Barbara Lippert’s Critique

New York mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared onstage for the season opener of Saturday Night Live. Flanked by police and fire fighters, he announced that the city is “open for business.” Later, producer Lorne Michaels, speaking for all of us and acting as hesitant straight man, asked, “Can we be funny?”

After waiting a beat, Giuliani dead panned, “Why start now?”

Indeed, this is the time we’re supposed to be achieving some equilibrium, going back to schools and jobs and lives and shopping and, um, having some fun again. But not even the mayor can make it happen. We have to feel it.

Since Sept. 11, advertisers have responded to the subtly changing tenor (and terror) of the times in various stages, from the “Our hearts and prayers are with you” letters from CEOs that lined news papers in the first two weeks to a return to old material to new expressions of patriotism and strength (“For 90 years, Chevrolet has kept America moving,” a TV spot announces).

The Buddy Lee spot for the American Red Cross, showing the pint-sized plastic icon as a blood donor, is wonderful. By contrast, a Morgan Stanley commercial using title cards (“What has not changed …”) and a voiceover promoting the “prudent counsel of our financial advisers” is so weird and dated, it reminds me of Nixon stonewalling.

I never expected to be genuinely moved by a commercial, anyway. But there’s such insight and emotion and slowed-down beauty in this Visa commercial that it is truly touching. And the timing is masterly: The spot is not responding to the sadness and powerlessness we felt but rather offers us an organic life force rising up before our eyes. (The spot started running locally and is now national.) Visa itself isn’t mentioned until the final title card.

It focuses on the Broadway theater, one specific area that we do have some control over. Broadway acts as a metaphor for New York, and if we can fix Broadway …

The music is what makes it haunting. From the mountains to the valleys, I’d say we are oceans-white-with-foam-ed out. Hearing something as unexpected as a version of “Give My Regards to Broadway,” the 1904 George M. Cohan hit, is a relief. But the brilliance is in the rerecording.

It’s sung by Judy Collins, backed by a single piano. Talk about both sides now. The rendition is not the brash, overloaded, top-hatted showbiz bluster we expect. Instead, Col lins brings a sweet and folky, measured but not sentimental new read ing, and meaning, to each of the lines. “Whisper of how I’m yearnin’ ” takes on a whole new sense.

It’s slow, tender and majestic, and the pacing perfectly matches the visuals—black- and-white shots, capturing the romance and glamour, but also some of the sadness, of the city.

The creative team was able to turn the spot around so quickly because they already had the foot age, shot for a previous Visa spot celebrating the Tony Awards of 2001. Director Gregor Nicholas put together the actors and scenes, which are so realistic that I thought I saw Julie Taymor at one point and John Waters at an other. The footage already had that urban, nighttime, 1940s photographic quality, but it was re-edited this time around for maximum yearning. It achieves it, brilliantly.

Certainly the spot has a lot of work to do: Several plays have closed, and most others are suffering losses, with their casts and crews taking pay cuts. Tourists represent 50 percent of box office sales, so it will be some time before those seats are recovered.

There are other campaigns aimed at the same problem: Hundreds of stars recently recorded “New York, New York” while standing in Times Square, as part of the “Let’s Go on With the Show” campaign. But despite the energy of its wall of performers singing their hearts out, that work doesn’t begin to convey the humanity, and palpable longing, of the Visa spot.

“The curtain will never go down on New York City,” a final title card says. It conveys a sense of urgency, but also a sense of peace. It’s the best “return to normal” message I can imagine.