‘I Needed It’: A Well-Timed Outdoor Theater Opens on Little Island
The timing could not have been better.
After the pandemic drove New Yorkers outdoors for everything from dining to haircuts, a 687-seat al fresco amphitheater opened for its first ticketed shows over the weekend on Little Island, the new oasis on the Hudson River, offering a new place for those tentatively re-emerging into crowds again to gather for open-air performances.
The amphitheater opened with an emotionally rousing performance by Broadway Inspirational Voices, a professional choir run by Michael McElroy that is made up of chorus members who sang in Broadway musicals like “Ain’t Too Proud” and “The Lion King” before their theaters were shut down and they were thrust into unemployment.
Some cheered, and some wept at the return of sights and sounds that had been in short supply during the many months of strict limitations: of hundreds of people piled into the curved wooden benches of the sleek new amphitheater, few of them masked, watching the sun set over the Hudson as a choir belted out “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin.”
“This is the first time that I’ve been here, and I’m overwhelmed,” said Barry Diller, the mega-mogul who paid for Little Island, before entering the amphitheater for Sunday’s performance.
Although an outdoor theater was always part of the plan for Little Island, Diller had no idea how useful it would be as the city emerges from a pandemic — offering culture-starved New Yorkers a place for performances as indoor venues slowly begin to come back to life. “It’s the exact right moment,” he said.
His family foundation will bankroll the first two decades of the park’s operations, which includes six days a week of arts programming.
Without tickets to the amphitheater, visitors can perch themselves atop one of the island’s overlooks to peer down at the performances. Or, if they’re lucky, they can stumble upon one of the artists hired to perform at various spots on the island, like intentionally placed, well-paid buskers.
This weekend’s program was designed as a sort of post-pandemic catharsis for both the singers and the audience, some of whom rose from their seats to sway and clap along with the choir. It was shepherded by McElroy, whose homiletic interludes urged the audience to reconnect with one another, opening with the line, “After the darkness, there is always the light.”
June 22, 2021, 5:34 a.m. ET
The evening of musical theater and gospel music was punctuated with drama and dance — which revolved around the themes of reawakening and reconnection. The actress Phylicia Rashad delivered a monologue about rediscovering the inner child; Daniel J. Watts and Ayodele Casel imitated sounds like thunder and a babbling brook with their tap shoes; Norm Lewis sang a commanding rendition of “Go the Distance” from “Hercules.”
“Out of this space of necessary, required isolation, we come into a place that was created for community,” McElroy said in an interview.
The show was McElroy’s last major performance with Broadway Inspirational Voices, a group that 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 has decided to leave the group to focus his time on other creative pursuits, as well as to serve as the musical theater chair at the University of Michigan.
But first, McElroy wanted to put together a show that filled a new spiritual void created by the current pandemic.
So in January, McElroy, an artist in residence at Little Island, started planning for a live concert scheduled for June, not knowing how quickly the city would be able to get vaccinated and return to see live theater. For the initial rehearsals, which happened on Zoom, members of the choir would gather virtually to go over the music and ask questions, then mute themselves when it was time to sing.
In May, the choir moved to a spacious recording studio, where they sang socially distanced and masked. And at the end of the month, they started rehearsing in a park, and then eventually, on the island itself, which floats over the Hudson River near West 13th Street.
“We were rehearsing on the 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 this time.”
While Broadway itself still has a few months to go before it returns in full force, about 60 of the industry’s chorus members were able to get onstage 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 newer musicals that were shuttered by the pandemic, including “Hadestown” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
Watching from the audience, David Plunkett, 52, started out with his mask hanging from his wrist, then alternated between waving it in the air like it was a handkerchief at a church service, and using it to dab at his teary eyes.
“I knew I needed it,” he said, “but I didn’t know how much I needed it.”