The longest shutdown in Broadway history is over.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.