Viral Days

Off Broadway

Remembering those hallowed days of New York theater

By Harrison Hill | January 7, 2021
Ruby Keeler in a 1933 production of 42nd Street (Everett Collection)
Ruby Keeler in a 1933 production of 42nd Street (Everett Collection)

The last play I saw before the pandemic was an adaptation of The Frogs, by Aristophanes. The production was staged last March at a theater in downtown Manhattan, in a rather peculiar setting: a ball pit. Actors performed the play while wading through a sea of orange plastic spheres; they did so in close proximity to maybe 40 audience members, myself among them, who had opted for “pit seating.” To be clear, I saw the play reclined neck-deep in the set, which is to say, in and among the balls.

If the prospect of a play staged in a ball pit once seemed dopey but harmless, the idea now strikes me as appalling—obscene, even. All those bodies, all those surfaces! “The balls are antimicrobial and biostatic,” a statement from the venue insisted shortly before I saw the show. “We also dissinfect [sic] the ball pit regularly.”

Duly noted—not that it mattered in the end. Within a week of my visit, theaters across New York were closed. Within a month, the shutdown was extended into the fall. The latest estimate is that New York theaters won’t return until summer 2021. By then, most houses will have been closed for 15 months.

I am often asked by out-of-towners what it’s like in New York right now. Do ambulances still wail down the streets? Are body freezers still parked on the sidewalk? I am quick to dispel these apocalyptic images. In my Brooklyn neighborhood, life has an element of normality about it. I work from home, of course, and rarely travel more than 10 blocks away, but if I squint, I can almost make out a version of the life I once lived.

Except in one crucial respect. I no longer go to the theater.

I moved to New York in 2006, for college. When I wasn’t in class, I was in Times Square and the wider off-Broadway diaspora, searching for cheap theater seats. I remember one night freshman year, wandering by the old Sbarro on 49th Street, where a woman stood brandishing what appeared to be a pair of tickets. When I approached her, she thrust an envelope into my chest, spun around, and disappeared into the fluorescent darkness.

This, then, was New York: a city where you could stroll into Midtown not half an hour before curtain, and score two fifth-row seats to The Drowsy Chaperone. For free.

I loved plays and musicals not just for their stories and songs, but for their raucous, shared humanity. To see a show was to rub elbows—literally, to rub elbows—with a scrum of people who shared your investment in the evening’s unfolding. Live theater counterbalanced the loneliness of urban life, jostling you up against audience members, ushers, actors, bartenders, and box office treasurers. The proximity was the point.

But these qualities are what now make theater such an impossible proposition. Plays and musicals are the opposite of social distancing; they rely on people being much less that six feet apart. Some enterprising troupes around the country have tried seating viewers in isolated pods, but this seems to me a fundamental reconception of what we mean by “theater.” “You want them to be shoulder to shoulder,” a director once told me. “You want them to lose their individuality.” The mechanism only works when the boundaries of personal space are traded for something more collective, when you all agree to share the same poisoned air.

Such intimacy has its irritations: Apple watches, wrapped candies, hearing aids. But the torments are constituent to the glories. Separate them, and the enterprise ceases to exist.

The summer after my senior year of college, I worked at a fancy Massachusetts theater festival. I was assigned to the crew for an extraordinary all-male production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Backstage during tech, I started chatting with one of the actors, D. On discovering we both spoke halfway-adequate French, D. and I became friends. Would we have ended up together had we not, within days of meeting, begun speaking to each other only in French? I don’t know. But I do know that when D. quietly took my hand at the opening-night party, I was both shocked and not. It had happened! Of course it had happened.

Theater was the ever-present context of our subsequent relationship. I performed in plays across Manhattan (in basements, in firehouses), while D. did flashy shows in gold-leafed Broadway houses. I remember lying with him on the soft carpet of his dressing room at the St. James, one of Broadway’s most handsome and desirable theaters, and feeling so good, so deliciously cozy in that confined, radiator warmth. It was a Saturday between shows, and because D. had to save his voice, we couldn’t talk much. So we didn’t.

I mention all this only to illustrate the extent to which the world of theater was my world. It was work; it was entertainment; it was romance. In those days, I saw upward of 100 shows a year, to say nothing of the evenings I myself spent performing. I worked as an usher at a theater downtown; I wrote for a theater magazine; I got free tickets through my theater blog. I hated plenty of what I saw—such is the mark of a true aficionado—but I also loved the hustle. New York was about what you were seeing, if it was any good, and if you’d heard about the new Sam Gold. It was all work, all plays.

At 25, I took a full-time writing job at a Broadway ad agency. I quickly settled into the pleasures of office life. I made presentations. I had vision insurance. I could walk into the company kitchen, stick my hand into a huge glass jar of Swedish Fish, and eat as many as I pleased. I was now in the belly of the Broadway beast, meeting daily with producers and press agents in long conference rooms named after demolished Broadway theaters. I bought two new suits, one navy, one gray, for the opening night parties I was now required to attend. Required: how fabulous it felt, to claim as burdensome my participation in events I was all too thrilled to attend. Following the final ovation, I’d lug my laptop to the afterparty at Capitale or Gotham Hall, retreating to a designated back room with a scrum of bigwigs just before 10 p.m., when the reviews hit. Clients would stare at their phones, ravenous for praise, as I did my dirty magic, transforming criticism into ad copy.

On nights like these, the agency paid for me to take a cab back to my apartment in Brooklyn. Whenever I got to the Manhattan Bridge, I rolled down the window, looked out at the dark maw of the East River, and silently recited the opening lines of “Letter to N.Y.,” by Elizabeth Bishop: “In your next letter I wish you’d say / where you are going and what you are doing; / how are the plays, and after the plays / what other pleasures you’re pursuing.” I liked imagining Bishop had been writing to me—that I was the soulful creature “taking cabs in the middle of the night, / driving as if to save your soul.”

As indeed I was.

I have shuffled through narrow marble lobbies, and when I have taken my seat at the back of the balcony, I have held my breath, waiting for the sound of an oboe, so sweet and sad. I have licked the sugary rim of a Sidecar at Bar Centrale, pretending not to notice when Audra McDonald passes by on her way to the back, where The Royals go. I have watched the 6 a.m. illumination of Central Park from a suite in the Carlyle the morning after the Tony Awards, a glass of champagne (my fifth? my ninth?) pressed against my tuxedo lapel, due back at work in three hours’ time. And I have seen plays, such plays: An Octoroon, at Soho Rep. Gypsy, on Broadway. That production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, at Williamstown. Most shows are overlong, self-involved, dull, inelegant, and generally terrible. But those rare successes? They were something wonderful, indeed.

In their absence, I do what theater people everywhere are doing. I suffer through “Zoom plays.” I listen to cast albums. Mostly, however, I remember.

One show in particular, 42nd Street, haunts my memory. At a climactic moment in that classic backstage musical, a producer begs a reluctant chorus girl to take over the leading role in a production that will otherwise have to close. “Think of the songs that will wither and die if you don’t get up there and sing them,” he says. “Think of the scenery that will never be seen, the costumes never worn, the orchestrations never heard.” The monologue builds over an anxious frenzy of strings, until at last the producer delivers his final, commanding ultimatum: “Think of Broadway, dammit.”

In these difficult days, walking around my hollowed, hallowed city, I add my own lamentations to this list: Think of the debuts never made, the careers ended. Think of the janitors laid off, the workshops abandoned. Think of the smoothie maker at Green Symphony on 43rd Street—what’s to become of him?

Think of Broadway. Dammit.

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