Why I flew across the globe for 11 hours to see the Spice Girls three days before the most important opening night of my career

On Monday, June 10th, 2019 the Spice Girls performed fearlessly and brilliantly in the pouring rain to over 30,000 fans in Bristol, England, and I was lucky enough to be in the fourth row, with my soul sparkling and my heart filled with joy.

It was a labor of love to get back and forth to the concert. I’ve been in preview performances for “The Secret Life of Bees” at the Atlantic Theater, meaning that I couldn’t miss any shows for the past month. But miraculously, the Spice Girls had scheduled a Monday evening performance (my night off) during the final week of their tour in Bristol, and it just so happened that one of my dearest friends, Roo, is from Bristol and had the night off as well!

Now this sounds like dream-timing on paper, but because of a schedule irregularity at “Bees,” we had two performances on Sunday, the 9th. I was going to need to find a redeye to Europe on Sunday night after finishing “Bees” at 9:30PM, otherwise I wouldn’t make it to the Spice Girls in time with the 5 hour time-change.. I had mostly given up on the dream when XL Airways announced that they would be doing (CHEAP) midnight flights from Newark to Paris! This I could do!!! I looked at flights and realized I could fly Newark to Paris to AMSTERDAM to Bristol and make it by 4:30PM! The one trick is that there was only an hour and a half between the flight to Paris and the one to Amsterdam, but it seemed feasible.

So I finished my second show at “Bees” on Sunday and jetted to the airport, reading all about what was happening at the Tony Awards along the way. (Because, yes, we performed during the Tony Awards.) I was in the best mood - feeling unstoppable and so happy! By 11:30PM I was on the flight, life was grand! I put on some Spice Girls music and bopped along while watching the clock. 12:15AM...12:30AM…12:45AM and we hadn’t taken off yet. Some airport security came on and off the plane, and we were told there was a security issue (?!) and once it was cleared up, we’d be leaving. When we finally took off around 1:20AM I realized that, unless we made up time in the air, I no longer had a chance of making my connecting flight to Bristol. I was worried, but hoped for the best and let myself sleep.

Well...our plane landed 10 minutes before my KLM flight to Amsterdam was set to take off. Because I was switching airlines, I was going to need to switch terminals as well, and go through security again for whatever reason. I tried my best, but by 2:45 I was stuck in a security line and my flight had taken off. I felt hopeless. I knew my flight options were limited - Bristol is a small airport.

I searched through whatever flights I could. The next flights on KLM would have gotten me to Bristol at 10:10PM and the girls were going on at 8:30PM. Research...research…staying calm... There was ONE direct flight to Bristol from Paris - the only one a day - on EasyJet, and it would land me in Bristol at 7:15PM - THIS COULD WORK! But I have this backpack that is too large to bring into the venue, ack! SO Roo and their father sprang into action - Roo’s dad would come to the airport and grab my bag, and then we would ride to the concert. AH THIS COULD WORK! THIS REALLY COULD WORK! The flight was only $160 - which, in the context of this whole journey was pennies - so I bought it, and sat in the Paris airport for 3 hours, sending good vibes into the world.

The EasyJet flight started boarding 10 minutes late and, by 10 minutes after our departure time, I still wasn’t yet on the plane. My Anxiety building! We ended up in the air a half hour late, but the pilot told us he would make up time in the air. OKAY, I thought, THIS CAN STILL HAPPEN. We landed at 7:31, and by 7:42 I had rushed through customs and met Roo at the gate, we dropped off my backpack with their Dad and hopped in a car. And by 8:15, by a divine Girl Powered miracle, we arrived at Ashton Gate Stadium, and by 8:30, we were in our seats in the fourth row when the first bars of “Spice Up Your Life” began.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “Wow, Ben! All that for a Spice Girls concert?! The week of opening your new show?!” And I hear you. But, let me tell you a little about myself, to give you a little bit of context.

The year is 1997. I’m in the fourth grade in a small town called Townsend (yes...the end of all towns), and I’ve grown up watching my dad play trumpet for local musicals, and with my grandmother bringing me to see Broadway shows in New York. My Dad had just played a run of “Crazy For You” and I became obsessed with the Gershwin melodies and listened to the cast album on my Walkman every day - “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “But Not For Me” - I was *hooked.* Now, I had played piano solos in the school talent show the two years prior, but I decided that I had a song in my heart, and I wanted to sing “I Got Rhythm” that year. (A reminder that I’m in the 4th Grade and I am serving you straight-tone soprano realness, all the way up in Jodi Benson’s key.) I was a very introverted child - very shy, very to-myself. I typically spent more time coloring than interacting with other kids as a child. Now, I wanted to sing, but had paralyzing stage-fright, so my piano teacher Mr. Burgess, who was accompanying me, told me I could sing angled slightly away from the audience, so I could feel like I was singing to the left wall and pretend there wasn’t an audience. And I certainly did sing the whole number angled 45 degrees towards the wall.

I don’t remember how I felt after it - if I felt like I did a good job, or if I thought the audience liked me. I don’t remember if it felt like a release, or if the anxiety lingered after. All I remember is that the next day I went to school and I was called “girly boy” and “faggot” for the first time. That was enough to put me back in my shell, and my singing career was over before it began. I wouldn’t sing on-stage again for twenty years, when the “Broadway Princess Party” girls finally pulled it out of me.

Showtunes had betrayed me, it seemed, so it was time to find something new to love. I started watching VH1, and avidly following their Top 10 Countdown every week, and I started getting a taste for pop and rock music. No Doubt, the Counting Crows, the Wallflowers, Jewel, Duncan Sheik, Shawn Colvin...I found it all fascinating. And then I remember seeing the music video for the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” for the first time, and it changed something in me. I was a young boy with almost no friends, now feeling a great amount of shame at the thought of expressing myself, and these five outrageous girls came on my television screen who were unashamed to be loud, to be wild, to have fun, to be messy, to stand up for what they believed in, and to be boldly themselves. I was hooked. I know “Girl Power” seemed like it shouldn’t have applied to a 4th grade boy, but I heard it as a call to arms to believe in myself - to not let anyone make you feel small, and to be boldy yourself, flaws and all.

I remember my Aunt Mary Ellen buying me their first album for me at Lechmere and I became totally enamored with the music, with images, and with the message. As I entered fifth grade, the
walls of my bedroom became covered with Spice Girls posters, and I would have vivid recurring dreams about joining them on tour with them and becoming the Spice Boy - a sixth member of the group, dreaming of having somewhere I belonged. The girls released their second album, “Spiceworld,” later that year, filled with songs about having the strength to get out in the world and be yourself, about knowing your worth and not accepting discounts, about never giving up on the good times, and about the everlasting power of friendship. Their words and melodies were powerful and hopeful, and they spoke right to impressionable young me. I’d put on that album and I’d become “Benji Spice.” I felt like I was suddenly a boy who had five friends where before I had none.

So when it was announced that the girls would be going on tour, I begged my parents to let me get tickets. They were going to be playing at Great Woods in Mansfield, Massachusetts on July 8th of 1998, and I remember saving the ad in the newspaper, and being ready to call the phone number for tickets the moment they went on sale. (Because, no, buying tickets online wasn’t a thing! You had to call!) I dialed and redialed for over an hour, continuously getting a busy signal, before YES, I GOT THROUGH, and a female voice finally answered, “Hello! Spice Girls are sold out. How can I help you?” and my heart fell into my shoes. I was devastated. I loved these girls - and I had done everything right - I called and called and called right when they went on-sale. I was punctual, I persisted. And nothing. I was so sad.

And I must have been really sad for a long time, because one day my mom came home from work and told me she had gotten us Spice Girls tickets from a ticket broker (which were places you went *in person* back in the day to buy scalped tickets, the way we do at StubHub nowadays). I was OVER THE MOON! It was such a beautiful expression of love and understanding from my mother. And it was going to be my very first rock concert! My mother took that July afternoon off from work, and we went to a sporting goods store to buy binoculars. I brought my poster from my VHS copy of the film “Spice World” with me. I guess at age 11 I thought the Spice Girls would see me in the lawn of Great Woods holding their movie poster and feel...loved? No idea. But we got to the venue plenty early so that I could be at the front of the lawn - and I was little, so I did make my way in front of the pushing/shoving girls that were older than me. And I watched the concert in awe and in happiness. And I held my poster up every so often, just to show the Girls a little extra love. They sang every song I loved, and they were so beautifully and boldly themselves, just like I had always seen on TV, but there they were in real life!!! They were so joyful, and so beautiful. And it was so theatrical - just like Broadway! And everyone around me loved them and their music, too! It felt better than just if they had been singing to me - it was like there was suddenly a world open to me of people who loved what I loved. It was one of the first times I experienced the beauty of community.

I remember the night as a beautiful blur now - it was 21 years ago. But I loved every moment of the concert, and I loved my mother so much for knowing that it was important for me to be there that beautiful July night.

So, 21 years later, I have a beautiful life in New York City, with a community of hundreds of artists with whom I get the joy of interacting with and making music with on a daily basis. I’ve grown into a hugely social creature, who has made a career out of sharing love with artists and helping them see themselves in the beautiful way in which I see them. And that is because I found my community, my little place in the world here on Broadway - and that would have never happened if the Spice Girls hadn’t given me a glimpse of what it really was to believe in myself - to know what I really really wanted, to find my people of the world, and to never give up on the good times.

So on Monday, June 10th of 2019, I stood in the pouring rain, and I watched four of the most influential people in my life sing two hours of the songs that made me come alive as a youth. And I was surrounded by 30,000 other people, all of whom had loved this music for decades, too, and knew all the words, all of whom were willing to stand in the pouring rain to be part of the magic. The girls knew it was a special moment too, and, in spite of getting soaked to the bone, rode the wave of that love from the  audience and sang and danced their hearts out. It was a transcendent experience for everyone there.

But towards the end of the set, something really wild happened. During the song “Mama,” Emma (Baby Spice - my childhood favorite) walked down the catwalk and paused by my area of the stadium. She looked in my direction and I waved like a starstruck child, and she gave a big bright smile and she pointed directly at me and she waved back. And, I know it’s silly, but in that split second it felt as if she said to the little 11 year old in me, “Hey! I see you! You did it! You found your place in the world. I always believed you could!” And in that magical moment, I was 11 again, spending the night with four of my best friends, and I could have flown right out of that stadium on the wings of my joy.

And the thing is, the Spice Girls did that for millions of people. It wasn’t just pop music - it was a movement of empowerment.

I left the concert overwhelmed with happiness, and soaked to the bone. I headed back to the airport
at 4:30AM and flew back to America. I landed by noon in NYC and prepared myself to perform one of the last preview performances of “The Secret Life of Bees.” I wasn’t tired, because I was so filled with joy and overwhelmed with love. Wildly, my friend Jason Sherwood, who designed the sets for the Spice Girls tour, came to “Bees” that night, and it felt like a perfect completion of a circle, with my theater world connecting to the Spice World, and my trip tying itself up with a tidy bow.

So yes, I did travel halfway around the world to be in England for 11 hours to see the Spice Girls just days before one of the most important opening nights of my life. And yes, it was wildly risky, and yes, it did all miraculously work out. And YES, it was worth it to see my oldest, dearest friends, the Spice Girls, just before one of the most epic moments of my life. I have never met them, but they were my first friends, and my love for them is everlasting. And, as they taught us all, friendship never ends. And tonight, surrounded by a community of colleagues and friends that the girls inspired me to find, I open The Secret Life of Bees in New York City. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of Girl Power!