Live theatre's return sets the scene for the joy of the Covid recovery – Professor Joe Goldblatt

When the legendary Broadway director Jerome Robbins was summoned to Washington, DC’s National Theatre as a ‘show doctor’ to try and save the musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he turned to the composer Stephen Sondheim and said: “It needs an opening number to set the scene for the audience.”

The Festival Theatre is one of Edinburgh's main performing arts venues.

Sondheim immediately returned to his hotel room and wrote the catchy opening tune entitled Comedy Tonight! and not only was the show saved from closing on the road, it went on to become a smash hit on Broadway, in London, around the world and on film. Such is the magic of live theatre. Often the seemingly smallest adjustments reap the greatest benefit.

Last week, as I ascended the grand staircase in Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre for the show Southern Light Sings for the King’s, with each successive step I felt my heart beating louder and faster as if a kettle drum was slowly and deliberately rolling at the start of an overture.

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As I proudly presented my ticket to the usher, who replied “welcome back!”, I realised I was soon to experience a magical reunion with an old friend whose hallowed name is Live Theatre.

As I took my seat in the front stalls, the orchestra was tuning up and the audience rustled in their seats in anticipation.

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Suddenly the house lights began to dim and, when the conductor raised his baton, as one united theatrical family, we began our sacred pilgrimage back to live theatre. To my surprise, the normally staid and sedate Edinburgh audience was immediately swaying from right to left to the beat of the orchestral sound and the enveloping joy was more infectious than any pandemic could ever hope to be.

The cast of the Southern Light Opera Company, selflessly performing to support the restoration of Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, opened the show with a lively song from the Jerry Herman smash-hit musical comedy Mame. The lyrics from It’s Today provided a perfect frame for all of the fun, poignancy, drama and sheer entertainment to follow.

Light the candles

Get the ice out

Roll the rug up

It’s today

Though it may not be anyone’s birthday

And though it’s far from the first of the year

I know that this very minute has history in it

We’re here!

The announcement of “We’re here!” was a rallying cry for all of us who love live theatre and it produced an immediate cheer from the audience. Following 19 long months in the desert, we finally witnessed a moment of paradise upon the horizon and it was no mirage.

Dozens of highly talented and skilled artists, including actors, singers, dancers, lighting designers, costumiers, and the creative team, had braved the long winter of their discontent to meticulously bring forth this beautiful gift for all of us to enjoy.

As I watched the large cast assemble on stage, I wondered how they managed to muster the will and resolve to return to the rehearsal studio to prepare the show.

Then, I realised, as I looked to my left and right and saw the beaming smiles of the audience as they mouthed the words to the old familiar songs, that the Southern Light Opera Company had no choice.

They realised, as do I, that without live theatre, entertainment, sports and other diversions, many of us would perish emotionally and that when one has a prolonged period without joy and happiness, one shall eventually suffer physically as well.

Their performances were indeed a rescue mission to ensure our survival and, for many of us, a life-saver or a lighthouse of hope, leading us back to a better world.

As the house lights rose for the interval, I noticed that some audience members were slightly confused. They did not know if this was the end of the performance or if they were to remain in their seats for the second act.

Such is the confusing nature of pandemics when associating with others is discouraged. A few audience members rose from their seats; however, the majority remained glued to their chairs as if to silently announce that they would not leave, not now, not ever!

As the music before the second act rose, I looked up and noticed how the architecture of the beautiful Festival Theatre included the sweeping curvature of the balcony as if her giant loving arms were embracing the entire audience. I found this comforting, as if the theatre itself was whispering to the audience that we would indeed be alright because we had finally found our way home.

At the end of the performance, I made my way down to the orchestra, shook hands with the conductor and then, with a sweep of my hand, said to the players, “From the first note, I was weeping with joy!” To my surprise, they all smiled and gave a collective sigh of appreciation.

Unlike previous performances where the audience often bolts for the doors after or even before the final note, the audience for Southern Light Opera Company lingered for a long time in the auditorium and upon the front steps of the theatre. The thick fog surrounding us made me wonder if all of this had been but a brief dream. I was reminded of Puck’s closing lines in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends

And Robin shall restore amends.

This brave and essential act of assembling on stage to entertain their fellow human beings did indeed begin to restore the amends of a long period of theatrical drought. Their small gift will, just as Jerome Robbins suggested, set the scene for our recovery, reconciliation and resolve to return to the theatre whose mighty arms are now outstretched and ready to welcome us home.

Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University and a former actor and dancer.

To learn more about his views about live theatre visit www.joegoldblatt.scot, to support the King’s Theatre visit www.capitaltheatres.com/support and to learn more about the Southern Light Opera Company visit www.southernlight.co

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