“The Nate series by Tim Federle is a wonderful evocation of what it’s like to be a theater kid. Highly recommended.” —Lin-Manuel Miranda, star and creator of the musical, Hamilton “An exceptional swan song for a beloved character.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Third time’s a charm! Nate Foster returns home to Jankburg, Pennsylvania, to face his biggest challenge yet—high school—in this final novel in the Lambda Literary Award–winning Nate trilogy, which The New York Times calls “inspired and inspiring.”
When the news hits that E.T.: The Musical wasn’t nominated for a single Tony Award—not one!—the show closes, leaving Nate both out of luck and out of a job. And while Nate’s cast mates are eager to move on (the boy he understudies already landed a role on a TV show!), Nate knows it’s back to square one, also known as Jankburg, Pennsylvania. Where horror (read: high school) awaits.
Desperate to turn his life from flop to fabulous, Nate takes on a huge freshman English project with his BFF, Libby: he’s going to make a musical out of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. (What could possibly go…right?) But when Nate’s New York crush ghosts him, and his grades start to slip, he finds the only thing harder than being on Broadway is being a freshman — especially when you’ve got a secret you’re desperate to sing out about.
This magical conclusion to Tim Federle’s beloved Nate series is a love letter to theater kids young and not-so-young—and for anyone who ever wondered if they could truly go home again. Especially when doing so means facing everything you thought you’d left behind.
Nate Expectations Not Bitter!! So . . . some breaking news.
The show didn’t get a single Tony Award nomination.
I suppose I should get that out now, in case you think the rest of this is gonna be the enlightened thoughts of a famous person. Just don’t want to disappoint you.
E.T.: The Musical did get an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination. For costumes. (Yay.) But, look, if you saw the way the rubber E.T. suit glistens in the spotlight, and how the audience oohs and aahs over the whole cast in alien garb for the curtain call (we tap dance!), you’d nominate us for costumes, too.
Correction. Unless you’re a Tony Awards nominator. In which case, you’d think we’d opened several seasons ago. Or never opened at all!
“Well, this is awkward,” one of my dressing roommates says. We’re five floors up, backstage at the Shubert Theater, and nobody’s making eye contact. The nominations came out this morning. (Well, other shows’ nominations did. Not us!)
“Agreed,” I manage to kind of say. I’m actually surprised how emotionally it comes out—I thought I’d gotten all my tears out back at Aunt Heidi’s place, in Queens. She handed me a square of toilet paper (she says Kleenex is a waste) and murmured something about how “crying in Queens is redundant.” Adults like to talk in poetry, did you know that?
Knock-knock. The “nice” stage manager (Lori, not Ashlee, who hates kids) is at our dressing-room door. Stage managers are like teachers who wear all black, as if they’re at a funeral where you’re expected to carry a clipboard and hound people about not eating chocolate while in costume. “Hey guys,” Lori says, “just . . . checkin’ in.”
Hoo, boy. This particular stage manager never “just checks in,” unless something bad is in the air. (Sometimes literally—recently one of my dressing roommates heated up broccoli in the company microwave and didn’t put a lid on the Tupperware.)
“Are we in trouble?” I ask, and Lori makes one of those faces you make when you’re watching a YouTube of a very old dog trying to hop up on a sofa.
“Of course not,” she says.
Oh, boy. It really is bad. Any time an adult is checking in but doesn’t have punishment up their sleeve, you know something big is going down.
“I just figured you guys might be a little bummed out,” Lori says. “You know, because of the news.”
“We know,” we all say at once.
Really, though, it’s a lack of news. Is it news if you aren’t even noticed? I mean, I’m not trying to be self-pitying here—I’m still just a kid from the Midwest who managed to break his way into a Broadway show—but, c’mon. Did we really deserve this? The New York Times called us “surprising!” and the New York Post said: “See this show, if you dare, while it’s still running.”
In some circles, those are raves!
We dressing-room boys have been on a group-text chain all day. It started with us sending a bunch of GIFs of former Tony Award–winning actresses tripping while they were walking up to the podium. Classic, harmless boy stuff.
By the third nomination category, though—which we were all live-streaming from the comfort of our own studio apartments—when Elliott’s Mom didn’t get a Supporting Actress nomination (she literally sings better than anyone on the internet), our group text went quiet. And then it started filling up with all kinds of all-cap SWEAR WORDS that I will leave out here. But you can imagine.
“Okay, well,” Lori the stage manager says, trailing off before taking off. “Just doin’ my rounds . . .” There are just certain things you can’t wrap up with a cheery fortune-cookie response. Not that she doesn’t try: “Go out there and tell the story tonight,” she says, a moment after leaving us, popping back in and looking unconvinced by her own advice. “Oh, and by the way—this is your half-hour call.”
The room is quiet. We’ll have an audience in those seats in a half hour. No matter how we feel—and we all have a lot of feelings—we’ll have to plaster on some smiles and go put on a show.
I don’t think people realize how weird and hard it is to perform on Broadway. It’s eight shows a week, two of them matinees, and no matter what’s going on in your personal life—like, if you happen to regularly kiss the boy who’s playing the lead, and thus all you want to do is stare at him when you’re onstage together in the Act One classroom scene—you have to just “tell the story.”
That was our assistant director’s signature phrase, when he’d come back to check in on the show in the weeks leading up to the Tony nominations.
Correction: to our lack of Tony nominations.
“Just go out there,” the assistant director said to us guys, “and get in the mindset of your character. What does your character want? That’s your only responsibility. To show the audience what your characters want, and to bring your full, professional conviction to it.”
“My character wants to be a vital part of a Tony-nominated hit,” I wanted to say. But I’ve been trained to just nod and write down what adults say. This is a good overall life technique, I’ve come to learn: Just nod at adults, whether you agree or not. Apparently—this is a shock, but my Aunt Heidi told me—adults “just want to be heard.”
Try being fourteen!
Oh, the Tonys! The Tonys, for those who don’t know—and if you don’t, buckle up, because it’s gonna be a lot of this—are like the Oscars of theater. Or as I like to say: The Oscars are the Tonys of film.
“At this evening’s performance”—the stage manager announcements are now droning on from our overhead speakers, and they’re typically pretty epic—“the role of Elliott’s Mom will be played by Marci Carroll.”
All us boys sit up straight, shook by this news. Marci has only been on once, and only for half an act. It was a few months ago, when our regular Elliott’s Mom came down with something mysterious after eating a street hot dog on a “disastrous” (her word) first Tinder date with a handsome banker type who, in her retelling, kept calling E.T. a “play” instead of a musical. Which made me feel like I’d eaten a bad hot dog. Who are these people? Plays instead of musicals? What’s next: calling cast albums “soundtracks”?
I shudder at the memory and put gel in my hair.
Anyway, Marci’s on for Elliott’s Mom tonight.
“And now people start dropping like flies,” says Roberto, my dressing roommate who applies too much eyeliner to be playing a seventh-grade boy in mid-eighties California. “Down, down, down we go.”
This kid’s been in three other Broadway shows. Three! I heard a rumor his real name is Robert and his agent made him add the o to “stand out.” Who knows.
“Wait, why?” I see my lips saying in the dressing-room mirror. “Why are people gonna start dropping like flies?”
“Because,” Roberto-but-really-Robert says at me, like I’m eight, “our show didn’t get any nominations. So now everyone’s over it, and gonna find new jobs.”
I’m not over it.
Roberto puts down his eyeliner pencil and clucks his lips at me as if I’m seven, like I’m aging in reverse.
I’m not over any of it.
My dressing room mirror is covered in opening-night cards that I wedged into its metal frame. There’s stuff up there from my parents, but not my older brother, Anthony—who doesn’t even call musicals “plays” because he doesn’t even acknowledge their existence as a concept. Anyway, I’m seeing the greetings like it’s opening night all over again: a card with a kitty who’s wearing, like, a Shakespeare hat, from Aunt Heidi. A note from Libby, my best friend from Jankburg, PA, who hand-decorated a Halloween card and drew a red arrow pointing at a skeleton, and signed it: “This is me when you’re away.” (Dead.)
And also my favorite opening night card of all, from Jordan, the boy I’ve had this . . . secret thing with, for the last couple months. I guess other boys play video games. Jordan just plays with my feelings. He’s got the all-time high score.
“Fifteen minutes,” comes the overhead announcement.
Jordan didn’t sign the card, by the way. He just wrote: “From, you know who!” Because I did, and I do. Or at least I thought I did. His dressing room is two floors away.
Can you ever really get to know a guy if his dressing room is two floors away?
I pull open my drawer and fish around, pushing past the lipstick and homework I ignore equally.
“Nate, let’s roll,” says one of the child guardians, standing in the doorway. If stage managers are teachers at a funeral, child guardians are babysitters on turbo blast. “Gotta get you to wigs.”
I wear a wig in the first scene, but it isn’t as fun as it sounds. They are hot, and they are expensive, and every adult in the building will remind you of this twenty-four-six. (We get one day off per week.) Damaging a wig is less forgivable than, like, accidentally breaking the arm of a fellow cast member. Cast members are replaceable. Wigs, no.
“Naaate. Seriously. Move it.”
I give the international “just one second” sign to the guardian, because I want to find my green rabbit foot. Jordan gave it to me on opening night, to replace the famous green rabbit foot that I carried with me on my E.T. audition, and then lost on my bus ride home.
“We gotta roll now, my dude,” says the guardian, who never calls me his dude.
I give up on finding the rabbit foot. I was gonna make a wish on it, an earnest wish.
Something about our show, about me and Jordan, about hoping a lack of Tony nominations doesn’t signal a lack of a meaningful future. My dad, a maintenance engineer (janitor), once said the most important thing a man can do is start off on the right foot. Is this the right foot? Moving to New York, and New York telling you, “You know what, we don’t want you here either, actually.”
“My dude,” the guardian says, “you’re standing on my foot.”
He’s right. I am. I guess I stood up to go downstairs to wigs, and checked my phone to see what people online were saying about our zero (that’s 0) Tony nominations, and apparently I stepped on the guardian.
My body’s kind of doing its own thing these days. Sue it!
I hope none of this sounds like I’m complaining, by the way.
It’s just . . . the tricky part about having your dream come true is that then you want to hold on to it. Make a wish on it. Put it on a keychain and check on it, thirty times a day, every time you can’t remember if your life is real and if the wish stays yours, or stays true, once it becomes real.
Anyway, if you see my green rabbit foot around, tell it I say hi. I’ve got a ton of wishes I’m trying to narrow down, and I could use a prop. I like to think of wishes as dreams that just majored in musical theater—but I’m weird. As I’m guessing you’ve already figured out.
Tim Federle is “a prolific scribe whose breezy wit isn’t bound to a single genre” (Huffington Post). Tim’s award-winning novels include The New York Times Notable Books The Great American Whatever and the Nate series—which Lin-Manuel Miranda called “a wonderful evocation of what it’s like to be a theater kid.” Tim cowrote both the Tony-nominated Broadway musical Tuck Everlasting, and the Golden Globe and Oscar–nominated Best Animated Feature Ferdinand, starring John Cena and Kate McKinnon. A native of San Francisco who grew up in Pittsburgh, Tim now divides his time between New York and the internet (@TimFederle).