Dimming the Lights on Broadway

Wednesday night, Broadway theaters will dim the lights of their iconic marquees in tribute to James Gandolfini who passed away last week while vacationing in Italy and who will be laid to rest on Thursday after a funeral ceremony at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Dimming the lights has become a tradition to honor the passing of those whose lives contributed in a major way to the theatrical arts community.

Some commentators have sparked controversy by asking if the symbolic act of turning the lights off for a minute at the same time throughout the major theater houses along the Great White Way is becoming too common. What was once a rare gesture to honor the greats of the stage has become more and more frequent. Online theater forums have been the battleground for some, at times, heated debates about whether Mr. Gandolfini, or some recent others who were similarly honored before him, have contributed enough to theater instead of earning the bulk of their celebrity from television and film. 

Gandolfini definitely deserves the tribute. As I stated in my previous post about the other roles he played, and as the Broadway League aptly stated in its press release announcing the dimming of the lights, beyond just his celebrated portrayal of Tony on HBO's The Sopranos, "Gandolfini also had a long and diverse list of credits as a stage and film actor, including many character and supporting roles. On Broadway, Gandolfini received a 2009 Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play for his role in the award-winning God of Carnage. He also appeared in On the Waterfront in 1995 and A Streetcar Named Desire in 1992."

I can understand if people argue that certain other deserving individuals did not receive the same treatment, but it's insensitive to object to the tribute in this case and imply that the actor was unworthy to be recognized for his impact on the stage. Maybe he won't be associated with theater the way Harold Pinter or Celeste Holm were, but arguably many others for whom the lights were dimmed will be remembered as well for their cinematic or television work first before their live theater performances: Natasha Richardson, Ron Silver, Jean Stapleton, Jack Klugman, Lynn Redgrave, Lena Horne, Gore Vidal, Charles Durning, and Elizabeth Taylor, just to name a few. Even though they made their mark in other mainstream media, they all deserved to have the lights dimmed on Broadway in their memory.

To me, it is fitting that the Broadway community honors Gandolfini's legacy and his contributions to the theater. The dimming of lights is still a touching gesture that brings people's attention to the loss that the performance world has suffered, uniting everyone for a brief but profound moment in time.