For 18 months, the theater practically disappeared in New York. For those of us who work on and around the stages, our blood has stopped completely. The theater district was a ghost town. My wife, Rebecca Luker, and I have made a living on Broadway for 27 shows combined in 30 years. We knew how lucky we were and pinched each other daily. And then suddenly everything stopped.
I played the nightclub impresario Harold Zidler in the musical “Moulin Rouge!” when the news of the closure arrived on the afternoon of March 12, 2020. Inside the Al Hirschfeld Theater our show was a huge success and we were looking forward to a very long run; outside, there was talk of the terrible virus killing hundreds of people in Europe, Italy being particularly devastated.
Few of us thought the virus would reach our shores in the same way. I remember people saying, “It’s like the flu, relax. It’s not that bad. “When we were told to leave the theater, I turned to my dresser and said,” I have a feeling this will be the lost year of Broadway. ” was six months short.
To say I had a hard time during the pandemic is an understatement. I contracted Covid-19, one of the many theaters that did, and almost died in hospital. I had double pneumonia, coughed up blood and could barely breathe. When my positive Covid result came back, the first question from the admission nurse was, “Are you an organ donor?”
A few months later, my beloved wife, Rebecca, a glorious human being with the voice of an angel whose body was quickly ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, passed away at the age of 59. We have been married for 20 years and being without her has been difficult. If there was a silver lining to the closure, it was that I got to spend so much time with her at the end of her life, and we grew closer because we knew our times together were waning.
But I know that I am not alone in my grief and my suffering. We are now approaching 700,000 Americans dead from Covid-19. A wave of grief across the land impossible to understand.
And now, “Broadway is back.” But why should anyone care? Why is this relevant when people sacrifice their lives on a daily basis over the misconception that the Covid vaccine is not effective or is somehow harmful? Lives have been ruined and America’s pandemic toll at times looks like another 9/11 every day. Why should we pay attention to the theater when many states promise (and succeed) to drastically diminish voter rights and take away women’s right to safe abortion, making them second-class citizens? Every day we are struck by a wave of disturbing and disheartening news from around the world. The cumulative effect is crippling.
Yet when my agent told me “Moulin Rouge! was finally reopening and Broadway would rise from its proverbial ashes, I told him I wanted to be there. I wanted to make a statement. Coming back to the show was more than just a personal decision, it was also a political act. It was the sign of unity. Oneness with complete strangers who sit in an audience and unite to speak as one.
Because theater is not just a form of entertainment, it is at best a collective and spiritual experience. It is a church for the heart and the spirit. It is for the intellect. A mosque celebrating humanity. It reminds us of how beautiful and how fragile life can be. It helps us form opinions and better understand the lives of our fellow human beings.
Of course I could point out that Broadway attracts more than 14 million people a year who also visit restaurants and other nearby businesses, and regularly produces a financial windfall for our city by employing thousands of people. But my point is, it’s more than that.
The stories in Broadway theaters reflect the soul of our nation and have the ability to heal our painful country. What better way to explore humanity’s most pressing moral questions than at the feet of the world’s most brilliant playwrights? As a young man, I learned morality with Sophocles and Euripides, existentialism with Shakespeare, racism and prejudice with Oscar Hammerstein and Lorraine Hansberry.
I developed a sense of humor thanks to Kaufman and Hart. I learned the strength it takes to be a father to August Wilson and Arthur Miller. I relived the AIDS crisis with Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer, and learned the true meaning of joy through Broadway’s greatest contribution to theater, the American musical.
On a very personal note, I have to say how terrible this all is without Rebecca by my side. All of my happiest theater memories are filled with her. And she loved nothing more than settling for a long time in a Broadway show. The theater gave her life meaning in the most beautiful way – it gave her a forum to share her gifts with the world.
I mourn all the performances she will never give, the years of good work she had ahead of her. I pray that the theater will help me heal, that going back to work and feeling the energy of the people around me will be therapeutic in a beautiful way. “Dr. The theater,” as Lynn Redgrave told me years ago, “heals everything.”
And so, hopefully, we reopen, praying that this pandemic and its variants will diminish as people are vaccinated. As Broadway magically comes to life, I’ll be thinking of all the ones we’ve lost. I’ll think of Rebecca, I’ll sing for her. I will think of the loneliness of the past 18 months, the chance to meet again and the chance to open a dialogue with our collective consciousness. But most of all, I will pray that Broadway is reborn stronger than ever.
Danny Burstein has been nominated for a Tony Award for his performances in “The Drowsy Chaperone”, “South Pacific”, “Follies”, “Golden Boy”, “Cabaret” and “Fiddler on the Roof”. He was nominated for Best Actor at the Tony Awards on Sunday for his work in “Moulin Rouge!” Musical comedy.
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