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  • Writer's pictureClosing Night

Broadway Goes Dark: Remembering 9/11

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

Closing Night takes a moment to reflect on the devastating impact that 9/11 had on Broadway, and how it slowly recovered. Here is the transcript of that episode and sources used...


“Do you know what the biggest attraction in New York is? Broadway!”

Mayor Rudy Giuliani at Broadway on Broadway 2001


The summer of 2001 was a huge time for Broadway. The Lion King was still going strong at the box office, Viola Davis began her EGOT journey with her first Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, and 42nd Street had made a big comeback to Broadway with all those dancing feet. But the hottest ticket in town was The Producers, having swept the Tony Awards with 12 wins including Best Musical.

“When we think of Broadway, Broadway is more than shows going on. It is really the number one tourist attraction in New York City. So the summer of 2001 looked very promising, even better than the year before had been.” - Karen Nowosad (English professor and founder of Broadway Neighborhood Tours)

The Marquis Theatre was having its own success with the revival of Annie Get Your Gun. It had opened in 1999 with Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat and became just the second show in Marquis history to surpass 1000 performances. Once Peters left the show, there was a string of Broadway debuts by famous TV actresses like Susan Lucci, Cheryl Ladd, and Crystal Bernard. But none made a bigger splash than country star Reba McEntire, who breathed new life into the show and its box office. It was Bernard who would be in the title role with Tom Wopat coming back as Frank Butler to close the show on September 1, 2001. It was leaving the Marquis to make way for a new musical based on the 1967 movie Thoroughly Modern Millie.



But ten days after Annie Get Your Gun closed, all of Broadway closed, New York City shut down, and an entire nation was brought to its knees in anguish, heartache, and disbelief. Everything stopped.


“Then we shut the league down and everybody went home. I guess Giuliani was sending most people were told to go home. The subways were shut down. The buses were stuffed with people. You couldn't really get on a bus.” - Jed Bernstein


“Well, we were all so traumatized by it. You were just kind of shocked and walking around and so inundated. I don't know how you could not. But we were inundated with the pictures of it because it was running. On the news constantly." - Karen Mason

The horrible devastation of 9/11 may have been 22 years ago, but its effects are still with us today—every time we get on a plane or visit that somber memorial in lower Manhattan. I mean, closing one show is pretty common, but having the entire New York theater scene go dark is a rare event. Though the scope and circumstance of 9/11 is different from our recent adversity with the Covid pandemic, both events have certainly affected and changed Broadway in profound ways.

 

So far this season, Closing Night has been focused on individual shows at the Marquis Theatre and how and why they closed. But in this special episode, we’ll look at the whole Broadway community—the shows and actors and industry leaders—affected by 9/11 and what it took to bring theater back to New York City. And this is the episode transcript all about how the dark days of 9/11 affected Broadway and beyond. It has only been slightly edited for this format. You can listen to the full episode here or on your favorite podcast app:




SETTING THE STAGE

September is a month of transition for both New York City as well as Broadway—the weather begins to change, kids are getting back to school, and actors come together on an outdoor stage in Times Square to strut their stuff for Broadway on Broadway, which is one of the biggest annual events to kick off the Fall theater season. On that September 9th Chicago, 42nd Street, Rocky Horror Show, Les Mis, and Phantom were there as well as the cast of Urinetown, which was set to open 4 days later. And even though they hadn’t started rehearsals yet, Mamma Mia was there showing off their Dancing Queens.

“This is our coming out party! We are the Dynamos, Donna and her Dynamos. The debut of the Dynamos in New York.” - Mamma Mia


Revivals of Assassins, Dreamgirls, and Noises Off were also preparing to open in the coming weeks. Idina Menzel was about to about to join the cast of Aida, and Mandy Patinkin gave a one-night-only Broadway concert on September 10th to promote his new CD Kidults. And according to Theatermania, this particular concert is best remembered for its poignant and, in hindsight, fateful encore medley.


Mandy Patinkin's album cover for his 2001 release Kidults

After receiving a thunderous standing ovation … Patinkin returned to the stage and placed two small flags—one Israeli and one Palestinian—on a stool. Standing behind those two powerful symbols, he sang “Hatikvah,” the Israeli National Anthem … Suddenly, halfway through the song, he knocked both flags to their sides as the warm white light changed in that same instant to a fiery red. The volume of Patinkin’s voice jumped like a gunshot as he cut the air with “You’ve Got to Be Taught,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s eloquent indictment of bigotry and hatred from South Pacific … Then the lighting and the performance suddenly became gentle again as Patinkin righted the flags and summed up with Stephen Sondheim’s warning for the future, “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods.

THE DAY

The following day was just another Tuesday for New York actors...

Brad Oscar: “That morning actually I'm never up before at least ten or eleven when I'm working, but ironically that morning I was going to be heading out to Queens for an audition for some TV show.”
Nancy Opel: “We had done a preview the night before September 11 at Urinetown. And that morning was a bright and early morning for me because my daughter had just started middle school.”

For me, I was actually halfway around the world performing in Japan as part of the opening cast of a revue show called Broadway Encores at the newly opened Tokyo DisneySea theme park. Being 13 hours ahead of New York, it had already been a full day for us, because of a tsunami that had shut down much of Tokyo and kept most of us actors from being able to even get to the park. So by that night, American cast members from the various DisneySea shows were all gathering around telling our stories from the day, when someone came in and turned on the TV to CNN.


“This just in, you are looking at obviously a very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Center, and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. CNN center right now is just beginning to work on this story—obviously calling our sources and trying to figure out exactly what happened. But clearly something relatively devastating happening this morning there on the south end of the island of Manhattan.”


Twenty minutes later, we were all still watching the news coverage, when the second plane crashed into the South Tower on live television. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.


 

Explosion as second plane hits the South Twin Tower

Back in New York, just two hours after that second plane hit, it was decided that Broadway shows would go dark that night. In fact, all theater was shutdown in the city. And as the dust and debris settled throughout the day and into the next, New York City was plunged into sorrow and mourning, grappling with the enormity of the tragedy. In the aftermath, the city’s Mayor Rudy Giuliani turned to history for guidance. He had been reading a biography of Winston Churchill and drew inspiration from his resolve during the Battle of Britain as their forces defiantly stood up against German air raids. In 1940 it was decided that the British would carry on with their cultural pursuits.


“The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them … Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.” - Winston Churchill


In his speech to the Royal Academy of Arts, Churchill succinctly highlights how integral the arts are to society as a whole. So just as London theatre was an important part of life for the British people during World War II, so too was Broadway an essential ingredient of New York City returning to some sort of normalcy.



THE SHOW MUST GO ON

But against this backdrop of grief and determination, Broadway and city officials faced a critical decision. How could shows go on? And when to reopen them? The League of American Theatres and Producers, which we now know as the Broadway League, rallied behind the mayor and urged the industry to reopen. But their Executive Director Jed Bernstein recognized there were still some big challenges ahead:

“We certainly had people who knew how important it was to get business going again, because who knew? Would tourists ever come back to New York ever again? I mean, what was going to happen in the world? Would there be shows that could not reopen? And that's certainly something we tried to translate to the actors and the crews, the companies of all the shows, because some of those folks had misgivings when the decision was taken to try to open the next night, that Thursday night, the 13th, which is, in fact, when we opened.”

A big part of those misgivings had to do with the fact that Broadway's physical landscape had been altered by the attacks. Bridges and tunnels were closed, and security was tightened all around Manhattan. The sheer logistics of getting actors and crew members to the theaters posed a significant hurdle, especially those who lived outside Manhattan.


“So they said, "How are we going to get the people in to do these shows?" So a plan was hatched. Giuliani came up and said, "If they can show their union card and where they work, they will have ability to get through the police blockades." So that's how they made the plan. But the big focus, believe it or not, was on New Jersey, because that's where a lot of these people lived. So a lot had to be done to kind of bridge the gap, so that people could come through.” - Karen Nowosad


But before they could open, these productions took a hard look at the content of their shows, and considered any changes that might be needed due to the circumstances. The Producers, for example, had bombs going off during “Springtime for Hitler.” Those were taken out for a time until the trauma of 9/11 subsided. When Urinetown postponed their opening and made revisions, those changes remained in the show throughout its Broadway run.


Roundabout Theatre, on the other hand, took an even bigger step with Assassins and canceled the entire production, due to some of the disturbing and provocative content in the show—like a monologue from Samuel Byck in which he says, “I'm gonna change things, Lenny. I'm gonna drop a 747 on the White House and incinerate Dick Nixon. It's gonna make the news.” So on September 13th, Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman released a statement:

"Assassins is a show which asks audiences to think critically about various aspects of the American experience. In light of Tuesday’s murderous assault on our nation and on the most fundamental things in which we all believe, we, the Roundabout, and director Joe Mantello believe this is not an appropriate time to present a show which makes such a demand.”

A very different kind of show, Mamma Mia, was just starting rehearsals. But as Karen Mason recalls, it was a slow and difficult process back to singing and dancing again:


"We get there, and what they did at that point was have a circle of people, so that we could all tell our experiences and talk about it if we need to. And they continued that for a few days, which I thought was very healing. It gave everybody a chance to bond with each other about this horrific experience that we were all going through."


For other shows, September 13th marked a return to the Broadway stage, where marquees once again illuminated the Theater District. As each curtain rose, a collective spirit of resilience yet trepidation was palpable among cast and crew with some shows more full than others.


"I can't even describe it. It was unusual and sad and sort of strange to be going back to work. Our director, John Rando, gave a speech, a curtain speech before the show, which was very moving. We had about half a house, I would say.” - Nancy Opel

Many shows were giving curtain speeches, before and after performances, which were just a reflection the raw emotions of a city in recovery. And when it came time for the bows in shows like The Music Man, instead of reprising another song from the show, the cast and audiences joined together to sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”


Other musicals like The Lion King, Proof, 42nd Street and The Producers, ended their performances with “God Bless America.” This idea had come from seeing members of the US Congress on the night of 9/11 standing on the steps of the Capitol singing the song.


From front left: Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert, David Bonior and Richard Gephardt lead a prayer on Sept. 11 on the steps of the Capitol. (Politico)

And of course, since that song was written by Broadway composer Irving Berlin, it seemed fitting and appropriate for cast members like Brad Oscar (The Producers) to join hands and hearts with the audience in a chorus of unity, singing an anthem of defiance and determination.

Franz Liebkind (Brad Oscar) singing "Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band?"
Franz Liebkind (Brad Oscar) singing "Haben Sie Gehoert Das Deutsche Band?"

“It was just as overwhelming emotionally as you would think it would be. And yet again, never had I sung that song with such conviction and such understanding of what it meant, or what it meant to me.”

There were glimmers of hope amongst a vast sense of dread and fear. As much as theaters and the nation as a whole were trying to return to normalcy, for many people that had lost its meaning. What was normal? How or why can we even go back to it or find some new version of it? This sentiment ached inside much of the country, including actors like Derek Smith from The Lion King:


“We came back that Thursday, which I thought was a little bit soon. I think mainly because I and everyone else was afraid to be in any kind of congregation of people. You know, we we didn’t know/ I mean at that point people really wondered what’s next. I was scared to go to my car — I thought it would explode.”


HOPE AND HESITANCY

So Broadway's reopening was a mix of hope and hesitancy, met with countless challenges. The biggest of which was just finding an audience. Ticket sales all but ceased in mid-September, and without enough presold seats to guarantee at least break-even business, shows couldn’t survive. Five Broadway shows, including Kiss Me, Kate and The Rocky Horror Show, had to close in part due to the financial fallout from the attacks.


Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell performing in the 1999 Broadway revival of KISS ME, KATE
Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell performing in the 1999 Broadway revival of KISS ME, KATE

But really every show in New York was affected by low turnout, even the popular shows. The Lion King lost about two-thirds of its box office the week of 9/11, and The Producers fell by about half. That’s because there were no tourists coming to New York, so audiences were mostly made up of locals, who could physically and emotionally make it the theater. There were special efforts were made to provide tickets to airline workers and personal who were now grounded with nowhere to go.

With the city still on edge and apprehensive about going to theater, a pivotal moment came when a large group of Broadway actors, led by Annie Get Your Gun’s Bernadette Peters and The Producers’ Nathan Lane, all donated their time and talents by gathering in Times Square to perform Kander and Ebb’s classic anthem "New York, New York."


This powerful display of unity was captured on camera and broadcast across the nation, inspiring a renewed sense of assurance. And as the weeks passed, audiences began coming back to Broadway.


Through it all, the lights of Broadway continued to serve as a beacon of hope and resilience for a nation in recovery. Because as Broadway continued to make its comeback with lighthearted shows like Mamma Mia, then so did the heart of audiences come back as well. It showed theater to be an important part of the city’s renewal and the country’s.


Karen Mason, Louise Pitre, Judy Kaye in Mamma Mia

“The idea that we were going to go out there and try to share this two and a half hours of silliness of just kind of crazy with an audience who'd been so traumatized, we just weren't sure. That first night, people were screaming so loudly I thought my hair was going to fly off my head. It was that energy of: I don't know what to do with my feelings … It just gave them permission to release it, to get loud and scream and laugh and get up on their feet and dance. And I'd never seen that before. And I think that's when I truly realized the power of the theater and of music and of art is that it allows people to release their feelings through other people.” - Karen Mason


This VISA commercial aired only once on September 29, 2001, about 2 weeks after 9/11.


And so, as we reflect on this tragic chapter in theater history, let us remember the courage and determination that brought Broadway and this country back to life after the darkest of days. The lights may have dimmed for a moment, but they were never extinguished.


two contrasting NYC pics of 9/11 and 20 years later
Left: Washington Street, blocks away from ground, just days after the Sept. 11 attacks. (AP Photo/Bernadette Tuazon); Right: That same street on Aug. 15, 2021, with a direct view of One World Trade Center. (Mark Sundstrom for PIX11)

Come From Away has been nicknamed the "9/11 Musical" and explores the experiences of that tragic day in a moving way by showcasing the resiliency of the human spirit and the importance of community. Listen to an interview with original cast member Rodney Hicks:


 
Closing Night theater history podcast cover art

A big thank you goes to Playbill, the Guides Association of NYC, and the American September Project for their resources to make this episode possible. Closing Night is a production of WINMI Media with Patrick Oliver Jones as host and executive producer of the show. Dan Delgado is the editor and co-producer, not only for this podcast but also for his own movie podcast as well called The Industry. Maria Clara Ribeiro is co-producer. Join us next time as another production makes its way to closing night.

 

Sources and materials used to create this episode...


Annie Get Your Gun:

Churchill/London Theater:

NY Theater After 9/11:


"New York, New York"

Broadway Remembers:

Come From Away:



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