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Broadway Singing Coach, 87, Has Brain Injury After Street Attack

A highly regarded 87-year-old singing coach has a traumatic brain injury after a woman pushed her to the ground just steps away from her Manhattan apartment building on Thursday night, the police and relatives said.

Barbara Maier Gustern — who once coached the rock singer Debbie Harry and the cast of the 2019 Broadway revival of the musical “Oklahoma!”was shoved from behind and struck her head on the sidewalk soon after leaving her home on West 28th Street in Chelsea at about 9:30 p.m., the police said.

Friends who had been at Ms. Gustern’s apartment rehearsing for a cabaret show described opening the lobby door to find her covered in blood. A bicyclist who witnessed the attack had escorted her to the building, and emergency medical responders were called.

“I’ve never been hit so hard in my life,” Ms. Gustern told her friend and colleague Barbara Bleier as she lay in her lap with a gash at the top of her head. Ms. Gustern gave the police a description of her attacker and said that the woman shouted a derogatory term before assaulting her.

Soon after the attack, Ms. Gustern’s condition quickly deteriorated.

She was taken to a nearby hospital and then transferred to Bellevue Medical Center, where doctors performed emergency surgery to alleviate brain swelling, her grandson, AJ Gustern, said.

“She is not well,” Mr. Gustern said in a phone interview on Sunday. “Doctors say should she recover, she will not be where she was.”

On the night of the attack, Ms. Gustern, a singer and sought-after vocal coach whose students were luminaries in the New York avant-garde scene, was rushing to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater to watch one of her students perform, something friends and former students say she often did while also providing coaching 10 hours a day.

The performance artist Taylor Mac, who had hired her as a coach and later tapped her to help with and to perform a duet for an award-winning 24-hour concert in 2016, described her as “one of the great humans that I’ve encountered.”

Taylor Mac, who used to practice singing scales in her apartment, also mentioned a fond memory of her dancing on a bar.

Earlier on Thursday, Ms. Gustern took to social media to share an internal struggle. She expressed feelings of detachment. She could not remember lyrics and felt as if her voice had “abandoned” her. She said the idea of doing a show was “like sentencing me to be tortured.”

But things had suddenly turned around, and she found herself energized about working on her latest show, she wrote. The show — a musical cabaret directed by Ms. Gustern, Ms. Bleier and Austin Pendleton, an actor and playwright — had been scheduled to start later this month.

“I feel like a singer again for the first time in forever,” Ms. Gustern wrote.

Days after the attack, her friends and colleagues vowed the show would go on in her honor and tried to make sense of what had happened.

“A climate of hatred and anger has been growing throughout this country and the world,” Ms. Bleier said. “People have had permission to act in ways and speak in ways that they may have felt before like doing, but it’s never been as accepted in my memory. It’s just been such a shock to the entire theatrical community.”

Surveillance video captured Ms. Gustern’s attacker leaving the area. The police said they were looking for a woman with long dark hair who was last seen wearing a black jacket and leggings, a white skirt or dress and dark shoes. No arrests had been made as of Sunday evening.

Ms. Gustern came to New York City from a small town in Indiana decades ago with dreams of making it big, her grandson said. She got her start singing in various religious houses, including a temple where she met her husband, Joseph, who later performed in “The Phantom of the Opera.”

When her performing career did not take off as she had hoped, Ms. Gustern turned to vocal coaching, first teaching at a university and later starting her own business.

Nathan Koci, the musical director for the Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!,” described Ms. Gustern as his “go-to” for helping singers.

On holidays, she opened her home to anyone who did not have a place to go, Mr. Gustern said. When she turned 85, she celebrated by raising money at Joe’s Pub for her church’s food kitchen. And when her daughter, Mr. Gustern’s mother, died when he was a young boy, Ms. Gustern took on the role as his mother.

As she lay in the hospital over the weekend, Mr. Gustern held her hand. “She’s just a ball of light in a world that is often dark and doesn’t make any sense,” he said. If the woman who attacked her has a mental illness, he added, he prays that she receives help.

Mallory Portnoy, who appeared in the “Oklahoma!” revival and had received vocal lessons from Ms. Gustern, said she was devastated.

“I don’t know how people come back from something like this at this age, but if anybody could it’s this woman,” Ms. Portnoy said, “because she is so strong and so full of life and she can overcome, it seems like, truly anything.”

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