At some point, this will end. New York City had no deaths from COVID-19 yesterday, for the first time since this ordeal began. Eventually the rest of this country will get its act together, and it will actually be feasible to start reopening our society (as opposed to being the pipe dream of certain politicians who shall remain nameless and spineless). There will come a day when we can commute to work normally, when we can hang out at bars together. And eventually, there will come a day when we can go to the theater again.
The state of Massachusetts seems to believe that day has arrived, and has convinced a number of influential parties to go along with that belief. It was announced this past week that Actors Equity has approved contracts for two regional theaters in Massachusetts to begin in August. The Barrington Stage Group will be mounting a one person show entitled Harry Clarke. More ambitiously, in an outdoor tent stage, the Berkshire Theatre Group will employ ten Equity actors and two Equity stage managers in a production of Godspell.
There are all manner of questions to ask here – whether the proposed safety measures each of these companies have announced are adequate, whether it’s too early to be thinking about starting live theater performances again, whether live theater with its sweat and its spittle can ever be made completely safe. Above all of these, however, there’s been one overriding question I’ve been asking myself since the moment I read this news:
Godspell is another one of those musicals, like Grease, that’s been permanently marred for me as a result of unpleasant early exposure to the material – in this case, a never-ending succession of hippie Sunday School teachers strumming endless choruses of “Day By Day” back in my 70s childhood. I was encouraged to give the piece another chance later on; aside from its catchy tunes, I was assured that it was a beautiful expression of pure faith, free from the trappings of any particular doctrine. I happen not to agree with this; the number “It’s All For the Best,” with its assurances that all the terrible things that happen in our lives are all part of a divine plan and therefore no cause for worry, strikes me as the absolute worst type of doctrine, pernicious social control disguised as celestial advice.
But it’s Godspell, and it’s catchy and it’s popular, and above all it’s safe. And everything that has been discussed as a future theatrical production, when theatrical productions can take place again, has that same safe quality. On Broadway, for instance, Spring 2021 productions have been announced both for postponed shows (the Hugh Jackman-led revival of The Music Man) and new revivals (the perennial Our Town, with Dustin Hoffman returning to Broadway as the Stage Manager). The overriding philosophy is clear; when this particular ordeal is over – as well as the overall national nightmare of which it’s the culmination – we’ll all want to enjoy something safe, and comfortable, and pretend that none of this ever happened as we happily get back to normal.
I happen not to agree with this either.
At some point, all of this will end, but the memory of it will be with us forever. The myriad and interconnected nightmares we’ve all lived through are now a part of us, like it or not. Once we’re finally on the other side, we’re not going to need escapism so much as we’re going to need healing and catharsis, and the umpteenth revival of some programmer’s favorite war horse just isn’t going to provide it. We won’t be able to go back to things the way we were, because that world, with all its naïve assumptions, is forever gone. If we work at it diligently, we might – might – be able to build a better one, and our arts planning needs to reflect that.
Of course, we do need to make sure we’re all alive to see it. First things first.