Book Review: When The Lights are Bright Again

Like the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” Andrew Norlen began with the idea of writing himself a letter – and then it just grew.

In “When the Lights Are Bright Again: Letters and images of loss, hope, and resilience from the theater community” (Applause, 240 pages), Nolan has convinced some 200  people who are connected to the theater in some way (although that connection is not always spelled out) to write themselves a letter which invariably begins “When the lights are bright again….”

Some group efforts by theater people to commemorate the pandemic – or process it — have been creative and inspiring, such as En Garde Arts’ theatrical installation A Dozen Dreams, and there are sure to be more.

But I’ll be honest: This project struck me as a cloying idea, with a format that wouldn’t necessarily encourage the most readable responses from the participants — and the book does wind up fostering some execrable writing, not least from its editor. There are endlessly repeated platitudes, posturing, rhetoric, and the sort of solipsistic outpouring that can feel therapeutic for the individual who’s pouring out, but overwhelming rather than helpful to most anybody else. “When The Lights Are Bright Again” is hard to read through.

Besides all that, a small point that instantly dates this newly published book: Aren’t the lights bright again now?  

There is, on the other hand, much about “When The Lights Are Bright Again” that makes it worthwhile: It is handsome, thanks to theater photographer Matthew Murphy’s eye-catching portraits, and a dramatic design by Asya Blue. A portion of the book’s sales will be donated to the Actors Fund.  It’s the sort of coffee table book that can serve as a physical reminder of a time when a community came together (including to put together this book.)  “I love this community for mourning so much loss together,” Alia Jones-Harvey writes in her letter, “for reaching out to stay connected, for pivoting to create in the virtual world, and for seeking to make Broadway better when we reopen.”

For those who have enough patience, fortitude and good will, “When The Lights Are Bright Again” can function as a kind of yearbook; instead of looking back at classmates, we look back at Grief, Justice, Healing, Hope — some of the chapter titles into which the letters are organized – and share not just in the experiences but in the realizations by individuals we don’t know: That they (and we) were more resilient than expected, that identity turns out not to have to come solely from a job, even if that job is making art; that love matters.

There are whole letters, and certainly sentences here and there, that are well-written, and refreshing — in their candor, their anger, their loss…even in their humor. “Dear Rick,” publicist Rick Miramontez writes to himself, “When the lights go bright again, you will never fall asleep in the theater again….”

Some of the humor may be unintentional. Jake Ryan Flynn writes to himself: “Dear Jake: When the lights are bright again, I won’t be there to celebrate with my cast family. When the lights went dark, I was playing 12 year old Christopher Hillard in Doubtfire the Musical. I am now 14 years old. I have grown 4 inches since Broadway has shut down and my voice has dropped. For a child actor that is basically the kiss of death.”

Heather Parcells , an actress, singer and dancer who has toured with “Chicago” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” writes amusingly about how she had never wanted a child: “Performance had been my child. I loved it unconditionally and sacrificed everything for it. It puked and pooped all over me, but I would just wipe myself off and love it even more.”

But at age 40 she fell in love and got married. She now wanted an actual child. She had, instead, a series of miscarriages,  both before and during the pandemic, a story she tells simply and sadly.

Returning to the stage will be full of “melancholy from the losses and disappointments,” she writes. “The song and dance will have more depth, and the human connection will be more genuine, but I still won’t have a baby.”

Is it odd that I find these words, which are more sorrowful than hopeful, among the most beautiful and uplifting in the book?  

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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