Sunday night at the COVID improv
Last updated 4/27/2020 at 11:35am
As we entered what for many of us in this region was our third week stuck at home, I happened to notice that Stephen Sondheim was having a big day.
This was back in late March, when Sondheim turned 90. I remember thinking that in normal times, I'd expect a big gala celebration, marking the life and creative genius of the most influential figure in musical theater of our lifetime.
It's not like we haven't seen a bunch of those, though. If you're a Sondheim fan, you've probably caught one of these musical salutes over the past decade or so.
He's a singular figure in the genre, not only admired but beloved by performers across the spectrum, and nobody needs an excuse to sing for Stephen.
I tuned in last Sunday night, then, to watch some remarkable performances, as a slew of performers serenaded Mr. Sondheim in a way no one was imagining six months ago. Produced as a fundraiser for ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty), the show was a glitch-filled but spectacular ode to spontaneous technology, as famous people recorded videos at home, which were then (eventually) shown one after the other.
It was almost like a real TV show. It was amazing.
Even if Sondheim isn't your cup of tea, it's worth a few minutes of your time to watch (it's still available on YouTube). Laura Benanti sang from her bathroom. Mandy Patinkin performed a number from "Sunday in the Park with George" from an actual park, deserted except for his dog.
At the same time, "Saturday Night Live" produced a well-reviewed, similarly home video-based show the night before. After a few shaky weeks, we're getting better at this.
All of this effort aimed at entertaining us prompted a question for me, and for you, if rhetorical: What's your pleasure?
What have you noticed, as the weeks drag on and the novelty changes into routine? What's important, at this moment?
I'll go out on a limb and suggest that it's the same for most of us, and that would be other people.
Of course. In times like these, and there have been no times quite like these in our collective memories, the essentials come into sharp relief. I don't care how many rolls of toilet paper you've stashed – socialization has always been the spice of life (second place goes to cumin). We need other people.
But what else? What's next on your personal list of things to be grateful for during this pandemic?
Let me help. It's the internet.
Not for all of us, of course. Some are perfectly content with 20th-century technology, passing time with television and the telephone, books and gardening, all the distractions that defined our modern life before broadband.
But for many, staying connected has involved an actual connection. We sneak out of the house electronically, eavesdropping and chatting, passing around memes and grateful to stare at grandma's chin on FaceTime.
We can't and don't really wish to imagine an offline life, although it's a life many of us remember. Just ask someone who lived through the childhood polio scares of the 1950s, with kids kept home and away from public places, and victims confined to bedrooms for more than a year with primitive television and mere imagination.
There are no absolutes here, and you don't need me to itemize the pitfalls and dangers associated with a digital world, but it's the world. We're not going back, and I'm grateful to be able to endure this isolation with as many episodes of "Cheers" as I need.
But the internet is a stopgap tool, a way to pass time while we wait for an uncertain future, and while I appreciate the modern life with all its technical doodads, it's never going to be enough.
So I've been cheered up by noticing the resurgence of drive-in theaters. For approximately 40 years, from the early 1930s until the 1970s, drive-in movies were a common option for entertainment, peaking at over 4,000 by the time I was born.
Drive-ins surged during the 1950s, often advertised as safe socialization in the era of polio paranoia. Cable TV, video rentals, daylight saving time, and real estate prices all contributed to their eventual decline, with fewer than 200 theaters left by the early 1980s.
The majority of movies I watched as a kid were seen from the backseat of the family station wagon, already in my pajamas and often asleep by the second feature (there were second features!), and my nostalgia is strong. I've theoretically missed them for years.
It's theoretical because, if I'm honest, it was never the best way to see a movie. It could be uncomfortable, too hot or too cold, the sound quality was marginal, and sometimes it rained.
So, even if one were built a mile from my house, I'd probably rarely go. Still, I like the thinking here.
This is a new experience for the majority of us in this country, but we have a history and it's worth a look back once in a while, just in case there's a good idea lurking in the era of racial segregation and people smoking on elevators.
There probably is, and even if drive-in movies aren't the answer something else will be. And if Sunday night's musical extravaganza is any indication, we have all the ingenuity we'll need.
I say we put Lin-Manuel Miranda on it.
Somebody make popcorn and I'll be there.