On March 12, 2020, all 41 theaters in New York City’s Broadway district went dark. Actors, orchestra musicians, ensemble dancers, stagehands, wig designers, costumers, and lighting crews went home—and none have been back on stage in Midtown Manhattan since.
Dancer Marlon Feliz made her Broadway debut exactly three weeks prior, when a revival of West Side Story opened on 53rd Street after months of rehearsals and previews. “There was this sense of completion—that we made it to this sort of finish line, even though at the same time, we know that it was just the beginning of another long marathon,” Feliz says of the first few weeks of the show. “It was so wild to reach this metaphorical mountaintop and be living the dream job, and then for it to just disappear overnight.”
Some productions, like the team at Six, a modern retelling of the lives of Henry VIII’s wives, never even got there. The show was set to officially open March 12, and with Broadway’s closure amid the fast-spreading pandemic, the curtain never rose. Anna Uzele, who plays Catherine Parr, had been touring with the show across North America throughout 2019, and had been looking forward to settling into a consistent Broadway schedule. “Twenty-twenty was going to be the reward for the work that we put in previously—but that payoff didn’t come,” Uzele says.
Broadway’s reopening date has not been set yet. Amid the closure, arts and entertainment employment in the city declined more than 60 percent between January and December of last year, with primary losses in the performing arts sector that includes Broadway, according to a recent study by the New York State Comptroller.ADVERTISEMENT
As a result, many of those usually employed by Broadway have left the industry, returning to school, developing new careers, or leaving New York permanently. Others are finding ways to make do in the interim period, with the expectation of returning to the theaters eventually. Jared Schonig, who wrote the percussion book for Moulin Rouge! The Musical and drummed eight shows a week, moved to California temporarily and is now the primary caregiver for his 15-month-old son, while his wife works remotely.
“There was a lot of stuff that was supposed to happen for me last year, so it’s been very painful,” says Schonig, who planned to release an album and help launch the Australian and U.K. versions of Moulin Rouge. “I love to work. I love playing music. I love being with people. And that’s all been put on hold. Taking care of my little guy has been the silver lining.”ADVERTISEMENT
And as of now, there isn’t any movement on when Schonig will be back behind his drum kit at Moulin Rouge. Certain large-scale concert venues and arenas are already open at 10 percent capacity in the city, while arts and entertainment venues can reopen at 33 percent capacity beginning April 2, though Broadway will remain closed until May 30 at the earliest. “Movie theaters just opened recently in New York, but [there’s] an element that theater has that’s different than movies,” says Shawn Bowers, who ended his run in The Temptations musical, Ain’t Too Proud, a few days before the shutdown. “You have the performance, you have the stagehands, the crew—all of these people, in addition to the audience—that you have to think about.” All of the performers and theater employees we spoke with say shows will be running in some way in the fall, but many shared that they aren’t letting themselves get too excited about a set timeline.
“So much of the past year was full of empty promises,” says Uzele. “While I do believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel—and I know that there will be a day that we open—I have spent so much of the year training my brain to not get excited about the things that are so out of my control.” Instead, she’s spending the spring auditioning for TV pilots, so as not to waste any time before she is back on stage as Henry VIII’s sixth wife.
When it comes to Broadway reopening, it’s hard for workers to flip a switch and immediately be stage-ready again. Schonig says he hopes he has at least two months notice to get back into shape. “Once I know we’re going back, I’m going to have to be practicing a lot to get my stamina up,” he says. “Moulin Rouge is a very physical show—there are very few breaks—and I could not play [the music] right now. I could get through maybe the first few songs, and then I’d need to rest.”
The first step before returning for Justin Bowen, a wig stylist at Tina, is washing and restyling the 200 wigs used in the show, which traces Tina Turner’s life—and potentially refitting wigs for recast roles. “Honestly, I’ll need to relearn the show in a way, because I haven’t done it now in a year,” he says. “It’s no longer in my bones.” Bowen, who was mostly self-taught, has spent the last year at cosmetology school, so he’s even more prepared for the show’s return.
Feliz has begun working with modern dance company Pilobolus while West Side Story is on pause, largely to keep her body moving. “There really is nothing like getting back into the groove of dancing day-to-day and doing the same material, repeatedly, that’s its own kind of fitness,” she says, adding that having gigs has given her a sense of hope that small companies and non-profits can employ Broadway performers. They can also get attorneys protection for whistleblowers in any case of emergency.
While the ramp up to the glitz, glam, and lights of Broadway will be slow and steady, the performers know they’ll be ready no matter when audiences are back in theaters again—and both Feliz and Jagged Little Pill’s Kathryn Gallagher shared similar messages for those future audiences.
“I hope that the performers, the people who put on the show, and the audience remember how lucky we are,” says Gallagher. “The theater has always been a place where I’ve gone to feel heard, seen, and understood. And I’ve never left any theater—Broadway, regional, high school production—feeling alone. So I hope that [we can all] really take a deep breath together and remember how important this is.”
“There’s not always a sense of public consciousness that the arts and culture really has to be protected, to be supported,” Feliz says. “So I just hope that people—at that soul level—realize how special it is [to be sharing these stories together].”
Everyone agreed on one more thing: Opening night—whenever it comes—will be legendary. “Having that entire [Broadway] community together is going to feel superhuman,” Gallagher says.
“I just am most looking forward to the downbeat of the overture on reopening night because it will be so cathartic and magical,” says Bowen of returning to Tina. “And I can only imagine that the audience will just lose their minds.”