Onstage, it's finally beginning to look a lot like Christmas again

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Onstage, it's finally beginning to look a lot like Christmas again
The Dallas Theater Center performs “A Christmas Carol” In Dallas, on Dec. 15, 2022. After one holiday season lost to the pandemic and another curtailed by Omicron, seasonal staples including “The Nutcracker,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Messiah” are back in force. (Cooper Neill/The New York Times)

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK, NY.- The Rockettes are high-kicking their way through the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. The Sugarplum Fairy, after an unsought interregnum, is presiding over the Land of Sweets at the New York City Ballet. All around the country, choirs are singing hallelujahs in Handel’s “Messiah” and Scrooges are learning to replace bahs with blessings.

After two years of Christmastime washouts — there was 2020, when live performance was still impossible in many places, and then last winter, when the omicron variant wave stopped many productions — arts lovers and arts institutions say that they are determined that this will be their first fully staged holiday in three years.

“It feels absolutely like the first Christmas post-COVID — there are more tourists in town, Times Square feels very alive again, people are venturing out in a way that I haven’t witnessed since 2019, and sales are more robust across the board,” said Eva Price, a Broadway producer whose musical last year, “Jagged Little Pill,” permanently closed as omicron bore down, but whose new musical, “& Juliet,” is thriving as this year’s holidays near.

For arts lovers and arts presenters, late December looms large. Performances of “The Nutcracker,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Messiah” are cherished holiday traditions for many families. Those events are also vital sources of revenue for the organizations that present them. And on Broadway, year-end is when houses are fullest and grosses are highest.

“‘A Christmas Carol’ is the lifeblood of our institution,” said Kevin Moriarty, the artistic director of Dallas Theater Center, which first staged an adaptation of the Dickens classic in 1969, and had been doing so annually since 1979 until the pandemic. Most seasons, the play is the theater’s top seller.

Last year, Moriarty’s effort to bring the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future back onstage — still with mask and vaccine requirements for the audience — faltered when omicron hit, and the final 11 days of the run were canceled. “It just felt like the knockout blow we hadn’t seen coming — it felt like things will never get back to normal,” Moriarty said.

Dallas was one of many arts institutions wounded by omicron. The Center Theater Group of Los Angeles canceled 22 of 40 scheduled performances of “A Christmas Carol,” losing about $1.5 million. On Broadway, grosses dropped 57% from Thanksgiving week to Christmas week, when 128 performances were canceled. Radio City Music Hall ended its run of the “Christmas Spectacular” with the Rockettes more than a week before Christmas. And the New York City Ballet canceled 17 of 47 scheduled performances of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” costing it about $5 million.

“The virus just made it impossible to go on,” said Katherine E. Brown, the executive director of the New York City Ballet, where “The Nutcracker” has been a tradition since 1954. “It was more than a little depressing, and there were lots of disappointed people, onstage and off.”

This year: so far, so good. “It’s going really well,” Brown said. “I don’t want to tempt the fates by saying that too loudly, but it’s actually back to pre-pandemic levels, and even slightly higher. It feels like we’re really back, and the energy in the houses is just phenomenal.”

Of course there are still viruses in the air this year: public health officials are warning of a “tripledemic” of the coronavirus, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV. COVID cases and hospitalizations have risen nationally since Thanksgiving, and New York’s mayor, Eric Adams, donned a face mask on Tuesday as he urged New Yorkers to take precautions. One new Broadway play, “The Collaboration,” had to cancel several performances this week, including its opening night, after someone in the company tested positive for the coronavirus.

But with Christmas just days away, there have yet to be the wholesale closings that marred last year. And now most people over 6 months old can be vaccinated, and there is a new bivalent vaccine, lowering both risk and anxiety.

“We learned a lot from last year: there are more understudies in place, there is more crew coverage, and we have contingency plans that feel more spelled out,” Price said. Brown agreed, saying, “Through the school of hard knocks, we’re better at managing through it.”

The upheaval last winter upended many holiday plans.

Mike Rhone, a quality assurance engineer in Santa Clara, California, had tickets to the Broadway musicals “Hadestown,” “Flying Over Sunset” and “Caroline, or Change,” and planned to propose to his partner in front of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

Instead he proposed at home, on the couch. But they’ll try again this year, with tickets to “Kimberly Akimbo,” “Ohio State Murders,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and the Rockettes. “We’ll definitely get that photo in front of the Rockefeller Center tree,” Rhone said, “just as married people instead of newly-engaged.”

Shannon Buster, a civil engineer from Kansas City, Missouri, had tickets last year to several Broadway shows and a set of hard-to-score restaurant reservations. “The night before we left, we watched handsome David Muir deliver dire news about omicron surging, Broadway shows closing, restaurants closing, and we canceled,” she said. This year, she was determined to make the trip happen: “I swear by all that is holy that even an outbreak of rabid, flesh-eating bacteria will not keep me from it.” Last weekend, she and her husband made the delayed trip, trying out some new restaurants and seeing “Death of a Salesman” and “A Strange Loop.”

For performers, this year is a welcome relief.

Scott Mello, a tenor, has been singing Handel’s “Messiah” at Trinity Church Wall Street each Christmas season since 2015. Last year he found himself singing the “Messiah” at home, in the shower, but it wasn’t the same. “It didn’t feel like Christmas,” he said. This year, he added, “feels like an unveiling.”

Ashley Hod, a soloist with New York City Ballet, has been part of its “Nutcracker” for much of her life — she performed in it as a child, when she was studying at the ballet’s school, and joined the cast as an apprentice in 2012; since then she has performed most of the women’s roles. Last year she rehearsed for two months to get ready to go on as the Sugarplum Fairy, but the show was canceled before her turn arrived.

“It was devastating,” she said.

This year, she’s on as a soloist, and thrilled. “We all have a new appreciation for it,” she said. “Everyone feels really lucky to be back.”

On Broadway, things are looking up: Thanksgiving week was the top-grossing week since theaters reopened. And there are other signs of seasonal spending: Jefferson Mays’ virtuosic one-man version of “A Christmas Carol,” which he performed without an audience for streaming when the pandemic made in-person performances impossible, finally made it to Broadway, and is selling strongly as Christmas approaches.

Beyond Broadway, things are better too. In New Orleans on Tuesday night, Christmas Without Tears returned — it’s a rambunctious and star-studded annual variety show hosted by the performers Harry Shearer and Judith Owen to raise money for charity (this year, Innocence Project New Orleans).

“The audience was so primed, ready, and wanting the show,” Owen said. “It was like they’d waited two years for this.”

But there are also reasons for sobriety: Broadway's overall grosses this season are still about 13% below what they were in 2019, and this fall a number of shows, struggling to find audiences, have been forced to close. Around the country, many performing arts organizations have been unable to bring audiences back at pre-pandemic levels.

Not everyone is rushing back. Erich Meager, a visual artist in Palm Springs, had booked 10 shows over six nights last December. Then the Rockettes closed, then “Jagged Little Pill,” then two more. “Each morning we would wake up and see what shows were canceled and search for replacements, a less than ideal theater experience,” he said. “This year we are staying close to home for the holidays, but next year we’ll be back.”

Many patrons are ready to celebrate.

“There have been so many virtual performances, but it’s not really the same thing,” said Luciana Sikula, a Manhattan fashion industry worker who had been attending a performance of “Messiah” annually at Trinity Church Wall Street until the pandemic, and finally got to experience it again in person again this month.

Jeffrey Carter, a music professor from St. Louis who had booked and canceled five trips to New York since the pandemic began, finally made it this week; he checked out the new Museum of Broadway as well as an exhibit at the Grolier Club, caught the Oratorio Society of New York’s “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall, and saw “A Man of No Importance,” “A Strange Loop” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” “I’m packing in NYC at Christmastime in four days and four nights,” he said, “and I’m catching up — in person — with people I love.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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