• Tue. Sep 28th, 2021

Curtains Up! How Broadway Is Coming Back From Its Longest Shutdown.

Sep 13, 2021

Broadway is back. Or so it hopes.

A year and a half after the coronavirus pandemic forced all 41 theaters to go dark, silencing a symbol of New York and throwing thousands out of work, some of the industry’s biggest and best known shows are resuming performances on Tuesday.

Simba will reclaim the Pride Lands in the “The Lion King.” Elphaba and Glinda will return to Oz in “Wicked.” A young, scrappy and hungry immigrant will foment revolution in “Hamilton.” The long-running revival of “Chicago” will give ‘em the old razzle dazzle. Plus there’s one new production, the childhood reminiscence “Lackawanna Blues,” offering a reminder that Broadway still provides a home for plays, too.

Broadway’s reopening is a high-stakes gamble that theater lovers, culture vultures and screen-weary adventurers are ready to return — vaccinated and masked — to these storied sanctuaries of spectacle and storytelling.

But it comes at a time of uncertainty.

Back in May, when Broadway got the green light to reopen, it seemed imaginable that the coronavirus pandemic was winding down, thanks to readily available vaccines. Since then, a combination of vaccine hesitancy and the Delta variant sent cases skyrocketing again. And while New York is doing better than much of the nation, the city is still facing a sharp drop in tourists, who typically make up two-thirds of the Broadway audience; many businesses in the region have postponed bringing workers back to their offices; and consumer appetite for live theater after months of anxiety and streaming remains unknown.

The industry’s recovery is enormously important to New York City, for symbolic as well as economic reasons.

Broadway is, of course, a big employer with substantial impact on a variety of businesses throughout Midtown, the tourism sector, and the arts world. But Broadway — which has been a point of pride for New Yorkers through the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, the cleanup of Times Square in the 1990s, and the recovery after the Sept. 11 attacks 20 years ago — has also come to function as a sort of barometer of the city’s health.

With Broadway closed, New York appears to be ailing. With Broadway reopening, recovery seems possible.

There are reasons for concern: The resumption of theater in Australia and Britain has been bumpy. And Broadway is, even during boom times, a high-risk business in which most shows flop; now producers face even more daunting odds.

But there are also reasons for hope. Four trailblazing productions — the concert show “Springsteen on Broadway,” the new play “Pass Over,” and the musicals “Waitress” and “Hadestown” — started performances this summer, serving as laboratories for the industry’s safety protocols. None has yet missed a performance.

By the end of the year, if all goes as planned, 39 shows will have begun runs on Broadway.

As casts and crew come back to work, much has changed: There have been deaths (the virus claimed the lives of the playwright Terrence McNally and the actor Nick Cordero) and births (the writer and director of “Hadestown” were among the many who had babies), an uprising (over racism, prompting promises of change) and a downfall (of the powerful producer Scott Rudin, over chronically tyrannical behavior).

The task now: making sure everything, and everyone, is ready for showtime.

A Positive Test Before Opening Night

It was a half-hour before curtain on the night of Sept. 2, and the company of “Waitress,” led by Sara Bareilles, had gathered onstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theater for one of those kooky theater rituals — an opening night ceremony at which the chorus member with the most Broadway credits runs three circular laps in a quilted robe, inviting other actors to touch it before visiting each dressing room to bestow a blessing.

The “Waitress” legacy robe ceremony was even odder than usual. The robe recipient, Anastacia McCleskey, was not present: she had tested positive for the coronavirus, though vaccinated, and was isolating at home.

What to do? Theater artists are nothing if not resourceful, so another cast member placed a FaceTime call to McCleskey, and then, holding the phone aloft, donned the robe, ran the laps, and visited the dressing rooms with a virtual McCleskey along for the ride.

And, oh yes, the show went on, with an understudy in McCleskey’s place.

Producing during a pandemic is going to be complicated. There are upgraded air filtration systems, digital tickets, ubiquitous disinfectant and frequent testing.

There is a whole new job category: the Covid-19 safety officer. Disney’s theatrical division has six, overseeing 500 tests daily at the company’s four American productions.

And, at least for a while, fans can forget about backstage tours and stage door selfies.

“There’s an extraordinary new layer of logistics that every show and every theater has learned, adopted, and implemented,” said Jordan Roth, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which runs five of the Broadway houses.

The biggest safety measure Broadway has taken is to require that everyone 12 and over — audiences as well as employees — be vaccinated (children can get in with a negative coronavirus test) and that everyone except performers wear a mask.

The theater owners, competitors who have become more collaborative as the pandemic has upended their industry, announced those requirements in July, as the danger of the Delta variant became clear. To get there, the industry had to overcome initial reluctance from producers worried mandates could inhibit potential ticketbuyers and imperil family shows.

But many producers came to believe that strict safety protocols comfort more potential ticketbuyers than they alienate, and at a video meeting, a consensus emerged. “It was just the right thing to do,” said Robert Wankel, chief executive of the Shubert Organization, which owns and operates 17 Broadway houses.

The theater owners were slightly ahead of government officials — days later, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a vaccine mandate for a variety of indoor spaces, including performing arts venues.

Whether the safety measures are sufficient remains to be seen.

In Australia, where strict lockdowns and border closures initially thwarted the spread of the virus, theaters successfully reopened last winter but are now closed as rising infections prompt tighter restrictions. In London, many theaters canceled performances over the summer because of positive coronavirus tests and contact tracing alerts prompting people to go into isolation; guidance has since eased and productions are now running.

New York has higher vaccination rates than Australia, and does not employ the contact tracing practices that initially disrupted performances in Britain, so Broadway officials are hopeful shows will be able to run. They know it’s inevitable that some theater workers will test positive for the virus, but are banking on vaccines, masks, and testing to contain the spread.

McCleskey, the “Waitress” performer who tested positive on Aug. 30, said she had no idea how she became infected. “As safe as I felt like I was being — wearing a mask, carrying hand sanitizer — clearly I came in contact with someone or something that had the virus on it,” she said. She was sick for a week, but has recovered and is expecting to rejoin the show this week. “I’m excited to go back,” she said, “and to feel the energy from the audience.”

Dusting Off the Spotlights

“Have a good show, everybody!” Antonia Gianino, a stage manager for “The Lion King,” said over her headset. “House lights at half! House lights out! And, go!”

As “The Lion King” began its dry tech — an actorless rehearsal to test sets and lights — it was clear right away that there was work to be done. The Minskoff Theater stage wasn’t sloping upward as it should during “Circle of Life.” Note taken. That’s why they rehearse.

Up and down Broadway, where theaters have been gathering dust since they were forced to close on March 12, 2020, design teams and stage crews have been burnishing dirty fixtures, replacing dead batteries, re-fireproofing safety cloths, and testing automated devices, trying to make sure everything still functions.

“If you turn off your car or computer for 18 months and then turn it back on, you don’t know what problems you might come across,” said Guy Kwan of Juniper Street Productions, which works on shows including “Moulin Rouge!”, “Come From Away” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” “We didn’t want to be in a situation where we start finding problems after audiences come back.”

For the most part, shows reported that their physical productions held up reasonably well. Even rats gave theaters a break: Kwan said there were actually fewer rodents than feared in the shuttered buildings, probably because there were few food sources.

But there were other issues as a shutdown initially expected to last a month dragged on much longer. “Six,” a new musical which imagines the wives of Henry VIII as pop stars, had to replace all of its plastic-and-foil costumes, which deteriorated even though they had been stored in blankets in an attempt to prevent damage.

“Everything turned from bright beautiful colors to pastels,” said John Kristiansen, who runs the shop that builds that show’s divas-in-Tudor-garb outfits, and who wound up in the emergency room with the coronavirus on the day Broadway shut down. “All the costumes had been ruined.”

One upside: the new costumes should be sturdier and shinier.

At “Hamilton,” too, the pandemic provided an opportunity to upgrade: more than 100 lights were replaced with newer technology. For the remaining fixtures, crews sent cranes up into the flies to clean out interiors with compressed air, change old gels that had been blurred with dust, and apply new fire retardant. “We literally started from the top of the theater, and are cleaning all the way down,” said Sandy Paradise, the show’s head follow spot operator.

Some theaters felt like time capsules. As the “Lion King” dry tech got underway, associate lighting designer Carolyn Wong settled into her seat and booted up the computer. Her last set of show notes popped up on the screen, dated Friday, March 13, 2020.

“It’s not often,” she said wryly, “we let our equipment sit unused for 18 months.”

Getting Back in Shape, Vocally and Physically

Kevin Clay was working a register at Trader Joe’s when, just to break up the hours, he thought he should try touching his toes.

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Oof.

He had spent five years in various productions of “The Book of Mormon,” but now it had been nearly a year away from the stage, and he just wasn’t as flexible as he had been.

“I had been doing the show eight times a week, and working out five days a week, and then I went from that to nothing,” he said.

As hundreds of performers return to Broadway, among the first tasks for many is reconditioning their bodies, their voices, and their minds. Some shows are adding extra rehearsal time for warm-ups; others are providing voice lessons.

There are even medical programs focused on helping actors get their game back: the Center for Voice and Swallowing at Columbia University Medical Center developed a four-week video “prehabilitation” program to help performers rebuild vocal strength, flexibility, and endurance that is being used by “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Jagged Little Pill,” while the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital developed “Back to Broadway” strengthening and stretching programs used by performers in “Wicked.”

“I knew that in the N.F.L. there were lots of injuries after the strike season, and I saw that when baseball returned there was an increase in the injured list,” said Dr. Michael Pitman, director of the Columbia center. “It became clear to me that musical theater performers are athletes, and they’re going to have the same problems getting back onstage because they’re not in good vocal health — they’re deconditioned and being asked to ramp up quickly.”

Mark Hunter-Hall, a physical therapy supervisor at the Harkness Center, said there is another factor to contend with: the aftereffects of Covid-19 for those performers who had bouts of the disease. “We do an injury assessment to pick up folks who had harsher respiratory symptoms that might need more work to address,” he said.

Clay, who will be starring as Elder Price on Broadway when “Mormon” resumes performances Nov. 5, said he had noticed changes in his body simply as a result of not performing. “I lost a fair amount of muscle mass — my abdomen does not look the same, and my arms don’t look the same,” he said. “And I was playing with the dog and getting winded now.”

The downtime affected his voice, too. On the day he learned “Mormon” was returning, he sang through the score in his apartment, and noticed strain. “It was a bit of a brutal wake-up call,” he said.

He sprang into action. He signed up for voice lessons, seeking to rebuild vocal stamina and technique. And, although unwilling to return to the gym because of potential coronavirus exposure, he supplemented outdoor running with weight training and core work in his apartment.

“I was way more nervous than excited, because I couldn’t shake the thought that I’ll never get back to where I was,” he said. “It wasn’t until we ran the whole show from beginning to end and I felt good that I was like, ‘OK, now I can see it, and I’m excited to keep pushing until we get there.’”

Luba Mason, a performer in “Girl From the North Country,” which returns Oct. 13, has started physical training, daily vocal exercises, and drum lessons, because she drums in the show. “Like many people, I had the 15-pound Covid on me,” she said. “It’s not about how I look — it’s really about stamina, about having the strength to do eight shows a week, six days a week.”

Traffic Jams at Rehearsal Studios

Talk about déjà vu: the stars of “Six” returned to the New 42nd Street Studios this summer to re-rehearse a show that came within 90 minutes of its Broadway opening, but never got there.

The saga of “Six” is among Broadway’s most striking. A British pop musical dreamed up by two college students, it was barreling toward opening night with a huge head of steam: significant advance sales, multiple productions underway, and an energized and youthful fan base dubbed the Queendom. Following a month of previews, after friends and family had flown into New York, party dresses were pressed, and sushi was waiting downtown, the opening was canceled.

Now the show plans to begin a second round of previews Friday, and to open Oct. 3. So one August morning, clad in leotards and sweatshirts, the cast took it from the top, ready to discover what they remembered and what they forgot, screaming and laughing as they reacquainted themselves with the sound of the harpsichord and the feel of a hip roll.

Eliza Ohman, an associate choreographer, cradled a laptop as she refreshed her own memory, pausing every few minutes to check in. “Feel OK?” she would ask. “It’s coming back, right?”

The answers varied. “I feel like I used to look at her over my left shoulder?” a hesitant Samantha Pauly (she plays Katherine Howard) said as she worked through a dance move. “I just don’t remember it,” Andrea Macasaet (Anne Boleyn) acknowledged of one pose.

But at another point, when a dance seemed to jell, an exuberant Brittney Mack (Anna of Cleves) blurted out “We know this!” punctuating the thought with an expletive.

At “Six,” as at many shows, there is also a dollop of disquiet, as artists steel themselves for possible disruptions. “Every day I’m just waiting for an email or a phone call or some big shutdown again,” Pauly acknowledged. “I think a lot of people are feeling that way, unfortunately.”

The act of re-rehearsing every Broadway show, first in studios and then in theaters, has proved costly — $1.4 million to $4 million per show, according to the Broadway League — and has caused a logjam in Times Square. The New 42nd Street Studios are booked for months, in part because an unusual number of shows are rehearsing at once; in part because they are simultaneously rehearsing tours and Broadway productions; and in part because Covid-19 protocols mean there is only one show per floor.

At the Walter Kerr Theater, during the final dress rehearsal for “Hadestown,” the production stage manager, Beverly Jenkins, called the show from inside a booth enclosed by a plastic curtain intended to protect her from aerosols. She mouthed the words to the songs and bopped up and down in her chair as she exuberantly gave lighting cues.

As Reeve Carney sang his big number, “Wait For Me,” the crowd of essential workers invited to the rehearsal roared, and a stage manager on the headset exclaimed “Still got it!” Jenkins nodded in agreement. “Mmm hmm,” she said. Then she called the next cue.

Using the Pause for a Racial Justice Reset

The band for “Hadestown” is small, and five of the seven musicians are white men. That’s not atypical — orchestras are a sector of Broadway that is not particularly diverse — but it is conspicuous because the players are seated onstage.

During the pandemic, as the police killing of George Floyd inspired protests against racism and demands for social change, the “Hadestown” band took action. They realized they could directly effect change because on Broadway, individual musicians recruit the substitutes who fill in for them when they are away, and many are away a lot.

Dana Lyn, the show’s violinist and one of the two musicians of color, drafted a letter in which each member of the band pledged that at least two of their five “subs” would be people of color, including one who would be Black, and at least two would be women. “We hope that other Broadway orchestras will do the same,” they wrote on Instagram.

Lyn said the change shouldn’t be that hard. “Even if you don’t have women friends who are drummers, they’re out there in New York City,” she said, by way of example. “You might go find them.”

The band pledge is one of the more concrete steps taken on Broadway to address diversity concerns that arose during the pandemic, but there are broader measures too.

Broadway is slated to feature at least seven works by Black playwrights this season, a historically large number. Also, a year-old organization called Black Theater United negotiated a “New Deal” with a variety of industry leaders who pledged to stop hiring all-white creative teams and to rename some theaters after Black artists, among other steps.

There are new ways for employees to flag mistreatment, and new training programs to combat racism. New fellowships and other programs are being created to nurture producers and company managers and theater administrators and casting directors of color.

There are also new positions being created, especially at shows with multiple productions and deep pockets: The Broadway League and “Moulin Rouge!” are among the entities hiring directors of equity, diversity and inclusion, while “Wicked” hired Christina Alexander as director of social responsibility.

“I want to be part,” Alexander said, “of making this feel more like the community we were assuming it was.”

The Show Won’t Go on for Everyone

On the road back to Broadway, there have been more than a few speed bumps.

There are casting issues: Some children aged out of their roles, while some grown-ups got other jobs. Chad Kimball is not returning to “Come From Away” after a social media furor over his declaration on Twitter that he would defy a Washington state policy barring congregational singing in church. Karen Olivo left a starring role in “Moulin Rouge!” after declaring Broadway to be unjust. Celia Rose Gooding is venturing into the final frontier, departing “Jagged Little Pill” for “Star Trek.”

At least five shows that were running when Broadway shut down have opted not to return. Among them were two big musicals, “Frozen” and “Mean Girls,” that had been softening at the box office and chose to refocus their energy on touring. Then there were two plays that started previews but never made it to opening night: Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen” and a revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

The latest to fall: Ivo van Hove’s highly anticipated, polarizing revival of “West Side Story,” which opened three weeks before the shutdown. The show was always going to be tough — with heavy use of video and elaborate onstage rainfall it was expensive to run, and the avant-garde staging of a classic musical was not for everyone. Also, there is a looming film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg, which could boost or dampen interest in the stage production.

Once the lead producer, Rudin, stepped away, the show’s future was left to the producers Barry Diller and David Geffen, who had put $20 million into the project. They were hoping to reopen, but on Aug. 9 announced that they would instead shutter the production, returning $10 million in federal aid.

“We tried like crazy to be able to do it, up until the last minute when we said it just, unfortunately, made no sense,” Diller said. The movie, now slated for a Dec. 10 release, posed a “major complication,” he said, because rights restrictions prevented the musical from reopening during the film’s advertising window. Scheduling also posed a problem because some key members of the creative team are based in Europe. “In the end,” Diller said, “it just collapsed of its immense weight.”

“So Come See Me!”

One afternoon late last month, Michael James Scott, the actor who plays the Genie in “Aladdin,” slipped into a booth in a Midtown recording studio to tape a radio spot.

Scott has done his share of Genie work, but this one would be different: His task was to persuade those who might not know Broadway is open, or might be hesitant to return, that it’s time to emerge from isolation.

“I don’t know about you, but my tiny house is way too tiny,” he began, voice rising, hands gesticulating. “It’s a lamp, actually.”

After a few more beats like that — “I’m ready to get back into a whole new world (see what I did there?)” — he landed on the message: “The stage is calling my name, and I got a big production number to do. So come see me!”

Getting shows ready to run is one thing. Getting people to show up is another.

That’s one reason productions announced their opening dates months ago, even though they only needed four or five weeks for rehearsals. With a raft of openings and rows and rows of seats to fill eight times a week, producers needed time to alert fans that Broadway was coming back, and to urge them to buy tickets.

The Delta variant complicated the marketing strategy. Back in the spring, producers thought they could count on a core audience of avid theatergoers to come early and often, so they could devote their attention to broadening that audience. But as the news about the pandemic grew increasingly alarming, the industry decided to focus on its base: known theatergoers living in the Northeast.

That poses a challenge for shows like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Chicago” that have been especially dependent on tourists, but also for new shows like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which could benefit from a national audience nostalgic for the film.

So how are shows doing thus far? Anecdotal reports suggest that a handful of musicals, including “Hamilton,” “Hadestown” and “Six,” are selling strongly, while plays are struggling. But there’s a dearth of data, because the Broadway League, worried about soft sales dampening consumer confidence, has decided not to disclose box office grosses this season.

Hoping to shore up sales, the Broadway League and the New York City tourism agency have both launched marketing campaigns. Press agents who gave up their offices during the pandemic are back at work trying to gin up coverage, in some cases operating out of WeWork spaces.

And the long-delayed Tony Awards ceremony, honoring work performed during the truncated 2019-20 season, will take place Sept. 26 — timed to coincide with Broadway’s reopening. With most awards relegated to a stream on Paramount Plus, the two-hour CBS broadcast will be dominated by a “Broadway’s Back!” show tunes concert that industry officials hope will encourage ticket buying.

Scott said he’s eager to do his part to sell shows at a time when many potential patrons still seem uncertain as to whether Broadway is back.

“I’ve had questions from family members: ‘Oh my gosh, is it really happening?’” Scott said. “Yes, it’s happening.”

Produced by Laura O’Neill.

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