Updated: Thursday, 04 Jun 2009, 3:46 PM CDT
Published : Thursday, 04 Jun 2009, 12:00 AM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - Just imagine: You're 14 years old on the stage of the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, performing before an audience of more than 1,400 stunned patrons.
You have a little curtain call moment and the crowd roars in astonished glee. Not only do these people adore you, critics sing songs to you in their sleep. Your work in Billy Elliot on Broadway earned you a nomination for a Tony Award.
Let’s stop there for just a moment and let that sink in. At the age of only 14, David Bologna, of Austin, Texas, is a Tony Award nominee.
Now let’s step back almost four years. You live, as you have your entire life, in New Orleans, Louisiana. It’s an idyllic life, complete with bicycle, friends, adoring parents, a cool big brother. As a child, you got turned on to Irish folk dancing and went on to earn international acclaim in competition.
Then comes August 2005, and a massive storm bears down on the city you love, on the home that has always sheltered you. Your family flees to safety. When Hurricane Katrina passes, you finally get to return to the ruins of your house.
There is no water, no plumbing, no electricity. Your parents keep a clipboard at the front door, taking inventory of every once treasured item they now pile high in the street, waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to someday haul it all away. The mountain of debris joins similar piles in front of every neighbor’s house. The heat, the stench, the despair poison the air. At the age of only 10, David Bologna, of New Orleans, Louisiana, is undone.
"I had a lot of memories in there and it was just hard seeing it," said David.
His voice is steady, but slow, belying the deep hurt inside. His father, Rick Bologna, allows his feelings to ride closer to the surface.
"I’m emotional," Rick said. "I’m Italian." (Check out Rick's complete "emotional" response below:)
Rick looks back at the day the his wife, Holly, and his children, Ben and David, stood bewildered and angered in front of their destroyed abode. He takes a big gulp and uses his right hand to trace a path in the air. It is the same path little David took, walking to what remained of the family garage, pulling his bike onto the street, climbing up on the seat and putting shoe to pedal.
"He rode it up and down the street," said Bologna, a long pause punctuating the spoken thought as he struggled for composure. "It was the first time I saw normalcy in a neighborhood that's full of trash."
Eventually, the family settled in Austin and Rick Bologna went to work for the Bishop at the Catholic Diocese here. Someone mentioned a local children’s theatre company called KidsActing. Holly Bologna suggested David check it out.
Still frustrated and angry, the boy wouldn’t even consider the idea. He kept dancing though, and in time, he mellowed on the stage notion. He joined the KidsActing troop and found a leading role in an original work called Bugs, about a kid who finds himself in a world populated by insects. He had a solo in the musical, a song that included the lyrics, "All on my own, scared and alone. Don’t want to talk; don’t want a friend, just want to be a normal boy again. Why is the world so changed, so big and frightening and strange?"
The song ends with a soaring and plaintive cry, "I just want to go home." Talk about art imitating life.
By now, though, David Bologna had learned some things.
"It doesn’t matter where you are," he said, "as long as your family is with you." Austin was now home.
In that new home, at a KidsActing rehearsal, the youngster got wind of an audition in Dallas for the forthcoming musical in New York City, Billy Elliot on Broadway. Eighty kids, including David, auditioned for the part of Billy, the English coal miner’s son who dreamed of being a ballet dancer in a rough, dirty village, drowning in the politics and violence of a massive strike. Eighty was whittled to 12, then six, then three. Speaking of three, David was a triple threat: He could dance, act and sing. He had no skill whatsoever, though, when it came to ballet. He didn’t get the part.
Months later, however, the phone rang. Would David be interested in the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend? More auditions followed, this time in New York City. "Don’t call us; we’ll call you," was the result.
The family went home to Austin and went back to life. David was a teenager now and was begging, without success, for a cell phone. Finally, his parents agreed he could have the phone if he got the role in the musical. The weeks passed and talk of a cell phone went dead.
That is until April 15, 2008. The phone rang and David’s parents heard the good news. When their son came home from school, Rick suggested the family update their cell phone situation, with a sideways glance at his youngest son.
"Oh, man, great! I'm getting a cell phone," David grinned.
"And then it kind of hit him," Rick said, "and he was like, 'Am I going to need a cell phone?'"
"And I was like, well, needless to say, and then the tears started to flow. And it was like, 'Buddy, you...'"
The father pauses while the Italian in him oozes out again.
"I'm getting choked up now," he confesses, before continuing, "I said, 'You’re going to need a cell phone; you're going to Broadway.'"
Mother and son moved to New York. Father and elder brother fly to the Big Apple for weekend visits every couple of months or so. But when the Tony nominations were to be announced last May, Rick Bologna was at work at the Diocese office in Austin.
Rick was at his desk, getting ready to watch the announcements on his computer, via a live feed. His wife and his son were standing in Times Square, where the news was to come down on a huge screen overhead. Rain had been deluging New York for three days, however, and some kind of technical glitch left the screen dark.
So Holly got on the phone with Rick and when the nominees were named for “Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical,” David’s name was called. Rick jumped to his feet and screamed, as an Italian might, the news to his wife, who in turn, passed it on to David.
“I know," the boy replied, " Billy Elliot is nominated for Best Musical."
"No, no, David," she repeated, cradling his young face in her maternal hands, "you’re nominated, you are nominated!"
Joy joined the rain, bathing a mother and her child, embracing alone in the midst of a crowd in the middle of Times Square.
Billy Elliot is here to stay for a while. It garnered 15 Tony nominations, a feat equaled only by The Producers in 2001, and David Bologna will outgrow the part long before the show closes. So he’s making plans for life after Billy.
He’s been learning through a tutoring program during the run of the show, earning his graduation diploma from the 8th grade. A few weeks ago, he and his family did a tour of available Catholic high schools in Austin and settled on the new St. Dominic Savio Catholic High, due to open this fall in the Northwest part of town.
The family will reunite in New York for the Tony Award ceremonies, June 7. They know David is going up against veteran actors and while winning the Tony would be unimaginably fantastic, they view the nomination itself as victory enough.
After the ceremony, they will split up again as David returns to the Imperial Theatre stage and his role as Michael, where he is having a most robust adventure. And while New Orleans, Louisiana, holds his heart; while New York, New York, holds his attention; his eyes are increasingly trained on Austin, Texas.
As he learned after Katrina’s chaos, "It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as your family is with you."
A once vulnerable little boy, now old beyond his years, still hears a song in his head, “I just want to go home.”