The timing couldn’t have been better.
After the pandemic pushed New Yorkers out for everything from meals to hairstyles, a 687-seat outdoor amphitheater opened for its first paid shows over the weekend on Little Island. , the new oasis on the Hudson River, providing a new venue for those who re-emerge again into the crowds to gather for outdoor performances.
The amphitheater opened with an emotionally exciting performance from Broadway Inspirational Voices, a professional choir led by Michael McElroy which is made up of choir members who have performed in Broadway musicals like “Ain’t Too Proud” and “The Lion King” before their theaters closed and they were thrown out of work.
Some clapped and others cried as the sights and sounds returned that had been scarce during the many months of tight restrictions: hundreds of people crammed onto the curved wooden benches of the sleek new amphitheater, few of them masked , watching the sun set over the Hudson as a choir sang “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin”.
“It’s my first time here, and I’m overwhelmed,” said Barry Diller, the mega-mogul who paid for Little Island, before entering the amphitheater for Sunday’s performance.
While an open-air theater has always been a part of the plan for Little Island, Diller had no idea of its usefulness as the city emerges from a pandemic – providing culture-hungry New Yorkers a venue then. that the interior places slowly begin to return. life. “Now is exactly the right time,” he said.
His family foundation will fund the first two decades of operation of the park, which includes six days a week of artistic programming.
Without tickets to the amphitheater, visitors can perch on one of the island’s viewpoints to watch the shows. Or, if they’re lucky, they may stumble upon one of the artists hired to perform at various locations on the island, like intentionally placed, well-paid buskers.
This weekend’s schedule was designed as a sort of post-pandemic catharsis for the singers and the audience, some of whom rose from their seats to sway and clap with the choir. It was directed by McElroy, whose homiletical interludes urged audiences to reconnect, opening up on the line: “After darkness there is always light.”
The evening of musical theater and gospel music was punctuated by theater and dancing – which revolved around themes of awakening and reconnection. Actress Phylicia Rashad delivered a monologue on the rediscovery of the inner child; Daniel J. Watts and Ayodele Casel imitated sounds like thunder and the murmur of a stream with their tap dancing; Norm Lewis sang an imposing rendition of “Go the Distance” from “Hercules”.
“From this necessary and required space of isolation, we step into a place that has been created for the community,” McElroy said in an interview.
The show was McElroy’s last big performance with Inspirational Voices from Broadway, a group he founded in 1994, at a time when his friends were dying of AIDS and he saw a need for spiritual healing. Twenty-seven years later, McElroy decided to leave the group to devote himself to other creative pursuits, as well as to occupy the chair of musical theater at the University of Michigan.
But first, McElroy wanted to put on a show that filled a new spiritual void created by the current pandemic.
So in January, McElroy, an artist-in-residence on Little Island, began planning a live concert scheduled for June, unsure of how quickly the city could get the shot and return to see live theater. For the initial rehearsals, which took place on Zoom, the choir members would come together virtually to review the music and ask questions, then mute as they sang.
In May, the choir moved to a spacious recording studio, where they sang from a distance and masked. And at the end of the month, they started rehearsing in a park, and then eventually, on the island itself, which floats above the Hudson River near West 13th Street.
“We were reiterating with faith that we would be able to come together and do this concert,” he said. “It all depended on where the world would be at that time. “
With Broadway itself still a few months before it makes a strong comeback, around 60 members of the industry choir were able to take the stage to sing songs from some of the most popular musicals of all time, including “Wicked” and “West Side Story,” as well as some of the new musicals that were shut down by the pandemic, including “Hadestown” and “Mrs. Doubt.”
Watching the audience, David Plunkett, 52, started with his mask hanging from his wrist, then alternated between waving it in the air as if it were a handkerchief at a church service, and use it to dab his watery eyes.
“I knew I needed it,” he said, “but I didn’t know how much I needed it.”