Compared to many people, I don’t listen to much music, and while I see a fair amount of theater, including musicals—thanks to my husband Jamie, who’s great about getting tickets—I wouldn’t say that I’m a big fan of musicals.
But the other night, I finally understood the art form of the musical, and perhaps opera, in a profound way.
The other day, I was out for a socially-distanced walk (which is still permitted where I live) during what would ordinarily be rush hour in New York City. And rush hour in New York City is a very obvious time. I was nearing home, and I crossed Lexington Avenue against the light—something that’s impossible, unthinkable to do under normal circumstances. There’s too much traffic. But now, although the traffic signals flashed through their usual colors, nothing changed, nothing moved.
As I stood still, right in the middle of the avenue, with the light fading and the sound of sirens faintly in the background, I felt: This is the moment when I should begin to sing.
I would sing about this eerie silence, this unnatural calm, this deceptive peace.
All over New York City, others would be singing something different—the doctors and nurses in the hospitals, the clerks in the grocery stores, the police and fire-fighters, the owners outside their shuttered stores and restaurants, the gig and freelance workers, the teachers, the single people, the bus drivers, the children, the people in the assisted-living places…on and on.
I can imagine the hopeful song when we all cheer at 7 p.m. for the essential workers; the mournful song of the ambulance drivers; the lament of the people who love someone who died.
My song is the song of the uncanny, of absence, of waiting.
I may not recall it correctly, because I saw the movie The Devil’s Advocate years ago, but one scene stuck in my memory. Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a Florida lawyer who was hired by John Milton (Al Pacino) to join a big New York City law firm. Spoiler alert: Milton is the Devil. At one point, Kevin leaves his office building to walk out onto 57th Street, which is one of the widest, biggest, most crowded thoroughfares in Manhattan. It’s jammed with people and cars, always. But as Kevin walks onto the street in midday, it’s deserted. No cars. No people.
When I saw the movie, I remember noting the elegance of this image. Nothing could make the point clearer: What power could accomplish this impossibility?
How can I rise to the tragic simplicity of the times? How do I grapple with the public catastrophe, private calamity, and public loss? What would my song sound like?
Ignore the lyrics, but perhaps music like…
- “Morning After” Ariel Pink and Weyes Blood
- “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” Adam Guettel, from the musical Floyd Collins
- “The Promise” Michael Nyman, from the movie The Piano
I imagine myself pulling my face mask down to my chin, I imagine the bike-delivery guys circling around in careful choreography, I imagine neighbors joining the chorus from their windows and balconies.
I’m grappling for the words that could express what I feel; I wish I could sing them.