Attending live theater can be a life-changing event for many people. Whether it is getting caught up in a gripping drama, letting your cares float away upon a cloud of laughter or feeling the goosebumps appear when you hear the perfect song bonds the audience member to the theater for life. Ron Fassler, actor, scriptwriter, author, theater director and theater lover knows this more than most and tells his story in “Up in the Cheap Seats,” which is apropos at all times, but maybe a little more so while the Tony Awards are fresh in our minds.

Fassler made his bones as an actor and may be best known for his portrayal as Bryan Grazer in the "Alien Nation" TV series that appeared on Fox in the mid-1990s.

He has worked continuously from 1981 when he made his debut in the film “Senior Trip.” He had notable appearances in TV and film roles including “Star Trek: Voyager," and “Charlie Wilson’s War."

Fassler grew up in Great Neck, NY, which is only about 25 minutes from the New York City. He discovered the draw of the theater as a child and would use his pocket money to travel to the city alone and catch a show. He saw more than 200 Broadway shows in under four years.

Ron Fassler spoke about what drew him to the theater, his encounters with many Broadway legends including Stephen Sondheim, James Earl Jones and Mike Nichols, some great anecdotes about celebrity run-ins that can be found in his memoir “Up in the Cheap Seats,” some tips on how to get discounted tickets now and more.

Michelle Tompkins: Okay. So let's tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

Ron Fassler: Sure. Well, I am an actor and have been one for about 35 years. I started in New York, went out to Los Angeles for one pilot season and wound up spending 30 years there. But all throughout that time, my devotion to New York theater never wavered.

I wish I could tell you I had a fantastic time going to the theater in Los Angeles, but it's not a theater town. So whenever I would come back to New York City, I would treat my hometown as if I was in London for a week. So if it was 8 o'clock at night, I was going to see-- on any given week, when I would come here, I would see nine plays in six days.

And as an actor, that trip to Los Angeles really was in order for me to land a television series that would then have Broadway clamoring for my talent so I could come back and star in a Broadway show. Didn't quite work out that way. But the real reason I continued with this love affair is that from the day it started it really would never end. You read the first chapter of my book, so you know that I'd had this magical first night in the theater. And it's been magical ever since. I actually had a friend say to me, “Ron, how do you keep up your optimism and your passion?" I really can't explain it other than every time I walk into a theater, especially a Broadway theater, I come alive. And I'm filled with joy and hope.

MT: You grew up in New York?

RF: I sure did. I grew up in Great Neck so the trip to Manhattan on the train was only about 25 minutes and only about $2 and I could come in every single week to see a Broadway show. And that's part of the whole journey that I took that led me to write this book because it was only four years that totaled 200 Broadway shows. They used to bring in about 60 shows a season in those days and because it was so affordable up in the cheap seats, the title of my book, I could on the basis of the earnings from my paper route afford coming into Manhattan, with a train ticket, subway tokens, my lunch, my copy of Variety that I would buy every week for 75 cents, and my theater ticket.

Bette Midler in 'Fiddler?'

MT: What I think is really cool about your book is that it was interesting to remember that some people had been on Broadway. And I've always been a fan of "Fiddler on the Roof," but it didn't occur to me that Bette Midler was Tzeitel. But she would have been a good Tzeitel.

RF: Oh my gosh, yes. Yeah. I guess you read that chapter. So you heard Bette Midler talk about how she was told maybe she shouldn't audition for Jerome Robbins for Tzeitel because they'd think she was too Jewish [laughter]?

MT: Really? I recently saw that “Fiddler on the Roof” changed the way Jewish people were perceived.

RF: That's right. That's right. I often think of what Harvey Fierstein said about how he suddenly saw people he knew up on a stage.

He'd never seen that before, and it struck him so deeply. And I'm thinking all of these young kids that are getting to see “Hamilton,” especially inner city kids that are going on that Rockefeller grant that they're getting off of certain schools, these inner city kids are coming to see it with school groups every Wednesday afternoon. And there are kids that go into the theater and go see this musical about history, and Thomas Jefferson is played by a black man. It must freak them out [laughter]. They must come out of that theater on another kind of a whole cloud that they can't come down from. They may tell their teacher or their parents, "You know, I really want to see another show like “Hamilton." And it's like, "Well, there really isn't another show like “Hamilton” [laughter]." But there are lots of great shows.

MT: Well, you wrote a whole chapter on “1776,” and that play has been reimagined a few times, too.

RF: Yes, and I even get into the similarities between “Hamilton” and “1776.” I ran a blind five quotes from “Hamilton,” five quotes from 1776 on Broadway, and you can't tell which are which. You can't tell which show they're talking about. They're saying the exact same thing. But, yeah, that's a chapter called “The Obsession”, because that's the show I saw more than any other show. And each chapter I tried to get into a certain show or actor that I felt needed to be reappraised, brought back to life so to speak if I can do so in my prose. The four actors I chose all had careers in the theater that were really almost unlike any other, and that was a joy to write.

Again, out of the four, one [Ken Howard] was still alive. I was able to get to meet with him and talk with him. And he died before the book came out, but I was so fortunate that he read the chapter, which of course-- a note he wrote me ends the chapter now. So it made its own drama in a certain sense.

MT: Well, you've interviewed so many famous people. Who are some of your favorites and why?

RF: Well, I mean, there's two different things. There's the people I went backstage and met as a little kid. So I've got my favorites there. But then there's also the people that I have had the chance to sit across from. Certainly, sitting with Harold Prince, who may be the single greatest living person, I admire most in the theater and probably had the greatest career in the theater in the last part of the 20th century.

MT: Well, you opened your book with him.

RF: Yep. Yep, he gave me that line, but I tell you, as a producer and a director, I don't think anyone will ever, ever come close. 21 individual Tony Awards he won. I mean, even Audra McDonald's going to have a hard time catching up with that. But it was a joy to sit with him because I said, "If nothing comes of this meeting, then my chance to shake your hand and say thank you for the $2 seat that you offered as late as 1973 for the original “A Little Night Music." And he laughs, and he said, "You're welcome. But I can't even begin to tell you how many performances those $2 seats went empty, people don't want to sit up there, and I thought, "Dang, they're dying to sit in the last show of "Hamilton" right now." So [laughter] I don't know, maybe we'll get to ax theater.

I mean, I just want the theater to be open to everybody, that's my fear, that it's only the elite now. We've gotten into a time where it's like opera used to be, where it's only for really wealthy people and I think it's not going to change but they're going to figure out some ways.

New info from Sondheim?

MT: I want to hear about your interaction with Stephen Sondheim.

RF: Well, we were supposed to meet, and of course I don't really know how I was going to handle that, showing up at his home, so I was almost grateful when his assistant called and said, "Can we do it over the phone instead? He's gotten so busy." And I didn't hold out for face-to-face because I figured I'm grabbing it when I can get it.

This is a chance to talk to Steven Sondheim. I really did my research because I didn't want to ask him questions he'd already been asked. First of all, I know the answers, so there's no point, and why make him go through stuff he'd already gone through? And I was also interested in getting some very specific information out of him that I could put into very specific chapters. But by talking to him over the phone, it was very hard to engage him in the way I know I probably could have if I was there in person, and you never know where you get a person when they're on the phone. Did they just wake up from a nap [laughter]? And I got off the phone and I was like, "That was the toughest interview I've done," and I wouldn't even listen to it for a few weeks because I was kind of like-- and then I went back, and I was like, "It was all in my imagination.

He was completely charming." It's just that you'll ask a certain question, and he won't even let you get to the end of it before he'll shoot you down because you've got one little thing wrong. He's a tremendous stickler for precision [laughter], as you well know. Just as an example, I was very interested in the shows he saw as a young boy to compare with my experience as a young boy. But he really didn't want to go there. He was like, "I was taken to the theater, but you got to understand, I didn't really like theater. I liked movies. People always get that wrong about me. I was a movies nut." Which is kind of interesting, but we ended up getting into a conversation about a particular play. And he was, I mean, a great person to talk to. And I did know the moment I hung up the phone that he gave me one or two things I knew that I could use for the book and that I had never heard him say before. So for that reason, it was a tremendously successful interview.

MT: Now what are your ideas for the future of Broadway?

RF: Well, I don't know if you know about Iain Armitage? He's the little boy with a YouTube channel called Iain Loves Theater? And he's kind of like a mini-me except he's been doing it since he was about five-years-old. He does these videos of his reviews of Broadway shows. He's got like a million hits. In fact, he interviewed me at BroadwayCon at eight-years-old. He is my hope for the theater, and people of his ilk. A show like “Dear Evan Hansen” is captivating younger kids now. There will be more down the pike. They always talk about the theater, that it's dying, and it's in trouble, and it's been that way forever. I think the theater will always be with us because live theater, it's like nothing else on this earth. I often say, "I can go to a movie, and I can cry. And I can laugh until I'm in pain, but, boy, no movie ever makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up." And that happens in the theater. It only happens in the theater. There's still brilliant designers, brilliant composers, brilliant writers, who are bringing forth new, challenging, interesting things every season. This season alone I don't know if you're aware of this but there's going to be 17 new musicals coming to Broadway. There haven't been 17 new musicals in 35 years. So great.

How to find cheap theater tickets

MT: Now that you can afford better seats, do you still go for rushes or TKTS to get what's available?

RF: That is a good question, Michelle and yes, I do use rushes and/or TKTS when available. The bargain hunter in me is always on the lookout for ways not to pay full price, and you don’t have to be some sort of insider to do that — anyone can. I recommend just Googling “Discount Broadway” and have at it! There are ways to see something for less than the full price to nearly everything—save for "Hamilton."

Check out Ron Fassler’s memoir, "Up in the Cheap Seats" which chronicles his years as a teenage theatergoer, and includes interviews with more than 100 Broadway theater artists and was published in the fall of 2016.