Curtains up! How Broadway is coming back from its longest shutdown.

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Curtains up! How Broadway is coming back from its longest shutdown.
Crew members for “The Lion King” test the show’s lighting and sound at the Minskoff Theatre in New York on Aug. 28, 2021. 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, Sept. 14, 2021. Mark Sommerfeld/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson and Mark Sommerfeld

NEW YORK, NY.- 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.

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.

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 playwright Terrence McNally and 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 powerful producer Scott Rudin, over chronically tyrannical behavior).

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

Before Opening Night

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.

Dusting Off the Spotlights

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.

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.

Getting Back in Shape, Vocally and Physically

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 NFL 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.”

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.

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.

“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.

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.

Hoping to shore up sales, the Broadway League and the New York City tourism agency have both launched marketing campaigns.

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.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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