How 9/11 brought Broadway to a standstill — until NYC’s mayor revived it two days later

Like the coronavirus pandemic, 9/11 brought Broadway to a standstill — until NYC’s mayor took incredible steps to save it. The New York Post’s Broadway columnist MICHAEL RIEDEL recounts the inspiring tale in this excerpt from his upcoming book “Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway.”

The summer of 2001 was a heady time for “The Producers.” The show was sold out for the duration of co-stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick’s contracts. Scalpers had tickets, but the price was now $1,500 and climbing. Producers Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan and Susan Stroman frequently stopped by the theater, sat on a flight of stairs at the back of the orchestra, and watched 1,700 people split their sides laughing. Broderick and Lane were on the covers of magazines and newspapers and in constant demand on the talk show circuit. Whenever Brooks came into restaurants like Angus McIndoe, Orso or Joe Allen, he hopped from table to table, accepting praise for his show. His wife Anne Bancroft, waiting patiently at their table, would let him lap it up for a bit and then yell, “Mel — eat!”

Though “The Producers” was the undisputed king of Times Square that summer, it helped all the other shows by putting Broadway squarely in the mainstream of American popular culture. The total box office gross for the 2000–01 theater season hit an all-time high of $665 million, a 10.3 percent jump from the previous season. Paid attendance soared 500,000 to set another record — 11.9 million. It was the tenth year in a row that Broadway had smashed its own records.

Attendance dipped slightly during the summer as the economy began to sag. Jed Bernstein, the head of the League of American Theatres and Producers, said, “We are far from a panic situation, but it certainly bears watching. It means keeping the marketing pressure on.” Nobody was too concerned, especially since another blockbuster was around the corner — “Mamma Mia!” the ABBA musical from London, set to open Oct. 18, 2001, at the Winter Garden. It already had an advance of $20 million.

On Sunday, Sept. 9, Broadway kicked off the fall theater season with “Broadway on Broadway,” an annual free concert in Times Square featuring performances from all the current shows.

“You know what the No. 1 attraction in the city of New York is?” then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani asked the crowd. “Broadway!”

Bernstein thought the mayor looked tired. He was coming to the end of his term — and his marriage to Donna Hanover. The tabloids had relished the news of his affair with Judith Nathan. He’d battled cancer and ended a lackluster bid for the United States Senate.

“It was obvious he wasn’t having any fun,” Bernstein said.

Everybody else was, however. Joe Bologna, starring on Broadway with his wife Renée Taylor in “If you ever leave me … I’m going with you!,” summed up the afternoon: “On this beautiful, perfect New York September day to be on Broadway … there is nothing more exciting.”

On Tuesday — another “beautiful, perfect September day” — Bernstein was having breakfast with Paige Price, the star of the musical version of “Saturday Night Fever,” at the Polish Tea Room.

Price was thinking of becoming a producer, and Bernstein was giving her advice. Harry Edelstein, the owner of the Edison, came over to their table and said, “A plane just hit one of the World Trade Center towers.” Bernstein thought, as so many people did, it must be a small plane. He remembered that in 1945 a plane crashed into the Empire State Building. He finished breakfast and went to his office at the League.

Everybody was in the conference room watching television. The South Tower had just collapsed. Bernstein sent all but a few people home and then arranged a conference call with theater owners the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn Theaters to consider the threat to Times Square. Some planes were still unaccounted for. They also had to decide if the shows would go on that night, and what they should tell the press. As events unfolded, it became clear Broadway would have to shut down. The city was cordoned off, all bridges and tunnels closed, the Manhattan sky ringed by fighter jets.

I spoke to Gerald Schoenfeld, then chairman of The Shubert Organization, that morning. “Broadway is world famous and as much a target as any other landmark,” he said, adding that he and the other theater owners would talk to city officials before deciding when — or if — to reopen.

All through that day, Giuliani kept thinking, Where can I go for guidance on this? Two places came to mind: Israel and London during the Battle of Britain. After the Jaffa Road bus bombings in 1996, Giuliani went to Israel to ride the bus with Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

“They got that bus running as quickly as possible to show the terrorists you can’t deter the Israelis,” Giuliani said. When the attack on New York occurred, Giuliani was reading Roy Jenkins’ new biography of Winston Churchill. He tried to get an hour or so of sleep in the early morning of Sept. 12, but couldn’t. He picked up the Churchill biography and read that, during the Battle of Britain, Churchill insisted the theater, the opera, the ballet and the orchestra go on as usual “to show the Germans that you can’t defeat our spirit,” Giuliani said.

The next morning Bernstein got a call from Cristyne Nicholas, the head of NYC & Company, the city’s tourism office. She summoned him to a meeting with the mayor at the Police Academy on East Twentieth Street. Richard Grasso, the head of the New York Stock Exchange, was there, along with officials from the Metropolitan Museum and the hotel industry.

A grim Giuliani said, “We have to put our emotions aside for a moment and figure out how we are going to save New York.” He turned to Grasso. “When can you get the stock market reopened?”

“If you can give us power, we can reopen,” Grasso said. (The stock market opened one week later.)

Giuliani turned to Bernstein and Nicholas. “When can Broadway reopen?” Bernstein and Nicholas hesitated and then outlined the problem. Many people who work on Broadway live in the suburbs. With the bridges and tunnels closed they would not be able to get to work.

“If you can get our employees over the bridges we can reopen,” Bernstein said.

“Thursday,” Giuliani said.

“This isn’t going to be as easy as Rudy thinks,” Bernstein told Nicholas as they were leaving the meeting. “I don’t know if we can just flip the switch, turn on the lights, and have a Broadway show.”

Bernstein convened a meeting of producers, union heads and press agents — over a hundred people stuffed into the League’s conference room. He told them the mayor wanted Broadway open on Thursday, Sept. 13. There were questions about safety, logistics, economics, whether there would even be an audience.

But in the end, everyone agreed to light the lights of Broadway Thursday night.

Someone mentioned that on Tuesday night all the members of Congress had gathered on the steps of the Capitol and sang Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Why not have the casts of every show sing the song during the curtain call, the person suggested.

Nicholas met with over two hundred actors, musicians, stagehands, stage managers, and press agents that afternoon in a Broadway theater to tell them the mayor wanted them at work Thursday night. There was resistance — concerns, again, about safety and getting into the city. An actor stood up and said, “You’re not the one who has to get up there and perform. You have no idea how hard it is. We’re human beings. We’re hurting, we’re suffering.”

Nicholas understood, but said, “Please do your best, for the city.” She relayed concerns about safety and being able to get into the city to Giuliani. He had already stepped up the police presence in Times Square as it was on his list of the city’s top ten potential targets.

As for getting into the city, he said, “Tell them to show their union card at the bridges and tunnels and I guarantee they will get in.”

“I want Broadway open on Thursday,” he said.

“The focus was on New Jersey,” Giuliani recalled years later, “because that’s where the terrorists came from that did the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. But I thought if people say they’re working on Broadway and we examine them a little bit, we could let them in without too much of a risk.”

Giuliani called the big three theater owners — Gerald Schoenfeld, James L. Nederlander Jr., and Rocco Landesman — to enlist their help in getting Broadway up and running on Thursday night. He told Landesman, “Get ‘The Producers’ back up because then everybody will follow suit.” Landesman said he would.

It was clear by the end of the day on Wednesday that Broadway could reopen. But would there be an audience? As he was dealing with the untold horrors of the attack, Giuliani, surrounded by media wherever he went, said several times, “If you want to help the city — if you want to show the terrorists that we can handle this — come to the city. Come to a play. Go to a movie. Go to a restaurant. Spend some money here. We need the money.”

Matthew Broderick made his way to the St. James from his Soho apartment Thursday afternoon. There were checkpoints everywhere, but he showed his ID and got through. Is it OK to be in Times Square, he thought as he headed to the theater. Is this still going on? And yet “we had something to do,” he said. “The world was going to go forward in some way, maybe.”

The cast gathered backstage to prepare for the show. The stage manager told them the sound effects of the bombs falling during “Springtime for Hitler” would be cut.

The cast rehearsed “God Bless America.” Broderick didn’t know all the lyrics, but he was determined to learn them.

Giuliani went to “The Lion King” for the start of the show that night. Nicholas attended “The Full Monty.” The majority of the press covering the reopening of Broadway attended the hottest show in town, “The Producers.” The house, to everyone’s surprise, was about two-thirds full. But it was quiet. The buzz of excitement at a hit musical before the curtain goes up was missing. Rocco Landesman walked out on stage and told the audience, “You have permission to laugh tonight. That’s the best approach. We’ve come together and we will laugh together.”

Lane got muted laughs during the number “The King of Broadway.” “The big laughs weren’t there,” Jeffrey Denman recalled. “We had to gradually pull people in. It was, ‘We can do this, we can do this together.’ ” By the time the number “Keep It Gay” was off and running, the laughs came. They also came for “Little Old Lady Land.” And they came for “Springtime for Hitler.” At the curtain call Lane and Broderick joined hands with the cast and led fifteen hundred people in tears through “God Bless America.”

Excerpted from SINGULAR SENSATION: The Triumph of Broadway, by Michael Riedel (c) 2020. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Michael Riedel will be doing a two-part virtual event series with 92Y:

Tuesday, November 10 @ 7 PM (ET) w/ Rocco Landesman and Tom Schumacher

Tuesday, November 17 @ 7 PM (ET) w/ Jerry Zaks and Nathan Lane 

For tickets, visit 92y.org/event/the-triumph-of-broadway

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