“Our Boris?” In fact, I had not recognized him, although the face did seem familiar. Boris is the actor Boris McGiver; in “Lincoln” he plays Alexander Coffroth, a congressman wavering in his commitment to the 13th Amendment. What makes him “our” Boris is that he spent most of 2011 playing the father of Albert Narracott, best friend to Joey, the title character in the Tony Award-winning “War Horse” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
My travels with Joey have ended: the Broadway production of “War Horse” closed on Sunday after 718 performances. I worked nearly 300 of them, and the experience has taught me more about theater than I learned in decades as a member of the audience or, for that matter, an arts journalist. Ushers may not play the most exalted role in the theater; few New York Times readers who saw Saturday’s stunning half-page picture of the Beaumont would have given a second look, or even a first, to those black shapes on the stairs stuffing Playbills. But, just as it’s better to see a bad play than not go to the theater at all, it’s better to be an usher than not work in theater at all. Much better.
The way I said “Our Boris?” made me realize that, while I may be the eternal sub, there really is an “our” to this experience. In the 21 months since I started at the Beaumont, I’ve gone from being an interloper to feeling like part of the usher corps, and the show. More than that, I’ve made friends: of the 46 numbers programmed into my phone, eight belong to Beaumont people.
“War Horse” being my first show as a professional, I wasn’t sure how closing day would affect me, other than that I was sure to cry, just as I had when I first saw the show from B501. As the daily fight rehearsal started, I found myself acutely conscious that everything was happening for the last time: Joey and Topthorn rehearsing their first-act faceoff, for example, or the first charge, which I would perform sotto voce: My God, what the hell is that? Machine guns attacking right flank! Break the line, fall back! Break the line, fall back, fall back! Machine guns! Blackout. Lights. Ya-a-a-a-ah! (I’ve been saying for months that we should have an ushers’ performance before the show closed. We know all the lines and can sing all the songs, and sometimes do.) This last rehearsal ended with the entire cast gathering in a circle onstage. Alyssa Bresnahan, who has played Albert’s mother throughout the run, was holding her own tiny daughter, Shannon Rose, a frequent presence in the house. The run of “War Horse” has spanned most of Shannon’s life.
The last performance proceeded much like any other. I watched favorite scenes through the excellent eye-level crack between the doors at the top of Aisle 4 — that scene with Topthorn, so much more dramatic with lighting and music, and the one in the second act in which Joey meets the future of warfare, the tank. A pregnant woman’s search for the restroom made me miss seeing Joey emerge from the Aisle 4 door for his break, but I did wave farewell when he disappeared into the house again. Somewhere on that aisle, Joey — who is, however much we believe otherwise, a puppet — lost a hoof pad, occasioning a discreet search of the aisle in the dark by my colleague and neighbor Barbara Hart before she found it found it under a ramp during intermission and returned it to the backstage crew. Otherwise, it was “War Horse” as usual.
Until the curtain call. The actors were more exuberant than ever as they formed their customary semicircle upstage, then ran forward one by one to take their bows. Having quietly entered the house at the top of Aisle 5, I clapped hard and shouted “Bravo!” as the magnificent Joey galloped onstage in the mist and reared for his final bow. The tissue in my pocket being already soaked, I let the tears run down my cheeks. So sue me. I’ve never had a show close before.
Every show does eventually run its course — even “Phantom” will die someday — and despite full houses for the last few weeks, Joey has run his, at least in New York. (The show is still playing in London and on tour.) But as Stephen Sondheim put it in “Merrily We Roll Along”: There’ve got to be endings/Or there wouldn’t be beginnings — Right? Right. In my case, it will be a matter of not so much beginnings as resumptions. This month, I return to teaching and to writing projects that have been on the back burner (including this blog), in part because I’ve been spending 22 hours a week at “War Horse.”
The anthem that opens and closes the show — the music that signals ushers it’s almost time to open the doors, close the house and go home — may have been written as a memorial to the soldiers and horses who die in the course of the play. But the lyrics apply to everyone who has ever lived and ever will: Only remembered for what we have done. No doubt the 758,000 people who have seen “War Horse” on Broadway will remember the artists and technicians for what they have done in bringing Joey’s story to life. If they give a thought to the ushers who showed them to their seats and helped them enjoy a night at the theater, that would be nice, too. For me, it’s enough to believe that the real-life Joey died peacefully on the Isle of Wight at a ripe old age, as a Briton in the audience told Judith last week, and to know that the Joey I’ve loved onstage for almost two years will live as long as I do, in my memory.