Terror on Broadway: The Show Must (not) Go On

The scene was straight out of Hollywood. As my husband Jim and I left our small hotel room on 49th Street we had only 20 minutes to go before the curtains rose at Broadway theaters throughout the district. I had only 30 minutes earlier purchased tickets at TKTS (the half-price ticket booth on Times Square—see note below) for Martin McDonagh’s latest dark comedy “A Behanding in Spokane” starring Christopher Walken. Being a fan of both the young Irish playwright and the always quirky Walken, I figured this had to be an unbeatable combination for the first night of our trip. So it was with considerable irritation that we faced policemen barricading Times Square and saying nonchalantly to turn around as we headed toward the theater. The excited crowd was snapping photos of policemen on horseback, and I inquired of a friendly policewoman what was going on, expecting that some politician or celebrity was gumming up the works, slowing us up from reaching our theater two blocks away on 45th St. with only 5 minutes till curtain time. She hesitated, then said it was a fire. Moments later, even after hearing rumors in the crowd about the bomb scare, we headed with the rest of the herd around the block, then cut through the lobby of the Edison Hotel and raced toward 45th. But all routes to 45th were blocked, and we were told all theaters on the block were closed. (Details of the failed car bombing later came to light on the non-stop “breaking news” coverage that lasted throughout the night). But the mind of an inveterate theater goer works in funny ways. My husband and I, along with the rest of the Broadway throng of tourists and theater goers, never registered fear or panic, which might have been expected in post 9-11 downtown Manhattan when word of the attempted bomb threat spread. In a twisted version of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (which is appropriate when faced with the unreality of a poem or play or novel), we proved the flip side of that old adage is also true. The mind doesn’t willingly accept reality when the truth is too frightening to bear. A sort of willing suspension of “belief” sets in when the rational mind is faced with an awful truth, and we wrap ourselves in the more comfortable fiction that what we are really seeing or hearing is not really happening. How ironic is the human brain: in a play we accept outlandish events through “a willing suspension of disbelief” while in facing a real-life crisis the brain recoils into a fetal position of “willing suspension of belief”: this can’t really be happening so it must not be true. The brain has a little theatrical buffer zone that spares us for a few minutes from facing reality. In reflecting on my thwarted night on Broadway, I should have run from the scene, but at the moment all I had on my mind was getting to the show on time. After all, hadn’t I always accepted that “the show must go on?” Sadly, post 9-11, that is not always true.

Tip to thrifty theater lovers who buy tickets at the last minute: At this point I must share a tip for theater-bound tourists who throng the half-priced ticket booth on Times Square before show time. Sometimes the line snakes for a block or more, and with or without inclement weather, this long, slow-moving queue is never a happy sight. Quite by accident, the last time I faced the snail-like pace of the half-priced ticket line on a previous trip to New York,  I heard some curious passerby mutter in a stage whisper, “I wonder why none of these people are using the express line.”  At this point, I asked the person behind me to please save my place (which I had earned laboriously after over 30 minutes in line) as I raced forward to see if this overheard tip was fact or fiction (or merely dramatic irony fueling desperate hope into my feverish brain). To my astonishment, it was true. The Saturday night crowd, always clamoring for the latest, hottest musicals in town, usually neglect the more serious plays for which an express line (with few if any people standing in line) is always available at ticket booth No. 1. So the moral of this tip is: See the big musicals on weekdays when the ticket lines are shorter at the half-priced booth on Times Square, and concentrate on plays on the weekends, where you can avoid the queue and get cheap tickets in “a New York minute.”

3 Responses to Terror on Broadway: The Show Must (not) Go On

  1. I’m so glad that they caught the jerk that did this…. so scary! And it is an interesting observation that in times of crisis, people “suspend belief” to make it through. I never thought of it that way.

  2. It was an odd moment of truth that struck me in my brush with terrorism: “the willing suspension of disbelief” that applies to fiction has a real-life corollary (what I’ll call “the unwilling suspension of belief”) that automatically protects us from truth too scary to accept. But a footnote on the Broadway show. The show actually did go on! But it played to a very small audience that had arrived early, trapped inside the theater because the police would not let anyone leave. In fact, the audience, actors, and theater staff were not allowed to leave the theater for two hours after the show was over!

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