‘Happy Birthday,’ Sondheim; Should we ‘Send in the Clowns’?

| April 1, 2020 | 0 Comments

Sunday, March 22, was Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. I am sure that Mr. Sondheim celebrated with a few friends and colleagues — imagine being on that A-list — but the big celebrations for the nonagenarian icon of the American musical theatre were cancelled due to the coronavirus.

In Los Angeles that meant cancelling productions of “Passion” (1994; Boston Court), “Assassins” (1990; East-West Players), “Sweeney Todd” (1979; A Noise Within), and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s concert presentation of “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984), among others. Ivo van Hove’s revisionist Broadway revival of “West Side Story” is dark, as is a New York production of a gender-flipped “Company” (1970) that was scheduled to preview on Mr. Sondheim’s birthday. These, and hundreds of productions large and small across the country (including “Into the Woods” at a friend’s son’s school), have cost the composer/lyricist an enormous amount of money in royalties.

Mr. Sondheim can absorb the financial hit. Most of the theatres, schools and orchestras that planned performances cannot. The shutdown has devastated the American and international theatrical landscape. Major institutions with deep pockets (such as the Phil or the Center Theatre Group) can probably weather the storm until next fall. But if major donors are taking 20% losses in the stock market, their long-term giving is affected, and therefore strategic planning and programming eventually become problematic, with hard artistic and economic choices looming in the distance like icebergs.

For smaller theatres (musical groups, dance troupes, and the like), the damage is more violent, immediate and irreparable. Box office revenue is critical, cash flow crucial and safety nets non-existent. I must have a dozen emails in my inbox from theatres doing GoFundMe campaigns to make ends meet. Individual artists are worse off.

There are long-term implications for how we enjoy the arts. The social distancing we are doing now will permanently alter how we approach social engagements in the future: health? telemedicine; education? online classes; movies? streaming; shopping, dining? all online, delivered to our doors. A play or ballet or concert? Okay, if the production is big enough to fund taping or streaming. Most companies are not. Some of the “virtual” performing arts will come back to “reality” when this is over. Many artists and arts organizations will not.

While the impact on the arts and artists will be brutal, the impact on the rest of us, on the community, will be worse. Not only from the aesthetic void of life in a city — a world, without an artist pulse — but also on the economic void that this creates.

In 2018, the National Endowment for the Arts calculated that the arts contributed more than $760 billion to the U.S. economy — more than agriculture or airlines. The arts employ 4.9 million workers, who earn (granted, sporadically) $370 billion. The non-profit Americans for the Arts calculated that every $100,000 spent by arts organizations nationwide (on sets, props, costumes, rehearsal spaces, programs, talent, electricity for lighting, taxes, etc.) generates, on average, 3.46 jobs, $82,084 in household income, $3,819 in local taxes, and $4,656 in state revenues (“Arts & Economic Prosperity IV,” 2012; www.americansforthearts.org).

The math becomes simple: 0 x $100,000 = 0. No arts spending, no jobs, no household income, no tax revenues, and so on. What Sondheim tune would you like to listen to while you contemplate that abyss? “I’m Still Here”? “Send in the Clowns”? Or maybe just “Being Alive”? Happy birthday, Mr. Sondheim.

Writer-director Louis Fantasia was the cohost of “Theatre Talk” on KCRW for several years and is the author of “Tragedy in the Age of Oprah: Essays on Five Great Plays” and other works. He lives in Windsor Square.

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