You could call it Broadway’s week of disruptions, although it wasn’t unique to Broadway or even necessarily theatre.
It began on Saturday, July 13, when, shortly before 7pm, the theatre district west of Broadway was plunged into darkness. A problem with power company equipment was the culprit, and electricity was restored a few hours later. But Broadway (and Off-Broadway) shows in the affected area could not go on – though the power cut was sufficiently specific that the four shows east of Broadway – Beautiful, Beetlejuice, Burn This and Be More Chill – were unaffected, as was the Fiddler on the Roof playing on the south side of 42nd Street.
Presumably, however, even the shows that went on did so without some audience members, since many subway lines throughout the system were halted. Traffic lights went dark, snarling the streets in a cascade that affected buses, taxis and the like. It was a nightmare for any business owner, and for anyone who had made special plans for the evening.
Imagine then, the shock that rippled through the area only seven days later, when on Friday, July 19, roughly one third of the city’s subway lines, including several that run through the heart of the theatre district, as well as a commuter line from New Jersey, stopped running at about 6pm. This time it was a signalling problem within the subway, so while business above ground was fine, travel once again became a nightmare, with some passengers stuck on trains in tunnels.
Though the second outage began to be resolved by 7:15 pm, there were considerable residual delays, and surely a number of riders were unable to make their designated curtain times – or, on a 90-degree day, were too stressed or wilted to do so.
— Hadestown (@hadestown) July 14, 2019
These two incidents struck without warning. It was up to those affected to alert others via social media, in advance of conventional news outlets getting on to the story. But with some irony, it was an emergency alert that proved disruptive between these two outages.
On Wednesday July 17, at 8:20pm, an emergency flash flood warning was sent to cell phones throughout the New York City area. This alert system, with its blaring alarm sound, obviously doesn’t reach phones that are off – but it overrides silent mode in order to ensure the word gets out, whether it’s an impending natural risk such as storms or an “amber alert” for kidnapped children.
Hearing the alarm while at home, I sent a tweet saying: “There was just a flash flood alert via cell phones in NYC, which mean [sic] that every jerk who didn’t turn off their phone in a theatre just really disrupted a show.” Within an hour, presumably at intermissions, the responses began.
“YEP!!!!!!!” wrote Audra McDonald, currently in Frankie and Johnnie at the Clair de Lune. “Yup!” wrote Leslie Kritzer from Beetlejuice, while her castmate Kerry Butler tweeted: “Ha! We heard it at @BeetlejuiceBway.” Audience members reported in as well. Attending What The Constitution Means To Me, Jules Odendahl-James reported: “@heidibschreck handled it with grace. But even one example (and good humour from the performer) didn’t compel the person to shut it off for the SECOND alert.” One offended respondent questioned if parents who had left their children at home with babysitters should be labeled jerks for not wanting to be wholly out of contact.
Coming in such close proximity, these interruptions, whether fleeting within a performance or causing the complete cancellation of one, are reminders of the relative fragility of theatre. We like to think of the space within our walls as sacrosanct, even though any number of technical innovations have been violating our refuge for some time. But the successive power outage and subway halt were reminders that there’s a complex network of external forces that allow the curtain to go up. Sometimes, it’s out of our hands.
A series of performers have been showcased at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre this summer under the collective title of In Residence on Broadway. Dave Chappelle, Regina Spektor, Criss Angel, and Morrissey have played one to two week stints. But this week the longest of the residencies begins when Barry Manilow starts his three-week visit, his fourth time playing Broadway following engagements in 1976, 1989 and 2013. Manilow may yet add Broadway composer to his credits, as his musical Harmony, first produced in 1997 at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, is said to be on tap for 2020.
The Acting Company, the venerable touring troupe co-founded by John Houseman and Margot Harley, opens a short New York residency at Off-Broadway’s Duke Theatre this week, opening Native Son and Measure for Measure in repertory on Sunday. Richard Wright’s novel has been adapted for the stage by Nambi E Kelley and directed by Seret Scott, while Shakespeare’s thorny exploration of sexual and political morals is directed by Janet Zarish.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/
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