On a clear, cold morning the casts of Broadway shows are gathering to shoot a television spot.
New York is getting back on its feet. Not just the theatre, but hotels, and restaurants, too. Cab drivers, travel agents, shop keepers...all the trades that are in sync with, that rise and fall with, the rhythms and tunes of Broadway, they're coming back. And to get out the word, the performers will be photographed in Duffy Square in Manhattan, belting out Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York."
As I head to the Booth Theatre where we're to meet, I'm not sure I want to put on a face that hides the sadness we all carry around with us now. I don't feel much like singing.
But as the Booth fills with actors, singer and dancers, many of them in costume, we all begin to realize we're at an event unlike any we've ever experienced before.
In one row of the theatre are the Rockettes; in others, the casts of Beauty and the Beast, The Rocky Horror Show, The Producers—people from show after show, many of them in costume. Some have worked together the night before and some have never met before. A few of us haven't seen one another since we started out together making the rounds on foot, looking for our first jobs. People are climbing over seats, hugging, consoling, kidding one another. The choreographer Jerry Mitchell comes onstage and runs through a couple of dance steps he wants us to do. They're big gestures and a great laugh and a cheer goes up for the sheer Broadwayness of it. I panic. I'm still trying to learn the words. Now I have to remember dance steps?
One by one, our shows are called out of the theatre and we walk to Duffy Square where dance captains will teach us a routine that about five hundred of us are expected to perform in unison a few minutes from now.
With relief, I notice that even a couple of experienced dancers are having trouble remembering when our hands are supposed to shoot out. "Is it `Up, Down...New York,' or is it `Up, New...Down...York'?"
A couple of nine year olds from Les Miz have the routine down within minutes. I ask them to coach me.
People are mixing, trading jokes, comparing costumes. Like characters who have stepped out of their stories, an actor from The Lion King and one from Beauty and the Beast are touching one another's face, each examining the other's elaborate, heavy mask. A child actor helpfully holds the Beast's tail for him.
In the chill morning air, dancers, male and female, with hardly any clothing to cover them, are practicing their moves and doing bits for one another. For the first time in what seems like a long time, we're able to be antic again.
Every few minutes a cheer goes up and the actors applaud and wave their arms. A fire truck is going by, carrying heroes on their way downtown.
During a break, a couple of fire fighters from Buffalo come over and ask to have their picture taken with us. Have they been working downtown, I ask? Yes. After a twelve-hour day in Buffalo, they had a bus ride to New York and fifteen straight hours on the pile. They haven't slept in at least two days. They have deep rings around their eyes. They're modest and shy. We embrace them, wanting them to know how proud they make us, probably wanting some of their strength to rub off on us.
We do a take. We've prerecorded the song, but we sing our hearts out anyway, cursing under our breath when our arms go up when they ought to go down.
As we sing, the choreography is coaching us with terms I've never heard before. "Sunshine and rain!" he calls out. (You rock forward as your hands go up to the sun and rock back as they go behind you and down.) We get to the end of the song. "Come on...come...through...New York, New York!" On the last, long-held note we raise our arms and he calls out to us "Not so fast," he says, "Slowly. Make 'em wait for it!" We collapse in laughter. For a few healing hours, we've all been allowed into the sacred order of Broadway gypsies.
As we break up and go home, I think about how much the day has given me. I'm smiling again. All we did, of course, was show up, sing a little and move a little. The real work, the heartbreaking work, was going on a couple of miles south of us and I realize that, in some ways, what we did was trivial. But on the other hand, this is what we do, and doing it with all the energy we have has lifted us up for a while. As I drive home, I wonder: if we were all able to return to our lives with this kind of energy, would we beat this feeling of helplessness, this persistent sadness? Was it just the pleasure of being part of the theatre community again, the physical pleasure of performing? Or is there some hope in this day for all of us?
As audiences come back to Broadway, if they managed to get in and see The Producers, Mel Brooks' lyrics will probably have, as everything does now, an unexpected resonance. "We can do it!" they all sing at one point, "We can do it....me and you!"
Not only can we do it, I think we have to do it. This is not just about economics. The dust and ash is still falling. We can't let it bury our cultural institutions. We can't let it bury our spirit.
I do know that for a few hours in Duffy Square five hundred of us were, in Mel's words, "up off our backs, back on the Great White Way," and it felt good.