Notes from the Pandemic

By Charles McKenzie, June 10, 2020
Alumni use music and performance to help and heal.

At 7 p.m. in New York and other cities, horns honk, sirens blare, and pots and pans clang a patchwork of gratitude that blankets the semi-muted cities and their medical personnel. Although they are guests of honor, the hoopla is a gift they didn’t ask for at a celebration they never wanted to attend. Their goal every day is to eradicate the virus, rendering the nightly celebrations unnecessary. But for now, working long, hard hours in a city not often known for its effusive praise, they soak it all in.

“Hearing the seven o'clock cheer is really overwhelming,” said Madeline Arena ’13, DPT ’15, a physical therapist in Manhattan. “Sometimes I just stand in my window and cry because I'm shocked at how much people appreciate what we're doing, and sometimes I don't even have to go to the window. It's super loud. People are outside dinging cowbells and banging pots and pans and yelling. There's this guy that rides his bicycle down the street blowing a trumpet. It's craziness, but it's all appreciation.”

man at piano

Dr. Edward Goldberg was quarantined in his Manhattan apartment alone. Music brought him comfort.

Up in the Bronx, someone heads out to the street in front of RN Katie Paccione’s ’12  apartment, and blasts their car stereo, alternating between Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and the Jay-Z and Alicia Keys song “Empire State of Mind”: “There's nothing you can't do/Now you're in New York./These streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you. Hear it for New York.” Fittingly, the nightly tribute is directed to the city itself, its residents and the healthcare workers fighting to save them.

“The only thing that keeps me going honestly is the 7 p.m. shout out,” said Dr. Edward Goldberg ’83. I'd say at least three times a week, that brings tears to my eyes.” On some nights, he joins in with a pot and a pan. The gastroenterology and internal medicine doctor has seen the virus from two perspectives. After catching it from an elderly patient, he spent two lonely but asymptomatic weeks in his Manhattan apartment, away from his fiancé Ron and his two dogs who remained in their home upstate.

Goldberg would sit at his piano noodling or playing his favorites. “Any Elton John, Billy Joel, or a good Sondheim song. He has a song called ‘Being Alive,’ which I've found myself being attracted to in the past couple of weeks.” In it, the singer proclaims, “...Alone is alone. Not alive. Somebody crowd me with love. Somebody force me to care. Somebody let me come through, I'll always be there, As frightened as you, To help us survive, Being alive. Being alive. Being alive!”

Spring Awakening

But nowhere celebrates being alive like the hospitals. Many have a special song or sound they play when a COVID-19 patient is released or extubated. Cheering healthcare workers sometimes line the halls as the triumphant patients are wheeled out. One woman rose and briefly danced her way into her car. PT Victoria Rainaud ’13, DPT ’15, listens for the sublime chimes at CentraState Medical Center in New Jersey. For Arena at New York Presbyterian Columbia, it’s the Black-Eyed Peas singing, “I’ve got a feeling (woo hoo) that tonight’s gonna be a good night.” Arena keeps a rough mental count of how often it plays in a day as a kind of barometer.

“At the beginning, it was very rare, but now I think I hear it like 10 times a day, which is awesome,” Arena said. “When I hear it, it kind of puts me back into my groove.” She says at the peak, she was having horrific days, “and then I would hear that song broadcasted, and I'd be like, ‘Okay, good things are happening. I have to keep going. Let's do this!’ It was just kind of like a reset moment when you heard it.”

Katie Paccione ’12, a nurse at New York Presbyterian Columbia heard her hospital might add a little variety by letting the nurses select some songs, and before the question is finished, she blurts out,  “Justin Timberlake: ‘Can’t Stop the Music,’” a fitting choice for nearby Broadway.

Give My Regards to Broadway

Fran Toscano ’14 is glad that the night before the theaters went dark, she got to see “Hadestown” (with producer Larry Hirschhorn ’80 and assistant scene designer Lawrence Moten ’12). Outside of the theater that night she was wearing a mask and gloves, as part of the “Red Bucket Brigade” collecting money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It was the first and last week of what was supposed to be a six-week campaign that raises money largely for AIDS causes but also for other types of health issues and emergencies in the entertainment industry. For example, when a pandemic forces all of the theaters to go dark.

“So many of the people I know in the city are performers, or gig workers, and they've all been out of work and it's been really hard on them,” Paccione said. Each week Broadway is closed, an estimated $33 million in ticket sales are lost, affecting almost 100,000 jobs. 

“The thing that I miss the most about live theater right now is the connection to our audience and the connection to people.”

Aaron Tveit '05

As a result, Broadway Cares and Toscano, who was an integrated marketing communications major and is now a communications specialist, switched fundraising gears, moving online and launching a special COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund that assists those in the entertainment community needing emergency financial assistance, health insurance, and counseling. All of it is administered by The Actors Fund, which also raised money in a special return episode of The Rosie O'Donnell Show, guest starring Aaron Tveit ’05 and Jeremy Jordan ’07. Tveit’s “Moulin Rouge: The Musical!” went dark after 10 months when a castmate contracted COVID-19. Tveit appeared on “Rosie” from his Manhattan apartment.

“The thing that I miss the most about live theater right now is the connection to our audience and the connection to people,” he said on the show. “So what an incredible thing for us all to be able to come together to raise money… and help people in crucial times like these.”

His debut in “Little Shop of Horrors” delayed, Jordan also helped The Actors Fund by putting his “Tarrytown” songs on Spotify and appearing in a “Smash” reunion. He said, “There are so many people out there who are struggling, and we all know that this might be one of the last jobs to come back online after this whole thing has passed,” Jordan said. “Thank you all for being so incredibly supportive of the Broadway community during these crazy times; we all can't wait to get back to Broadway to entertain.”

Life Is a Cabaret

Over in Los Angeles, where almost all production came to a halt, actress, singer and musician Jessica DeShong ’07 was spending three days producing a music video, a commentary on her social isolation with a shout-out to front-line workers. She also happened to write the lyrics, record the music, sing the song, draw up the storyboards, shoot, star in, edit and distribute the video. She only had to leave the set (her apartment) once, “I think I had all of the props I needed. All I had to run out to get was all the toilet paper.” The song is called “Part of That World” a parody from “The Little Mermaid.” She sings from her couch, “I wear PJs and slippers aplenty./I stream Disney Plus all day long./Want some toilet paper? I’ve got 20./But who cares? I have way too much time/To create this song.”

Because commencement was postponed, choral professor Janet Galvan asked DeShong to record a mini congratulations speech to IC School of Music graduates. “You are now equipped with a superpower. That is to create music, and to foster the love of music in others. So no matter what's going on in society, remember that you have the power to heal and the power to refresh and to energize others through the music you create. You will always be needed. So go out. Live your life, love what you do, and never stop making music.”

DeShong also collaborated on another song, accompanied by former classmate Zack Ford ’07, who had the idea for a magnum opus of musical collaborations, all while raising money for The Actors Fund. He began the Coronavirus Cabaret, where friends — and now even strangers — pick a song for Ford to record on his piano and send to them. They then record themselves singing along with it, and Ford posts it to the YouTube channel.

The idea started when quarantine did. At first, Ford actually felt oddly relaxed about isolating in his house. “I’m a little bit of a homebody, so I was probably a little bit better prepared for the situation than everybody else,” he said with a laugh. But then during that very first weekend, a scary thought crescendoed. The prospect of not going out and seeing people quickly gave him a new-found appreciation for doing exactly that.

“I love getting folks together to sing, and I knew that would be one of the first things that would go during the pandemic. I wouldn't be around people making music in the same way, and so what could I do to still make that happen?”

Zack Ford '07

The answer debuted March 15 and was a least on YouTube, and especially with Ford’s network of IC and D.C. friends. Ithaca alumni sang a third of the 48 songs. At $10 per song, Ford gave nearly $500 to The Actors Fund by early June. Viewers were encouraged to donate directly.

Ford is proud to be part of the many ways people are using music to get through the pandemic.

“There are definitely ways that people are using music that I think really stand out. In Italy, the people on their balconies singing, and then you’ve seen all kinds of concerts and alone-together projects. I think people are recognizing, ‘Well, I can't be around people. But one of the things I can still share with them is music.’”

For her song, DeShong knew instantly what she’d sing, “Easy As Life” from “Aida.”  “It's a song I've always wanted to sing. I just never had a pianist to play it. It's a story of forbidden love between two races and two economic statuses. Aida was the first Broadway production that I ever saw in New York. I was in high school, and it changed my life when I saw that, and that song in particular was the most powerful song for me when I first heard it. So, it’s always stuck with me.

Erin Jacobson ’05 and Krista Donough ’05 were best friends who lived on Ford’s floor in Terrace Four, but they had more than that in common. They had each planned to perform solo, and then a funny thing happened on the way to Ford.

“I thought it was hilarious that they both requested the same song within hours of each other without having discussed it in advance,” Ford said in the introduction to the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Donough’s older brother Erik Donough '02 used his video mixing skills to combine the performances of the two isolated singers. “I guess you'll never walk — or sing — alone!” Ford said.

Matthew Hill ’03, another Ithaca College alum, is a choral music teacher and drama club director in West Chester, Pennsylvania. "I jumped at the chance,” he said. “It gave me a chance to sing a song from one of my favorite shows (“City of Angels”), and it gave me a creative outlet that I’m missing now that I’m not able to direct my middle school students,” whose performance of “Aladdin Jr.” was postponed indefinitely. Similarly, a 14-year-old singer performed a song from his canceled school musical.

Other videos feature an insurance agent, a Hollywood actress, a five-year-old, and a new dad. Some of the productions are more polished and highly produced. Some are interrupted by video-bombing toddlers and pets. The one thing they all have in common is a need for sharing their art, connecting with others, and getting one day closer to a time when they can all gather, perform and listen together.

History Has Its Eyes on You

Noting all of this from nearby at the Library of Congress Music Division, Melissa Wertheimer ’08 contributes to a new web archiving project documenting life during the pandemic. The former flute performance major is now an archivist and music librarian leading a team of two colleagues who select internet content to archive that “represents what the performing arts world is producing right now, how the performing arts world is affected by the pandemic, where music is going, how our lives are going to change, which organizations are raising money,” Wertheimer said, pointing out that some items are creative in nature, but others include news, scientific studies, blogs, etc.

“I love that there are a lot of initiatives in the music world especially that are bringing people together to be creative but also to have a sense of community in isolation. That was actually why I selected Zack Ford's initiative, The Coronavirus Cabaret,” said Wertheimer, who also included DeShong’s quarantine parody. “It's evidence of musical creativity that is influenced by the very condition of quarantine. But also it shows evidence of community and fan music-making and engagement.”

After the LOC waits a year so it’s not competing with the live internet, it will include the archived websites in its digital collections. Though they never set out for such an honor, thanks to Ford and Wertheimer, the LOC will soon include a singing insurance agent, a fitness model, a five-year-old, and a new dad. All will have a digital legacy right next to performances from orchestras and internationally renowned musicians.

Some of the productions are more polished and highly produced. Some are interrupted by video-bombing toddlers and pets. The one thing they all have in common is a need for sharing their art, connecting with others, and getting one day closer to a time when they can all gather, perform and listen together.