The back beat of Buffalo’s theater community came to a sudden stop early on Thursday morning, when music director Michael Hake died in a room in Buffalo General Hospital, six blocks away from his favorite bar stool, at the absurdly young age of 52.
Hours before, Hake was reveling in the afterglow of another perfect performance in MusicalFare Theatre’s production of “Pageant.” He was sitting in his favorite bar, surrounded by some of his favorite people, when the heart attack we all dreaded finally struck and took our friend away.
No coda. No “take it from the top.” A crashing downbeat as final as the last note in a Tchaikovsky symphony.
What sense can we possibly make of this? What other than rage or sadness are we supposed to feel? How are we going to get along with out him, not just emotionally but logistically?
All these questions were on our minds on Thursday night, when many members of the theater community staggered into the lounge of MusicalFare, which had canceled the evening’s performance in order to mourn their departed music director.
There were lots of tears, lots of stories, and a few shots. But mostly there was just numbness and confusion, tinged with the sour knowledge that it didn’t have to end this way.
“If only you had the virtuosic intentions for the totality of your life that you had for the piano,” Hake’s friend and fellow Eclectic Improv performer Peter Cumbo wrote in a heartbreaking Facebook post that rang devastatingly true for those who knew Michael well. “Then, of course, I probably would never have known you – the world was your oyster; you just never figured out how to crack the shell. You were a boulder on a hill, always rolling down, down and we’d try to push you up, up. I gave up, more than once, and I’m sorry.”
Much has already been said and written about Michael’s incalculable contributions to the local theater community, and much more is sure to come out in the coming days and weeks. Suffice it to say that few others have made as powerful, as broad or as lasting an impression on Buffalo’s theater scene.
Michael was the best at what he did, and he was loved by hundreds of people for doing it. He was also one of the loneliest people I have ever met. His loneliness was insistent. It was consuming. And it teamed up with addiction and depression to create a fathomless void that no amount of applause could fill.
In the end, he could not climb out of that hole, and his friends couldn’t pull him out, and this is incomprehensible and this is tragic.
His friends will all naturally wonder if they could have done more, but the question is beside the point: For all its ego battles and superficial conflicts, Buffalo’s theater community is one of the most tightly knit and supportive groups of people I have ever encountered, and if this community couldn’t pull Michael back from the brink it is difficult to imagine who or what could have.
My friendship with Michael extended back to before I became the theater critic for this newspaper. Back then, Michael was an almost nightly character in my life. You could always count on seeing him at Q, perched in front of his customary pairing of Black Haus liqueur and Labatt Blue, snarking about some actor or director early in the night until his sarcasm inevitably turned to sadness as the evening wore on.
He shone especially bright on Monday nights, when actors gathered for his weekly “Hakeoke” sets, which were filled with love and laughter and spectacular piano playing from Michael, with heavy doses of side-eye thrown in for good measure.
Every week, when Michael struck up the opening chords to “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” and the entire bar sang along, I’d sometimes catch a glimpse of Michael lost in the moment that he had created.
He even accompanied me once, in a stunt cooked up by one of my former editors. I was a nervous wreck, drank too much and forgot half the words to a song from “My Fair Lady.” Afterwards, Michael said, half seriously and half snarkily, “We should have rehearsed.” For years afterward, he threatened to release the video of my botched performance if I wrote anything negative about him.
But I only ever wrote the truth.
Like his music, it’s true that Michael’s regrets took on an outsized role in his life. But when I think about him, I won’t think about the 2 a.m. sob stories or the demons he battled, alone and with friends.
I’ll think of him sitting at the piano in that dingy corner of Q, ripping through a dozen show tunes by rote, playing lackluster singers off early, soaking up the admiration of everyone around him and doing the only thing in life that made him truly happy.