Off-Broadway Baby // by Jason Sweettooth Williams
Actor Jason SweetTooth Williams becomes a first-time father, right on schedule.
One of the most miraculous things about the birth of my daughter, Mara, is that she was born on a Monday. More on that in a bit…
It was sometime late in the summer of 2015 when I got a call from Transport Group Artistic Director (and longtime friend), Jack Cummings III. He told me that Transport Group was producing a revival of Once Upon A Mattress that coming fall. He had cast the legendary Jackie Hoffman as the lead, Princess Winnifred, and wondered if I would accept an offer to play her love interest, Prince Dauntless. I almost couldn’t believe what I had just heard! Would I accept an offer to play a leading role in a musical with Jackie Hoffman in New York City? I was about to blurt out, “OH MY GOD, YES, OF COURSE! ARE YOU CRAZY!?” when I looked over at my pregnant wife sitting on the couch. The due date of our first child was right during the run of the show. An understudy for an off-Broadway show just wasn’t a thing. There was no way I could take the role knowing that I would have to call out of the show when my daughter was born. I told Jack I’d think about it and call him back, but in my heart, I knew it was a “No.” But, when I told my wife about Jack’s offer she simply said, “Sweetie, you have to say yes to this. We will figure it out, but you have to say yes.” And so, I did.
So, I was going to be a Prince! But not before we solved this pesky baby problem. Transport Group agreed that they would absolutely need to have someone ready to go on in the event that my wife went into labor and I couldn’t do the show (and who would then be able to potentially take over if there were any complications or unforeseen issues after the baby was born). Enter Doug Shapiro. Doug, equal parts talented and sweet, would fulfill his heroic nightly duties as a member of the Mattress ensemble and then also be ready to go on for me when I had to leave.
The next couple of months were a wild time. At home, I was preparing to become a new father and feeling the anxiety that comes with all of that. At work, I was rehearsing for a big role in a high profile production and trying to hold my own with the likes of Jackie Hoffman and the brilliant John “Lypsinka” Epperson (who played my mother, Queen Aggravain), and all the while making sure that Doug was up to speed and ready to go on. And I knew I was in good hands with Doug—but if I’m being honest, I didn’t want him to do the show—not even for one performance. And not Doug specifically, but anyone. Prince Dauntless had become mine now and I didn’t want anyone else singing those songs or saying those words or kissing Jackie Hoffman every night. That was MY job, dammit! I didn’t want to share this role that now meant so much to me. It turns out, I didn’t have to.
The due date arrived. A Sunday. I was a wreck. The show, fatherhood, Doug. It was all too much. I was ready to call Jack and let him know I’d be out—surely my wife would go into contractions at any moment! But she never did. Not that day anyway. As showtime approached, I went to work like always, did the show, and went home. To this day, I wonder what Doug was feeling that night. Relief? Disappointment? Did he resent my baby for ruining his dreams?
The next morning, my wife calmly woke me to tell me she was going into labor. We went to the hospital and after a very smooth birth (my wife is a rock star!), my angel daughter Mara entered the world at 2:00 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. A true theater baby.
The next day, my mother-in-law flew in to stay with us for a bit. My wife was doing great and since there were no health issues with the baby, I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll go to work tonight.” When I arrived for the show, the whole cast greeted me with gifts and cards and little onesies they had all decorated. I was overwhelmed. The show felt like a whirlwind that night. As I was up there singing and dancing, I was also thinking about my daughter. Would she like to sing? To dance? Would she be a doctor? An astronaut? A subway worker? Could I possibly give her the life and love that my parents gave me? Would I be a good father? Could I still be a dedicated actor? How much does college cost now?
As the show came to a close that night, I took my bow and motioned for Jackie to come take hers like I always did. But instead of bowing, she came center stage and quieted the audience. She told the entire theater that I had just become a father. She motioned to the scrim at the back of the stage and I turned around to see that they had put up a massive photo of my little newborn. I cried. Hard. Even now as I remember that night and how I felt, I can’t help but tear up a bit. The generosity and love that I felt from Jackie, the entire cast of Once Upon a Mattress, and the whole Transport Group family was powerful. These people were holding me up. They were celebrating my new little baby. They were my family. Jackie later told me, “I hate children. But I love your child.”
I finished the run of Once Upon A Mattress without ever missing a performance. The production was a highlight of my career and of my life—I will never forget it.
Oh…and Doug, my friend, I’m sorry. I know you would have killed it, pal.