Paging through Broadway while the stages are dark

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Paging through Broadway while the stages are dark
A collection of Playbills in New York, Jan. 13, 2021. "They are souvenirs of a moment that will never happen again," writes New York Times critic Maya Phillips about her collection of Playbills. Maya Phillips/The New York Times.

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- I admit it: I’m supposed to be packing. I’m starting 2021 with a move, to my first solo apartment, and I was doing pretty well for a while: rolled up the rug, took down some artwork, packed four bins of books without pausing (Flo Rida’s “My House” played on Spotify as an aspirational track). It was the Playbills that got me, the unwieldy stack at the top of the bookcase that leaned sloppily, as though at any moment a handful would slide off and escape to the floor.

I never thought of myself as particularly nostalgic. I’m too clutter-averse, I thought, to hold onto things for no reason. (Marie Kondo before it was cool?) And yet, I now realize that I do have my sentimental moments: old New York Comic Con badges hanging on my closet doorknob, dated newspaper clips with my byline in a bin, notebooks of shameful teenage and preteen fiction and poetry (though, to be fair, those I’m just too neurotic to throw out, in case some poor soul should lay eyes on them).

And I can never get rid of my Playbills — nor can I ever just “grab one” to check a detail without taking a Zipcar down memory lane and resurfacing an hour or so later. They’re like snapshots, capturing the ephemeral, the essential element of live performance that makes it unique and one of my greatest loves: They are souvenirs of a moment that will never happen again.

We’re coming up on a year without theater, and though it’s been rough, last spring was the worst, as I crossed off the plays I’d planned to see: “Hangmen,” “Six,” “American Buffalo” and more. I felt restless; I had gotten so used to running to midtown for a show after work and puttering around Bryant Park on weekends between a matinee and an evening performance. Much of the time I was reviewing for The New Yorker, or freelancing for The New York Times, so I always carried the Playbills until my work was published. On the morning commute from Brooklyn, I’d flip through a program in response to my editor’s deadline queries to double-check a name or bio. Those Playbills might stay in my bag, only to be rediscovered days later, revealing a weekend of seeing and writing.

But I’m being nostalgic again.

It’s hard not to be when I haven’t sat in a theater in 10 months, haven’t sprinted down 42nd Street to make a curtain, haven’t settled into the anticipatory silence of a dark theater before the first word is spoken on stage.

I’ve kept Playbills since I was a kid. For years I kept movie ticket stubs, too, but they didn’t hold the same allure or capture the grandeur of a Broadway performance. The pile includes my early theater experiences like “Aida,” “The Color Purple” and “The Lion King.” There are Playbills with cast members who later hit the big time; I picked up a program for the Manhattan Theater Club’s production of “Prodigal Son” and recognized a now-familiar face: Timothée Chalamet, before “Call Me by Your Name” and “Lady Bird.”

There are duplicates for the ones I’ve seen more than once, like “Rent,” and though I’ve debated throwing those out, I never have, knowing that each program represents an experience both the same and different; even if I saw the same cast do the same script, word for word, note for note, something would have inevitably changed.

It’s an exquisite tragedy — that every time you see theater, you receive something new, but that gift is immediately chased by a loss. It can’t be replicated. Memory is imperfect. As a critic, I experience productions in a super-heightened state. I try to make sure every detail adheres to my memory — the lights, the movement, the sounds, the scenery. But no matter what, it’s like trying to catch water in my hands. By the time I was heading home, under the punishing lights of an F train car, I’d already feel it slipping, just a little bit, as the world outside the theater poured back into me.

In my collection I saw Playbills for shows I only vaguely remembered and ones I didn’t recall at all. I looked at each one, and the feeling was something like heartbreak, a tiny dose of grief. I don’t even have programs for every show I’ve seen; some I’ve lost, some I failed to pick up, and some, to my dismay, were digital.

Years ago Times critic Walter Kerr wrote about his not keeping Playbills, considering the psychology of the collector, saying it “isn’t a matter of wallowing in nostalgia”; it’s always about looking for the next addition to the collection. I have to disagree. When my friends suggest putting my programs in binders or frames or transforming them into chic Instagrammable décor, I resist, because I’m not the collector Kerr imagined. I do wallow — or I’d say, more accurately, bask — in my memories, and I don’t want those past performances to be displayed like trophies; I want to touch them, as though I could take those moments themselves into my hands. It’s my little act of witchcraft: I thumb through the pages, and suddenly it’s resurrected — my feeling at 18, sitting with my aunt in the Richard Rodgers Theater watching “In the Heights.”

I know it may sound silly to be so attached to a little promotional booklet — or, in some cases, a single unadorned piece of folded card stock or sheet of printer paper — and imagine it represents mourning when there are many other things to mourn at the moment. And by now I know I’m stalling, am still staring at piles of Playbills on the bed instead of packing plates and mugs. It occurs to me that right now, if it were a normal Sunday a year ago, I’d be leaving for a Sunday matinee.

One of the biggest challenges of being a critic is accounting for the art being made in the present but also recalling the past. We bear witness to art, writing about it so people know it is there, that it’s happening, that it happened. But as I’ve already said, memory is flawed, and so are we. We’re always in the process of forgetting some detail or another: last Wednesday’s breakfast, the phone number of a childhood home, the opening number of a musical from 2013, the color of a dress an actress wore onstage just last year. They go one by one.

So, I pack up my Playbills for the productions I recall and the ones I don’t. When theater returns, I will accumulate more to shelve with the others and look through them when I’m feeling nostalgic. And I’ll know that even though I may not remember the particulars of every single performance or set, there’s still something precious in the knowledge that for one specific moment in time, something special happened, I saw it, I was there.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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