After this opinion piece was published, The Broadway League reversed course and said it would dim theater marquee lights in honor of Joan Rivers. Below is the original piece condemning the initial snub. The updated news story is available here.
Can we talk? About what a tone deaf decision The Broadway League made when the respected trade group denied theater booster and sometime-stage star Joan Rivers one of the industry’s top honors?
Theater owners have a tradition of dimming marquee lights for one minute prior to curtain in order to recognize the passing of Rialto greats—a distinction recently bestowed on fellow comedian Robin Williams, who, unlike Rivers, never nabbed a Tony nomination.
In an interview Monday with The New York Times, Charlotte St. Martin, the League’s executive director, said the lights wouldn’t go down for Rivers, who died on Sept. 4, because the late comedian had not met the criteria for the time-honored tradition.
“People need to have been very active recently in the theater, or else be synonymous with Broadway — people who made their careers here, or kept it up,” St. Martin said, adding, “We love Joan — she was very supportive of Broadway and came to a lot of show openings — but she hasn’t acted on Broadway in 20 years.”
Martin, perhaps beginning to reconsider the League’s move, also curiously said the decision was made by “a small committee.”
Too small, we say. The League needs a broader perspective—especially when it comes to one tough-talking broad.
That’s clearly what Jordan Roth, the Jujamcyn president, was thinking when, in an unprecedented move, he got out ahead of the trade group and said his company, which manages five theaters, would dim its lights tonight to honor Rivers.
In memory of the legendary Joan Rivers, we will dim the lights of our Jujamcyn Theaters marquees, Tuesday at 6:45pm. pic.twitter.com/j07m1L5gaS
— Jordan Roth (@Jordan_Roth) September 9, 2014
Disney Theatricals soon followed suit, saying that the New Amsterdam, which houses “Aladdin,” would do the same. The lights will lower, too, at the Helen Hayes Theatre, where “Rock of Ages” goes on.
We ain't never had a friend like Joan! @DisneyOnStage is proud to dim the New Am marquee tonight in honor of the late, great Joan Rivers.
— Aladdin (@aladdin) September 9, 2014
In response to The Broadway League’s move late Monday, an online petition began, demanding Broadway “Dim the Lights for Joan Rivers.” As of Tuesday morning, the call to arms had nearly 5,000 signatures.
The movement also spread to Twitter, where the trending hashtag “#Dim4Joan” united theater fans and performers alike.
“Hey Broadway! Time to dim the lights for Joan Rivers queen of comedy. She loved Broadway and we love her,” Harvey Fierstein wrote.
“No disrespect meant to The Broadway League, but #Dim4Joan seems the respectful, honorable thing to do” wrote Donna Murphy.
The League, as it states clearly on their website, is “dedicated to fostering increased interest in Broadway theatre.” No one did that better than Rivers.
Rivers made her Broadway debut in 1972 in a play she co-wrote called “Fun City.” In the late ’80s, she was a replacement in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” Rivers also earned a 1994 best actress Tony nomination for a play she co-wrote, “Sally Marr… and Her Escorts” (which, incidentally, went on at The Helen Hayes, whose owners have a long memory).
In addition to her time on stage, Rivers was also a staunch advocate for theater. A fixture at Broadway and off-Broadway openings, she spoke passionately about Broadway, most recently to New York Magazine:
“If I’m home in New York at night, I’m either at a Broadway or an Off Broadway show. We’re in the theater capital of the world, and if you don’t get it, you’re an idiot,” she said.
Broadway was also a big part of Rivers’ funeral, which was held Sept. 7 in New York City. Tony winners Audra McDonald and Hugh Jackman sang show tunes “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” and “Big Spender.”
While each case for the tradition is handled on an individual basis, many have called the League’s criteria into question, especially on the heels of its decision to dim lights for the recent passings of Williams, Lauren Bacall and even James Gandolfini.
Williams was never Tony-nominated, though had appeared on Broadway twice — in a 2002 one-man comedy special, and in 2011’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.”
Bacall, a two-time Tony-winner, had a longer career on Broadway, starring in six Broadway shows. But she hadn’t appeared since 1999’s “Waiting in the Wings.”
Gandolfini was Tony-nominated for 2009’s “God of Carnage,” — his third, and last time on Broadway.
Man on Twitter wondered if the League's criteria would make Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand ineligible, should they die, as it’s been 19 years and 48 years, respectively, since either appeared on Broadway.
As of now, the League hasn’t responded to calls from NBC 4 New York asking if the group will reverse course. We have enormous respect for the League, which runs yearly events such as Kids’ Night on Broadway to bring theater to the masses. But this was just the wrong call.
What did the League have to lose by honoring Rivers? Is there no room for leeway in how these decisions are made? There ought to be.
Rob Kahn and Dave Quinn are both long-time New York theater critics.