I’ll never forget hearing on March 12, 2020, that Broadway was going to be shut down until the week of April 13th. It seemed inconceivable to me that it could be true – after 9/11 it was shut for two days, and here and there a blizzard would shut down shows for a day. The idea that there would be no Broadway theatre for over a month was stunning. If someone had told me at that point, as I struggled to process this unprecedented shut down, that in reality Broadway theatres would be closed for at least 18 months, I would not have been able to believe it (or, perhaps, take it). Even when I was taking photos in an entirely empty Times Square that spring (the experience of which I wrote about in this blog post), it still seemed impossible to believe that Broadway, the heart of NYC’s pulsing vitality, would be shuttered for so long. But now the sleeping beauty is waking up, and it’s exhilarating. This is my perspective on Broadway’s reopening, as of the end of September, 2021.
The first time I walked into a Broadway theatre was to see a Disney on Broadway concert (Live at the New Am) at the New Amsterdam theatre. Vaccination checks were in place before the normal security screen. To hear the sound of a ticket being scanned was a delight. When the usher (above) declared “Welcome back to Broadway!” it was almost too emotional. The concert was fantastic, and so many lyrics of Disney on Broadway songs took on new meaning and the performers and audience reacted (for instance, “In the First Time in Forever,” the following: There’ll be actual real live people/It’ll be totally strange/But wow, am I so ready for this change!/’Cause for the first time in forever/There’ll be music, there’ll be light.
The first Broadway play to open after pandemic shutdown was the new play Pass Over, by Antoinette Nwandu. The opening night of previews, August 4, the crowd stood and applauded with stage manager Cody Renard Richards made the preshow announcements (you can see his experience here). After the first preview, the block of West 52nd between Broadway and Eighth was closed off and there was a jubilant block party with DJ.
The next time I was in a Broadway theatre was the Majestic, to see the premiere of a documentary about the Broadway shutdown and a few touring companies that managed to stay open in South Korea. The entire experience was terrific, from being welcomed with Josh Groban singing “Can’t we start again please” (from Jesus Christ Superstar), though the film. But when the end credits were over, the screen rose to reveal the iconic Phantom’s lair, and a bevy of Broadway divas (including Adrienne Warren, Ariana Dubose, and Sierra Boggess) singing “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard.
On September 2, the first Broadway musicals reopened: Waitress, with composer Sara Barielles stepping back into the lead for six weeks, and reigning Tony Best Musical Hadestown. I was at the first night for Waitress, and enjoyed the sticker on the front of the playbill saying “The Diner is Re-Open” along with the date. The audience gave a standing ovation (the first of perhaps 10 or 12 that evening) for the “turn off your cell phones” announcement – which at Waitress is a song. After initial bows, Amanda Kloots, the widow of original cast member Nick Cordero (who lost his battle with Covid-19 last year) came on the stage and everyone sang Nick’s song “Live Your Life.” His song is now also permanently included as one of the pies on the menu board on stage.
I was at the third reopening performance of Hadestown, and loved that their Playbill lists reopening night as well as opening night. The outside of the theatre is enrobed in the red flowers that feature so prominently in the production. Here they represent that “spring will come again” to Broadway as it returns and flourishes.
On September 14, Hamilton, The Lion King, Wicked, and Chicago all reopened. At 5PM that day, casts met in front of the Richard Rodgers Theatre and, led by Lin-Manuel Miranda, delivered a rousing version of “New York, New York.”
Two days before that, however, I had been very fortunate to be allowed to attend the final dress rehearsal of Wicked before reopening. These invited dress performances are not for purchase, and allow the show to run through with costumes, lighting, etc., with a crowd of friends and family. These are always special (I have been to a few) in part because what elicits applause is often very different for these crowds of insiders. I was able to compare that directly when I also attended the first reopening performance of Wicked on September 14. The audience for this was electric, from Kristin Chenowith’s welcome (including a witty “There’s no place like home!”) through bows. After the curtain came down and the lights went up, the audience refused to leave, however, applauding and standing for minutes until the curtain rose again. This time the cast was joined by composer Stephen Schwartz, who seemed unsure whether to say anything before finally stepping forward – almost to be hit by the curtain coming down!
I was at Hamilton at the second reopening performance on September 15. The cast is tight, and the energy level high. I could tell that the conductor was trying to prevent protracted applause from drawing out the show, however, as we can’t keep having shows that go three hours or more when they should clock in at 2 hours, 40 minutes!
Then I was at the third reopening performance of The Lion King. The energy level was still very high, and I liked the Welcome Back insert with an invitation to give feedback.
That weekend, September 17-19, Times Square hosted a huge outdoor welcome back to Broadway, with some performances at the large mainstage, and others at a more intimate outdoor cabaret space. The final two hour concert on September 19 featured most of the shows open or that will open this fall. A highlight was a performance of “Music of the Night” with the current Phantom as well as three previous ones.
That same weekend I went to see David Byrne’s American Utopia, which I had seen four times pre-pandemic at the Hudson Theatre. Now at the St. James, some of the narration has changed to reflect our changed times (his words “Thank you for leaving your homes” has an entirely new significance now!) but the joy and uplifting message remain the same.
On September 21, I was back to see Six, which I had seen twice in previews – and which was hours from opening night when Broadway was shuttered. Now back in previews as of September 17, all six original Broadway queens are back, and the energy level is always high at this show! I loved that they had a “virtual stage door” QR code, since normal stage door interactions and signing of Playbills is not prudent in terms of Covid protocol.
So, speaking of Covid, how is Broadway different due to the need to keep us as safe as possible? First of all, to attend a Broadway show you must show proof of full vaccination and a photo ID to match. Because of this, arrival times need to be earlier than usual. Doors always opened on Broadway about 30 minutes before showtime, but now are opening from 45 minutes to an hour early to allow for vaccine checks as well as the normal security screening. Then, you must wear a mask at all times while inside. Theatres I have been to so far all have “Covid safety teams” and I have seen them roaming the aisles to monitor and ask people to raise their mask when necessary. Meanwhile, every person on Broadway has to be vaccinated, wear masks when possible (obviously it’s not possible for performers on stage) and get tested regularly.
But isn’t any inconvenience worth it??? The exhilaration of being in an audience with other people, experiencing the live performance of these talented people, experiencing emotions together – this is unique and its absence left a huge void during those 18 months away. Even walking home after a show, I have had that thrill of having had somewhere to go, something to do, with other people, after so many nights watching “Bridgerton” or “Tiger King” and trying to set up zoom cocktail parties with friends. Please go and support live Broadway performances! We need it, as a city and as individuals – and they need us.