Newsletter: What a long, strange trip 2021 has been

In dim light, people in masks sit in stadium seating in postures of attentiveness.
Members of the audience wear face masks at the L.A. Philharmonic “Homecoming” concert and gala at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 9 in downtown L.A.
(Ringo Chiu / For The Times)

2021 is almost over and I’ve got the most terrible earworm stuck in my head. It’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who. One lyric in particular just won’t quit: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Might as well change it to: “Meet the new year, same as the old year.”

Twenty-twenty-who? In the groundhog day of pandemic life, only one thing is certain: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m arts writer/killjoy Jessica Gelt, filling in for indisputable newsletter queen Carolina Miranda, whose aptitude for pithy tweets far surpasses my capacity for holiday cheer. Since this is the final Essential Arts newsletter of the year, Team Arts has put together a fascinating package of year-end stories exploring the many ups and downs of one of the most surreal years on record — one distinctly marked by our tentative return to live performance.


Performing arts organizations have taken a cruel pummeling during the past 22 months, with most venues remaining shuttered for more than a year. Many hoped vaccines would put a deus ex machina-style end to the virus. Instead, inoculations provided an early-summertime reprieve before the stage-left entrance of the villainous Delta variant resulted in another wave of uncertainty and fear.

Delta tempered reopening plans, but it did not stop them. The digital performances that big and small houses had polished over the summer could be extended just a bit longer. By fall many of us had come to terms with the fact that the virus was becoming endemic and that we would have to find a way to live alongside it. Hiding ourselves away was no longer a reasonable option. Armed with newly abundant N95 masks and brandishing wrinkled vaccine cards, we headed back to our seats in the audience.

For a month or so, the view from our new-world perch looked fine — not ideal but tolerable. Then the music changed — chords crashed discordantly and Omicron slipped onstage, twirling its mustache from behind its collared cape. This new variant conjured images of malevolent presences in a Marvel movie, and we were asked to rethink all of our carefully laid plans.

This new threat changes almost every pandemic line we’ve learned over the past two years. Two vaccine doses are no longer enough, we are told — three are needed for adequate protection to kick in. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City is now requiring all eligible employees and audience members to show proof of a booster to enter the house by Jan. 17. In the meantime, Omicron is spreading at an alarming rate. Unprecedented waves of cancellations are hitting Broadway, and in L.A., Center Theatre Group recently announced it had canceled three performances of “A Christmas Carol” due to infections within the company.

What is a pandemic-weary theater fan to do?

As 2021 comes to an unsatisfying close — like a meandering play with no clear sense of moral purpose — we are forced to examine our relationship with a world we no longer recognize. The effects of the pandemic aren’t likely to dissipate anytime soon. The virus will not mutate to meet our needs, so we must adapt to accommodate its demands on our ways of life. And when it comes to the performing arts, our full-scale return to the audience requires the pandemic equivalent of a trust fall.

If your partner chooses not to catch you in an acting class trust-fall exercise, you can end up with a bruised tailbone. A pandemic trust fall gone awry can result in hospitalization or worse, which is why many of us chafe at mask malefactors — those who use the protective gear as a chin bra or nostril necklace. After learning to eschew hugs and handshakes, we must relearn how to be with one another in the public realm. We must have faith that being part of the same theatergoing community means that we have one another’s best interests at heart.

I went to my first live performance of the pandemic in early November. Even though everyone was required to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask, I still felt vulnerable. At one point during the show, I had to ward off a rising panic as I gazed around me at all the humans, breathing. I had to squash an urge to run for the nearest exit. A mask-muffled cough made me flinch. I could not wait to step outside.

Such feelings are incongruous with the enjoyment one seeks when one steps in front of a stage. But I plan to keep doing it. The more I practice, the better it will feel — until the previously unimaginable situation begins to seem almost normal.

For those of us at The Times who attend live performances for a living, calculating the risk inherent in indoor public settings has become a professional necessity. We have to trust that most people no longer venture out while sick, that they are not manufacturing fake proof of vaccination, that they are considerate with their health in the course of their daily lives. In these polarized times, that’s a whole lotta trust.

Still, trust isn’t a matter of control. It’s a matter of acceptance.

Masks and vaccine-card checkpoints need not channel the ugliness of the political rhetoric they engender. When viewed as tools of kindness and civic duty, they can take on an uneasy beauty — like a daisy growing through a crack in the pavement.

On and off the stage

Theater critic Charles McNulty kicks off our year-end coverage with a thoughtful roundup of his 10 favorite theatrical memories of 2021. Given the staggering challenges theater faced in the second year of the pandemic, the eventual reopenings felt particularly sweet. I’m not going to spoil McNulty’s story by giving much more away, except to say that he holds a special place in his heart for the Fountain Theatre’s production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” which ran on the 99-seat theater’s then-new parking-lot stage. When McNulty attended an early performance of that show in June, he recalls that it was the first time he “truly felt like an audience member again.”

Two women and a man in period costume stand on an outdoor stage.
Pam Trotter, left, Vanessa Claire Stewart and Matthew Hancock in the Fountain Theatre’s “An Octoroon,” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
(Jenny Graham)

I wrangled my conflicted thoughts about what it felt like to be in the audience again for my own year-end contribution. That’s the abridged version at the top of this newsletter. Here’s the full piece, with some excellent added insight provided by McNulty and Times classical music critic Mark Swed.

Visual arts

Times art critic Christopher Knight also opted out of the traditional “best of” roundup, and instead put together a list of 10 things that shaped the art world in 2021. The compilation assesses particularly relevant points of interest in the art world this year. It includes progress made — some unraveling of systemic racial segregation in museum exhibitions and gallery representation — and also notable trends, such as the ubiquitous immersive art shows (think Immersive Van Gogh and Monet), which Knight compares to Phineas T. Barnum’s famous 1841 dime museum.

A person stands in an empty space with a swirling artwork projected onto the walls and floor.
Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” in “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.”
(Beyond Exhibition)

Arts writer Deborah Vankin visited an exhibition at LAXART called “All the Lonely People.” Perhaps no feeling dominated 2021 more than that of isolation, whether it be physical or emotional. The exhibit, curated by Nana Bahlmann, is composed of works that tackle the discomfort caused by despair and loneliness. Some of the pieces were created during pandemic lockdowns; others were made by artists during different periods of time spent alone.

Vankin tackled a more uplifting story when she interviewed graphic designer Kat Reeder, who designed the poster for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film “Licorice Pizza.” Reeder’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Lima, Peru, in the 1980s when she was 7 years old. When he first arrived in the country, he slept on park benches, much like the ones that now regularly sport the poster created by his daughter.

A woman in sunglasses and sandals sits on a bus bench that includes a colorful poster.
Kat Reeder with her movie poster on a bench in Westwood in November.
(Adam Reeder)

Design time

Art and architecture columnist (and Essential Arts maven) Carolina Miranda declares 2021 “the year of the party tent.” The humble structure, which at its most basic can cost less than $200 at Target, has become the ever-flexible site of many common activities in the age of COVID. We eat in party tents, get tested for the coronavirus in party tents, exercise in party tents, graduate in them and much more. The infinitely flexible structures, Miranda writes, have much to teach us about architecture. They have also gone a long way toward allowing us to make use of interstitial spaces “that have historically been ceded to cars or lay unused.” In sunny Los Angeles, that means a parade of life pouring into formerly unactivated areas.

A white party tent is seen in the foreground of El Coyote's retro Modernist signage, which rises above their building.
A tent accommodates diners in El Coyote’s parking lot on Beverly Boulevard.
(Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

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Classical notes

Times classical music critic Mark Swed took on the theme of “emergence” for his year-end story. Noting dryly that 2021 did not end as we’d hoped, with a joyous public emerging from the confinement of its pandemic cocoon, Swed acknowledges that we did emerge nonetheless. After taking the proper precautions of donning masks and getting vaccinations, fans once again returned to concert halls to take in all the pathos and beauty that music had to offer. Swed’s list of noteworthy “first-emergers” — those who paved the path forward for us — includes conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel and the ever-emerging abundance of 92-year-old architect Frank Gehry, whose design for the new Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center in Inglewood opened in the fall and “is poised to become a transformative example of how the L.A. Phil music education program changes lives.”

A horizontal view of the Beckmen YOLA Center illuminated at night, with the streaked lights of cars passing before it.
Frank Gehry’s team has reimagined an old 1960s bank building in Inglewood as a performance and rehearsal space for Gustavo Dudamel’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Essential happenings

Speaking of emerging, you’ll have to do just that if you plan on celebrating the new year. Whatever you may think of 2021, it’s on its way out, and 2022 is waiting in the wings. Our ever-diligent listings coordinator, Matt Cooper, has curated a list of events sure to make you forget your COVID woes, if only for the night. The Portland, Ore.-based ensemble Pink Martini is back at Disney Hall, and downtown L.A.'s favorite block party, Grand Park NYELA, will return after a pandemic break, but this time it’s an invite-only affair for frontline and essential workers. Those choosing to stay home can get in on the action via YouTube.

Ballerinas in white headdresses stand on pointe.
A scene from the Los Angeles Ballet staging of “The Nutcracker.”
(Reed Hutchinson / Los Angeles Ballet)

Cooper also helpfully put together a guide to holiday shows around the Southland, including all the “Nutcrackers,” “Christmas Carols” and “Fruitcake Follies” that you can possibly handle as well as a handy list of the newest art exhibitions to see this month in L.A. and Orange County.

‘West Side Story,’ round No. 2

Last week’s newsletter featured an abundance of reviews, thoughts and commentary about Steven Spielberg’s musical redux of the classic Broadway show and 1961 film. It turns out, we weren’t done. When a film titan like Spielberg tackles, well, anything, the world pays attention, and that’s not necessarily a good thing when it comes to this particular source material, writes Ashley Lee. Citing cultural appropriation and harmful Puerto Rican stereotypes, Lee argues that the remake should never have been made and that Hollywood should instead focus its efforts on fresh Puerto Rican stories.

The number “I Feel Pretty,” sung by Maria in “West Side Story,” has long been a source of controversy. Stephen Sondheim was known to have regretted the wordplay in the song shortly after it was put into the show. His concern was one of authenticity, buried in a show beset with questions of authenticity: Would a young Puerto Rican girl actually sing those words? McNulty unpacks Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner’s answer to the problem of “I Feel Pretty,” and concludes, “The song has never felt so blissfully, heartbreakingly right.”

A young woman sings while wrapped in tulle fabric.
Natalie Wood in the “I Feel Pretty” scene from the 1961 movie “West Side Story.”
(Archive Photos / Getty Images)

Swed looks at the legacy of “West Side Story” through a different lens, contemplating the question: Does the musical work best as a film, an opera or neither? The answer, it turns out, is not so simple. But the heart of the question can be traced back to 1984 when a startling New York moment resulted in an explosion of innovative art and reinvention of form.

And last but not least ...

Remember when 2021 was still young, vaccines were just beginning to roll out and a lawyer got stuck in a cat Zoom filter in Texas court? Those were the good old days.