The following feature originally ran Sept. 11, 2011.
Is there anyone more insignificant — or more vital — than a theatre person in a time of national tragedy? A decade after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York City, Playbill.com's Robert Simonson talks to industry people and reflects on who we were when America changed forever.
One month before Sept. 11, 2001, the Playbill.com offices were relocated from the magazine's Manhattan offices on Vanderbilt Avenue to the refurbished second floor of the company's printing plant in Woodside, Queens. It was not a popular move among the staff. Vanderbilt was right by Grand Central Terminal and just blocks from the Broadway theatres. It was (close to) the middle of the theatre world. Woodside was the middle of nowhere.
The day two planes flew into the Twin Towers, however, the shift felt strangely fortuitous. As usual, I took the G train from my home in Brooklyn to the office that day. Commuting on the only line in the New York subway system that doesn't touch Manhattan ground, I knew nothing of what was then happening above the street. I stopped at the hole-in-the-wall deli next to the Playbill plant to pick up the first of my several daily Diet Cokes. The owners paid no heed. They were watching a disaster movie on their small, black-and-white television — or so I thought for a moment. Upstairs, the Playbill.com staff were gathered around the computer of our most tech-savvy employee. A plane had flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. By accident, we all thought. Then, 17 minutes later, a second plane flew into the second tower. Not by accident, we all knew. Then, at 9:59 AM, I heard a voice from a worker's cubicle saying, "The south tower fell." I called back, "No, it didn't." Buildings like that don't just fall, even when a plane strikes them. But it had fallen, in a billowing heap of deadly smoke, metal, glass and dust. After that, things got surreal.
THE THEATRICAL WORLD can often feel trivial and unimportant, particularly at times of national crises. It certainly felt so that morning. But Playbill.com was a theatre news site. We weren't the New York Times or U.S. News and World Report. The Big Picture wasn't our bailiwick. The theatre was. I knew my professional responsibility that horrific A.M. was to report on the disaster within the limited terms of how it affected the New York theatre community. I felt distinctly idiotic — and somehow guilty — as I posted a news story in the top slot of Playbill.com's front page. The headline read "Terrorist Attack at NYC's World Trade Center Shuts Down Bway Theatres."
Not two minutes later, an angry reader shot me a blistering email. How dare I post such a story? When a nation is cast into sudden crisis, when we're likely under terrorist attack, when innocent people are jumping out of windows to flee the fiery death that waits for them inside, who gave a damn whether a Broadway show was going to open?
It was like a sock in the stomach. He was right, of course, in a way. I wrote back and said so. Any occupation that is focused on arts and entertainment looks foolish when life-exploding reality bursts in. Such was my absurd function as all of New York became unglued. The reader wrote back, contrite. He was upset, he said. He had lashed out. We concluded our exchange civilly that uncivil dawn.
THE THEATRE PLAYS a funny, two-sided role when New York is walloped by a calamity — natural disasters, blackouts, or a terrorist attack. In the first calculations, it's as incidental and marginal as a flower show. What could matter less? But, very soon after, within a couple days, it takes on a significance that far outweighs its actual importance. Broadway is Gotham's biggest, most visible cultural symbol. When it's down, the City's down. When it's up, the City's back in business.
All Broadway shows — all New York shows, period — closed on Sept. 11. They remained shuttered for the matinees and evening performances of Wednesday, Sept. 12. But by Thursday, they were back open. City Hall saw that they were. "We had gotten a very strong message from the Mayor and the Deputy Mayors that the Mayor wanted Broadway open as quickly as possible," recalled Jed Bernstein, then president of the League of Broadway Theatres and Producers (now called The Broadway League), "not only for the economic benefits that getting the city back to work would provide, but also for the psychological benefits that Broadway being up and running would contribute."
Rudolph Giuliani felt so strongly about Broadway relighting its lights that he wanted it to happen Sept. 12. "We said, we can't get the people back that fast," remembered Paul Libin, executive vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters. The bridges and tunnels were closed. But they were all back — actors, musicians, stagehands — Sept. 13. "There was this outpouring of togetherness," said Alan Eisenberg, former executive director of Actors' Equity Association. "We encouraged our members to go to work, which they did, in their usual gallant fashion."
Sept. 13 was to have been the official opening night for Urinetown, the scrappy satirical musical that had graduated from the New York Fringe to the big time. The attacks pushed back that date to Sept. 20, making Sept. 13 another preview. But not just another preview. The audience was partly made of airline attendants who had nowhere else to go. A cake, intended to celebrate the erstwhile opening, was cut open and shared with the theatregoers. "It was a delicate effort, but I thought it took strength to get through it from the performers' point of view," said Greg Kotis, the show's librettist and co-lyricist. "It seemed an expression of courage and resilience, and those are elements of the theatre world. I guess I felt proud."
There was a question in everyone's mind, even if the shows did reopen, about whether anyone would show up. "There was this feeling of, 'Can we go out and go to a public place?'" said Lynne Meadow, artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club, and director of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, then on Broadway.
"I remember I got a call from Paul Davis' wife, Myrna," said Libin. "They had tickets to The Producers on Sept. 13. They wanted to know if they could change their tickets to another night. I said, 'Do whatever you want, but I really think you should come. You're part of the theatre. I guarantee you within 15 minutes into the show, however distressed you are, Nathan [Lane] and Matthew [Broderick] will have you laughing." They went. The Davises lived in lower Manhattan, and had been unable to get in touch with their son, who lived in California. At The Producers, a CNN camera swept over the stage and the audience, catching a glimpse of Paul and Myrna. Their son saw the footage in California. Only then, did he know they were all right.
At musicals like The Producers, the casts ended their shows by singing "God Bless America." "That idea came about when we had seen that the members of Congress on Tuesday night on the steps of the Capitol had sung that song," said Bernstein, "and, of course, that song is written by Irving Berlin, written by a Broadway composer, and so that seemed oddly appropriate." Allergist's Wife star, Valerie Harper, became her show's spokesperson. "She came out and spoke to the audience," said Meadow. "She made the audience feel so comfortable. People were terrified. It was something like 'Welcome. It's great you're in the theatre.' She spoke a lot, for several nights."
The most iconic theatre image of that tumultuous time was of all the casts of the Broadway shows, gathered in Times Square, singing the Kander and Ebb anthem "New York, New York." It was turned into a commercial — not just for the theatre, for New York really. There was no money to make it, and there was no money to buy media time. That didn't matter. All the industry services were donated, and television stations began to broadcast it for free. "We counted up to $30 million of free media and then we lost count," said Bernstein.
Generous gestures continued. Unions agreed to temporary concessions to keep flagging shows going. Kiss Me, Kate went further, the cast giving up an extra 25 percent of their paycheck to not only prolong the show's run, but to buy tickets so that beleaguered relief workers at Ground Zero could take a break and see a show. "Broadway is show business," said publicist Chris Boneau, of Boneau/Bryan-Brown. "It's about making money. And it can be a fairly cutthroat business. But this was one of those times when we bind together and put our personal business aside. We were all meeting to keep Broadway lit. If people weren't coming at all, it couldn't be about: Are they coming to see The Lion King over The Producers? It just became: Come!"
"It was a moment when it felt that theatre mattered more than it usually does," stated Kotis. "Theatre became about community. To be together in the same place, considering things through a play, that also made me feel proud. It's easy to feel that theatre is irrelevant. It's the poor stepchild of all the other mediums that command audiences in the tens of millions. The vitality of the medium felt very present and important."
I DON'T KNOW how many times I checked in with my wife on Sept. 11. On the last call, she said the phones would probably soon go dead. They did. She had told me not to worry about her, to stay where I was safe. But I had to get home; our son had been born on Aug. 15. Again, the Queens relocation was a blessing. The G, miraculously, was still running. It was eerily empty of people.
When I got out of the subway at the Carroll Street stop in Brooklyn, I saw the tower of smoke over the tops of the brownstones. I followed it, somewhat hypnotized, until I reached the waterfront. Many others were standing there, staring. Our fourth-floor apartment had once commanded a picture-perfect view of the Twin Towers. It was now a window onto this. The wind had shifted, and the debris from the collapsed buildings was floating across the East River, leaving a trail of ghostly ash over Brooklyn. The brownstone stoop where I had sat at 7 AM with my newborn son that crystal-clear, blue-skied morning was now covered with burned scraps of office documents. I picked up one, a fax in Japanese.
I didn't go to work the next day. But I did the day after that. And so did everyone else in the theatre. "Life must go on," said Libin, "just the way the Broadway shows must go on."
Robert Simonson, former editor of Playbill.com, is now a senior correspondent for the site, regularly contributing news and features.