When I was 7, my parents took me to see "Annie" on Broadway. Two things I'll never forget about that day: 1.) the red curly wig in the gift shop afterwards I had to have, and 2.) the moment right after the show ended. (Don't get me wrong ... the show was fantastic, although just the thought of Ms. Hannigan gave me nightmares for like a week), but the aftershow was what intrigued me. When the curtains closed, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of curiosity about the actors: What were they doing behind the curtains? Were they all friends? Were they having fun? If I could just get a little peak behind those scenes....
Well, I folded up my inquisitiveness, tucked it way back in the cerebrum and went about the endless task of growing up.
Fast-forward 20 plus years and here I am working at the TODAY Show, when one day my producer, Josh, comes to me with this idea of going behind the scenes of Cirque Du Soleil’s “Mystere” show in Las Vegas. Just like that, I was back at that theatre, staring at the closed curtains at the end of "Annie." But this time around I wouldn't just get to be in front of the scenes, I'd get to go behind them. So with giddy excitement, off we went to the Vegas lights.
We arrived at night just in time to catch "Mystere" from the audience perspective. This Cirque Du Soleil show is permanently set at the impressive Treasure Island resort on the Strip.
"Mystere," which means “mystery” in French, is a spectacular show — a combination of grit and grace, muscle and finesse, and fluidity. It is candy for the eye and fulfillment for the soul. The members of this troupe are the most spectacular athletes with the most incredible bodies. Sprinkle in a few smiles and a hint of bravado and you have "Mystere" (according to Jenna).
Step right up
The next morning it was down to business. You see, the wonderful folks at "Mystere" weren't just inviting us behind the scenes, they were putting me in that night's show as a character, fully made up and in costume. I was actually going to be in a live performance of Cirque du Soleil (it's still hard to believe!).
The day began early: I met our camera crew at the theatre with Karin, publicist for "Mystere," and Jeff, the show's manager. Talk about gracious — they made my feel like royalty. Next we met Mimi, my guide for the on-stage experience. Mimi is one of the show's stars. She’s got a smile from here to there, a giant heart and loads and loads and loads of talent.
From there it was off to makeup, which took about an hour. It's amazing how much detail goes into each face on stage, and how much time they spend on each and every character. Mine included! My character was "Spermato," and every character, despite all the running around and sweating during a show, requires a ton of makeup.
By late afternoon, the rest of the masterfully talented cast strolled in. They looked so casual and carefree, you might not guess that underneath the everyday attire, they’re hiding perfectly conditioned and unbelievably toned bodies.
Three hours before show time, it was off to dress rehearsal. It's not like I was going to be swinging from trapeze bars or bouncing high into the theatrical sky on a trampoline. My role in the show required a little running, a few cartwheels, banging on a drum and all the enthusiasm I could muster. Sounds simple enough, right? Now add about 1,500 people in the audience, a few hundred jitters, and the severe bronchitis I had that day and you have my situation. Huffing and puffing and hacking and wheezing. Could you imagine a more alluring Spermato? Don't answer that. But the cast and crew were so welcoming and so excited to have us there that they were unfazed by my annoying little cough … and I love them for that.
With my choreography down pat, and one hour till show time, I set out to see what the cast was up to. This is where my "Annie" experience came into play. I always wondered what went on behind that curtain. Would the Cirque cast be going over their moves, rehearsing their parts, and embracing a few moments of solitude before the show started? Perhaps that's what happened at "Annie," but here at Cirque, it was unbelievable activity. The cast — some of whom are Russian gymnasts, some British, some Canadian, but all of whom are friends — were completely at ease before the show.
Some played foosball and some watched "Celebrity Apprentice" on the flat screen in the players' lounge. It was unbelievable. They were so relaxed, so calm — just another day at the office. Except this office is the most spectacular, stunt-filled, seemingly dangerous show on earth. And here I was, watching some of them surfing the 'net for real estate just minutes before air. I loved it.
Then we got the call to head to the stage for the start of the show. Was I nervous? Let's put it this way — I anchor the TODAY show on Sundays each and every week and there's never a nerve to be found across my body. And yet here I was, moments before running on stage and I was shaking like a rattle.
Three, two, one ... and we were on. The lights went down, the music went up and the curtain opened up to a perspective I had never seen before — a thousand inquiring minds. I followed Mimi on stage, running around doing my bit for the opening number. At one point we were to skip through the audience banging these drums wrapped around us. Apparently I got so excited (let's call it excitement) I banged the drumstick too hard and it snapped in half and flew about eight rows into the audience. Oops! It all happened so fast, I didn't even notice the packed house, I barely heard the music, I hardly saw any of the action around me. I followed Mimi, did all my rehearsed moves, a couple of cartwheels, and somehow made it off stage in one piece. And I thanked the gods of Robitussin for keeping me from coughing throughout the number. What a feeling of energy, of exhilaration, such a high. As soon as we got off stage, the cast scurried about. Some were getting ready for their next number, others, who didn't have scenes for a while, went back to their lounge for some more foosball. I just stood there and took it all in.
I wanted to watch the show from the "players' perspective." And what a perspective. There I was — just off stage, still in my costume, talking to the cast as they came on and off. I wanted to inhale their chemistry, their ease, their jokes, their huge container of M&M's they dig into for a little sugar high before running on stage. Josh and I just stood there, absorbing a totally different lifestyle than we had ever seen before, secretly hoping the cast would adopt us as their own for a month.
And when the closing number began, I started getting a little nostalgic. I didn't want it to end. And after the last note was sung, the last move made, and the last drop of sweat dropped, the curtain began to close. And somewhere out in that audience sat a little girl watching a show like this for the first time, wondering what happened after the curtain closed.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints