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The York Theatre Company Is Unsinkable — but After a Water Main Break, It Needs Help

The off-Broadway theater is being forced to temporarily vacate its home in order to rebuild.

James Morgan in the York Theatre after the recent flood
(image via James Morgan on Facebook)

The news broke a lot of theatergoers' hearts: on top of the now almost-yearlong pandemic shutdown, off-Broadway's venerable York Theatre Company, a home to new musicals like Desperate Measures and revivals of long-lost classics like Enter Laughing, was recently flooded after a water main break on the morning of January 4.

But the reports of the theater's death — says longtime artistic director James Morgan — have been greatly exaggerated. "The initial word put out by people on Facebook was 'The theater is underwater, it's going out of business, my favorite theater is gone,'" Morgan says, "and we wanted to counter that because it's not quite true. Yes, water damage. Yes, mud. But it wasn't six feet of water; it was, at most, two feet of water. And in certain places, water rushing through for a couple of hours. So anything that was above two feet was basically fine."

That's good news for the theater's electrical equipment, and, most importantly, the relatively new seats that were installed in 2016. But as frequently happens in situations like this, it was the irreplaceable material that bore the most damage. "Bottom drawers filled with scripts were a big mess. We found a letter from Hal Prince that ripped when we picked it up because it was so wet. We found drawings from Harvey Schmidt [composer of The Fantasticks] that had gotten wet. That was particularly painful." On the plus side, executive director Evans Haile says they've found a document recovery company, Polygon Group, which will "freeze dry" the harmed goods and hopefully return them to their former glory.

A first look at the new seats in the York Theatre Company's auditorium.
(© David Gordon)

But the York, located for the past 30 years in the basement of St. Peter's Church in the Citicorp Center, isn't out of the woods yet. On late Friday, they were informed that they would have to vacate the premises almost immediately so the landlord could get started on remediation and making sure that mold doesn't set in. "We got a note saying they wanted us out by Tuesday afternoon," Haile said, "which was impossible. We're not a company of just documents. We have lighting equipment and sound equipment. There's almost 1,000 pounds of cable, and that's not being hyperbolic. We have a cleaning company that's picking up our costumes and restoring them. We've moved things into storage." And while the company's Steinway piano "is going out to a farm in New Jersey to play with other Steinways," Haile and Morgan are heartened by all of the people — staff and otherwise — who've pitched in to make a seemingly impossible move happen in a very short amount of time. They'll be out of their space by the end of the week, with a return happening as soon as possible, despite the floors and stage probably having to be entirely rebuilt.

The fact that the York didn't have a show running "made a gigantic difference," Morgan added, but this is not the way they wanted to return to their home after almost a year. (Their last in-person performance, two days before the shutdown, was a Sheldon Harnick concert featuring Harnick himself alongside Karen Ziemba, Liz Callaway, and the late Rebecca Luker.) In the meantime, they will continue to produce their online offerings — cast reunions from past productions, a cabaret series hosted by Michael Feinstein, and so on — with an eye to a future in-person staging of Randy Skinner's Cheek to Cheek, a revue of songs from the movie-musicals of Irving Berlin. "It's going to be the perfect thing to come back to the theater with," Morgan notes.

Even in the face of potential disaster, the York team is optimistic. Donations for the newly created "Flood Fund" have been flooding in, so to speak, "every two minutes," Morgan adds. "People have been extremely generous and supportive. Knowing that people want us to survive and come back, and are giving us the means to do that," he concludes, "takes away a lot of the sting."

The company's goal is to raise $300,000 to cover all of its costs. Click here to donate.

A scene from the York Theatre's 2019 revival of Enter Laughing.
(© Carol Rosegg)

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