Crowds Gather as ‘The Lion King’ Reopens on Broadway
After its longest shutdown in history, New York’s Broadway reopened on Tuesday, welcoming back its biggest shows in musical theater, including “The Lion King.”
[Crowd chatter] Three, two, one. [Cheers] Have your proof of vaccination or a photo I.D. [Clapping] I want to applaud this audience tonight. Our re-opening. [Cheers] As Rafiki says, it is time.
The longest shutdown in Broadway history is over.
They were 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.
“People are ready,” said Julie Taymor, the director of “The Lion King,” “and it’s time.”
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. And the crowds who packed into shows all over Broadway Tuesday night were grateful to be there. There were roaring ovations and, at times, tears.
“We were open to anything,” said Erica Chalmers, interviewed at the just reopened TKTS booth Tuesday afternoon, “just so I could have that experience of a Broadway show.” She opted for a play, “Lackawanna Blues,” that had its first Broadway performance Tuesday night.
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 are finding 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 were 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 more are on the way — more than two dozen more 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.
Three hours before showtime, Lin-Manuel Miranda — the “Hamilton” creator who wrote the music, book and lyrics for the hit musical — burst out of the front doors of the Richard Rodgers Theater with a bullhorn and was met with the shrieks and applause of a crowd gathered on West 46th Street.
He was there to lead a group of Broadway performers in a rendition of “Theme From ‘New York, New York,’” the anthem popularized by Frank Sinatra, creating a sort of mood-setting overture for the night ahead.
“Get a mask, get vaccinated and come see live theater!” said Miranda, who also played Alexander Hamilton in the original Broadway cast.
The appearance was not publicized until about 4 p.m., when Miranda tweeted a photo from inside the theater and announced a so-called Ham4Ham, which, before the pandemic, was a performance by “Hamilton” cast members outside the theater that accompanied a lottery for tickets to see the show. (There would be no free tickets today, Miranda said.)
Well, we're in the building, so...
Hello hello hello! It’s a big night of re-openings on Broadway… Let’s do a live #Ham4Ham show like the old days? Richard Rodgers,
5PM (and live on FB/Instagram)...
just the show, no live lottery! See you outside in a few... -LMM pic.twitter.com/IaBmHbaKdf
Passers-by and Broadway superfans rushed to the scene as soon as they saw the social media announcement.
Eva Ferreira, a 10-year-old “Hamilton” fan who has memorized nearly every word of the musical, watched with her parents, who had taken her to New York City for her birthday.
Four teenagers — all aspiring Broadway performers who had spent the day in class at Steps Conservatory — sprinted to the theater from the subway after they saw Miranda’s tweet. They stood in the crowd in awe of the group of performers — the kind that they hoped to be one day.
Jessica Payne and her husband ran down from their hotel room to catch Miranda and the other performers. Their spring 2020 trip was canceled because of the pandemic, so they had flown in from Colorado recently to see eight Broadway shows in six days after “a year and a half of heartbreak” while the industry was on pause.
“We both cried when the plane landed,” Jessica Payne said, listing the shows the couple was planning to see (“Wicked” is on the schedule tonight). “We’re so happy to be here.”
Lindiwe Dlamini has spent 24 years of her life with “The Lion King.” She was with the show when it tried out in Minneapolis, and has been in the Broadway production for its entire run.
Needless to say, the last 18 months have been jarring, and she’s happy to be back.
“Oh, my God — it’s a huge one tonight,” she said. “I’m excited and anxious and every emotion you can think of. Mostly it’s really exciting to be back. We’ve been away a long time.”
In an industry that loves its superlatives, “The Lion King” has more than its share. It’s the highest-grossing show in Broadway history (nearly $1.7 billion) and its worldwide grosses (more than $9.3 billion) exceed those of any film, Broadway show or other entertainment title in history.
On Tuesday, it reopened, to a rapturous and packed house, with an audience that included alumni of Disney shows, a lot of fans, plus Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie and Kristin Chenoweth (who had a busy night, speaking earlier at the reopening of “Wicked,” where she had originated the role of Glinda).
“This is like water in a desert,” Chenoweth said in an interview during intermission at “The Lion King,” her mask glittering and her eyes moist. “If this isn’t an argument that art can change lives then I don’t know what is.”
The audience was rapturous, giving a standing ovation to the director Julie Taymor at the start of the show, and greeting each character, human or puppet, with another round of applause. “It was a miracle the first time — I think I saw it at least three times,” Steinem, whose life was the subject of a film Taymor directed, said in an interview. “And I think Julie Taymor can do anything.”
Taymor, in a speech to the audience before the show began, said she was appreciative of those who had braved a nerve-racking moment to come back to theater.
“I want to applaud this audience, tonight, our reopening, because you all have the desire, the enthusiasm, the courage to lead the way,” she said. “Because as we know theater in New York is the lifeblood and soul of the city.”
Many in the audience were repeat attenders (Taymor asked for a show of hands), but there were plenty of newbies, too. Heather Teta brought her two daughters, ages 9 and 6, to see it for the first time; on Sunday they were tested for the coronavirus because they’re too young to be vaccinated.
“We’ll do whatever we need to be back,” Teta said. “It’s reopening night — why wouldn’t we be here? And to come and support the Broadway community as well.”
The musical, which opened in 1997 (and won six Tony Awards, including best musical), is the third longest-running Broadway show (after “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Chicago”) and Dlamini is the only member of the original cast still performing in the show. She became an American citizen through the show (she is from South Africa), married another cast member and made a life around her work here; she is in the ensemble, and at the opening played a hyena, a lioness, a flock of birds and a square of savanna.
How was it being out of the show for the first time? “It was weird,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 24 years now, and to just stop out of nowhere! I was on a bus, on my way to work, when I got the call, and I had to get off at the next stop.”
The shutdown was also traumatic. Her husband, daughter, son and sister all got Covid (they recovered), and back in South Africa, a cousin and her husband died of the disease.
“I’ve been so worried about people back home, and I couldn’t go home and be with my family,” she said. “It was tough, and it was very emotional.”
And what was it like being back? “Really, really emotional,” she said. “It’s such a huge part of my life.”
“The Lion King” has over the years had 25 productions around the world that have played to nearly 110 million people; it has been performed on every continent (except Antarctica) and in nine languages (English, Japanese, German, Korean, French, Dutch, Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese).
All of nine productions running when the pandemic hit closed. With tonight’s Broadway reopening there are now five productions of “The Lion King” running, and by January there should be 10, in New York, London, Paris, Hamburg, Tokyo and Madrid plus four touring productions.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a disembodied voice announced from the stage, bringing the crowd, which had gathered for the reopening of “Wicked,” to its feet: “Kristin Chenoweth.”
That brought an even louder roar from the audience, as Chenoweth, who originated the role of Glinda when the show opened on Broadway in 2003, strode out onto the stage of the Gershwin Theater.
“There’s no place like home,” she said, beginning with a suitably Ozian reference. “I wanted to be here to welcome New York and all of the theatergoers back to what is my favorite show. The excitement is palpable backstage. If I may, this has been quite a year, and we’re still in it, right?”
She praised the work of the Actors Fund, an aid organization, and all the people who bring theater to life, onstage and off. “The people in the back, our ushers, our front of the house, the actors,” she said, “things like this don’t just happen; it takes a whole lot of people.”
“I also want to say that my personal favorite relationship is between the audience and the actors,” she said, “which is probably why I’m in therapy.”
The audience burst into laughter.
Chenoweth brought a little star power to the return of “Wicked,” which chronicles the frenemy-ship between Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. It is a revisionist back story for “The Wizard of Oz.”
The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2003, has been seen by more than 60 million people in 100 cities around the world. It also became the first touring Broadway production to reopen since the pandemic, beginning on Aug. 7 in Dallas.
At the end of the night there was another surprise guest at the curtain call: Stephen Schwartz, who wrote its music and lyrics. Schwartz, who had watched the show from the audience, joined the line of glowing performers onstage, standing between Elphaba (Lindsay Pearce) and Glinda (Ginna Claire Mason), beaming with pride.
The applause was ear splitting.
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.”
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.”
By the end of the night, there were more hopeful signs that the return of theaters would fill bar stools and dining chairs again: Bar Centrale, next door to Joe Allen, had to turn away some of the thirsty post-theater crowd.
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.
“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.”
A few minutes after 8 on Tuesday night, Walter Bobbie, the director of the long-running Broadway revival of “Chicago,” walked onto the stage of the Ambassador Theater. He did not even get a chance to speak before the crowd rose to its feet, applauding, shouting and cheering.
The ovation lasted close to two minutes.
“Have a seat,” Bobbie finally said. “Isn’t this an amazing way to celebrate a 25th anniversary? Oh, my God!”
And the ovations were repeated, again and again, through the whole first act of a show whose return to the stage felt like a catharsis after 18 months of a darkened Broadway.
The cast and crew had continued to polish details right up to the opening, going over notes from the final dress rehearsal on Tuesday afternoon.
“Act Two: Bianca, you are early with your ‘Hello, suckers,’” Greg Butler, the associate choreographer, said to Bianca Marroquín, who was playing Velma Kelly. He asked her to walk offstage and try the entrance again.
“Hello, suckers!” Marroquín said a moment later.
“Fierce, that’s how we do it,” Butler responded.
And with that, the cast of “Chicago,” the long-running musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, got back to business.
“Eighteen months is a lot,” Marroquín, who had played Roxie Hart before playing Velma, said in an interview, coming off the stage to sit in the empty auditorium. “Everyone went through a lot of trauma and anxiety, and it wasn’t easy for us. Life goes boom-boom and takes the stage away. That was tough.”
She spoke of the emotions of being back. “This is what we do,” she said. “Without this, our life sort of dimmed.”
Now “Chicago,” which is celebrating its 25th anniversary on Broadway this year, is waiting to see what its next chapter will look like. Tourists, who make up two-thirds of the overall Broadway audience, are especially important to “Chicago.” One of the big lingering questions is when (or if) they will start flocking back.
“We are certainly a tourist-driven show,” Bobbie said. “We are going to find out. When you get to be past 10 years old, the New Yorkers who want to see the show have seen it.”
One of the people on hand for Tuesday’s opening performance was a lifelong New Yorker, Peter Massaro, who paid $250 for a premium package from Mastercard that included dinner and a meeting with members of the cast. (“I’m still shaking,” he said afterward.)
Massaro first saw “Chicago” 20 years ago. “I haven’t seen it since,” he said. “I’m a huge Bob Fosse fan. It’s a great show from start to finish. The dancing alone.”
Massaro, who wore a rhinestone bow tie for Broadway’s return, said he had no concerns about seeing a show in the midst of a pandemic. “They check for vaccines and masks,” he said. “People are respectful of that, especially in the Broadway community.”
There was some reason for optimism. Holly Armitage and her husband, Albert, who live in Kansas City, Kan., have made it a practice for years to fly to New York to see shows. She jumped to book flights as soon as she heard Broadway was opening again.
“I thought this was going to be the first night on Broadway,” she said at the “Chicago” reopening. “I realize now a few things have already opened.”
And “Chicago” is not the only show on their agenda. “We are seeing ‘Lion King’ tomorrow,” she said, adding that they would return later this month for “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.”
Will out-of-towners start coming back to New York? “Oh, absolutely,” she said.
About six months ago, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the creator of the play “Lackawanna Blues,” asked a friend to open a vacant theater for him.
“I just needed that — to sit in the seats, to walk on the stage,” Santiago-Hudson said in an interview this week. “For the past 50 or so years, I’ve had some time every year in the theater: to see a play, to be in a play, to direct a play, to write a play. All of a sudden that was taken away.”
On Tuesday, Santiago-Hudson got to return to theater in a big way: “Lackawanna Blues” — which he wrote and directed, and in which he plays every part — began previews on Broadway, in a Manhattan Theater Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on West 47th Street.
The play, which was first presented Off Broadway in 2001, and adapted into a television movie in 2005, is a reminiscence of Santiago-Hudson’s youth near Buffalo, and is centered on the character of Nanny, who ran a boardinghouse and imparted strength and morality to generations around her.
At a ribbon ceremony outside the theater on West 47th Street, where ticketholders and gawkers dodged rush-hour traffic, Representative Carolyn Maloney offered an unabashed New Yorker’s defense of Broadway. “What would New York be without Broadway?” she asked. “Seriously, it’s what makes the city feel so great. If we didn’t have Broadway we might as well be in Chicago or some other big city.”
S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Nanny in the television movie of “Lackawanna Blues” (and was a longtime fixture on “Law & Order”), was on hand for the preshow festivities.
“We’re baaaack!” she said, referring to Broadway.
A Broadway production of “Lackawanna Blues” by Manhattan Theater Club had been planned for a couple of years. Lynne Meadow, the company’s longtime artistic director, said in an interview she saw it as a celebration of “heroism,” which she said is even more apt now. The play was presented with music by Bill Sims Jr., as performed by the blues guitarist Junior Mack.
“This is a play about healing,” Santiago-Hudson said. “This is a play about community, about how we help each other, about what generosity means. This is what we need.”
Kristin and Matt Collins, a couple from Annapolis, Md., were standing in line at the Richard Rodgers Theater on the reopening night of “Hamilton” with two extra tickets to give to anyone who wanted them.
A few feet away, Chris Graham and Addie Trivers, two musical theater students, were standing watching all the opening-night excitement, wishing they could afford tickets for the show inside.
Then Collins approached the two college juniors and asked if they might want to see “Hamilton” tonight. Yes, in fact, they did.
“Either he’s telling the truth or we’re being kidnapped,” said Trivers, who used to go from theater to theater asking for cheap tickets before the pandemic, “and either way I’m going with him.”
Those two tickets were among the most sought after on Broadway’s night of big reopenings.
At the start of the show, the creator of “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, walked onstage to a standing ovation. “I don’t ever want to take live theater for granted ever again, do you?” he said. “You can mouth along, all you like, no one can see your mouth moving.”
The musical sensation, which opened on Broadway in 2015, was the industry’s highest grossing show when the pandemic hit. The week before Broadway shut down, “Hamilton” grossed $2.7 million, more than any other show by far. That week, more than 10,700 people scored the sought-after tickets — and then the production, with the rest of live theater, was forced to a sudden halt.
The musical, which won 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, managed to find an even wider audience during the pandemic. In July 2020, Disney+ started streaming a film of the musical with Miranda in the title role. Its release reignited interest in the musical and revived debate on some of the controversies it had sparked, including its treatment of slavery.
Judging by the energy of the crowd on Tuesday night, “Hamilton” fever seemed ready to pick up right where it left off.
The television personality Al Roker stood on the sidewalk pumping up the crowd, shouting, “Are you ready?”
“We had just watched Al Roker walk by and I thought that was the peak of the night,” said Graham. The one downside of getting impromptu free tickets to “Hamilton”: He was worried that he was underdressed in his T-shirt and shorts.
Farther down the line to enter the theater, Lauren Koranda, 20, was far from underdressed. She was wearing the floor-length shimmering gown that she had worn to senior prom. On the day the “Hamilton” tickets went on sale, she and her best friend, Maura Consedine, had used about six devices to make sure they got a pair.
“It’s such a big night for New York City,” Consedine said. “The city truly feels alive again.”
To get into the underworld these days, you need more than a ticket.
Fans of “Hadestown” who had one for Tuesday’s performance began lining up on West 48th Street long before the curtain time, in part because some knew the entry process there, as for the rest of Broadway, had changed. Each audience member had to present proof that they had been vaccinated against the coronavirus, and to allow everyone extra time, the house opened 45 minutes before show time.
Unlike “Hamilton,” “Wicked” and “The Lion King,” “Hadestown” had already put on several shows by Tuesday. And perhaps as a result, staff members appeared to have the new entry process well in hand.
Audience members were asked first to show their proof of vaccine — there were three lines in which people could offer pictures or cards or apps. Then they had their bags checked, and made their way through metal detectors before stepping inside the theater to have their tickets scanned. Theatergoers found it went smoothly.
“That was really efficient, really fast actually,” said Kiana Gregorich, 18, of Seattle who said she was in New York visiting family. “The anticipation makes it go by a lot quicker.”
“Hadestown,” the last show to win a Tony Award for best musical before the pandemic shut down the theater industry, reopened on Sept. 2, the same night as “Waitress.” So in that sense, Tuesday night’s performance at the Walter Kerr Theater was much like any of its recent shows: André De Shields strolled across the stage, the audience erupted, and the interwoven stories of Orpheus, Eurydice, Persephone and Hades began to unspool.
The show, which opened in 2019, was grossing more than $1 million a week when the pandemic forced it to shut down. Written by the singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, the contemporary adaptation of ancient Orpheus myth had been seen by some 371,000 people before the Broadway shut down last year.
Officials say the show has run smoothly so far. How it and other big-name shows perform at the box office, and whether they can draw audiences again amid concerns about the spread of the Delta variant, will be closely watched as Broadway — and New York — looks to rebound.
Toward the end of the musical, Orpheus leads Eurydice out of Hadestown on their own (very) long road back. “Show the way,” the company urges again and again. “Show the way the world could be.”
The longest-running play right now on Broadway is “Pass Over,” which has been in performances at the August Wilson Theater for all of 41 days. This makes its actors comparable veterans when it comes to performing to a sea of largely hidden faces.
Namir Smallwood, one of the two leads, says he finds the masked-up audiences heartwarming: it means people really wanted to be there. “There’s no dissension or dissonance in the ranks,” Smallwood said, in a phone chat Monday afternoon.
Jon Michael Hill, the play’s other lead, echoed the thought. “If they’re in a crowded room of people, it means they believe in live theater, and getting back to some semblance of normalcy eventually,” he said.
Hill admitted to some Covid-related jitters when plans were first hatched for the reopening of Broadway, but the on-staff epidemiologist and strict protocols — vaccination requirements, steady testing — helped convince him and Smallwood that the theater would be a haven. There’s also talk of plagues in the play, Smallwood noted, which these days, needless to say, packs an extra punch.
Among the theatergoers going to the August Wilson Theater on Tuesday night were Rachel Tyler, 28, an English language arts teacher, and her co-worker at Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Harlem, Mason Delman, 23, who teaches theater.
“With the fact that everyone’s vaccinated, they check cards coming in, I think this feels much more comfortable than teaching in front of 35 11-year-olds,” Delman said.
They chose “Pass Over” because Delman wanted to support new shows this season, and also because Tyler, who is Black, wanted to support another Black woman (the play is by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu).
The two were also amped that, technically speaking, “Pass Over” was Broadway’s longest-running play. “They’ve had more time to practice,” Tyler said, “So we’ll see them at their best.”
When the news came that “Waitress” was reopening — with the singer and songwriter Sara Bareilles, who wrote the music and lyrics, in the lead — the musical’s Facebook fan group exploded. The show had concluded a nearly four-year run before the pandemic, in January 2020, and Frequent Pie-ers (as superfans call themselves) were ecstatic at a return that had unexpectedly put their favorite Broadway flavor back on the menu.
Pie is a big deal in “Waitress,” which tells the story of a small-town waitress named Jenna who dreams of using her baking skills to escape her dead-end job and abusive marriage. There’s pie (apple, double-crust) baking in a specially positioned convection oven that wafts the scent through the theater. And there’s pie for eating — in deference to Covid, now pre-ordered and picked up at a sidewalk table as post-show takeout, rather than sold by costumed vendors walking the theater aisles.
Outside the Ethel Barrymore Theater before showtime, there was also plenty of pie on lapel buttons, pie on face masks, even pie earrings.
“We are huge Sara Bareilles and ‘Waitress’ fans,” said Diana Franco, an 11-time pie-er who was there with her cousin Kristin Smith (eight times), in matching masks mimicking the show’s lattice-topped cherry-pie curtain. “And we are obsessed with the pie curtain.”
At the theater, audience members could choose from two flavors, chocolate salted caramel and white chocolate key lime. Onstage, the diner’s menu board now leads with a new item: “A Big Ol’ Slice of Live Your Life Pie.”
It’s a tribute to Nick Cordero, who originated the role of Jenna’s husband, and who died in July 2020 after a three-month hospitalization for Covid. His song “Live Your Life” (which is not in the show) became an anthem for family, friends and fans during his illness, and it served as an emotional curtain call when the show opened on Sept. 2.
Kristin Muhlenhaupt, who had flown in from Clermont, Fla., for 24 hours just to see the show (her fifth time), said she would probably start to cry during the cellphone warning. But the song that would cut deepest was the aptly named “Opening Up.”
“There’s a line about how we’re all doing the best we can with what we have,” she said. “That’s been the past year and a half.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
When “Chicago” ended on Tuesday night, some cast members distributed roses and rose petals in a quiet tribute to Ann Reinking, the revival’s Tony-winning choreographer and a celebrated Roxie Hart, who died in December.
Reinking was indelibly linked with “Chicago,” the John Kander-Fred Ebb musical. She stepped into the role of Roxie Hart in the original production in 1977, when she was 27, and it helped make her a star. Then in 1996, when the current revival came to Broadway, she returned to the role, in triumph.
She choreographed the revival, creating dances that she envisioned as a sort of updated tribute to the work of Bob Fosse, who had directed and choreographed the original show and who had been, for a time, her romantic partner. Reinking’s work was given the Tony Award for best choreography.
Her work in the revival was widely praised. Reinking “has brought her own light-handed sparkle in evoking the Fosse spirit,” Ben Brantley wrote in his review in The New York Times, “and the corps de ballet couldn’t be better, physically capturing the wry, knowing pastiche of some of Kander and Ebb’s best songs.”
When the revival’s director, Walter Bobbie, walked onstage earlier on Tuesday night, he used the moment to pay tribute to her, calling her “the best collaborator I have had.”
“‘Chicago,’” he said, “has turned into the legacy of the late, great Ann Reinking.”