Welcome Home to the Magic of Live Theater

The crowd filling Broadway’s Gershwin Theater sounded pleasantly surprised when the announcer introduced Kristin Chenoweth.

The occasion was the Sept. 14 reopening of Wicked, for which Chenoweth originated the role of Glinda. The actress’ appearance sent the already electric atmosphere crackling even more intensely, palpable even on the cellphone video posted to YouTube.

“Hello, New York!” Chenoweth bellowed, channeling her inner rock star, before summing up a feeling likely shared by crowd, crew, actors and ushers alike: “There’s no place like home.”

For actors and audiences and all the rest, the theater is that home.

It’s more than entertainment. We had plenty of that during the lockdown. Streaming services kept us awash in movies, TV series and stand-up comedians.

Theater, though, is a different animal altogether. Still entertainment, of course, but something more visceral, something more impactful.

“We go to a theater for catharsis. Literally that’s what we go for: to be in communion with each other, hear a story told in the dark and experience catharsis,” Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda told NPR.

That catharsis comes in part from the shared experience of audience members. But also it comes from the humanity we share with the actors and other creative sorts who imagine these productions and bring them to life.

No matter how much spectacle or how many special effects a production might have, theater still depends on human beings inhabiting a role in real time in front of a crowd. No retakes, no edits. No second chances. You blow your line? It stays blown.

Photo: Brian Adams

When it all comes together, though, when the space between actor and role disappears, when the audience is so rapt that its entire universe feels encased in the theater’s walls – that’s when we experience what Miranda called catharsis.

Or you could just call it magic. The recipe for which is sweat, talent and human empathy, but it’s magic nonetheless.

That magic doesn’t happen only on Manhattan’s Great Bright Way. It happens with the touring productions that bring these Broadway hits, such as Tootsie that just finished its run here last week. And CATS opening in Morsani Hall in December followed in 2022 by Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Dear Evan Hansen, The Prom, Disney’s Frozen, My Fair Lady, The Band’s Visit and Pretty Woman. That magic also happens on the more intimate stages of the Straz’s Jaeb and TECO theaters and the Shimberg Playhouse.

That sense of anticipation as you find your seats. The thrill you feel when the house lights dim. The rhythm of your pulse pumping in time to the music. The heroes and heroines. The villains and villainesses. The way all the elements come together to create that tiny, important world the cast, crew and audience share for two or three hours.

That’s what we missed.

That’s what is back.

Yes, we’ll retreat again if we must. COVID has proven to be a formidable foe. And even as we return to something nearer to normalcy, masks, vaccines and negative COVID tests, for now, as much part of the theater-going experience as ticket stubs and Playbills.

But these are minor annoyances, the necessary evils we endure so that our communal experience doesn’t result in a communal sick bay.

Show the world that theatergoers can gather sensibly and safely to share the cathartic experience of live theater.

You’ve been in the house too long. And like the lady said, there’s no place like home.

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