Theatergoing in the Plague Year

“New York City, how’re you doing tonight?!” shouted one of the stars revving up the audience at the start of the new Broadway musical Six.

Nobody, thankfully, shouted back, “Sick!” Or maybe, “Scared to death of the guy who just coughed after he brushed past me on the way to his seat!”  But let’s just say it was a little tonally jarring to watch a performance of this aggressively upbeat new musical on Wednesday night —the last night, it turned out, before Broadway shut down for at least a month, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It was a strange evening. The Brooks Atkinson Theater was full, or nearly so, and the crowd as enthusiastic as any packed-with-friends-of-the-show audience usually is at a press preview, erupting in wild applause and cheers after nearly every number. The line to the women’s restroom was even longer than usual, I noticed. But I didn’t hear one cough all night.

No, it was the commotion onstage that was the most discomforting. The show is a concert-style pop-rock musical about the six wives of King Henry VIII. A sextet of high-energy singers, dressed in glam-Elizabethan outfits, take turns telling their royal sob stories (two divorced, two beheaded, one dead of natural causes, one survivor) in songs that alternate between rap, disco and rafter-raising power-ballad. Since there’s no real plot, the divas decide to turn the evening into a reality-show contest: each one vies to win the prize for being the most dreadfully abused wife of the 16th century’s answer to Harvey Weinstein.

Six has had to postpone its official opening (originally scheduled for Thursday night), so I’m not supposed to officially review it. And to be fair, I might be more receptive to a jokey confection like this in less trying circumstances. (“Guys, I have the plague!” blurts out Anna of Cleves at one point. She quickly dismisses it as a joke.  But no one thought to cut this line?)

Under present circumstances, however, watching this peppy, relentlessly facetious show, I couldn’t escape a whiff of decadent, Weimar-era Germany. The show (which has been a big success in London, in Australia, and even on cruise ships) seemed not merely frivolous, but downright irresponsible. For me it crystalized, in a particularly stark manner, how artificial and disconnected from real life so much of Broadway is these days. As I left the theater, I felt that Broadway really did need to shut down.

The show, moreover, is a perfect reflection of the political zeitgeist: a musical that turns historical intrigue and tragedy into a jokey game show, at a time when a game-show President has turned much of the U.S. government into a joke. A joke that was never very funny, but has now turned deadly serious.

4 thoughts on “Theatergoing in the Plague Year

  1. Sadly true. There are extremely relevant and personal shows all over the city in small venues, off and off off Broadway. I for one will miss the theater terribly but one must stay safe!

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