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Gifts Actually: Writing a Musical During Broadway's Shutdown

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

On March 12, 2020, the show did not go on. The Great White Way went dark. Broadway was emptied of its tourists and theatre-goers, as the city settled into what it anticipated to be a 15-30 day quarantine. Eight months later the marquees still light up their corner of the New York sky, while darkness resides within the theatres. Some may have a single bulb burning—the ghost light, legend has it, placed on the stage of an empty theatre to keep the ghosts and burglars away, or to keep someone from taking a tumble. I find it romantic but unlikely that they have been burning these long eight months.

I moved to New York to write a musical, or at least make a well-positioned attempt. Like scores of hopeful creatives before me, I came to this city with resolve and a tinge of fear. A musical hasn’t been seen in eight months. My reason is dark. It is closed. It is losing its money and it’s creators, it’s patrons, even its critics by the minute. And everyone asks, when will broadway be back? I ask it and I listen to others ask it, and I brace myself for the answer that no one knows. A few months ago they said Spring 2021, last week they said May 2021 and likely the next fall. The devastating truth is that each announcement is optimistic.

Not being able to go to shows and concerts is difficult. While I miss it, I came to write. In this extended darkness I plan my plot and sketch my characters and sit down at my piano because I have hope. I don’t have it every day. Most days I want to put a lid on it, pack it up, and settle somewhere nice with a yard and some green grass and more square footage. But not yet. And while many artists have had no choice but to leave, the financial burden of a city, where the cons suddenly outweigh its once luminous and opportunity-filled pros, now too great to bear, I have had a choice. I am so thankful for this choice, however slim and difficult it has been, and I seek out others who have stayed.

I spoke with a friend the other day who is using this time. “I’m looking at this as an extended writing retreat,” she said. It didn’t cross her mind to leave, this has been her home for so long. She is a broadway pianist, music director, and writer. She’s out of work, but her real work has begun in earnest. Her energy is fully focused on where she wants it to be and she is ready for whatever is to come. “No one is looking for stories,” she told me, “I’m not shopping stuff to people that are just trying to stay alive, physically and otherwise!” No one is shopping them, no one is shopping, no one is workshopping. So now is the time for ideas to wriggle around and come to the surface, now is the time to write.

Near the end of our conversation we agree that people will be hungry for something. “They will want to laugh and forget or be deeply moved,” she assures me, and I get chill bumps on my skin because I know it’s true. This gaping hole will need to be filled. One day, it will demand it. People will be famished, eager for the communion of art, to partake in a story and song that brings them together after such a long time apart. It’s incomprehensible at the moment—this sort of gathering. But it will happen again.

I know a producer who let staff go, may have to let his office go, but is fully engaged in the "save our stages" plight. It is unimaginable for them not to be saved. Each new announcement of extended closure is a punch to his gut, and mine. He says he’s lucky, he has other things going on, but I can imagine what keeps him up at night. And while he has much to lose, I have nothing to lose but hope. It is invigorated when I read what the President of the Broadway league told the Times recently, “We survived the Great Depression and many other crises...I just don’t think we live in a country or world that wants to be without theatre.”

Love, Actually is a favorite Christmas movie of mine, mostly because I love Bill Nighy (the actor, not the science guy) and his opening scene/song. He’s moved the stress of “Christmas” to the second syllable to make “Christmas is all around me” work with the rhythm, and I can’t help but feel it was always meant to be said/sung that way along with a seated dance. And you know the ending, we learn that not just Christmas, but love, is all around us, if we just look a little harder.

My friend and I spoke of the gift of this time. It comes at an unimaginable price for people, businesses, families, and I hate that. But “it’s a gift,” we kept saying. Health is a gift. An idea and the will to follow where it leads are gifts. The daily walk, now well trodden but seen afresh with the changing of the season and the sun that finds me and passes across my face are gifts. Looking at what I don’t have at this moment will drive me mad, sad, and hopeless. I am well aware of those things as well, this city grapples with them at a financial, artistic, and human level. But if we follow the gifts, we find the thing that all of us will get to the end of our lives and want more of—time. Time is all around us. Gifts, actually, are here, whether spent with the one you love or in solitude working out a lyric.

There are days when I look at the work as futile, the story as trivial, the music unnecessary for the noise that already exists in the world. But I remember that New York is quiet, the noise left to the construction and honks and occasional street performer. And I remember something else—that this is a choice I have made happily. This is how I desire to spend the time I’ve been given and no matter what happens, it’s never a waste to create. You don’t know where it will lead—I never thought I would write a musical, let alone during Broadway’s longest shutdown—to the great white way that will come back, the opening of a new door, or the simple pleasure of creation itself.

At some point in the last few weeks I realized I have written more dialogue, taken out my notecards more times, and done more research in the last eight months than I did in the first eight months of living in this jungle. I don’t bother to ask why, I just keep the momentum up while the theatre world remains in quiescence, caught in a month of Sundays.

Speaking of Sunday, watch this bit of theatre that took place in Times Square recently. It will bring you hope, or at least some chill bumps.


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