A 9/11 Reflection: When the Curtain Came Down on the American Heart

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11 Sep 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."


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