Well, we did it; despite it all, we had Thanksgiving. We skyped with our loved ones as we enjoyed turkey and pumpkin pie for one. We put on our masks and started stringing up our outdoor Christmas lights as soon as we’d finished digesting our food. And, although mostly confined to a single block in Midtown, and held during an inconvenient drizzle, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade took place, as it’s done every year without interruption since World War II.
For as long as I can remember, the Macy’s parade has functioned, among other things, as a commercial for Broadway. It’s one of the few ways for production numbers from the currently running Broadway musicals to reach a national television audience, at least some percentage of which will spend their future tourism dollars at those very shows. Well, at the moment, and until a Covid vaccine is widely available (thank you for saving America, Dolly Parton), there are no Broadway shows running, and if you’re being responsible then you’re hunkering down at home and postponing any tourism plans. But Broadway is looking forward, to the day when those tourism plans can resume, and made the argument on Thursday that everything will be back to normal soon enough. This Thanksgiving, they presented an excerpt from one of the buzziest shows of the truncated past season – Jagged Little Pill – as well as numbers from long-running, tourist-friendly productions like Mean Girls, Ain’t Too Proud, and the nigh-sainted Hamilton. For good measure, the “Schuyler Sisters” number from the latter show repeatedly reminds us how:
Lucky we are to be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we
Just happen to be in the greatest city in the world!
Everything you could ask for in a commercial, right?
And yet –
I can’t help but notice the recurring sentiment, both in public events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and in private conversations with my actor friends, is that the goal is to get the theater industry up and running as if nothing ever happened. To make the quarantimes, however long they wind up lasting, a blip in the continuum of theatrical life, to be ignored and forgotten as soon as possible. To get back to normal.
I don’t see how that’s possible, and I don’t think it’s desirable.
There isn’t any going back; we’ve all endured a mass traumatic event, and like it or not the experience is part of our culture now. Moreover, it’s a mass trauma that was brought about by our failures – failures of our institutions, failures of our leaders, and in the actions of our most militant science-deniers the failures of our national character. And these failures are just a sample of a series of interconnected failures we’ve all experienced these past few years. And we in the arts are not immune – we’ve failed to nurture a diverse range of artistic voices, we’ve failed to create a development process that isn’t so labyrinthine and cumbersome as to prevent writers from responding to current events in any meaningful way, we’ve failed to bring theatrical rent costs down and are wholly dependent on splashy tourist fare as a result. We need to learn from these failures. Heck, Broadway producers, the phrase “you live, you learn” is the refrain from one of the very numbers you put up on Thursday’s parade! (The title of the show comes from that very number!)
I don’t have any suggestion for what the parade could have or should have done differently; it’s hard to present numbers that don’t exist yet. But we need to make sure those numbers do exist going forward. Heck, we just need to go forward – which is a hell of a lot different than going back.