With the passing of Barbara Cook on August 8th, the Broadway community collectively mourned her loss with one of the most beautiful and fitting honors that can be given to a Broadway legend. The lights are going to be dimmed for one minute on August 9th at 7:45 just as patrons arrive at their seats and actors are given their “15-minute” call from the stage manager. At that moment, everyone recognizes a theatrical light has gone out and the firmament as a whole is slightly dimmer for it.
The first person to receive this honor was Gertrude Lawrence, who passed suddenly during her run in “The King and I” in 1952. The commemorative gesture was not repeated again until Oscar Hammerstein passed in 1960. Lately, it has become a more common commemoration with the passing of luminaries such as Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
A committee within the Broadway League, a trade organization for the Broadway theatre industry, is responsible for deciding whether the lights will be dimmed based confidential discussions within the group. Once the decision has been made, the three major theatre owners – the Shubert, Nederlander, and Jujamcyn organizations – are informed and asked to support the organization’s decision, which they always do.
Beyond the beauty of the gesture lies its unassuming nature. The League puts out a simple press release and no additional pomp and circumstance. While the lights dim for many famous actors and actresses, it has also dimmed for directors, playwrights, designers, and talent agents. The owners of both Sardi’s and Edison Café, two famous Broadway restaurants, were honored with dimmed marquees.
The fact is, in the course of the event, one might not know for whom the lights are dimmed. Just as we may not know all of the people whose work goes into making amazing Broadway theatre, we may find ourselves in the dark in this moment. It provides us an opportunity to pause and take a deep breath while thinking of all of those who have made theatre that has moved us to laughter or tears, all of those who have made our visits to the theatre memorable and meaningful. Hopefully, after the curtain falls that evening, we will go home and find out who was honored in order to learn another great story woven into the fabric of Broadway lore and legend.
Theatre is a constant search for immortality in an art form that is dreadfully mortal. It is the ephemeral nature of the art that makes its performance so much more profound. When you can turn to your friend, spouse, or child and tell them that you were there when amazing performers took the stage, they will look back at you with a mix of wonder and jealousy.
Then, even more profoundly, the lights return and the show goes on (as it must) because that is one of theatre’s undying legacies. It goes on despite sorrow, grief, tragedy, or loss. Theatre embodies the unending will of humanity to create under any condition. The lights will dim, but they will resume brighter than before with memory and more stories to share.