Swing, a jumpin', jivin', Broadway musical that scored more than its fair share of Tony Award nominations, is currently on stage at The Orpheum, and Lori Steinberg, the tour's director, is a long way from home. She's a New Yorker, and when we spoke by phone last Friday, this fact was impossible to ignore.
"It's really hard to be away from home when something like this has happened," she says guardedly. "That's my home. It's my hometown. I was born there. Now I'm just trying to get to some place close so somebody can come and pick me up. My sister is a caterer. She often caters breakfast at the Stock Exchange. That's one of her regular jobs. But sometimes she caters at the World Trade Center. When the first plane hit I was watching Good Morning America, so I called my sister, and she was home and that was great. She knew I wasn't on one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center and I knew she wasn't catering breakfast." This is one comfort. "But it's like John Smith, our musical director for Swing, says," she continues, "'There's any number of random reasons why anybody could be there on any given day.'"
The reality is, we are still in shock and it is almost impossible to consider any after-the-fact activities outside the far-reaching context of tragedy, uncertainty, war, and rumors of war. It has, according to Steinberg, affected how some people view the show.
"We got a review here in Charlotte which was, I guess, good for the show. But the reviewer only devoted about a paragraph to the actual production, the rest was all 'How could you do this, how could you present this show tonight?' And I think it's interesting because there was a full house. So clearly people needed " She stops, collects her thoughts, and begins again.
"Swing is a diversion; it's an entertainment. And it's also an expression of American heritage. The music is so American. It's not a frivolous comedy. It's not destructive. It's not political or offensive in any way. It's helpful, it's joyous, and those are things you can always stand for. There's even a U.S.O. sequence that's all the singing and dancing from World War II. That's the period when this music had its heyday. [And the review] was so strange. It wasn't a criticism of the actual show but of the theater for even doing a show. It said something like, 'It's like laughing in church, talking at a silent moment. I really do think there are shows that would be appropriate at the time, but Swing is not one of them.'"
Steinberg is no stranger to this kind of controversy. She was on the production crew for Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, a dark musical examining the place presidential assassinations hold in our cultural consciousness. It opened on the first night of the Gulf War. "I remember someone saying to me at the time, 'How can we do this show?' and I said, 'How can we not?' It's a show that says violence is not the answer. But I think if I was opening Assassins now I'd postpone."
But Swing is, by the director's admission, a show without political implications of any kind. "It doesn't ask any questions," she says. "It's just, you know, 'Have a good time.' You have to find moments to celebrate life at a time when life seems so fragile."
Apparently audiences have been doing just that. The show continued to sell out in Charlotte.
"There are little vignettes, and there is something people can identify with and enjoy," Steinberg adds, "but it's mostly about many different expressions of swing music and different ways to dance to that music. It's a show where the dance is featured, rather than a show where the dance supports the story. In Swing, the dance is the story."
The fact that the swing revival, a full-fledged phenomenon only a few years back, has vanished without a trace has apparently had little or no effect on audience enthusiasm. "It's a classic," Steinberg says, "and with any classic thing there is always a base of people who are interested in it and excited about it. Then it blossoms into a fad until something else becomes the 'in' thing. You still have more followers than you did before the thing became a fad."
Showing through September 23rd.