Live: Broadway Reopening in NYC

ImageThe reopening of Broadway comes as a variety of performing arts venues around the country are resuming in-person indoor performances.
Credit…Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for The New York Times

The longest shutdown in Broadway history is over.

Tonight, some of the biggest shows in musical theater, including “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and “Hamilton,” resume performances 18 months after the coronavirus pandemic forced them to close.

They are not the first shows to restart, nor the only ones, but they are enormous theatrical powerhouses that have come to symbolize the industry’s strength and reach, and their return to the stage is a signal that theater is back.

Of course, this moment comes with substantial asterisks. The pandemic is not over. Tourists are not back. And no one knows how a long stretch without live theater might affect consumer behavior.

But theater owners, producers, nonprofits and labor unions have collectively decided that it’s time to move forward. The reopening of Broadway comes as a variety of other performing arts venues, in New York and around the country, are also resuming in-person, indoor performances: In the days and weeks to come the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music will all start their new seasons.

“Broadway, and all of the arts and culture of the city, express the life, the energy, the diversity, the spirit of New York City,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s in our heart and soul. It’s also so much of what people do to make a living in this town. And that makes us great. So, this is a big night for New York City’s comeback.”

Those attending shows on Broadway will find the experience changed: every show is requiring proof of vaccination (patrons under 12 can provide a negative coronavirus test) and every patron must be masked.

Even before tonight, four shows had begun: “Springsteen on Broadway,” which had 30 performances between June and September, as well as a new play, “Pass Over,” and two returning musicals, “Hadestown” and “Waitress,” all of which are still running. None has missed a performance; “Waitress” managed to keep going even after a cast member tested positive by deploying an understudy.

The returning blockbusters opening tonight will be joined by “Chicago,” a beloved musical which this year marks 25 years on Broadway, and a new production of “Lackawanna Blues,” an autobiographical play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. And they will be followed quickly by more: “Six,” a hot new musical that was supposed to open on the very night Broadway shut down, starts a second round of previews on Friday. David Byrne’s “American Utopia” begins a return engagement that night, and another 28 shows are scheduled to begin performances before the end of the year.

At stake is the health of an industry that, before the pandemic, had been enjoying a sustained boom. During the last full Broadway season before the outbreak, from 2018 to 2019, 14.8 million people attended a show — that’s more people than the combined attendance for the Mets, Yankees, Rangers, Islanders, Knicks, Liberty, Giants, Jets, Devils and Nets, according to the Broadway League. And that attendance translated to real money — the industry grossed $1.83 billion that season.

This season is sure to be different. The League is concerned enough about revenue that it has decided not to disclose box office grosses this season.

Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Joe Allen, a beloved Theater District hangout known for the posters of notorious Broadway flops that line its walls and the stiff drinks atop its bar, reopened with a reduced schedule as the first Broadway shows gingerly returned in August, and added more days this week as more shows followed.

“We can’t survive without them,” Mary Hattman, the general manager at Joe Allen, said of Broadway shows. “As they go we go.”

By 5:15 p.m., dinner service had picked up as theatergoers with a 7 p.m. curtain — and regulars looking for a slice of meatloaf or an ice-cold martini — walked through the door, announced themselves at the host stand and slid into their seats. The familiar sounds of plates and glasses clinking over the buzz of casual conversation echoed off the cozy brick walls. There were bursts of laughter, drinks being shaken behind the long bar and more than a few hugs between people who had not seen one another in some time.

“We’ve been getting progressively busier every day,” Hattman said. “So I’m very hopeful.”

Joe Allen, the pub’s longtime proprietor, who opened the place in 1965, died in February. He was no longer at his regular spot, but he was very much in some people’s minds.

“On one hand I think he’d be really proud of us that we’re plugging away trying to reopen everything,” Hattman said. “But it’s hard for him not to be here.”

Restaurants in Times Square were hit hard by the pandemic, when tourism sank and Broadway shows closed en masse as New York City was devastated by the coronavirus in March 2020. More than a year later, restaurants are still anxious for an urgently needed recovery, which has been slowed again with the emergence of the Delta variant.

Sardi’s, a theater-world institution, still had a sign on its door on Tuesday saying it was closed for renovations, so its maroon-jacketed bartenders and caricature-covered walls remained off limits.

“Dear customers,” the sign read, “we are under renovation until mid to late fall.”

The West Bank Cafe, a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen that is popular with the theater crowd, got help from some of the Broadway stars it has long fed when it held a fund-raiser in December that raised $360,000.

Its owner, Steve Olsen, said that the fund-raiser had helped it pay off suppliers and strike a deal with its landlord to keep the space, and that he is preparing to reopen the 43-year-old institution in October after he finishes renovating his downstairs theater and adding to his staff.

“We’re hopeful that we can squash this Delta variant and people will buy tickets and gain more confidence and feel safer being in a theater,” Olsen said. “It’s kind of a race against time, hopefully everyone can hold out financially.”

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Inside the TKTS booth in Times Square on Tuesday afternoon, three ticket sellers were perched on their seats, waiting to greet their first customers in a year and a half.

“This is our time to shine,” the booth’s assistant treasurer, Barbara Palmieri, said, waving jazz hands on either side of her.

At exactly 3 p.m., the trio slid open the shades to reveal the crowd on the other side of the glass. “How can I help you?” asked John Cinelli, a seller.

With that, the TKTS booth opened after 18 months of darkness, inviting patient theatergoers to start forming the long, winding lines that lead to discounted tickets for some of the most popular shows on Broadway.

On a typical afternoon before the pandemic, tourists would swarm the sloping cherry-red steps at West 47th Street, a Times Square landmark. When the industry shut down, so did the booth, turning the usually thronged stretch into a desolate patch of sidewalk.

Now that the industry is back, so are fans looking for sales.

On Tuesday, a line had formed along the red rope a half-hour before the booth opened.

The first in line were Erica and Freddie Chalmers, a couple from South Carolina who were in New York celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. They had reached the front of the line after the people in front of them decided to leave, unhappy with the booth’s selection, but the Chalmers were not deterred — this would be their first Broadway production.

“We were open to anything; just so I could have that experience of a Broadway show,” said Erica Chalmers, who decided to go to “Lackawanna Blues” on Tuesday night and to a matinee of “Pass Over” on Wednesday. Those shows and “Waitress” were the only Broadway productions offering discounted tickets at the booth on Tuesday.

“If she’s happy, I’m happy,” her husband said, laughing.

Just like the industry itself, which is opening in stages — 39 shows will have begun runs by the end of the year — the booth is opening gradually. Right now it is operating on reduced hours, and only three of its 12 box office windows were open.

But to Victoria Bailey, executive director of Theater Development Fund, the nonprofit that operates the booth, the opening day was not just about sales, but about the booth’s significance in the grand scheme of the theater district’s revival.

“It’s not just that we’re selling tickets; it’s that we’re creating an energy around going to the theater,” Bailey said. “And I really believe that going to the theater is going to be a big part of how we heal.”

Credit…Mark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

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

“Six,” a 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 carefully stored in blankets. “Hamilton” sent crews in cranes up into the flies to blast the dust out of its lights with compressed air and change old gels that had been blurred with grime. “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.

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 for performers, stage crews, producers and more, reopening has been a monumental challenge.

Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The red velvet seats at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on West 47th Street were covered by tech tables of computers, cables and consoles operated by designers, directors and stage managers. An audience was not due until the first preview on Friday night.

But the anticipation was nevertheless high for a dress rehearsal of “Six,” the British musical dreamed up by two college students that imagines the wives of Henry VIII as pop stars.

In one of the more poignant examples of the pandemic’s toll on the theater, the musical’s opening night turned out to be its closing night instead: The show had been scheduled to open March 12, 2020, the day Broadway shut down.

Now “Six” will find out if the loss of 18 months has cost the show any momentum; its original opening had been buoyed by advance sales, multiple productions, a hugely popular soundtrack and fans who had been following the show since its 2017 premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

So there were effusive whoops and cheers from the crew in attendance when the curtain came up on the show’s six queens, fully decked out in their sparkly costumes, glittering boots and — in some cases — crowns.

“We’re finding ways of readjusting the show to who these performers are now — who these queens are at this moment in time, who their 2021 selves are, where these songs are coming from,” said Jamie Armitage, who directed the musical with Lucy Moss. “There’s a depth and fire to some of the performances which I haven’t seen before.”

“I think it’s the time away, realizing what theater means and what it means to congregate,” Armitage continued, adding that the show’s theme was newly resonant: “The group is more powerful than the individual.”

The production’s diverse, all female cast and band — and its message of sisterhood and self-empowerment — also resonates with the lessons of the lockdown period, specifically a heightened awareness about the importance of equal opportunities for women and people of color. The musical concludes by calling out “patriarchal structures.”

The dress rehearsal went smoothly, running its 85-minute, intermission-free duration without any apparent technical hitch. And after the confetti had fallen on the curtain call, the two directors rehearsed the bows again. Then they introduced a new idea: The cast took selfies from the stage.

“Six” will start previews on Friday, the same night David Byrne’s “American Utopia” begins a return engagement, as Broadway’s reopening gathers momentum. Another 28 shows are scheduled to begin performances before the end of the year.

As the “Six” actors dispersed for a dinner break — before returning to the theater for notes — Moss, who co-wrote the show with Toby Marlow, said she was feeling cautiously optimistic.

“Until it’s open and running I’m not going to be like, ‘We’re back,’ because who knows what’s going to happen?” she said. “It makes you very grateful for every moment in the room.”

Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times

Before the reopenings were the in-person reunions. And hugs. So many hugs.

Somewhere deep inside the Gershwin Theater on Aug. 23 sat a neat array of chairs, six wide by five deep. On those chairs were the cast members of “Wicked,” masked up and murmuring among themselves. From the front of the room, the musical director, Dan Micciche, commanded their attention for the first rehearsal of the score.

“I just couldn’t be happier to be here and be with you all — and to hear you,” Micciche said. “Know that I just,” his voice dropped to a strained whisper, “love you so much.”

Gregory Butler, the associate choreographer of “Chicago,” counted out quick, taut eight counts on Aug. 17 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. A cluster of dancers followed his every note as they rehearsed the choreography for the show’s opening number, “All That Jazz.”

How does Broadway rebound? Join us virtually as we visit the now bustling theaters to find out. Go inside rehearsal of the Tony Award-winning “Hadestown,” enjoy “Girl From the North Country” songs and more.

“They are just celebratory, and they’re living through every fiber of their body, to the point where that excitement makes them hit themselves,” Butler instructed, slapping his arms for emphasis. “Then they have to shake it off.” He shimmied as an example.

This summer, in spaces in or near Midtown Manhattan, the casts and crews of Broadway shows were reconvening for the first time, preparing to take the stage after the pandemic-forced closure. We were flies on the wall at several of these meetings, all for shows that are among the first to begin performances on Broadway. With each first, one thing held true: The show would go on.

Credit…Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for The New York Times

The main reason that “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “The Lion King” decided to start performances on the same night is that they thought they could attract more attention to Broadway that way.

It looks like they were right.

Even though four shows had already started running, and dozens more have yet to come, there has been a flurry of television coverage of Broadway this week, all serving to remind viewers that performances have resumed.

Here are some highlights that might be of interest:

This morning, Good Morning America did a segment on the reopening.

Over the weekend, CBS Sunday Morning featured the return of “Wicked”:

Jimmy Fallon is discussing the return of Broadway all week on “The Tonight Show.” Tonight he’s scheduled to feature “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical,” tomorrow is “Dear Evan Hansen,” Thursday is “Six,” and Friday is “Wicked.” Last night, he featured an Off Broadway musical, “Little Shop of Horrors,” which is scheduled to reopen Sept. 21, starring Jeremy Jordan, at Westside Theater.

On “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert talked last night with Jeff Daniels about next month’s return of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and tomorrow night he is expected to talk with Stephen Sondheim, whose “Company” revival is coming in November.

For those of you who are Spectrum subscribers, Spectrum News NY1 will feature a Broadway reopening special at 6:30 tonight. And for those of you who are TikTok users, Disney will stream “Circle of Life,” the opening number of “The Lion King,” live at 7 p.m. at @DisneyOnBroadway.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Lin-Manuel Miranda felt joyful seeing Elmo in Times Square.

Julie Taymor sees visual poetry in a moment where the audience, as well as her characters, are masked.

And Stephen Schwartz is just happy to see audiences again.

The creative minds behind “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked” are delighted that their shows are running again. But, even more important, they’re relieved that theater is back.

“People are ready,” said Taymor, the director of “The Lion King,” “and it’s time.”

Schwartz, the composer and lyricist of “Wicked,” said the long months of streaming have been no substitute for live theater.

“The thing about live theater is it’s a community, not just onstage, but with the audience the whole theater becomes a community, and we’ve just really really missed that,” he said. “You can’t equal that experience on screens — on little screens or even big screens — it’s just not the same as live people and a live audience and what happens every night between them and among them in that theater. That’s irreplaceable”

The three creators spoke to The New York Times in a joint interview Tuesday afternoon as they prepared for their own shows to open. They had decided to open on the same night to call attention to Broadway and to signal that the industry is open, ready for visitors and prioritizing safety (all theatergoers must be vaccinated, except children under 12, and masked).

“Broadway is a huge part of New York City — what defines New York City, and the economy of New York City,” Schwartz said. “So we are really thrilled to be back, and we want everyone out there to know it’s safe to come and join us.”

Taymor said theater has a particularly important role to play in times when the world is confronting so many challenges. “This is what we do as theater people, especially in the dark times,” she said. “This is exactly what we’re here for — we’re here to inspire and excite.”

Miranda, who not only wrote “Hamilton” but also starred in the original production, said he was relieved to see theater back.

“There was a lot of fear that this day would never come,” he said. “Just even walking over here and seeing Times Square bustling, and seeing Elmo again, and I saw the line around the TKTS booth for the first time in a year and change, and so I’m just really thrilled that theater’s back.”

#Live #Broadway #Reopening #NYC

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