Lin-Manuel Miranda recently said, “We’re all like Tinker Bell in the play Peter Pan. We need applause to live.”
The creator and star of Hamilton was talking about Broadway performers. I perform off-off-off-off-off (feel free to add additional “off”s!) Broadway, in rural western Massachusetts. Yet I know exactly what he meant.
I recently gave my first vocal concert in more than a year and a half. Pianist Jerry Noble and I rounded out the summer season for our local chamber-music series, Mohawk Trail Concerts. We weren’t certain, going in, whether it would take place inside or outside the 1845 Federated Church in Charlemont. Fortunately, Jerry and I were able to perform indoors. I have a strong voice, but trucks and motorcycles drive by the church. I’m not sure I’m loud enough to compete.
The way things are going, a few weeks later we might have had to move the event outside. Still, for one magical hour and a half we enjoyed the church’s excellent acoustics and a feeling of community. The audience was masked, and Jerry and I positioned ourselves 12 feet from the closest listeners.
Our program consisted of music we had hoped to perform throughout the lockdown but could only practice in solitude in our homes. It alternated between peppy, comic songs and slow numbers. The evening was anchored by Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More.”
Foster wrote the song in 1854. He was having personal and career problems. His home city of Pittsburgh suffered the double blows of a recession and a cholera epidemic. Looming over all this was the unresolved issue of slavery, which would plunge the nation into civil war a few years later. It was, in short, a time not unlike recent months. Foster’s lyrics urged Americans to pay attention to the woes around them.
The audience responded to our show with laughter, tears, and joy. One listener later wrote to me, “When you started off with “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” I thought I had died and gone to heaven, it was so beautiful. And so went the rest of the concert….”
I’m good, but I’m not that good. I think this woman and the other audience members were desperate for live music, as were Jerry and I.
I asked those gathered to hum along through their masks during the last song, “Over the Rainbow.” They did so quietly, so quietly that I’m not sure I could actually hear them. I could feel them, however.
The room reverberated with what musical-theater icon Audra McDonald calls “the holy communion between the audience and the artist.” That feeling was almost better than applause, although happily we had plenty of applause as well. And like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tinker Bell, we came to life.
Many days have you lingered around my cabin door. Oh, Hard Times, come again no more.
To hear a version of this essay on our local public-radio station, please click here.