New York City is famously The City That Never Sleeps, the world's one unstoppable metropolis. And theatre is the art which proudly goes by the motto, "The show must go on." But on Sept. 11, after two towers in lower Manhattan, so long assumed permanent fixtures of the skyline, fell to the ground in less than an hour, and millions of people suddenly found themselves directly affected by the likely loss of thousands of lives, such vainglorious oaths of indomitability rang hollow and meaningless. The city and the nation, jolted into a sense of its sudden vulnerability, ground to a halt in shock and dismay. Theatres on Broadway and throughout the island suspended performances. Cultural institutions from Chicago to Los Angeles, Denver to Houston followed suit, as urban centers fell silent and dark for the days that immediately followed the terrorist strikes.
The most pressing impetus behind the closings was, of course, safety. If the World Trade Center could vanish, if terrorists could decimate part of the Pentagon itself, if major airports in three different cities could simultaneously surrender jetliners to hijackers, then no American landmark or institution of any standing could afford to tempt fate. Said Jed Bernstein of The League of American Theatres and Producers, shutting down Broadway was "an easy decision." Altogether, Broadway was dark for Tuesday evening and Wednesday matinees and evening performances.
But theatres, museums and cultural centers across the nation's four time zones also closed their doors out of deference to the what had befallen New York City and Washington D.C. In light of such an overwhelming and ghastly attack, and in the aftermath of what the President soon called an act of war, every citizen, every business, every arts organization strove to exhibit sensitivity and solidarity. Some notable examples: Reefer Madness delayed its first Off-Broadway show to Sept. 18; Diva at La Jolla Playhouse pushed back its opening to Sept. 23; and Broadway's Urinetown changed its opening date from Sept. 13 to Sept. 20.
By Thursday, however, the country also wanted to show its resolve, steadfastness and tenacity. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called for a return to normalcy and urged people to persevere, stubbornly, in their daily ways. Broadway responded quickly. Shows reopened, albeit with an acknowledgement of what had gone before: marquees were dimmed, speeches were delivered before the curtain rose and patriotic anthems sung after it fell ("God Bless America" was the song of choice). On a darker note, at Blast!, bags were checked and addresses of audience members were written down.
The reaction of the producers of Blast! may have had something to do with the, now, unfortunate title of that show. And the question of tone will probably remain a delicate one for weeks to come. The overriding quandary now in artists' and audiences' minds is very basic: Is entertainment an appropriate activity at this painful moment in our history? On a more specific level, simply the thought of attending shows called Dance of Death and tick, tick...BOOM! may give theatregoers a sinking feeling. (The producers of tick, tick... told the New York Times they were unsure how to proceed, advertising-wise. "Do you not use the title?" hypothetically asked a producer.) Then there is The Producers and its no-holds-barred musical parody of Nazi Germany; Shaw's Machiavellian argument for munitions over religion as a force for good in Major Barbara; and Urinetown with its pseudo-Brechtian comic dystopia, set in a time of apparent post-apocalypse drought. The moment's brittle emotional tenor was most starkly illustrated by the fate of Stephen Sondheim's macabre musical Assassins, which was set for revival on Broadway this fall. The show, arguably one of Sondheim's best and bravest, has been cursed with bad timing. Premiering in early 1991 Off Broadway, it was deemed in disastrously poor taste after the Gulf War was declared. Ten years later, another Bush is in the Oval Office, the country is experiencing its greatest crisis since the Gulf War, and, again, the thought of staging a musical treatment of Presidential assassins seems unthinkable. If, as a playwright once said of Broadway, "satire is what closes on Saturday," satire during wartime is apparently something that doesn't open at all: Assassins was postponed 48 hours after the twin towers crumbled.
Beyond these worries, however, the coming days look to be filled with shows of faith and generosity. Already, the cast of Gypsy at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis appealed for money for Red Cross disaster relief following its Sept. 12 evening performance and raised $1,214 from the audience. Similar efforts are underway. Meanwhile, the Actors' Fund of America, the support organization for the showbusiness industry, has organized two drop-in support groups for anyone in the entertainment industry in need of support. Also, patriotism, a trait not typically associated with the oft cynical theatre world, is now in evidence. Apart from the curtain call singing of anthems like "God Bless America," the theatre has joined the nation in its renewed love of the flag. Bernstein said The League is working on putting American flags in the lobbies of every Broadway theatre. Just like the Stars and Stripes, the theatre, and America are apparently out to prove that they're forever.