March began with an ominous drumbeat. A packed cruise ship with a coronavirus outbreak was left floating for days off the coast of California. South by Southwest was canceled. The N.B.A. suspended its season. And then, on March 12, Broadway shut down, and with it every large gathering in New York City.
By the time the grates came down, it was not much of a surprise. The city that never sleeps was grinding to a halt.
But it was impossible to imagine what was to come. The staggering death toll. The vast job losses. The isolation. The endlessness.
That evening, a group of Broadway bigwigs — theater owners and producers, mostly — gathered to drown their sorrows at Sardi’s, the industry hangout famous for its celebrity caricatures. They noshed, they drank, they commiserated, and they hugged. Several of them wound up infected with the virus, although there were so many meetings, and so few masks at that point, who knows how they got it.
They posted signs on their theaters saying they expected to be back four weeks later.
Now it’s been 52.
Do you remember your final nights out? We gathered scenes from around the city as the curtains closed. MICHAEL PAULSON
Fondue Fountains, Buckets of Bouquets and Fresh Dolce
The dressing rooms at the Brooks Atkinson Theater were filled with flowers. The ruby chocolate fondue fountain was booked for the after-party. Brittney Mack’s mother and her brother and her best girlfriends had all flown into town, not about to miss the moment when the 30-something Chicagoan made her long-awaited Broadway debut as a 16th-century English queen.
But it was not to be. Ninety minutes before the scheduled opening of “Six,” an eagerly anticipated new musical about the wives of King Henry VIII, Broadway shut down.
“I got to the theater early, and there were gifts from all over — buckets and buckets of plants, and cookies, and so much love, and I was like, ‘Hell, yes,’” Mack recalled. “And then the assistant stage manager came in and said the show is canceled, and I just said, ‘How dare you!’”
“It was very, very overwhelming, and all of a sudden I felt incredibly alone. And then I was like, ‘But my dress! And the earrings!’ So many perspectives hit me, and I realized this happened to our entire industry, and I thought, ‘What the hell are we all going to do?’”
What most of the “Six” family did was to gather. Mack went out for drinks with her friends at Harlem Public, near her apartment. Meanwhile, the show’s producer, Kevin McCollum, fresh off canceling an 800-person opening night party at Tao Downtown, hosted about 100 members of the show’s inner circle at the Glass House Tavern, a few doors down from the theater.
“Looking back, it was ridiculous that we did that, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know, so we had a buffet of crudités, and a host of droplets, I’m sure,” he said. “We were in shock. There were people crying. We were giving it our best stiff upper lip, for the British, but we were emotionally devastated.”
George Stiles, an English composer, was among many British friends of the show who had flown over for the opening. Stiles was once in a band with the father of Toby Marlow, who wrote “Six” with Lucy Moss, and had become a mentor and then a co-producer.
“Never before has something that I’ve been involved with felt so poised to go off with a crack,” Stiles said of “Six” — quite a statement given that he wrote songs for the stage musical adaptation of “Mary Poppins.” “I was anticipating the euphoria of the crowd, and the fun of the red carpet-y nonsense, and the everyone wanting to be the last one to sit down.”
Instead, he and his husband and Marlow’s father licked their wounds at Marseille. What was on the menu? “The sheer awfulness of being this close to a wonderful Broadway run.” Stiles has since put his “suitably regal” gold and black Dolce & Gabbana outfit “into very careful mothballs,” anticipating that there will yet be an opening night to celebrate. “We are very gung-ho,” he said, “and hopeful, fingers crossed, that it wont be too many months away.” PAULSON
“We Love You, New York! Don’t Touch Your Face!”
Only about half of the people who bought tickets to the March 12 show at Mercury Lounge had turned up, but there were still throngs of people drinking, talking and grooving to the band. Debbie Harry of the band Blondie was there, and so was the music producer Hal Willner. He would die less than a month later from Covid-19.
Onstage, Michael C. Hall, the star of “Dexter” and lead singer of the glam rock band Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, belted and wailed into the microphone.
The staff members at Mercury Lounge knew they were watching their last live concert for a while; what “a while” meant, they had no idea. Bands had been canceling their appearances at an increasing rate, and on a call earlier that day, the owners had asked the staff members if they were still comfortable working, said Maggie Wrigley, a club manager. The line was silent for a moment, before one employee spoke up to say that no, it was no longer comfortable.
Others piped up to agree: They felt exposed and vulnerable to the virus at work. Because the late show had already canceled, the owners decided that the club would shut down that night after the early show.
At about 9:30 p.m. — painfully early for a Thursday night on the city’s club scene — the audience was asked to leave. “We love you, New York! Don’t touch your face!” Hall yelled at the end of his set.
Alex Beaulieu, the club’s production manager, sanitized the microphones and packed the drum kit, amps and cables for longer term storage.
“We locked the door and sat at the bar and had a drink,” Wrigley said of the club’s staff, “and we just kind of looked at each other, with no idea what was going to happen.”
A Swan Song, Cut Short
For Sheena Wagstaff, chairman of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the spring of 2020 was destined to be bittersweet. The Met Breuer, the museum’s experimental satellite space, was going to close, three years ahead of schedule. But its final show was one she’d spent years preparing: “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All,” a survey of the stern and skeptical German artist, filling two floors of the landmark building and including loans from 30 different collections.
The exhibition, intended by the now 89-year-old artist to be his last major show, opened March 4. It had the makings of a blockbuster, and it ought to have introduced New York to four paintings called “Birkenau” (2014): streaked, abraded abstractions that obscure imagery of the titular death camp. On March 12, the show’s ninth day, Wagstaff realized it had to close.
At first the gravity of the crisis wasn’t fully clear. “I had every anticipation that it was going to reopen in May at the very latest,” Wagstaff said recently. But soon she realized that “Birkenau” — a culmination of Richter’s 60-year engagement with German history and the ethics of representation — would not find an audience. “Beyond a kind of personal huge disappointment, it was that the artist, so aware of his own mortality, was denied the possibility of actually making a mini-manifesto to the world. Alongside that was the curtailment of the Breuer. What we ended up with was this implosion.”
Richter never saw the show. A few days before it came down, Wagstaff stood alone with “Birkenau”: paintings about the possibility of perceiving history that, now, no one could perceive at all. “It was a kind of haunting experience,” she said. “They became almost anthropomorphic. They’re sitting there on the walls, and there’s nothing, there’s no one to witness them. The paintings are witnessing something, and that witnessing cannot be conveyed any further.”
By autumn, the Met had ceded occupancy of the Breuer to the Frick Collection. Most of Richter’s paintings had been crated up and shipped back to their lenders. Yet “Birkenau,” which belongs to the artist, stayed in New York. Wagstaff brought these most challenging works into the Met’s main building, introducing into the lavish Lehman Collection these four speechless acts of remembrance and horror. “It was a trace of the show. The viewing conditions weren’t perfect,” Wagstaff conceded. “We had really limited attendance; we still do. But people stayed in that room for a really long time. For those who came to see it, it was a revelation.” JASON FARAGO
One Final Set
By March 15, Broadway theaters and concert halls were empty, but in the dim light of the Comedy Cellar, audience members sat shoulder to shoulder sipping drinks and watching stand-up comedy. Masks were not required.
The comedian Carmen Lynch was hesitant about showing up that night: Her boyfriend was heading out of the city to stay with his family in Connecticut, and she planned to join him — it seemed like it was time to hunker down. But, Lynch said, she knew that the days of doing multiple shows in a single night were ending, and she wanted to make as much money as possible before the inevitable shutdown. She exchanged texts with fellow comedians to feel out who was still performing.
“I thought, ‘I’m not doing anything illegal. I’ll just do this one show and then leave,’” Lynch recalled.
So her boyfriend took her suitcase to Connecticut while she stayed to perform — one set at 7:45 p.m. another at 8:30. Before each comedian would walk onstage to tell jokes in front of the club’s famous exposed brick wall and stained glass, they would reach into a bucket to take a microphone that had been recently cleaned.
Just before Lynch went on, the comedian Lynne Koplitz took the stage, removed the sanitized microphone from the stand and theatrically wiped it down with a white cloth another time, saying, “I’ve wanted to do this for years!”
When Lynch finished her second set, she didn’t linger. She called an Uber and felt relieved when the driver accepted her request for an hour-and-a-half drive to Connecticut, not knowing how long she’d be gone (until summer) or what the city would be like when she returned (eerily empty, store windows boarded up).
She drove away, and in retrospect, she remembers it like a scene in a disaster movie. “It’s like you’re in the car,” she said, “and you turn around and there’s an explosion behind you.” JACOBS