THE TICKETMASTER E-MAIL came on Friday: "Due to the current situation, your event tonight has been postponed."
This was hardly a surprise. I had planned to be in New York last week for the CMJ convention, including a non-badge-holder show at Irving Plaza for which I'd purchased tickets in advance. Needless to say, CMJ was cancelled and Irving Plaza closed.
But by Friday, the subways were functioning somewhat normally. Broadway's stages lit up. And the streets of Manhattan were open to Canal Street, along with myriad bars, clubs, and restaurants. I don't know that you could say it was "A Great Time to Visit New York!"—the promise of an automated Radisson Hotel e-mail I received Tuesday morning at 11:04 a.m. (followed by a letter of apology five hours later). But I wanted to see my friends, I wanted to see the city, and—as new Mayor-for-life Rudy Giuliani later joked, by way of encouraging people to come spend money—it was an unexpected opportunity to score tickets for The Producers.
On a Saturday as picture-perfect as the day of the attack, I started out in Greenwich Village. The West 4th Street basketball games were in full swing and the tattoo parlors all open, though not busy. Eerily optimistic "missing" photos dotted every corner. Stillness (and, occasionally, smoke) was in the air. Some of the empty feeling was literal—this was Manhattan sans the usual crowds of tourists, suburbanites, and outer borough residents.
At Washington Square, candles, flowers, poems, and posters surrounded the Arch, mostly bearing messages of peace and tolerance. By the fountain, a four-man dance troupe called the Ticka-Tack All-Stars promised to "bring a little life back" to the park with a series of acrobatic flips and jumps, executed to the tune of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." One wore a Philadelphia 76ers jersey, while another sported a giant, fuzzy Stars-and-Stripes top hat. I thought of what Chris Chew, the bassist in the band the North Mississippi All-Stars, says when members of his Southern Baptist church criticize his love for rock 'n' roll: "It's all the ministry."
On to Times Square. The corner vendors were out in force, offering framed black-and-white pictures of the WTC as it once was, plus some astonishing T-shirts. AMERICA UNDER ATTACK . . . I CAN'T BELIEVE I GOT OUT, one said, the twin phrases framing a picture of the twin towers. EVIL WILL BE PUNISHED, said another, this one bearing an image of the Stars and Stripes.
It's creepy to think that people are making money exploiting tragedy. America's compulsion for "I was there" souvenirs seems inappropriate as well. But maybe not. In this time of crisis, with our way of life under attack (or so we've been told), the usual symbols of capitalist excess can be seen as patriotic affirmations. What could be more American than to eat junk food and purchase bootleg T-shirts amidst the Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and Wonderbra billboards?
Ditto attending a Broadway show. I arrived at the St. James Theater, home of The Producers, at 5:45 p.m., two hours and 15 minutes before curtain time. There were 60 people ahead of me in the cancellation line, and over 200 tickets had already been parceled out. On a normal night, less than 20 are available.
I moved on to 8th Avenue. Couples breezed by, some wearing red, white, and blue ribbons on their chests, mostly laughing and smiling. Then, around the corner from my favorite Thai place on 48th, it hit again. The crowd of people, the red balloons, the "no standing" signs: I knew what was next because I'd already seen it twice today—a firehouse. This one was Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, and 15 of its men were gone.
Is it any wonder people are out on a Saturday night looking for escape? But the world of theater, art, or music has to offer more than that. We are entering a moment in our culture where there's no such thing as easy sentiment, but that doesn't mean we need it in our art. The Producers, after all, is a musical comedy about Hitler. Saddam Hussein is a camp, rough-trade-loving character on South Park. Last year, an episode of The Family Guy portrayed Osama bin Laden distracting airport security by doing a soft shoe and singing "I Hope I Get It" from A Chorus Line. You can be sure that rerun will never air.
Meanwhile, a new production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins was postponed. "Assassins is a show which asks audiences to think critically about various aspects of the American experience," the Roundabout Theater's statement said. "In light of Tuesday's murderous assault on our nation and on the most fundamental things in which we all believe . . . this is not an appropriate time to present a show which makes such a demand."
I was grateful, then, for the show I could get tickets for: Urinetown! The Musical. Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis' absurdist comedy, about an evil corporation in a drought-ridden world that has turned all toilets into for-profit facilities, satirizes the cheap emotions and easy clich鳠of theatrical convention and still manages to make a statement about class, oppression, and the environment. It made me laugh my ass off.
Before the performance, Mike Rego, one of the producers, admitted to feeling guilty, despite the mayor's wishes, despite the "show must go on" mentality. A phone conversation with his 83-year-old grandmother in Cleveland set him straight.
"Michael, the arts have the power to restore people's souls," she told him. "That is your job."