But the Medicine Never Gets Anywhere Near Where the Trouble Is.

When the pandemic began, none of us had any idea what that would really mean. I remember in March 2020, as we were being shut down, we were speculating about whether we'd have to start rehearsals late for our June 2020 show, and all of us mindlessly assuming that even if we missed our summer show, of course we'd be going ahead with our October 2020 show.

What fools these mortals be!


None of us knew how a freaking pandemic works! I remember not that long ago we were talking about "the end of the pandemic." We talked about all we'll do when we "get back to normal," and "after this is over."

As Rizzo would say, "There ain't no such thing." Covid ain't done with us.

None of this was temporary. Everything that changed -- which is almost everything -- is going to stay changed. Some of that is good; much of it will be crazy and disorienting. I lost several longtime friends during this post-lockdown period, either for baffling, nonsensical reasons or for reasons they refused to reveal. And in each case, they were really ugly and angry and emotional. In hindsight, I wonder if they didn't reveal their reasons because they themselves didn't fully understand them. So many people were broken by the pandemic in so many ways, and sadly, a lot of them don't know they were broken; and they won't be healed until they figure it out.

As Jason Robert Brown once told us, "Nobody told you the best way to steer when the wind starts to blow." (Seriously, did JRB have any idea back in the mid-1990s that Songs for a New World would be relevant essentially forever?)

I got to see firsthand how quickly and easily the pandemic broke me. For the first time in my life I went on antidepressants, and I am sure grateful for that phrase I used to mock: Better Living Through Chemistry. They weren't kidding. All praise be to Paxil and Wellbutrin. Really, the only things that saved me were my piano, my cats, my pot, and writing about musicals.

It was so hard at the beginning. The theatres shut down. People couldn't gather. And for the first time in my life, I realized that everything I do is dependent on people gathering together in public. There is no theatre without people gathering. We theatre nerds often say, "Without an audience, it's just rehearsal." In other words, the audience is an active, integral part of the act of telling a story onstage. Suddenly we were discovering that without an audience or a stage or actors and musicians, it's just words and notes on a page.

Though, let's be clear, words and notes on a page aren't nothin' -- I spent the pandemic putting words and notes on paper -- but that's not theatre. And despite some of the declarations that doing theatre on video to stream online was a "new art form," it was not. And it also wasn't theatre.

As we cautiously emerged from isolation in August 2021 and considered returning the New Liners to the stage again, and then resolving to do a whole season, I saw evidence, over and over again, how broken people really were. Never in our lifetimes had we endured anything like this. We had laughed at poor Will Shakespeare when the theatres got closed down for plague in Shakespeare in Love, but now it was happening to us! We had been so smug, so na├»ve, and coddled by science enough to think there was no such thing as plague anymore.

Or anti-vaxxers. 

We returned in October 2021 with the wonderful two-man musical The Story of My Life, and though our audiences were limited, so we could space the seats out more, our patrons were thrilled to be back, thrilled to see live theatre again, thrilled to know it could be done. We continued with a full season, including Head Over Heels in March 2022; Urinetown in June 2022; and we opened our thirty-first season a couple months ago with Something Rotten!

Looking in from the outside, it may have seemed like we were Back to Normal, but we were nowhere near. We joked that we were more "next to normal," but that wasn't really true either. In addition to our new financial woes, throughout Head Over Heels and Urinetown it became clear that a small handful of of the people we had worked with were different now, changed and yes, broken, by the awful experiences we had all gone through. Though at first their toxic behavior was driving me a bit crazy, I soon realized (being a fierce Law and Order fan) that these folks were likely suffering from some kind of PTSD from the pandemic.

In fact, almost all of us were to one degree or another.

But understanding why so many Americans have PTSD and being able to deal with the manifestations of it are two different things. Though I was sympathetic to these folks, having experienced many of the same things myself, they made every single thing more difficult, more precarious, more triggery. I know some of these folks were just feeling ferociously out of control of their lives, so fixating on things like Covid protocols made them feel more in control. Trying to dictate other people's behavior (especially when it worked) gave them a sense that they were doing something rather than feeling entirely passive and helpless. I complained to a director friend about some of the unexpected abuses other actors and I were suffering through, and he said, "Scott, we're all still broken."

Maybe I knew that deep down, but I needed to hear it. I had to stop waiting for my "normal" life to return. We are all in a New World now. What we used to call Normal is not coming back.

At least JRB left us a roadmap of sorts.

We have to rethink everything now. I mean, everything. Not only the things that pandemic has forced us to rethink -- we have to rethink everything. Art, gender, orientation, race, age, disability, family, school, religion, war, history, capitalism, work, play, fun, marriage, copyright, distance, connection, and so much more. We have our work cut out for us. Are we up to this?

It's funny -- only now as I type this do I recognize that the show I just finished writing, A Reefer Madness Christmas, about a man of the 1950s coming up against the massive cultural changes coming with the Sixties, is pretty much an exact parallel to what we're all going through now.

Write what you know.


We New Lines are currently considering shows for next season, because funding applications are coming up soon, and I always try to think about what the community needs from us, as we choose shows. Right now, in these deeply fucked-up times, I think above all our community needs healing. We need stories that connect us and remind us that we are not alone, and that we are not each other's enemies. And I think we also need comedy. Not empty-calorie comedy. Not Nunsense. No, we need "serious comedies," that make us laugh as they connect us and give us insight and reassure us that we're all struggling, that sometimes, we are all the Other.

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Change is scary to most people, and we're going through enormous changes. The right stories can help us get through this.

As an example of the many changes coming, I genuinely think commercial for-profit theatre may be either fading away entirely or massively transforming itself -- and Broadway will no longer be the center of American theatre. I think the ideas of copyright and intellectual property are going to change hugely in this digital age. And the debate over a Universal Basic Income in the U.S. could transform so many artists' lives for the better.

We're at a pivot point in history, and we have a front row seat, whether we want it or not. Storytellers are the shamans, the healers -- but first we have to heal ourselves. Fasten your seatbelts, it's still going to be a bumpy night.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, including my latest, Go Greased Lighting!click here.

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