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Curtain Up, Light the Lights

Curtain Up, Lights on Broadway

by Greg Cunningham

Broadway is coming back roses

On his 1976 album Turnstiles,  Billy Joel sang Miami 2017:  
I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway…
They turned our power down
And drove us underground…

Turns out, his prediction of 2017 was just three years too early.

In March of 2020, the lights of Broadway did indeed go out as one of many steps taken to protect people from the invisible enemy lurking in the wind of pandemic. At the time, most observers expected that audiences would return within a few weeks. No one foresaw the immense impact the virus would have on our day-to-day lives, or how long it would take to return to even the slightest degree of normalcy.

Throughout history, thriving societies have been judged not only by what they invent or how they treat their citizens, but also on the social importance of the arts. It is not a coincidence that some of humanity’s greatest inventions came from civilizations which also created some of the greatest works of art, sculpture, and literature. The cultivation of creativity was not overlooked in the great societies: it was celebrated.

Many educational institutions today include in their mission statements the goal of creating “lifelong learners”– students who strive not just to earn grades or pass exams but who learn for the sake of learning and for self-improvement. Broadway’s storytellers provide a wonderful opportunity not only to learn about the society we live in, but also about ourselves as we react in the dark among hundreds and sometimes thousands of strangers.

In the journey to influence audiences, we are not just guided down a dramatic path but encouraged to reflect on the society around us. Sometimes we see ourselves standing on the stage, struggling with the same issues, worries or concerns. We may see our family members or friends in the characters on stage, or sense that the anonymous person sitting next to us in the dark theater is seeing the same. When the final note is sung or word spoken, we often leap to our feet inspired and hopeful, humming the main melody artistically woven throughout the score. We emerge from the theater back into the world changed from who we were when we entered.

During what for many were the darkest and most difficult times these past 18 months, we have missed this reflection, this ability to learn about ourselves and our community. Online streaming services attempted to fill the gap, but nothing can replace live performance and a live audience’s roller coaster of emotions.

The traditional ghost light, a single bare lightbulb burning on the empty stage in defiance of darkness, has been shining in darkened theaters these long months. The ghost lights symbolize a ray of hope in the void; they signify that the theater will live, breathe, and thrive in the weeks and months to come. On Broadway, there is always hope and inspiration. Thespians always rise again.

In a few short weeks, Pride Rock will once again seize the stage. Just down the street, Glinda will confide to Elphaba “…because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” Down the block, Atticus Finch will remind audiences that you never really understand a person until you consider things from his or her point of view. A new context will be on display when a fully vaccinated audience at Hamilton might catch a double meaning when he sings “I’m young, scrappy and hungry, And I’m not throwin’ away my shot!” The cast of Come From Away will remind us that even on the worst days, people provide comfort and support, no matter the circumstances.

And on the other side of Times Square, Evan Hansen will end each show by sending the audience back into the world, telling them:

All we see is light
Watch the sun burn bright
We could be alright
For forever

Maybe not for forever, but at least for now. Broadway’s return will fill our souls with the nourishment we’ve been craving and the inspiration we have lacked.

Miami 2017 ends with the words,

There are not many who remember…
…About the way the lights went out
And keep the memory alive

We have been keeping the memories alive these past 18 months. It is time now to create new memories to keep alive in the years to come.

The house lights are going down and audiences will once again be enchanted by the greatest storytellers ever assembled, the dream makers of Broadway.

Greg Cunningham is a JFYNet Learning Specialist and lifelong theatre buff.

Other posts authored by Greg can be found here.

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