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Showtime, suspended
A shuttered venue in Manhattan's theater district during the coronavirus pandemic, April 16, 2020. A walk through the theater district reveals a sort of theatrical petrified forest, fossilized on March 12. No one knows when Broadway will reopen, but it’s not going to be soon. David S. Allee/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- One month after Broadway shut down, I decided to take a walk.

Theater is my beat. Times Square is my territory. And now it’s transformed.

The first thing I noticed, after weeks away, was absence. Gone are the buskers promoting shows, the panhandling costumed characters, the Naked Cowboy and the fake monks and the school groups and the selfie sticks. Gone are the actors and the stagehands and the ushers and the fans.

Then I saw presence. The shows are still there — or at least their shells are. The district is a sort of theatrical petrified forest, fossilized on March 12.

“Now in Performances,” declares a sign at the Longacre Theater, promoting “Diana,” a musical about the British princess, which is decidedly not in performances. “Previews Begin March 13,” promises a sign on the Hudson, touting a revival of “Plaza Suite,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, that did not begin previews on that date or any other.

It’s hard to say what was the more unsettling sight: the marquees gone dark, acknowledging that there is no one to see them, or the ones still blazingly lit, illuminating only the garbage blowing past and the occasional masked passer-by. On the side of the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, there was still a video playing over and over, promoting an off-Broadway play called “The Perplexed” that died with the shutdown.

There is beauty, of course; without the crowds, it is easier to see the architectural grandeur. But the neighborhood feels unsettled and unsettling — all those digital billboards, insistently flashing; a lone pro-Trump protester with a Joker mask, shouting into the air; a homeless person’s cardboard shelter, piled under the marquee of “The Lehman Trilogy,” a drama about high finance.

No one knows when Broadway will reopen, but it’s not going to be soon. Summer? Fall? Next year? What’s clear is that an industry that packs large groups of people into small spaces, that depends on tourists and seniors to fill seats, that is risky for investors and costly for fans, is going to need time to rebound.

I posted some photos from my walk on Twitter, and a few days later returned with a photographer, both of us masked. Here’s what we saw.

Atop the Booth Theater is a headstone of sorts: a darkened marquee promoting a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that closed before opening. The production, starring Laurie Metcalf and Rupert Everett, played nine previews before the shutdown; the producers have said it will not resume performances when Broadway returns.

David S. Allee, the photographer, used a tilt-shift lens, which is used to control perspective. His work shows a fondness for geometry, and he found himself drawn to these straight-on shots that isolate the theaters from their surroundings. I love the formal quality of his pictures — the way they draw my eye to the windows and the rooflines, the arches and the pediments.

Each of these theaters has its own story to tell, its own interrupted journey. One example: “Six,” a British pop musical about the wives of Henry VIII, was just 90 minutes from opening at the Brooks Atkinson, with guests in from London and a big party laid out downtown, when Broadway adjourned.

Here’s something you don’t see very often: the ruby-red glass steps at the TKTS booth, totally unoccupied. They’re now cordoned off by barricades.

“Plaza Suite” was one day from starting its run at the Hudson.

The coronavirus tore through the cast of “Moulin Rouge!” at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. The actor Danny Burstein, whose poster is on the right-hand column, said he thought he might die while hospitalized with COVID-19.

The TKTS booth defiantly promised an April 13 resumption even after that date had gone by.

The lobby at Circle in the Square features a forlorn buffalo, waiting for a revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” to begin. Next door at the Gershwin Theater, where “Wicked” has been running since 2003, there is still a green glow.

There are reminders of possibility. At the Neil Simon Theater, the marquee introduces “MJ,” a coming (well, it was coming) biomusical about Michael Jackson, scheduled to begin previews this summer.

But at the John Golden Theater, signs sell “Hangmen,” a dark comedy by Martin McDonagh. It played 13 previews but will not open; its producers decided it did not make financial sense to try to weather an indefinite shutdown. Is it too much to point out that the play is about an executioner?

I’ve long loved the view down West 45th Street, with its row of vertical signs naming the theaters and the dizzying variety of shows they house. And yet, I can’t help but wonder: Which long-running hits will never return? And which new shows will never even open? As with so much these days, there are only questions, not answers.

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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