THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT OFF-BROADWAY
// BY CHERYL STERN
Lyricist Cheryl Stern recalls a harrowing night at the theatre: unplugged and unhinged.
It’s autumn, 2005. I’m sitting along the sidewall of the darkened Connelly Theatre. There are no other seats available. The house is packed with family, friends, and fans. It’s a preview for the Transport Group production of Normal, a musical I wrote with Tom Kochan and Yvonne Adrian. We sit tightly together along that wall with our director Jack Cummings III as we breathlessly watch the opening number. Our focus is split because right on the aisle, in front of us, looms the skinny, bespectacled head of The New York Times critic. It’s everything. Bases are loaded, as it were. We are putting the delicate baby we have tenderly nurtured together for six years out into the world and one of the most powerful theatre humans is sitting there, pen in hand, poised to decide our fate.
This is a musical about an anorexic 15-year-old. A daughter is trying to control her life and a mother is trying to save it. In 2005, it’s risky. It’s terrifying. And it’s thrilling! We know we are exploring new territory with this piece. Every element has been carefully orchestrated to create this uniquely modern, expressionist, and edgy musical. The set by John Story is pure white and the intricate, angular lighting by R. Lee Kennedy requires meticulous execution of the precise staging by Jack and choreography by Scott Rink. Our cast of seven led by Barbara Walsh with Adam Heller, Erin Leigh Peck, and Nicholas Belton is diving head on into the ironic opening number, “Perfect and Happy Family.” The skinny, bespectacled head is writing away.
And then the lights go out. Something just snaps. It’s not a total blackout. There is a small streak of dim light left on the stage but something has gone horribly wrong. I feel this surge of blinding electricity in my veins. The actors are quickly shifting to find what’s left of their light. They valiantly keep singing. On some sort of uber adrenaline, these incredibly gifted pros instinctively work together to huddle into the light and do their best to keep telling our story. My heart pulls toward them in solidarity. The show goes on. But the lights do not. The entire cast is now repeatedly weaving in and out of three feet of light, scene after scene, and song after song. The skinny, bespectacled head smirks. I feel another bolt up my spine.
It shoots me out of my seat, and I begin to climb, out of body, up to the balcony. On all fours, I crawl like a wild animal, right over the feet of the first row of disgruntled audience members. I make my way to the stage manager’s booth and in the loudest whisper known to man; I blurt “TURN ON THE LIGHTS!” Rebecca Yarsin, our stage manager, can’t help me. She knows the lights are out. If she could fix it, she would. She is looking at me like I have three heads. I am clearly out of control.
I’ve been thinking about control a lot lately. I think back to that night when I thought the world was ending because the person I was giving control to would not see our vision, as we had created it. The skinny, bespectacled head wrote his review. In his closing line, he suggested the 15-year-old anorexic girl should “either croak or eat a Ho-Ho.” So, he didn’t like it. He also doesn’t have a job at The New York Times anymore. And our musical has continued to have a rich life in theatres and schools, long after that dim night.
Today, everything as we know it is out of control and the lights have literally gone out for theatres everywhere. And yet, somehow, we are adapting and finding ways to tell our stories. Viruses, plagues, terrorists, rudderless leaders, power failures and bad reviews just happen but life will go on and as artists we will always continue to find our light. It’s what we do.
NORMAL is the recipient of The Jonathan Larson Award.
An adaptation of NORMAL developed with Robyn Hussa and Eric Christiansen along with an accompanying curriculum, toured schools and universities, internationally. A further adaptation of the musical is now titled PRETTY TO THE BONE.
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