Sydney Lucas broke the news to me in excited whispers, her eyes boring straight into mine. She had a way of doing that, of saying something and then staring at me afterwards; she would watch to make sure the words seeped in.
It was March of 2015. The two of us were sitting atop the red, rusting monkey bars in our middle school courtyard, our legs dangling over the edge. I averted my eyes from hers as she continued to speak, staring at my worn Converse swinging back and forth. I needed a moment to settle on a reaction – Syd had just been cast in Fun Home, on Broadway.
Below us, our classmates screeched at the top of their lungs as they raced around the yard, hands outstretched, trying to escape being “it” in tag. On the other side of the playground, a slightly deflated soccer ball soared through the air, briefly suspended in space as I tried to think of something to reply back.
My mind was attempting to process a million contradictory thoughts at once. I was immensely proud of her, as if by virtue of being her friend, her success was partly my own; but another part of me wanted her to stay in school, by my side, and knew it was selfish to want that.
She was Sydney, my friend Sydney, who rode to school on a blue scooter and carried around a stuffed monkey. During our history classes she would doodle in her notebook, her swirls and lines coalescing around an ever smaller amount of blank space in the center of the page. We would whisper during Math and exchange looks during Vocal. It was so strange to think that just like that, she would no longer belong to the plane of childhood we shared together in school, but instead to audiences and spotlights and gowns and awards shows.
“It’s a big decision. I know it,” I remember Sydney admitting, matter of factly, as if she could read my mind. “But it’s what I want.”
At that, I threw my arms around her. I knew she meant it; Sydney’s insights about herself were always the result of deliberate self-reflection. The two of us jumped off the monkey bars, hollering and laughing at the news, knowing the effect it would soon have, but choosing to chase each other around with all the other kids in the meantime.
Sydney has always been introspective, able to identify how she feels and express what she wants. At just three years old, she would frequently voice her desire to be a performer aloud to her parents. When she saw Xanadu on Broadway, she told them that she was “mesmerized” by the intricate illusion the actors created onstage, “awed” by the emotions they were able to simulate beneath the fluorescent lights. “Even commercials starring children captivated me,” Sydney tells me with a laugh. “I would ask, ‘Mom, Dad, how do I do that? How did those kids get on TV?’”
Sydney’s parents eventually realized that her unwavering ambition was not the result of an ephemeral childhood wish to be famous, but rather a genuine love for the craft. Her mother Karri found a manager willing to audition not only Sydney, but also her two older brothers, Brock and Jake. The managing agency ended up signing all three Lucas siblings, and with the full support of her parents, Sydney began to embark on auditions throughout the city when she was just six years old.
Sydney did not land her first big role until three years later, when she was cast in Fun Home, a stage adaptation of the Alison Bechdel graphic memoir by the same name. At that time, Fun Home was more of a fluid concept than a concrete entity, “Sam, the director, and Lisa, the writer, would make pages of changes every day,” Sydney recalls. “They would hand us whole new songs and scenes in the morning, which we would then have to memorize, rehearse, and perfect in time for a live performance – in front of an audience – that very evening,” she said, becoming somewhat incredulous as the insurmountable nature of the task dawns on her.
Even in its developmental stages, Fun Home – a musical chronicling Bechdel’s strained relationship with her closeted father and the aftermath of his suicide – became an unexpected sensation. “Our show kept getting extended, and extended, and extended. People were loving it, there was a buzz around it,” Sydney told me.
The show’s popularity soon landed it a coveted spot on Broadway, where Sydney was tapped to reprise her role as the ten year old, dress-averse Bechdel, who questions her sexuality and navigates familial pressures over the course of the show’s two hour run.
Sydney soon realized that assuming such a demanding role came with a unique set of responsibilities. “When you’re young, all you want to do is play,” Sydney said, instantly reminding me of the imaginative games that she would devise during recess. “I wanted to go out, go to the park, socialize with the other Broadway kids in between performances. But being that my role in [Fun Home] was so taxing, I had to make sure that I had enough in me, every single day, to do the show.”
“So when all the other Broadway kids – from Matilda, Finding Neverland, Kinky Boots, you name it – would go out and play during lunch time on a two show day, I would have to force myself to stay in my dressing room, and take a nap, even though I so badly wanted to go out and join them. But I knew that it was best for me to rest up and take that time for myself,” Sydney explained, her expression assuming a quiet neutrality.
The incongruence between Sydney’s stoic maturity and juvenile free-spiritedness is what drew me to her, and always managed to enthrall me whenever I was lucky enough to see her perform. One moment, she would exude a jarring pensiveness as the final note of ‘Ring of Keys’ escaped from her lips. The next, she would wrestle with her onstage brothers, descending into the realm of hilarity only accessible to children unafraid to let go.
The many games Sydney and her Fun Home siblings played onstage mirrored the shenanigans they would get into once the lights dimmed and the theater emptied. “We were so close!” she exclaimed in reference to her costars – Oscar Williams, Zell Steele Morrow, Gabby Pizzolo, and Presley Ryan. “We laughed so much – you know that laugh that just hurts so badly, like you just can’t stop laughing? Probably twice daily would we laugh that much. I mean, we always found a way to have fun, no matter where we were, or what we had access to,” she said.
“Our wrangler, Vanessa Brown, encouraged us to play with anything that wasn’t technology, very seventies games, like tangible board games and cards. So we were always playing Spit; one time we played Beanboozled, which is this game you play with jelly beans, Harry Potter style. Basically, two jelly beans are identical, but one of them tastes good and one of them tastes totally horrendous. You would get a green one, and it could be either juicy pear, or barf! We decided to play that in the middle of the show one time,” Sydney told me with a mischievous grin.
Every night, after Sydney finished signing autographs and warmly conversing with tearful fans, she and the other Fun Home kids would gather in front of the theater for their favorite post-show tradition. As their parents patiently waited, the young Broadway actors would scooter around in circles, chasing each other, belting out the same lyrics they had sung for an audience thirty minutes prior. “Just ten more minutes!” they would shout, as if their parents were begging them to leave behind a swing set rather than a marquee. I watched them once, the first time I went to see Fun Home. I stood on the periphery, just beyond the circumference of their invisible track, clutching a crumpled playbill bearing Sydney’s signature in bright blue ink.
When Sydney arrived back home each night from the Circle in the Square, she refused to go to sleep until she had a chance to debrief with her older brother Jake. Jake was starring in “The King and I” alongside Kelli O’ Hara at the time, and had made his Broadway debut in Newsies three years earlier, in 2012. Jake’s firsthand knowledge of what Sydney was going through allowed him to empathize with, and support her in a way no one else could.
“Let’s say I messed up on stage one day,” Sydney said, waving her hand nonchalantly to illustrate her transition to the hypothetical. “I would be able to go home, and talk to Jake about it. He would be like, ‘Hey, that’s okay! I’ve messed up countless times, and it’s honestly not a big deal.’” When impersonating Jake, Sydney mimes placing her fingers comfortingly on an invisible person’s shoulder.
“Having someone who you’re able to experience the exact same things with, especially in the world of acting, is so grounding,” Sydney continued. “Like, we performed at the Tony awards together. And the Tony Awards by yourself are TERRIFYING, they’re absolutely terrifying. But having my brother there? Just being able to see him backstage, and hug him after that insane day was one of the most comforting and gratifying things. We were like, ‘How did we get in here? Why were we let in?’”
Sydney was nominated for a Tony Award for her work in Fun Home in 2015. When she walked into Radio City the morning of the ceremony, she was faced not only with the pressure of being the youngest nominee that year, but with the knowledge that she would have to represent Fun Home all by herself.
“When Sam Gould, my director, told me we were going to do ‘Ring of Keys,’ my solo song, at the Tony’s, for a second I was like ‘Are you sure about that?! We should do a group number or something!’” Sydney told me, acting out the reaction of her eleven year old self, becoming frantic and panic-stricken in a matter of seconds.
Recomposing herself, she told me, “Ultimately I realized, ‘Ring of Keys is the anthem of the show.’ It’s such a touching song, and I understood the importance of representing Fun Home with it. From that moment, I kind of pulled myself together, and just said, ‘Whatever you do, all you can ask from yourself is to do your best.’”
The day of the ceremony, Sydney explained, was a blur. She and Jake parted ways at dawn, not to see each other again until that evening. In the hours between, Sydney met her idol Sutton Foster; got her hair and makeup done at the Carlyle; and “completely blacked out” during her performance, relying on the testimony of a stage manager who reassured her that it went “smoothly” as she was being ushered away from the wings.
She even insisted on bringing her stuffed monkey, Bongo, with her. “Bongo was my lucky charm,” Sydney said. “He is a tribute to my grandfather, who unfortunately passed before Fun Home went to Broadway. I took him on the red carpet, and everyone was like, ‘Don’t – this is the Tony Awards, don’t take pictures with your stuffed monkey.’ And I said right back, ‘I’m going to take pictures with my stuffed monkey, thank you very much. He’s my date.’”
Eventually, she and Jake reunited right before their entrance for the In Memoriam. They were slated to perform standing directly behind Josh Groban. “Jake and I met in the basement, in this massive elevator which rises up and connects to a trap door onstage. Hundreds of people from all different shows were being elevated from the basement up onto the stage for the number at the exact same time. So we met at that moment, when we were all getting into our places on the trap door, about to be elevated up to stage level. We quickly caught up, like ‘Hey how’d your performance go? Good? Mine went well to,’” she said, cracking up at the absurdity of the memory. “And then afterwards, we just walked off together, we did a secret handshake, completely normal sibling stuff.”
As my conversation with Sydney is winding down, she voluntarily brings up the reality of her long absence from school. “During the rehearsal process for Fun Home, I was out of school pretty much always,” Sydney told me, glancing beyond the frame as if she can see her thoughts more clearly somewhere in the distance.
“And I remember, one of my first days back, I was so excited to see you. I had my backpack on, and I was trying to find where you all were, and I went to – you know, the place, where we would wait before acting class? That hallway? There was a table there, and you were sitting at that table, and it was like slow motion. I took my backpack off, and you looked at me, and we were screeching, like, ‘OHMYGOSH!’ I was just so excited to see you!” Sydney said, waving her hands around, miming the story as it spills out of her.
“What was that like? Missing all of that school?,” I find myself asking, ignoring the nicely prepared list of questions sitting next to me for a moment. “Did you ever feel like you were missing out, or did you love what you were doing so much that you were willing to let it become your life, at least for a little while?” I said. I stopped taking notes at this moment and listened to her, dissolving the formalities of pen and paper in order to really hear her answer.
“I… I think about this a lot,” Sydney began. “I think about the fact that I didn’t have a conventional childhood. I started acting when I was six years old, and I was on Broadway at eleven. And I ask myself, would I rather have had a conventional childhood, where I didn’t have that public pressure, or a full-time job… a childhood where I didn’t have to do eight shows a week, at eleven years old?”
“I mean, obviously, I’d created such wonderful friendships at school,” she continued. “And I missed socializing with you guys, with people my age, on a daily basis. But when I think about what I would’ve wanted… without a doubt in my mind, I would choose the childhood that I’ve had. I know that I was meant to do this. I knew it at such a young age. And if I had to sacrifice a quote-unquote ‘normal’ childhood in order to pursue my dreams, then I would do it ten times out of ten.” When she finished her sentence, she’s no longer looking off-screen. She’s staring straight at me.
“I mean, obviously, I’d created such wonderful friendships at school,” she continued. “And I missed socializing with you guys, with people my age, on a daily basis. But when I think about what I would’ve wanted… without a doubt in my mind, I would choose the childhood that I’ve had. I know that I was meant to do this. I knew it at such a young age. And if I had to sacrifice a quote-unquote ‘normal’ childhood in order to pursue my dreams, then I would do it ten times out of ten,” Sydney said.