Newsletter 152: The Beautiful Evaporation of Live Theater

Will Leitch
Aug 9 · 6 min read

I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from March 2019, about seeing “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I saw the Meat Loaf musical last weekend and loved every goddamned second of it. I apologize for nothing.

One of the strangest things about living in New York City is that you end up seeing fewer of the things that make up the New York of the popular imagination than the people who don’t live here do. My parents, who have lived in the same tiny Midwestern town for nearly 70 years, have been to the top of the Empire State Building, but I, who lived in New York for nearly 14 years, never have. I’ve never been to the Met, or the Statue of Liberty, or St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but my parents sure have. They would go during the day when they were visiting me, while I was busy with some job I didn’t care about and ended up not mattering one bit. I rarely saw Central Park, I’ve been inside the Guggenheim just once (and it was to deliver a package) and the only time I went to Windows on the World was to see friends perform a private party there (and all I did the whole time was complain about having to go that far downtown). Living in New York is so all-encompassing and overwhelming that you don’t realize how much you’re missing out on, and how much just being there takes out of you, until you finally leave. Every one of my friends in New York is always so tired.

I feel this most acutely, now that I don’t live in New York anymore but still visit every two weeks, when it comes to Broadway. In all my years living in New York City, I think I went to three Broadway shows, and every single one of them was because someone was visiting from out of town and dragged me, kicking and screaming, all the way uptown. I never saw any of the good ones, no Hamilton, no The Producers, no Book of Mormon. We went the ones you can get for half price at the TKTS booth: Suessical, or All Shook Up. (Which starred a young Cheyenne Jackson.) These shows were treated like family obligations, greeting with a condescending “well, my great aunt was in town, so I had no choice” when explaining while drinking with friends in Brooklyn why I’d been in Times Square the night before. It was sort of embarrassing to even admit you’d gone.

Well, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been to more shows since I moved in 2013 than I did the entire time I lived in New York. It turns out: Broadway shows are quite the thing!

We’ve tentatively booked Aaron Sorkin for a future episode of the show — August 2019 update, he cancelled when he didn’t get nominated for a Tony — so Thursday night, I went to see To Kill A Mockingbird, Sorkin’s pseudo-updating of the story with Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch. It’s pretty good, though I’ll confess I prefer Sorkin diluted with a little Fincher rather than straight on tap. (He’s such a funny writer — I just wish he didn’t insist on making sure I was reminded of it every 20 seconds.) But mostly: I was just awed by the experience of being in the theater, that close, watching it all happen right there in front of me.

The thing I love about live shows are their immediacy and their impermanence. Movies are the result of painstaking effort from hundreds of people, with the expressed goal of a finished product: You make it, and then you give it to people, and then you go make something else. As a writer of many pieces on many different topics, this has an undeniable appeal to me. But theater is a brand new thing, created every night in front of actual human beings, and it’s shared only among the people in that room. It’s not recorded and kept for posterity. It just happens. Their effort is exclusive to all of us sitting down, and when the show is over, it evaporates. If you weren’t in the room, you can’t have the experience. I can’t think of anything else like this. Movies, sports, politics, it all exists to live on forever: The Internet makes sure that nothing can disappear entirely. But theater is gone the second you’ve made it. It’s both incredible and frustrating; its beauty is in its elusiveness.

I found myself getting moved by sections of To Kill a Mockingbird that, I suspect, I would have groaned at in a movie. Just being there, that close, make you a part of the action, and emotionally invested in what’s happening, simply by existing. (I was almost physically part of the action Thursday night; I was sitting on an aisle and nearly tripped an actor when he was running up to the stage.) At one point I took a sip of my drink wrong and began to cough, and it felt like everyone was staring at me. It was absolutely terrifying. It was as if I was playing a part myself. Toward the end of the show, Jeff Daniels makes a big speech — it’s a Sorkin play, there are many, many speeches — and he was 10 feet away from me, and I saw the beads of sweat on his face and the cuff of his pants and that one of his shoes was starting to come untied. It was a physical person, performing, yes, but also just standing, right there in front of me, the two of us a part of something that no one not in the room will ever know. It is sort of breathtaking, honestly.

When I’d first moved to New York City, my grandmother and my uncles came to visit. I was of course working during the day while they saw Broadway shows, and I met them uptown, grumbling about it all the way. We went to the world-famous Sardi’s after their show, and we drank vodka tonics and talked about the play they saw, and all the caricatures on the wall, and all the famous people who must have been there after their performances. Grandma hadn’t been to New York City since she worked for the USO during World War II. She said the last time she was in Times Square, there was a “dim-out,” a test where they shut off all the lights to make sure they could protect and disguise the city from foreign attacks. “It’s a lot brighter tonight,” I remember her saying, and she laughed and we laughed and we couldn’t believe four corny Midwesterners were sitting there in New York City, drinking and laughing together.

My grandmother and uncles are all gone now. I went to Sardi’s after my show Thursday night and had a drink for them. I remember that night more than almost any other night of drinking and carousing with all my friends who lived in New York City. Sometimes you have to take a step back from it all and enjoy it. Sometimes you have to experience what’s happening right in front of you. Sometimes it can’t be recorded: It just happens, and then it’s gone.

Subscribe to the newsletter right here.

Will Leitch

Written by

Senior Writer, MLB. Contributing Editor, New York. Host, SI’s “The Will Leitch Show.” Grierson and Leitch. Founder, Deadspin. Author, four books. Mattoonian.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade