance: he’s traveled around the world as a tour manager for the University Singers and is currently working at the Collins Center for The Arts, which has hosted national tours of Broadway shows and has a full schedule of concerts and live music.
Obviously, Cates has found uses for his skills and talents the world over, but he never really let go of his dream to take that Beatles show on the road.
We had coffee several months ago and he — with the same passion he’d had as a teen — presented his plan for the next chapter of the show: A Day in The Life On Tour.
The original cast had, of course, all gone their separate ways, the show having been part of one of those pre-college, magical summers. But Cates remained, and although the task of recasting The Beatles yet again loomed large, he was certainly more than prepared for the task now, given his education and training. Still, there had been something kind of magical about watching the original production Come Together, as it were: on nothing more than a teenage dream and the generosity of a small community that wanted to see it come true.
When it came to bringing the Beatles show back to life — his pet project, his very real, practically unshakable passion-project — what Cates’ really had to put his trust in, what he really had to tap into, was not his degree, or his travels, or the people he’d rubbed elbows with, or the wealth of job experience he had.
Yes, those things were valuable, certainly made the task less insurmountable than when he had been a teenager — but what it really came down to, as evidenced by our conversation over coffee — was that what he just needed people to believe in it. He needed the community to want it, too.
And they did — not just our community, where it’s opening this weekend, but communities up and down the east coast. Cates has worked hard for this, and even now, a week out, I watch him furrow his brow over his notepad, or the scores, or the budget. I realize, as I watch the wheel of cognition turn within him, that he’s never stopped working for this.
When the show goes up this weekend, I’ll be there — dancing in the aisles, taking tickets, smiling at the crowd, making sure “the boys” have water.
I don’t know if it will have the same magic as the debut did — not because it’s a new cast, not because they’ve added a few different songs to the set — only because I’m different. I’m older, less prone to believing in magic.
That summer I first met Cates, when I was fifteen or so, I would have told you my favorite Beatles tune was Here Comes The Sun, because that’s what summer felt like when I was 15.
When Cates approached me to work on the show with him in 2011, I would have said my favorite song was Eleanor Rigby, because I was lonesome, and that year was a grim one for me. And later, during the show’s run, when a man I would go on to fall in love with ran from the theater after opening night singing “I’ve just seen a face . . .”
Here we are, close to ten years from that afternoon slapping a mop on the stage to the beat of Cates’ humming in the booth above me.
The lyric I think of now? Yours sincerely, wasting away comes to mind.
Or maybe, It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log.
Or somedays, I don’t want to spoil the party so I’ll go.
Or take these broken wings and learn to fly?
I guess I’ll have to get back to you after the show, tell you which song stopped me in my tracks and took me back to the dusty barn theaters of my youth, to that grinning kid in the lighting booth.
I might have said he was a dreamer — but he wasn’t the only one.