My mother-in-law, Eileen, is an expert cruiser. She has logged 70 years, and as many trips, on ships, beginning in 1953 with her first sail aboard the Queen Mary, when she was just 10 years old. Her family is full of cruise-thusiasts: ships have served as settings for milestone birthdays and reunions, drawing as many as 200 kin to ports of call around the world. Unsurprisingly, Eileen was also responsible for my first cruise—a five-night stint on Royal Caribbean in 1991 when I was newly-engaged to her son, Ronnie. Eileen and her husband Manuel would set sail about five times a year until the pandemic arrived, when they were temporarily moored at home in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
But about a year ago, Manuel passed away, leaving Eileen completely adrift. For months we struggled with ways to comfort her. One day, Ronnie suggested: “Let’s take Mom on a cruise.” Perhaps it was time for her to travel without her longtime anchor.
At first, I wasn’t crazy about the idea. Cruising has never been my preferred mode of travel, and I was still a little leery of unmasked crowds in confined spaces. But then I noticed a posting on Instagram by one of my favorite Broadway performers, Tony Award-winner Laura Benanti: “Join me on The Broadway Cruise 2023, sailing from New York to Bermuda March 31-April 5 on the Norwegian Gem!” Her post about the inaugural sailing—which had originally been slated for October 2020, but was delayed by the pandemic—promised five nights of performances and fun courtesy of big showbiz names like Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, musical comedian Randy Rainbow, and more.
If I was going to dip my toe back into cruising, it might as well be with a Broadway cruise. Before the pandemic, I’d see a dozen shows per year, and like so many others during that time, I was forced to turn to the virtual world (think, Sondheim’s star-studded 90th-birthday tribute over Zoom) when the theaters went dark. Show tunes do have an inherently healing quality, I reasoned. Plus, I’d do it for Eileen. Not everyone could spend five days on a ship with their mother-in-law—but like her son, she’s smart, soft-hearted, open-minded, and adventurous, and we’ve always felt more like partners-in-crime rather than archetypal adversaries.
Though not a lover of musicals, Ronnie was game, agreeing that the familiar setting and upbeat theme would be a good way to help Eileen heal. We recruited Eileen’s niece, Julie, to be her cabinmate, and before we knew it we were wiggling jazz-hands at the ship photographer as we embarked from New York.