Live theater exists in the breath.
Live theater is about those times when the theater is so quiet you can hear when the actors’ breathing changes. It’s about watching actors talk through someone coughing in the front row and resenting the tipsy couple behind you as they chuckle through the big death scene. This is the moment that only happens in the best shows, when everyone in the whole theater starts to breathe at the same rate.
Breath is what separates theater from cinema, pre-recorded shows like Hamilton on Disney +, from anything you can watch in your living room. Breath is what gives the living theater its special energy, the almost religious euphoria that it can inspire: to sit in a dark room and breathe with other people.
Covid-19 has changed the way we think about other people’s breathing, possibly for the rest of our lives. It turned the essence of the theater into something dangerous. It closed Broadway, the center of America’s theatrical community, longer than Broadway has ever closed in its history.
Now, after vaccines and the wave of delta coronavirus variants, the theater is slowly returning to the world. Broadway is groping and cautiously opening its doors, one theater at a time, with mandatory vaccine checks and a mask requirement in place. And one after another, viewers return to the theaters to find out what it’s like to try to breathe at the same pace through a mask.
“Thank you for leave your homes, âsaid David Byrne at the top of his special concert American Utopia, with discreet tenderness. The audience gave him a sigh.
Times Square missed Broadway. Some 300 street performers depend on the crowds of tourists who descended on the neighborhood every night for dinner and a show, and who disappeared when Broadway closed. When I arrived for the hallucinatory Go over In late August, before Broadway was fully functional, Times Square was deserted to a level I had never seen before on TV shows meant to demonstrate that the apocalypse has gotten really serious: just empty streets and blaring neon lights. . Few theaters were still open, delta was still crushing the city, and tourists kept their distance. Street artists too.
But when I got out of Six In early October, I walked right into a man in a giant panda costume watching a street dance battle in the middle of the road. Times Square was back up and running.
Broadway has returned as a resentful old lover, desperate to convince you that you are lucky to get them back, and desperate to convince you that they or they know how lucky they are to have you return.
âWelcome to Broadway! Say the ushers outside the theater. Then they check your vaccination card against your ID and pass you through a counterterrorism metal detector, so entering a theater is like getting on a plane.
Inside, ushers parade the aisles with signs reminding the public to keep their masks in place, and members of the public slip their masks slyly over their faces anyway for their pre-show fabrications. The closer they get to the stage, the more cheeky they become – except at Six, where I’ve seen teenage girls coordinate their masks with their sparkling tiaras and argue over which of Henry VIII’s six wives is their favorite.
AT The Lehman Trilogy, the exquisite and useless music box of a Sam Mendes performance, I listened to two old men behind me arguing over whether or not the theater should check the IDs at the door.
âWhat you have to understand,â one of them repeated, âis that they have to be absolutely certain, absolutely sure, that you are who you say you are. Because vaccination records can be falsified, and that sort of thing is serious! “
“Listen, I am a american citizenThe other kept answering, with growing indignation, “and we don’t need identity papers in this country.” “
In the swim line for the merry campy Little shop of horrors, two older women wondered whether or not they would stand in line to receive the new booster shots.
“I really should be doing it,” one thought. âI can’t seem to find the time. “
“It is not a question of convenience, it is a question of whether it is necessary, said the other. âNow have you seen how much the vaccination wears off after the first six months? “
Then the lights went out, a disembodied voice said, âWelcome to Broadway! We are so glad that you are here with us, âand all the conversations dissolved into a great roar of cathartic delight.
There is a New energy on Broadway now. In the midst of the pandemic’s long decline, everything is fiercer, more brittle. All performances have been punched; all audiences are angrier. They are eager to be delighted, but their attention is harder to gain.
The new energy can work like a rush of adrenaline on a fading show. Is not too proud, the jukebox musical Temptations, has aged like a cut flower since its premiere in 2019. It’s the workhorse of a production that was designed to deliver covers of famous songs to happy tourists, to do so effectively and without too much noise; as such, it’s the kind of musical that stops being exciting or interesting very quickly.
But the return to the stage after such a long and agonizing hiatus gave new impetus to Is not too proud‘s excellent casting, popping and sparkling their covers in new ways. Matt Manuel plays tortured and brilliant David Ruffin with a fury that is far more interesting than anything in this sure and mediocre show, in a performance that might never have seen the light of day under other circumstances.
The post-shutdown energy is a mixed blessing, however. New Arrivals Six and Chicken and Biscuits are restless, even frantic; the relief of finally playing after such a long delay flows from the casting in waves that become exhausting as the evening wears on. And the new uncomfortable ethos broke Small jagged pill a part.
Alanis Morissette’s jukebox musical was the subject of multiple controversies during the 19-month Broadway shutdown, and emerged on the other side after recasting a lead actor and three ensemble members. More ambitious than Is not too proud, Small jagged pill was still on the messy side, but it opened in 2019 with a cheerful recklessness that made it work more than it didn’t. Now, with the powerful cohesion of the original cast gone, the mess is painfully apparent. Lauren Patten’s explosive take on “You Oughta Know” always brings the whole house to the ground, but the spectacle around her is in ruins: flat, drab and, to borrow from Alanis herself, so unsexy.
Some of the most successful shows after the shutdown are small-scale or tightly controlled. Is it a room, which turns the FBI interrogation transcript of NSA Reality Winner into 65 minutes of tense terror, effectively matches the arc of the audience’s agitated enthusiasm to Reality’s response to its interrogators: It is dispersed first. , uncertain, then her energies dwindle to a vicious point as she rushes forward and takes the audience with her.
Meanwhile, right off Broadway, a revival of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s cult classic Little shop of horrors brings Hell’s Kitchen’s intimate Westside Theater to life. The new production has the top talent that any Broadway production would envy (Jeremy Jordan plays the guy as nerdy Seymour; Christian Borle gets fabulously sadistic as Dentist Orin), but he’s nicely scaled back to fit in. its small space. Without the glitz and spectacle required to fill a Broadway venue, this little Small shop is able to make her luscious intrigue intimate, like an inside joke with everyone seated in the theater.
In the best of Broadway comeback shows, the pandemic brought out new dimensions of a story that once worked. Hadestown, who won the Tony for Best Musical in 2019, has always benefited from layers of careful direction from Rachel Chavkin, which allows the show to take place from one angle in a Greek temple, from another in an industrial town of Rust Belt, and a third in a post-apocalyptic New Orleans jazz club. It was never designed to look like a show that takes place in 2021 during a pandemic. But its heart-wrenching finale, built around the moment when the heroes attempt to escape hell and then get sucked in despite themselves, certainly holds new resonances at this particular moment.
Every time that I have seen Hadestown, the audience gasped in unison at the same time of the final. (Chavkin is an expert at getting people to breathe together.) But this time, in early October, the breath came with a few more tears than usual.
There is another show on Broadway that can match the heights of Hadestown: The renewal of the ThÃ©Ã¢tre du Rond-point Caroline, or Change is a stunner. A collaboration between Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun house), the show first premiered in 2003 with polite skepticism and quickly faded away afterwards. But in 2021, America finally seems ready for this tender, crackling musical portrait of Caroline, 39, a black woman working as a housekeeper in Louisiana in 1963.
Caroline, now played by the formidable Sharon D Clarke, sings the line “I’m tough and I’m mean” over and over again during Caroline, or Change while she works in her employer’s basement. She repeats it as much to convince herself as anyone else. But we can see the cracks in his stern edifice; we might now vaguely grasp some of the ways she was clubbed by the world. And when she sings, in the depths of her disgusting fury, âYou can’t do what I can do; you are all strong, but you are not strong like me, âI felt each person sitting around me holding their breath.
There, on the cool October night, the theater fell silent. The bruised and erratic audience attention sharpens and focuses fiercely on Clarke, alone on stage. She took it, held it, pulled it tight and squeezed it against her as she climbed to the climax of her song. Then, as she reached her final grade, she let go of her arms and let the audience go.
We all expired as one.