Getting Personal

The power of theater can help heal the wounds of September 11 in New York City and beyond

One of the toughest decisions in my job is choosing which show to cover. Given the amount of theatrical activity in South Florida, there just is not enough room to review every show.

This week, though, the choice was easy: I was going to New York.

My long-time friend and former collaborator Sam Ellis was producing a one-night show at the Circle in the Square Theater on Broadway, as a memorial to honor his wife, Valerie Silver Ellis, who was lost in the World Trade Center on September 11, the day that changed everything.

Greg LaRotonda

Valerie was my friend for eighteen years and Sam's wife for fifteen, a tough cookie who broke into and succeeded in the rough-and-tumble old-boy's club of Wall Street bond trading. She was a businesswoman with a real appetite for the arts: smart, funny, and very droll; opinionated and -- maddeningly -- most often right. Even if I weren't so fond of her, she was all right in my book because Sam loved her. But all that came tumbling down four weeks ago. Through that awful day and night, Sam searched the hospitals in New York. Then waited, as thousands did, clinging to little shards of hope. But Valerie did not return home.

Sam and I go way back. We worked as young actors in several Shakespeare productions. Through the years we collaborated on many projects. He directed me in some Sam Shepard. He directed some plays I wrote off-Broadway. We both got involved with producing a couple of musicals in New York and elsewhere. But that was a long time ago, and the years, as they do, had pulled us apart.

I left New York but Sam stayed; he kept on producing, got married, prospered. Lately he has been in charge of "Broadway On Broadway," the weekly live free review of current Broadway shows that is staged in Times Square. His last project was the "I Love New York" commercial shot two weeks ago and now playing nationally, featuring the entire Broadway community singing its heart out in a plea to coax audiences back to the city in the wake of the terrorist disaster. Once that was done, that same community turned around to help Sam say goodbye to Val. The Circle in the Square offered the theater space, while singers, musicians, technicians, and other show-biz types volunteered their time and talents.

I headed for New York the morning of the memorial. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was empty. So was the flight. So was JFK. As my bus rumbled into Manhattan, the scattered passengers all turned in silence to the south, looking at the vague, misty cloud still rising from where the World Trade Center should have been.

Once in Manhattan I found the streets of Broadway were livelier than I had expected. New Yorkers were still going to the theaters, and even out-of-towners were beginning to trickle back, cruising the area in open-air double-decker buses. Some shows had closed in the aftermath of the attack, but most were playing on, marquee lights blinking in what now seems a deliberate act of defiance.

I got in early, so I took a seat in the back row of the theater and watched the final sound and light check. Shortly thereafter the house began to fill up -- maybe 400 people. Sam's theater pals were there, of course, but judging from the number of conservative suits and stiff, hesitant demeanors, most of the crowd consisted of Val's business colleagues. These were the survivors of the World Trade Center disaster, and they were hurting; Valerie's firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, was largely wiped out. Six hundred employees remain unaccounted for. The ones filing into the theater that night had either been late for work or happened to be out of the office by chance.

No wonder this audience looked beaten: Valerie's memorial was one of many (dozens? hundreds?) they had been to or were going to. The magnitude of their loss filled the theater. This elite group -- well schooled, well paid, well rewarded by the American capitalist system -- was suffering through a disaster of unimaginable proportions. This audience needed more than escape or amusement; it needed relief.

Suddenly the actors and singers and musicians and technicians of New York, long marginalized by the business community as irrelevant and superfluous, moved to the center of that community's need. To give voice to grief, but more, to offer the possibility of transcendence and healing. Theater people already understood this need. In the past twenty years, while Wall Street had prospered, the arts community faced the slow-motion disaster of AIDS. The show folk's familiarity with loss and grief helped them give their audience what it needed.

They gave it from their hearts, with lovely, soaring voices, fantastic musicianship, and touching stories, with Sam seated front row center, soaking it all in. A gospel choir sang an old Negro spiritual; a couple of singers offered brand-new songs written for the occasion. Friends and family told stories about Val's life and what she meant to them, until choking with emotion, they could barely speak. And the crowd, heavy with grief, responded. In free-flowing tears, in audible grief but also in laughter and joy and release.

During this poignant display, it struck me just how fundamentally irrelevant most modern entertainment is -- movies, television, celebrity gossip, all of it -- and how vital theater, live performance, can be. In the face of life, death, and more questions than answers, people need to get together, to comfort, to give expression to emotion. When real-life tragedy strikes, people don't rush to screens, they rush to each other.

That was the way it was in that theater. And that, in a larger sense, was what was happening in theaters all over town, and all over the nation -- especially South Florida, with its strong New York ties. The show must go on, no matter what. Going to the theater -- and the opera and dance and musicals events -- has become a political act, a statement about what it means to be civilized in the face of barbarity.

The nightcap to Val's memorial was held at Wilson's, a comfortable, clubby bistro on the Upper West Side that was a favorite of hers and Sam's. The owners generously threw open the bar, and the kitchen served up a tasty buffet, all on the house. The musicians from the memorial came by and kicked in with a long jam of soul tunes. After a couple of drinks, the Wall Streeters began to break out of their gloom; when Val's younger sister stood up and took to the dance floor, the whole Wall Street crowd let loose three weeks of grief and shock. The joint was rocking, the band was smoking. The gleam was back in Sam's eye, for the moment anyway, and that was good. Once again the power of live performance made magic, bringing us all forward from September 11, compelling us to live -- desperately, wildly -- in the here and now.

This sweet, sad closing-night party was in full cry when I left, ready for the long trip back to South Florida, where more audiences in Palm Beach, Coral Gables, and everywhere in between will be seeking what these New Yorkers found that night: clarity, comfort, and a sense of community. As I walked out onto 79th Street, a full moon hung low over Manhattan. The streets were full of cabs cruising for fares, like fireflies in a New York July. But it was October, and a chill ran through the night air. I hailed a cab and began the journey home.

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