For 18 months, theater all but disappeared in New York City. For those of us who work on and around stages, our life blood came to a full stop. The theater district was a ghost town. My wife, Rebecca Luker, and I made our living on Broadway for a combined 27 shows in 30 years. We knew how lucky we were and pinched ourselves daily. And then suddenly it all ended.
I was playing the nightclub impresario Harold Zidler in the Broadway musical “Moulin Rouge!” when the news of the shutdown arrived on the afternoon of March 12, 2020. Inside the Al Hirschfeld Theater, our show was a huge hit and we were looking forward to a very long run; outside, there was talk of the terrible virus killing hundreds in Europe, of Italy being especially devastated.
Few if any of us thought that the virus would reach our shores in a similar way. I remember people saying: “It’s just like the flu, relax. It’s not that bad.” When we were told to leave the theater I turned to my dresser and said, “I have a feeling this is going to be Broadway’s lost year.” I was short by six months.
To say I had a difficult time during the pandemic is an understatement. I contracted Covid-19, one of many in theater who did, and almost died in the hospital. I had double pneumonia, was coughing up blood and could barely breathe. When my positive Covid test result came back, the admitting nurse’s first question to me was, “Are you an organ donor?”
Months later my darling wife, Rebecca, a glorious human being with the voice of an angel whose body was rapidly being ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, died at the age of 59. We were married for 20 years and being without her has been difficult. If there was a silver lining to the shutdown, it was that I got to spend so much time with her at the end of her life, and we grew closer as we knew our moments together were waning.
But I know I’m not alone in my sorrow and suffering. We are now closing in on 700,000 Americans dead from Covid-19. A wave of heartache across the country impossible to comprehend.
And now, “Broadway is back.” But why should anyone care? Why is this relevant as people are daily sacrificing their lives on the false idea that the Covid vaccine isn’t effective or is somehow nefarious? Lives have been ruined and the pandemic’s American death toll is sometimes like another Sept. 11 every day. Why should we be paying any attention to theater as many states are vowing (and succeeding) to greatly diminish the rights of voters and taking away women’s right to a safe abortion, rendering them second-class citizens? Every day we are slammed by a wave of troubling and disheartening news from around the world. The cumulative effect is paralyzing.
Yet when my agent told me that “Moulin Rouge!” was finally reopening and Broadway would rise from the proverbial ashes, I told him I wanted to be there. I wanted to make a statement. Returning to the show felt more than just a personal decision, it also felt like a political act. It was signaling unity. Unity with the complete strangers who sit in an audience and unite to speak as one.
For theater isn’t just a form of entertainment — at it’s best it is a collective, spiritual experience. It is church for the heart and mind. It is shul for the intellect. A mosque celebrating mankind. It reminds us how beautiful life can be and how fragile it is as well. It helps us form opinions and gain insight into the lives of our fellow humans.
Of course, I could point out that Broadway attracts more than 14 million people a year who also visit neighboring restaurants and other businesses, and regularly produces a financial windfall for our city by employing thousands of people. But my point is that it’s more than that.
The stories in Broadway’s theaters are a reflection of our nation’s soul, and have the ability to heal our aching country. What better way to explore humanity’s most pressing moral questions than at the feet of the world’s most brilliant dramatists? As a young man I learned about morality from Sophocles and Euripides, existentialism from Shakespeare, racism and prejudice from Oscar Hammerstein and Lorraine Hansberry.
I developed a sense of humor because of Kaufman and Hart. I learned about the strength it took to be a father from August Wilson and Arthur Miller. I relived the AIDS crisis with Tony Kushner and Larry Kramer, and I learned the true meaning of joy because of Broadway’s greatest contribution to theater, the American musical.
On a very personal note, I have to say how terrible this all feels without Rebecca by my side. All my happiest theater memories are filled with her. And she loved nothing more than settling in for a long run in a Broadway show. Theater gave her life meaning in the most beautiful way — it gave her a forum to share her gifts with the world.
I grieve for all the performances she’ll never give, the years of beautiful work she had ahead of her. I pray that theater will help me heal, that returning to work and feeling the energy of the people around me is therapeutic in some beautiful way. “Dr. Theater,” as Lynn Redgrave told me years ago, “heals all.”
And so, with hope, we reopen, praying that this pandemic and its variants will diminish as people are vaccinated. As Broadway comes magically back to life, I’ll be thinking about all those we lost. I’ll be thinking of Rebecca, I’ll sing for her. I’ll be thinking of the solitude of the last 18 months, of the chance to congregate once again and of the chance to open a dialogue with our collective consciousness. But, mostly, I’ll pray that Broadway will be reborn stronger than ever.
Danny Burstein has been nominated for Tony Awards for his performances in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “South Pacific,” “Follies,” “Golden Boy,” “Cabaret” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He is nominated as best featured actor at the Tony Awards on Sunday for his work in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”
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