At 8 last night, the lights were dimmed before the 4,958th performance of "A Chorus Line" in memory of the show's creator, who died yesterday of AIDS.
Director and choreographer Michael Bennett was far from the first artist to die of the disease. For almost a decade, artists in New York have been watching their community bear blow after blow, death after death, from AIDS. The disease is permeating their work as well as their lives, but many are angry at the increasing attention paid to its effect on the country's artistic capital.
"We have suffered terrible losses, but we're not the only ones," says actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, who wrote and starred in "Torch Song Trilogy" and wrote the musical version of "La Cage aux Folles." "I know bankers, I know people who work in bookstores, I know people who are unemployed with AIDS."
In addition to Bennett, the New York creative world has lost Charles Ludlam, an actor and director who founded the adventurous Ridiculous Theater Company and was just beginning to make his mark in larger theater circles when he died in May. Classical pianist Paul Jacobs died of AIDS, as did American Ballet Theatre dancer Charles Ward, New Amsterdam Theater Company founder Bill Tynes and many others who worked on the stages, behind the scenes, in the offices.
From the beginning, there was concern that certain fields -- fashion, the performing arts -- would be stigmatized if they became associated in the public mind with AIDS; deaths from the disease were often ascribed to other causes. Now Fierstein and others believe that emphasizing the disease's toll in the arts only serves to distract the public at large from the continuing threat.
"I think the whole attitude is very wrong," says Fierstein. "I think it's just promoting the myth that people in the arts are the only ones suffering with AIDS. I'm afraid that kids wanting to come to New York to work in the theater will be told by their parents, 'Don't go! Everyone there has AIDS.'
"Because we're a more open community, because we can discuss the problem, because we are not scared of talking about sex, we have been able to spread the information," Fierstein says. "Nobody ever has to get AIDS again. It doesn't have anything to do with quarantine, or any of the garbage the heterosexual community has been talking about. It has to do with education."
Some artists say that focusing on AIDS and the arts merely perpetuates the stereotype that there is a higher percentage of gay men in the arts than in other fields. But when AIDS burst into the general public's consciousness with the death of Rock Hudson, the link between the illness and the entertainment industry was made, for better or worse.
"Certainly the loss of somebody like Michael Bennett is of extreme importance to everyone," says Robert Yesselman, executive director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company and president of the board of directors of the upcoming "Dancing for Life," an AIDS fundraiser to be held in New York this fall. "Such a death, whether it's from AIDS or an auto accident, is a tragic loss. But if Sadie Schwartz at a life insurance company dies, the press doesn't call to ask about the impact of AIDS on the insurance industry."
But there is no doubt that AIDS' impact on artistic expression has been increasing.
"I think it affects the work the way any great social crisis affects anyone's outlook," Yesselman says. "Artists are humanists, and when they see people dying around them, whether it's from AIDS or polio or apartheid, they respond. In the '60s, artists were in the forefront of the anti-Vietnam movement. In the '70s, they were in the forefront of the Biafran crisis. And more recently we've seen the artistic community responding to the famine in Ethiopia. Artists are deeply affected when people die because artists are concerned not with the masses but with the individual.
"Have I seen a dance that deals with AIDS? No, not yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to," says Yesselman.
William Hoffman's play "As Is" (a production of which is now playing here at the Studio Theatre) and Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" introduced the disease to its first large New York theater audiences three years ago. Painters are showing AIDS-related work in New York and fiction writers like Susan Sontag have begun to address the disease.
But the theater continues to serve as the artistic front line.
"I feel responsible as an actress, as the president of Equity, because as we know, the arts are being hit very hard," Actors Equity President Colleen Dewhurst said at a discussion of the theater's role in AIDS education held in April in New York.
"We who are in the business have a responsibility, a very definite one. I have always felt the theater should be ahead of other areas, including the politicians and business. That is where it should be explained to us, on a one-to-one level and with understanding and heart and intellect, what is happening to our society."
Washington artists say they look to New York with sadness, finding in that city's story a foreshadowing of what may happen here.
"My feeling is that's what's coming," says actor and playwright T.J. Edwards, who dedicated his Helen Hayes Award in May to Jack Guidone, a multitalented presence in Washington theater who founded the Joy of Motion studio and died this spring of AIDS. "He was really the first one to die who was such an integral part of the theater community. Everybody knew Jack -- everybody."
"A community of artists in its healthiest sense relies on each other," says Washington director Roy Barber, whose show "A Dance Against Darkness: Living With AIDS" will open at d.c. space on July 11. "I think that there is a profound sense of vulnerability. Who's going to be next? Creative artists create work that's larger than their own personality, so there's a sense not only of the loss of an individual you loved, but loss of a larger force that we all drew on."