In 2019, Deon’te Goodman, a young musical theater actor just a couple years out of college, landed the biggest role of his budding career: he became a member of the Hamilton ensemble on Broadway. And then came the pandemic, and Goodman soon found himself out of work when Broadway theaters went dark.
“There’s a moment where you’re like, ‘Am I ever going to do the thing I love to do again?’” said Goodman.
He wasn’t alone. The pandemic has dealt a huge blow to performing arts workers. As of December 2020, the city’s creative sector (comprising arts, entertainment and recreation) has lost 66 percent of its jobs from the year before.
But toward the end of last year, Goodman and other performers found a way to sing again, and earn a little cash in the process, through a new initiative, A Generous Act: Singing Telegrams.
The effort allows customers to purchase a singing telegram, sung over the phone. It was launched by theater director G.T. Hederman and Jenni Barber, a singer and actress whose credits include Wicked, The Nance and The 25th Annual Putney County Spelling Bee.
“It’s been a brutal year,” said Hederman. (Full disclosure: Hederman is a friend.) “And honestly I’ve felt pretty paralyzed for most of it. I wanted to find a way to cut through the isolation.”
As a performer, Barber said, “It’s been heartbreaking” to be cut off not only from her livelihood but her art. “You want to sing for someone that’s not your cat, maybe,” she said.
Some of the singers who signed on were initially wary.
“You know, when you think of a traditional singing telegram, then ‘knock-knock-knock’ shows up at your door and it’s a crazy gorilla suit, or it’s a tap-dancing nut job and your neighbors are looking, your coworkers are mocking you, that sounds awful,” said Mylinda Hull, whose credits include 42nd Street, Sweet Charity and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
But Hull said performing over the phone, instead of in-person or even over Zoom, has maintained the intimacy of the experience, and allowed her to return to an artistic mindset.
“To have the opportunity to work on a song, think about lyrics, think about melody, think about your audience, think about what they would enjoy, it really is like a flower blossoming again in the dank, dank, dark hole in your heart,” she said, laughing.
Goodman said the telegrams have been “more fulfilling than I thought they’d be,” in large part because of how they resonated with the people he sang to.
“Being able to spread joy and spread cheer and pour light and love into them in these moments, that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Listen to reporter Arun Venugopal’s radio story for WNYC:
A single single telegram costs $30 to purchase, of which $20 goes to the singer and the remainder to the Actors Fund and overhead. Customers are asked to fill out an online form, asking whether the purpose of the song is for a particular occasion, like a birthday or anniversary, or meant to “spread some cheer” or “send much love.”
At this point, all the songs are old songs like “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”; plus they’re in the public domain, which is to say, free.
Often, singers said the performance is quick and fun — a “tiny sugarbomb of joy” in Barber’s words — and for songs like “I Want To Be Happy (But I Won’t Be Happy, Til I Make you Happy Too!)”, Hull puts on a Betty Boop persona, especially if the recipient is older.
Many of the recipients are seniors and have been isolated for extended periods. This can lead to interactions that are surprisingly poignant, said singer Kimberly Chatterjee, who was hired to sing a Christmas carol.
“I can’t actually remember what song it was, but it was a mother, and her son had requested it for her, and she at the end started crying, and it makes me a little bit emotional, because she wasn’t going to be able to see him for the holidays,” said Chatterjee. “She was lonely.”
Hull was asked to perform “Always” by Irving Berlin for the daughter of a man who had recently died, “with a special message about how they knew her dad was proud of her every day.”
The lyrics (“Days may not be fair, always… That’s when I’ll be there, always”) hold particular meaning for Hull, whose own father died a year ago.
“When I saw the order I immediately burst into tears, I wasn’t sure if I could get through it!” she wrote. “But I was with my husband and our kids, who are 14 and almost 13, in the car when it came in and we talked about it and batted it around until I could see my way to it. And I did the telegram that night and it was a lovely connection and I made it through and hopefully it meant as much to the young lady as it did to me.”
The power of the experience, said Hull, is that it allows for an intimate connection, even with a relative stranger, over the course of just a few minutes.
“That’s the beauty of art, the beauty of music, that we can all feel the same thing for one moment,” she said. “What’s more beautiful than that?”
Hederman said around 175 singing telegrams have been purchased so far. Initially the customers were mostly people who missed their close family members, but that has since expanded to “lovers and friends and colleagues” wishing each other a happy birthday or “as a cup of cheer.”
“Performers connect us to our humanity and remind us of who we are,” said Hederman. “They’ve been doing that for thousands of years.”
Which may help explain the renewed appeal of the old-timey songs. Tunes like “Give My Regards to Broadway” or “Manhattan,” with their echoes of an urban playground, feel especially timely today.
“‘Give my regards to Broadway,’ I never thought of that song as something that would make me tear up,” said Barber. “But you talk about ‘Give my regards to Broadway,’ like, remember me to Herald Square, tell all the gang that I will soon be there. I mean, makes me, so, oh… it makes me sad. Because I think about my friends, I think about my community, and that’s what I miss. Walking through the streets during the pandemic and seeing Herald Square empty, seeing 42nd street empty, it’s awful.”
Hull looks forward to a time, hopefully not too far in the future, when she can safely return to work. “We’re all gonna hold hands,” she said. “We’re gonna sob and sob.”
She predicted that the seemingly-endless trial of the pandemic would result in a musical theater experience that is, for artists and audiences, more powerful than ever.
“One thing this pandemic has done is carve a deeper well of emotion in all of us,” Hull said. “You have more empathy, you have more sympathy. You have more longing for connection. You have more love for the people, you value the people you love more because you can’t see them… So there’s going to be a lot more to draw on. So the performances are just going to be phenomenal.”