Theater, 9/11, and the sweet smell of success

September 6, 2011

We went into shock, all of us, the theater industry, too. What happened 10 years ago was inconceivable, unimaginable, horrifying, numbing and--let's be honest--exciting. The act of terror and attack was of a scale and daring that was cinematic, the sort of thing reserved (we thought) for escapist movies where flying saucers slice into the Washington Monument. But here it was, real life. It seems that everyone knew someone who was in the World Trade Center, or knew someone who knew someone, no more than two degrees of separation. I knew a woman who lost her son-in-law.

I didn't know anyone who worked in the World Trade Center, or had any reason to be there under normal circumstances, but one never knows: the WTC housed all sorts of private and government offices and there was a major subway and transit center under ground; I've been there myself. So emails went out to my dozen or so dearest Manhattan friends. All were well. My close friend of many years, Michael Feingold, the distinguished theater critic for The Village Voice, sent a moving reply:

"I was at a friend's apartment on West End Avenue. We stood on the balcony and watched the ambulances screaming by, on their way to Roosevelt Hospital with the injured and the dying. We said Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for mourners). What else could we do?"

The immediate response of the performing arts--theater, dance, opera, music and even movies--was that the newly-begun 2001-2002 season was doomed; that frivolity--or anything that smacked of frivolity--was dead for who-knew-how-long. But we were surprised, all of us: within two weeks of 9/11, business returned to normal and then exceeded normal. The theater industry, at least in New York and Chicago, had a near-record-pace final quarter.

I wrote about this unexpected phenomenon and found two reasons, neither of which required great brilliance to detect. First, people wanted and needed escape from the new, grim national reality; people wanted to be diverted, entertained, amused. Second, people took to heart the urgings of our leaders: don't be afraid, don't change your normal routines and lifestyles, if we live in fear then the terrorists win, that's what they want. As New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, "If you want to help New York, come here and spend money."

Three cheers for the red, white and blue: the terrorists didn't get what they wanted (except for airports, of course).

Nonetheless, even within the performing arts there were isolated examples of a negative impact brought about almost certainly because of 9/11. Arguably, the most notable example was the Broadway musical Sweet Smell of Success, based on the 1957 noir film. Marvin Hamlisch wrote a dynamite jazz-based score, with soaring melody lines that challenged performers and audiences, while Craig Carnelia wrote the lyrics and John Guare the book. John Lithgow starred as the powerful newspaper columnist at the center of the show, and former Chicagoan Brian D'Arcy James co-starred as the small-time publicist on the make. I was certain that James's electrifying voice would earn him a Tony Award.

The show had a month-long pre-Broadway tryout here in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in January, 2002. Most critics agreed there were some problems, but nothing which couldn't be fixed. One critic alone--ok, it was me--writing in Back Stage, the national theater industry trade paper, predicted trouble for the show in New York through no fault of its own. True to the tone of the original film, I said, Sweet Smell of Success is about the dark and seedy side of The Big Apple, and New York may not respond well to that image at this particular time. It opened on Broadway on March 14, 2002 and closed on June 15. The outstanding Brian D'Arcy James did not get his well-deserved Tony Award.

Within a year, the theater industry responded to 9/11 with a series of original works, varying from documentary style to completely fictional. Indeed, new 9/11 inspired works still are being created. This week in particular, a number of theatrical tributes to 9/11 are being performed (see my upcoming Weekend Picks in Thursday's Onstage/Backstage) in honor of the 10th anniversary.

Theater reflects the society within which it's created (you know, art mirrors life), so the footprint of 9/11 is etched permanently within show biz, just as it is within every other aspect of American life.