I went to New York this summer under the apprehension that the theatre world was in a bit of trouble. Tourism has been down in the Big Apple for several years now, and the high box office numbers point not to full houses and a play in every house but to exhorbitant ticket prices at Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. This does not bode well, especially since we’re seeing the same behavior migrate to the west.
So, what did I find on this voyage? Let’s review: two shows that reach out to a younger audience without speaking down to their parents; two shows that lovingly recreate, and more problematically seek to redefine, the Golden Age of Broadway; and two shows that remind us, in rich dramatic terms, that America is not made up of rich white men. (So maybe, it follows, rich white men shouldn’t make all the decisions for us.)
That leaves two final shows. I saw them both on Saturday, July 7. It reminded me of the first trip I took to New York in 1985. I didn’t plan ahead much then. I stayed with my cousin. I had bought a ticket for one show only: the Broadway premiere of Dreamgirls. For the rest, I stood in line for hours each day at the TKTS line. On the first day, I had no idea what I wanted to see. There was a bit of buzz going down the line: Tommy Tune had just opened a new musical called Nine, and one of the first performances had had to be called off because of technical problems. As a result, a special matinee performance had been announced and tickets for it had actually appeared on the TKTS board! Without knowing a thing about the show, I snapped up a mezzanine seat. And since it was a two-show day – and since there was a play going on downtown that also happened to have been directed by Tommy Tune and happened to be called Cloud Nine (by Caryl Churchill), I bought that, too. It turned out to be one of the best days of theatre of my life thus far.
In the decades since then, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few more double bills on my trips back east. But not till July 7 did I get to see two musicals, the combination of which was as thrilling as that day back in 1985. And I think it’s not just because the shows themselves were so good. It was that the message they sent stands in startling counterpoint to the current attempt by Donald Trump to explode every relationship with our allies. I’ve never lived before through an American President who wanted us to feel afraid and isolated. Sitting through Come From Away and The Band’s Visit, I could feel the love in the audience as we soaked up these productions, so different in many respects, but both sending a message of international alliance and mutual respect.
The outward trappings of Come From Away are simplicity itself. A slatted wood wall, a bunch of chairs, some foliage – and that’s it. The band sits onstage with twelve actors who assume dozens of roles in order to tell the story of how the small Newfoundland, Canada village of Gander took in, sheltered and nurtured thousands of passengers whose planes had been diverted from New York on 9/11.
You can’t call it a dance musical, and yet it is brilliantly choreographed. These people never stop moving, and their talent and propulsive energy move us from local cafés to the interior of planes, to the mayor’s house, to cars and trails and bars and more. In one hundred fast paced minutes, we intimately witness the lives of Gander’s residents – the mayor, the cop, the novice news reporter, the airport employee, the veterinarian, the schoolteachers, and others – as their lives are interrupted by the terrible news of invasion that has hit their neighbor for the first time in almost sixty years. And with nary a shrug these same actors introduce us to the visitors: Beverly Bass, one of the only female pilots hired by American Airlines, a gay couple, a Muslim chef, a British businessman, the mother of a New York fireman, and more.
These two populations meet warily, clash a bit, and form deep relationships that will last them the rest of their lives. And its all told in a book and songs by Canadian couple David Hein and Irene Sankoff, that is often quite funny, always moving, but never saccharine. It’s a play that shows people at their best, and with the multiple roles everyone plays it’s an actor’s dream. So it’s no wonder that nine of the original twelve cast members have remained with the show since its first workshop in 2015.
At a few points in the show, band members emerge from behind the foliage to join in the action. And at the end, after the cast had basked in a well-deserved standing ovation, we all remained on our feet as the band stayed on stage and jammed for us. Nobody wanted to leave the theater, a sure sign that we had fallen in love.
But leave it I must, only to journey a block away from the Schoenfeld to the Barrymore to see The Band’s Visit. Note: I love the jazzy, funny scores of David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). You can hear notes of each of these in his newest score, but The Band’s Visit is perhaps his most moving.
Based on a 2007 Israeli film, the play tells the story of an Egyptian Police Orchestra that has been given the honor of being invited to play at the cultural center in the bustling city of Petah Tikvah. In a very funny prologue, a misunderstanding leads them to an isolated town in the Israeli desert called Bet Hatikva. There the band members find themselves stranded for a day, and if the town’s residents are not as warm and welcoming as the Newfoundlers were in Come From Away, out of boredom and/or curiosity they agree to take the band members into their various homes until the next bus arrives.
The rest of the show consists of a series of vignettes that again demonstrate how, no matter what their differences, two cultures can find something powerful in their common humanity. As a result, marriages are saved, past traumas are dealt with, two clueless young men help each other figure out how to handle a woman, and . . . oh, a lot of stuff happens, some of it outwardly inconsequential. Perhaps the most dramatic character is an unnamed boy who has been standing for months facing the only pay phone in Bet Hatikva, waiting for his out-of-town girlfriend to call. And at the end, we are treated to – guess what? – a concert by the band, and again I was loathe to leave the theatre. (I hate to tell my acting students, but based on shows like this and Once, it looks like the concept of “triple threat” has just added a fourth dimension: act, sing, dance, andplay!)
Maybe this musical isn’t as easy to describe as I thought. Certainly my brief synopsis doesn’t do it justice. Maybe it’s too ephemeral and dreamy to reduce to a synopsis. I listened to the score before I left for New York and wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Having returned from seeing it, I can’t stop listening. The images rise into my brain as each song plays out. Katrina Lenk plays the leading female role, Dina, for which she earned a Tony award. Her sensuality and humor barely mask a numbing sadness, all of it on display on the Barrymore stage. Tony Shalhoub, as the orchestra’s conductor, is long gone, but he has been replaced by Israeli actor Sasson Gabai, who played the role in the original film, and is quite good here. The whole cast is good, and many of them are of Middle Eastern descent. In a time when the relations in that area are literally explosive, a small, tender musical like this is just what we need – one that reminds us, as Come From Away does, that we are all basically the same.
How I wish that our president had the sensitivity to pick up on the messages that both these shows – that allthe shows I saw this week – present. To see him deride women and immigrants, promote a separation from our longtime allies, to embrace dictators and autocrats, all this has afforded me eighteen months of anxiety. Once again, it’s all about turning to art for our solutions. The shows I saw in New York were both a much needed balm and a promise of the way things can be if we allow people to be their best rather than stomp on human goodness like a Trump.
Yup, I got political. Too bad!
Thanks for listening.