Wednesday night at the Geffen Theater was a most difficult night. An opening night like no other. Gil Cates, the beloved founder had just died two days before and now the theater staff and the actors had to pull off the real life version of “The show must go on.”
How would this heartbreaking evening play out?
The audience began arriving, milling about in the very lobby where the staff had seen Gil for the last time, waving goodbye, ”See you soon!” he said with that charming smile of his. He was practically giddy with excitement; he had just finished a meeting where he was conjuring up his next great show – holiday music at the Geffen with his latest find, an astounding singer, Nathan Pacheco. “My own Josh Groban,” Gil liked to say.
Usually on opening nights at the Geffen, festivities abound. Not tonight. There were no trays with treats being passed around. The only outward sign of Gil’s passing was just that, a sign at the front of the theater wing that bears his name: The Gil Cates theater. The staff had arranged a simple display featuring a large poster with a picture of Gil and one of his quotes, “Onwards and upwards with the arts.”
Gil Cates wasn’t there, yet he was everywhere. In the warm embraces that triggered tears, in the faces of his staff, his “second family” as he liked to call those he loved and respected so, in the heavy hearts of the actors about to take to the stage on this most difficult of opening nights.
House lights down. Stage lights up. An opening line that couldn’t have been scripted better. “This is weird,” intones one of the leads … instantly transitioning the audience from real life sorrow into the world of the play. It was the perfect place to both escape and mourn at the same time.
The play, “Next Fall,” hand picked by Gil, is about beliefs and life and how we choose to live it, along with the powerful message that death can reveal love in ways nothing else can.
Mid play comes the line, “That’s life, then you die.” Followed by a beat. It feels crass on a night like this, until the next line is delivered with a smile, “Then what?” Gil would have loved that play of emotions.
The play ends. Standing ovation. Such virtuoso performances on such a tough night. The playwright, perfectly cast in a leading role, looks upwards and reaches his arms to the sky. Tears are welled up in the eyes of everyone on stage and in the audience.
It’s that moment Gil Cates lived for. That spectacular moment, so bittersweet on this evening, when actor and audience connect, when emotion is universal. Only this time it’s not just for the great performances, it’s for Gil Cates too, and for all he did and believed in.
In his last letter in the evening’s program, Gil had written,” See you at the theater.” We will Gil, we always will.