• Gillian Russo

Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway (Reprise)

The reprises of ballads are always sadder than the originals, right?

Last summer was the first time I wrote a blog post titled after this Billy Joel song. I discussed all the shows that closed after coming away from the Tonys empty-handed. Never would I have imagined that less than a year later, I'd be sitting in my childhood bedroom when I'm meant to be at college, listening to that song and thinking about how much differently that title hits now. It almost seems flippant, in retrospect, to have applied it to a few natural, somewhat expected closures when a pandemic would soon sweep clean the streets of the Great White Way — the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic didn't even do that — and wreak havoc upon the entire industry, not to mention the rest of the world.

Who would have thought I'd never be able to hear that song again the same way. I will always think of the time I did see the lights go out on Broadway.

This isn't the first time in my lifetime that Broadway's gone dark. But the first two times were 9/11 and the 2003 musicians' strike, and I was too young to understand either, let alone understand their effect on a city I hadn't seen yet. I went to my first Broadway show in the fall of 2004, and as far as five-year-old me knew, Broadway was just...there. It was a stage like the ones I stood on sometimes in a curly wig and a dance costume, only bigger. It had no storied history of labor strikes and terrorist attacks and all these other things that just didn't mesh with its bright, glittering grandeur. All that existed was a Saturday matinee of "Beauty and the Beast" and the walls of the Lunt-Fontanne. It was omnipresent and natural. I couldn't have comprehended that there were things in this world that could threaten it.

I don't think I truly comprehended it until March 12, 2020. Aside from now being old enough to understand that history exists and life's not all good, this year's shutdown was just so incredibly close. I've never been closer to Broadway as I am now. Since that first trip in 2004, I've seen dozens more shows. I've moved to New York. I've decided I want to make a career out of Broadway journalism, and I've been working for the past two months at an internship where I do just that.

On March 11, I saw two Broadway shows, and I'll never forget the moment less than 24 hours later when the shutdown was ordered, when I suddenly felt like I'd sat not just in the theater, but on the precipice of the world. (I only got to wallow in that feeling for a moment because I was on the clock and naturally, we journalists proceeded to have the most chaotic workday ever. I'll never be able to say I had an unmemorable first job in my field.)

"Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway" has always brought on a sense of wistfulness in me, but it was a distant kind. It's not so distant anymore. Sure, the song is still a fictional imagining of a New York apocalypse. The Bronx hasn't blown away, Manhattan hasn't sunk out at sea and the mighty skyline hasn't fallen. It's still fantastical in many senses, even for those who lived through the 1970s fiscal crisis that inspired Joel's song and those who do remember Broadway's past darkenings.

But there's one line that packs a punch, and I can't shake it: "They turned our power down/And drove us underground/But we went right on with the show." Broadway re-opened two days after 9/11. Labor strikes shuttered the theaters for, at most, a month. They're not going to reopen in a month now. As much as I wish I could hold fast to that April 12 grand reopening that's been set, I can't believe in it. The Broadway industry is predicated on groups of 500+ people sitting in close proximity for two hours, after all. The theaters will reopen, but I have a feeling they'll be some of the last institutions to do so.

Luckily, Broadway is more than theaters — it sounds cliche, but it's a community of people who are still singing and dancing and connecting and advocating, albeit virtually, that I can connect with. It's odd to be writing about Broadway from my childhood bedroom, but at least there's still a Broadway to write about. All I can hope for is its return sooner than later (so for the sake of it and every other person/industry/population affected, stay home and stay healthy).

In the meantime, I'll be listening to Joel's song a lot (in between cast albums, of course). It helps me to process, to think. It will never not give me chills from here on out. It's not a fiction anymore. It's a touchstone in my memory. The way I see it, it's also a call to action.

"Tell the world about/The way the lights went out/And keep the memory alive."

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