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My first show after 9/11 took me someplace I didn't know I needed to go
Welcome to our latest Theatre Lovers essay. In honor of theatres slowly reopening, TDF member Daniel Guss recalls his moving experience at his first show after a prior shutdown. If you'd like to submit your story for consideration, email TDF Stages.
The first time I remember the world essentially coming to a standstill was when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was nine. My life was fairly narrow, and I noticed little change apart from a few days off from school. The next time everything stopped was on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
For nearly 3,000 people, everything truly ended that day, and the devastation would extend to many thousands more. The rest of us had to seek order in chaos, coping as best we could. Rebounding from the end of a long relationship, I had already booked myself for many cultural events that autumn to help me channel (really sublimate) my feelings. With the uncertainty of how life would be going forward and no emotional support close at hand, my solace—or, at least, my distraction—would have to be the arts.
On Thursday, September 13, New York City's theatres reopened after just two days. That evening, in my seat at The Duke on 42nd Street, I waited for a preview performance of the new musical The Spitfire Grill to begin. I had bought my ticket before 9/11 and found it oddly comforting that I was able to use it. I've sat in theatres thousands of times waiting for shows to start, but this felt different, though I couldn't pinpoint how. The auditorium, while not full, was well populated. Even though I couldn't quite figure out what I was feeling, I sensed that everyone around me felt the same way. The show began and we all spent the next two hours immersed in a heartwarming story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
A young woman named Percy is released from prison. Having no home to return to, she decides to go to the town of Gilead, Wisconsin, based on an idyllic photo she once saw in a travel book. Upon arrival, she discovers that Gilead has fallen on hard times. Percy reports to the sheriff and he takes her to the Spitfire Grill, where the gruff proprietor, Hannah, hires her as a waitress. Percy encounters animosity from some of the customers and finds an ally in Shelby, the wife of Hannah's nephew. When Hannah breaks her leg, Shelby helps Percy run the Spitfire. Hannah has been trying to sell the place for years without success, so Percy comes up with a contest in which hopefuls pay $100 to submit an essay about why they should win the restaurant. Thanks to the advertisement written by Percy and Shelby, responses pour in. The whole town comes together to help Hannah sort through the entries, undergoing a kind of spiritual healing in the process. Having reviewed everybody's favorite essays, Hannah decides the best piece of writing was the ad for the contest, and thus awards Percy and Shelby the Spitfire Grill.
In life I seldom cry, but my tears can flow with little resistance in a darkened theatre. What I see there can rhyme with what I know; what happens on a stage can resonate with something I have experienced. It's an outgrowth of empathy, an aspect of humanity; somehow, it's easier for me to breach those barriers through the stories of others.
As in most musicals, The Spitfire Grill features characters who overcome adversity, undergo transformation and arrive at a better place. So soon after 9/11, it reassured me that I, too, could do those things. And music and poetic language, as they always do, accented and amplified the effect. The welcoming, folksy score by James Valcq and Fred Alley facilitated emotional responses, making it easy to connect the story on stage, the story outside the theatre and the story in my soul.
In Act I, Shelby (played by a favorite performer of mine, Liz Callaway) sings to Percy about Hannah and her son Eli, a local hero who went off to serve in the Vietnam War; it devastated the town when he didn't come back. "When hope goes, sidewalks crack, whitewash fades. Music stops, empty streets, no parades. When hope goes, fences sag, flagpoles rust. Paint peels, broken wheels gather dust. When hope goes, hearts close."
Toward the end of Act II, Percy (played by Garrett Long) sings about her emotional journey from prison to freedom. Although she's witnessed the sun rise daily since arriving in Gilead, she wonders at the sight as if seeing it for the first time, singing, "There's darkness in me as deep as this valley, and things that I done I can never repay. The days I regret are too many for countin'. There's sins river water will not wash away. But if you can turn this whole valley to golden, and burn till the colors of paradise shine, then maybe your bright mornin' light can discover a diamond of hope in this dark heart of mine. Mornin' light, shine on me, shine… Find a diamond of hope in this dark heart of mine."
After another verse and chorus, Percy seizes on "Mornin' light, shine on me, shine," repeats it, modulates with it, and on the final "shine" attains a rapturous joy. Whatever has happened, everything is going to be all right now. In a quiet coda, she reprises the refrain with one important word changed: "There's a diamond of hope in this good heart of mine."
Hope goes; hope returns.
All over New York City that evening, people were renewing their love affair with the theatre, whether at established shows such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King or Proof, or at newer arrivals like The Producers, Urinetown or Bat Boy. I'm willing to bet most of them went on a similar journey and felt the way I did as they left the theatre—that it was going to be all right.
The last shows I attended before COVID-19 closed theatres were the City Center Encores! production of Mack and Mabel and the two-part play The Inheritance. As at any performance, I was surrounded by people I did not know but with whom I shared a communal experience as old as the ancient Greeks, who developed theatre as a form of nonreligious ritual offering purification and healing—a secular ceremony with a sacred purpose.
During the COVID intermission, I availed myself of a few of the virtual options developed for at-home consumption. Momentary respite was found in play readings by the irrepressible Charles Busch, Michael Urie's reprise of his brilliant Buyer & Cellar performance, the starry Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration and archival recordings of productions from the invaluable Mint Theater Company. All were wonderful but could not satisfy my need for community.
One experience came closer: in summer 2020, I attended a drive-in event at the Sharon Playhouse in Connecticut. A stage was erected outside the barn, facing the parking lot. Three singers, a drummer and an electric keyboard player performed songs by Irving Berlin and Jerry Herman to an audience sitting in cars. We tuned our radios to a local frequency for the music and "applauded" each number enthusiastically with flashing lights and honking horns. I was grateful to be there but ached with longing and frustration afterward.
What I look forward to most as theatres reopen is the opportunity to be entertained, educated, transformed—even purified and healed—in the physical company of a thousand, a hundred, even a dozen of my fellow theatregoers. I want to bask once again in the sound of a live orchestra and live voices; to marvel at new music and revel in reacquaintance with the classics in real time; to cry with recognition at something unexpected that triggers vibrations within me and to know that I am not alone. I want to integrate my past experiences with new ones and continue to become the person I am meant to be.
I want to see a show.
Daniel Guss is a native New Yorker. During his career at RCA, he reissued over 1,000 compact discs, ranging from the recordings of such classical superstars as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leontyne Price and James Galway, to classical music compilations and Broadway cast albums. He is now general manager of the Early Music Foundation.
Top image: Liz Callaway and Garrett Long in The Spitfire Grill. Photo by Joan Marcus.