Class: Musical Theatre History
Date: December 12, 2002
When two airplanes destroyed the Twin Towers on September 11th of 2001, it caused a ripple that affected all of New York City and left the Broadway community in very dire straits. Financially, every box office on and off Broadway took a major hit as show attendance dropped dramatically, as did advance ticket sales. Additionally, performers were burdened with the task of helping audiences forget what was going on outside the theater. In spite of the daunting figures and the difficult task they faced, the Broadway community was able to not only pull through, but also show their support for those affected by the tragedy. As Laurence O’Keefe, composer of Bat Boy – The Musical, says, “Short of the rescue workers, there was no one better than the Broadway community.”
In the week before the attacks, Broadway had an average attendance of 72.4% representing the normal post summer slump. One week later that figure had plummeted to 42.6%. According to Robert Hofler of Variety magazine, box office numbers “fell from more than $9 million to $3.5 million.” In the week after the attacks, five shows on Broadway, A Thousand Clowns, Kiss Me, Kate, The Rocky Horror Show, Stones in His Pocket and If You Ever Leave Me, I’m Going With You, posted closing notices. Long-running shows such as Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Rent all took severe blows as their attendance relies heavily on tourism.
The Broadway community responded in the only way it could, in desperation. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani publicly pleaded New Yorkers and residents in the tri-state area to go to a show and help support Broadway. On September 24th, the League of American Theaters and Producers announced a marketing program to try to bring people in New York region back to Broadway. A commercial featuring the stars across the boards singing “New York, New York” was filmed in the center of Duffy Square in an effort to bring back the crowds. Five Broadway shows, in association with Actor’s Equity agreed to a four-week 25% salary cut. Kiss Me, Kate, which had posted a closing notice early that week, was among the five. The cast and crew, in order to keep their show open, went beyond the 25% and gave back an additional 25% to purchase ticket that were given to rescue workers and their families free of charge. As the audiences slowly returned, the companies were able to recoup the money they had lost from the pay cuts, but producers, such as Les Mis and Phantom producer Cameron MacKintosh and Rent’s Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, lost large sums of money. MacKintosh allowed for this because “its important that Broadway does survive.” McCollum agreed stating a responsibility to the show. (“Sales Plummet As Broadway Posts Losses” New York Times). Theater owners showed their support by agreeing to waive rents for a while.
Off-Broadway shows found themselves facing the same economic meltdown in the wake of September 11th. It is important to note that Off-Broadway theater is a precarious endeavor to begin with. As tourists have the tendency to think that nothing exists south of 42nd Street and north of South Street Seaport, off-Broadway is supported by New Yorkers (O’Keefe). As Robin Pogrebin of The New York Times puts it, “On a good week, many of New York City’s hundreds of Off Broadway theaters struggle to make the rent, pay salaries and entice customers to travel to often out-of-the-way venues with less than comfortable seats” (“Off Broadway Finds Ways To Keep Shows Open” New York Times). Bat Boy – The Musical, which opened March 21st of 2001 at the Union Square Theatre, was enjoying a good deal of success when the attack occurred. On September 10th cast and crew celebrated this success. After the attacks, the show was hit hard and closed temporarily on September 23rd. Producers took the time to assess the show’s situation and Bat Boy reopened on October 18th on a five-show schedule. Another successful off-Broadway show, tick…tick…Boom! also played on a five-show schedule. In both cases, the company was receiving five-eighths of their salary. In spite of the show’s success, however, Bat Boy was unable to regain the momentum it had before the attacks and closed for good on December 2nd. Many people, including the show’s composer, Laurence O’Keefe, call Bat Boy “the show that got screwed.” According to O’Keefe, “Such a good show deserved success or a move [to Broadway] and it was robbed of both.” Tick…tick…Boom! lasted until January 6th and then shuttered at the Jane Street Theatre.
Even with the financial threat as a constant hovering cloud, performances on and off Broadway restarted on September 13th, two days after the attack. Marquis lights were respectfully dimmed and most shows, save Broadway all-stars The Lion King and The Producers, played to extremely small houses. The Ford Center for the Performing Arts, home to 42nd Street, has a capacity of a little over 1,800. That evening the audience consisted of about 900 people. For two and a half hours, performers were forced to put aside their own grief in order to help their audience forget what was going on outside the theater. Many across the boards were anxious about performing so soon after the attacks. Owen Johnston II, of the Broadway show Rent, acknowledged, “it was too soon and appropriate. After such a traumatic event there was nothing else to do but try to move forward” Tamlyn Brooke Shusterman, an ensemble member in 42nd Street, was also worried it was too soon, but, as the curtain rose on September 13th realized how important it was for the cast to be up there performing. The audience “to take their minds off this unstable world for a short while” and Shusterman and the rest of the cast helped them do that. When asked if performing after the attacks was difficult, Johnston replied, “the knowledge that we were helping people deal with such a tragedy made it easier.”
Bat Boy also restarted performances on Thursday, the 13th. John Heilpern of The New York Observer had been invited to review the show on that date prior to the attacks and at first was unsure if Bat Boy, “the only play in the history of the theater whose hero ends Act I with a rabbit in his mouth and moves on, in Act II, to an entire cow’s head,” was the appropriate show to see. However, Heilpern discovered that from the start, the audience, filling a fifth of the theater, was willing the “courageous cast” to allow them to suspend their disbelief for two hours and forty minutes. At the end of the performance, Sean McCourt, a member of the cast, thanked the audience for coming and said that he hoped the show had helped them as much as it had helped the cast. Finally, in an act mirrored across the boards, McCourt invited the audience to join the cast in singing “God Bless America.”
In light of the attacks, the themes of many shows were taken to a whole new level, making performing that much more difficult. Throughout the show Rent, the characters repeatedly insist that there is “no day but today.” Steve, Johnston’s character at the time, questions this idea in the song “Will I?” He asks, “will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” An emotionally packed moment to begin with, Johnston admits that adding “the sense of loss and lack of control that [everyone was] feeling” made this increasingly difficult. Raúl Esparza, of tick…tick…Boom! also found his lyrics difficult to sing. After the attacks, the song “Louder than Words” suddenly took on an entirely different meaning. At times, it was almost frightening how well the lyrics related to the tragedy despite being written years prior. 42nd Street, at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, is pure campy fun. Ultimately, the newly revived show succeeded in accomplishing what the original film of the same name had done in 1933 during the Great Depression. “It was about escaping reality. About beauty, music and comedy.”
Ultimately, the Broadway community’s reaction to the attacks was among the most admirable in all New York. In such uncertain circumstances, performers were taking care of themselves and their audience all at once. Every show did something. Many asked the audience to join them afterwards to sing “God Bless America.” Many collected donations, which were then passed on to funds for Trade Center Relief. Patrick Wilson, of the Broadway show The Full Monty, stated the role of the performer simply. “We’re not welders, we’re not rescue workers, we’re not any of those things. We are entertainers [and] if we can make one person smile during a time like this, that’s a remarkable feat.” Using their skills to the best of their ability, the Broadway community did everything they could have done.
Now, more than a year later, the question on everyone’s minds is: has Broadway bounced back? In general, box office numbers have improved. Additionally, the number of shows on Broadway has increased, as there are 11 more shows open or in previews. The season has already welcomed a unanimous hit in Hairspray, which opened over the summer and has been playing to sold out audiences ever since. La Boheme, which opened December 9th, was greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews and is looking for a highly successful run. But are these numbers enough? Laurence O’Keefe says not necessarily. While Broadway may appear to be doing well at this point, the economy is extremely unstable. Adding to this the current political situation and the threat of war with Iraq, O’Keefe says that he would be very reticent about putting a show up now. The economy could be in for a serious recession and Broadway, a luxury, will be hit hard. However, in 12 to 18 months, the world may be in an entirely different place, ready and willing to embrace a new musical. Until then performers can do nothing more than what they’ve done week after week. As long as the audience keeps coming, Broadway will endure.