In New York, the recovery is underway. Television shows broadcast from the city, including The Late Show with David Letterman, have returned to the air to find warm greetings. Celebrity benefits have been well attended and watched en masse. And what of the theater? After an initial crash which forced several shows to close prematurely and necessitated wage concessions of cast and crew to keep other shows running, Broadway has returned near full throttle this past week.
Kiss Me, Kate, which had posted a closing notice, literally tore up that notice at its scheduled last performance and has played thereafter to large houses. Two shows that shuttered following the attack, the Rocky Horror Show, and off-Broadway’s Bat Boy, will resurface later this month. And one of the only two planned shows that was canceled, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves, found sufficient financial support to rescind its cancellation and will come to New York after all.
But what of the show indefinitely erased from the New York horizon in the wake of two towering buildings erased from the skyline? Amongst all that has been lost due to the events of Sept. 11, it is easy to overlook Assassins. Yet the absence of this Sondheim musical merits special attention, not only because New York audiences have been deprived of an extraordinany piece of theater, but also because the principal reason for its cancelation is its subject matter.
Assassins is a difficult work that examines, in a darkly comic fashion, those who have attempted to kill the President of the United States. It asks how these individuals from places physically and mentally diverse came to the same terrible conclusion. The answer is disturbing for it speculates that those who grow up to attempt to kill the president are by-products of the very same American dream that creates presidents.
It may well be that now is not the time for such a show. And it is tough to disagree with the statement released by Sondheim and bookwriter John Weidman regarding the removal of the musical from the fall Broadway schedule: “Assassins is a show which asks audiences to think critically about various aspects of the American experience. In light of [Sept. 11th’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.”
But, in a world now marred by an unthinkable campaign of terror, it is particularly odious that we have not lost only thousands of lives, but also one of the great sources of escape, rebirth and transcendence—art.
Postponing Assassins in the short term makes sense, as I doubt there is a depressed financial market for the show at the present, and, certainly, no producer can be compelled to lose money, even for the sake of promoting a brilliant piece of theater.
Yet not to reschedule the show seems a concession to those who sought to change our way of life, as well as an insult to those theatergoers, especially in New York, who are not reactionaries and will soon again be capable of appreciating theater that challenges what we think we know and asks us to broaden what we’re willing to accept.
Mayor Giuliani, who has spent much of the days since the attack calling for people to band together by donating blood and making charitable donations, has also made another request—go to the theater. As he declared at a news conference, “If you really want to help New York City, come to New York. Go to a play.”
If I were speechwriting for Giuliani, I might add another request—produce Assassins. Put it on a stage. Come to see it and show the entire world that in the land of the free, we have no problems with questioning our history or reconsidering the basis of our values. Even in the wake of such a crisis, we can and will regain our objectivity; we can and will embrace works that require an open-minded viewing.
Lobby, therefore, for the future production of all works of art delayed, indefinitely postponed or outright canceled. Only when those pieces peacefully grace our pages, our cinemas and our theaters, will we know that we have survived this assault and persevered as a truly freedom-loving and freedom-embracing people.
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