The world was falling apart last week, so I did the only sensible thing: I went to a musical.
Actually, I went to two musicals. The first was Urinetown, which was recently transferred to Broadway in triumph, after winning great reviews Off Broadway last May (you can read my story about the costume design on page 6). At first, I wasn't exactly thrilled to be there. First of all, Urinetown is never going to be my favorite musical. It's very clever, with a highly professional production, but to my mind, it's never really the laugh riot it aspires to be. On top of that, I was convinced that the show's smart-aleck attitude would pall after the horrors of September 11.
How wrong I was. At the top of the performance, the audience didn't react too strongly. There were a few laughs here and there, but nothing to write home about. Then, about three numbers in, people started to respond. By the end of the first act, they were beside themselves. And, funnily enough, so was I.
It's not that I've changed my opinion about Urinetown. But to be in that theatre on that night, to experience that electric connection between actors and audience a week after the worst terrorist incident in the history of this country, was the first really hopeful moment I've had since the day I stood on a trade show floor in London and watched the Twin Towers collapse live on television. This time, the show's nose-thumbing humor, which previously irritated me, seemed like a full frontal attack on despair. Laughter has never seemed more like the sound of sanity. (I should point out that Urinetown has a first-rate, thoroughly original design, with scenery by Scott Pask, costumes by Gregory Gale and Jonathan Bixby, lighting by Brian MacDevitt, and sound by Jeff Curtis.)
A couple of days later, I saw another, completely different kind of musical and had a completely different, but equally valuable, experience. The Spitfire Grill is a new show at Playwrights Horizons, taken from the 1995 film, about a young woman who, just out of prison, moves to a dying small town and changes the lives of everyone there. It's a sentimental tale — barely plausible at times — and not really my kind of show. Yet, thanks to the first-rate score by James Valcq and Fred Alley, and the excellent cast, I found myself deeply moved.
It is, I think, a case of the right musical for the moment. The show's strength is its depiction of troubled people who reach down inside themselves and find their fundamental decency. These days, when I see New Yorkers treating each other with a never-seen-before kindness, the theme resonates. (As it did with the audience; at the performance I attended, there was a standing ovation.) It was a vivid reminder that, all times, all we really have is each other. Whatever happens to The Spitfire Grill, I predict it will be staged frequently in the next few years. (It also has a very fine design, with scenery by Michael Anania, costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, lighting by Howell Binkley, and sound by Scott Stauffer.)
There's been a lot of talk about the economic hit the theatre has taken in the last couple of weeks, although there are some small signs that things are getting better. (There have been some unpleasant negotiations between producers and the unions, which I feel will come back to haunt the theatre industry, but that's a discussion for another day.) Even Rudy Giuliani has urged people to get back to normal, pointing out that one good way of doing that is to see a show. I'd like to second that suggestion, but don't do it for New York, do it for yourself. Do it no matter where you live. In strange, uncertain times like these, there's nothing like the experience of seeing a live show. You begin as a roomful of strangers and end as a community, having shared real emotions together in real time. I've always loved the theatre, for the fun, the amusement, the color it brings to life. Now, maybe for the first time, I know something else — it's absolutely necessary.