Broadway determined to stage a big comeback despite reopening stumbles

The stakes are high as plays and musicals return to the Broadway stage after the pandemic shutdown, but already there have been setbacks.

Performances of musical Aladdin resume after COVID cases in cast and crew prompt cancellation of 1 show

Dark for 18 months, Broadway makes its return

2 years ago
Duration 1:58
After theatres in New York City were dark for about 18 months, Broadway plays are back — and it seems theatregoers, too. The crew of Come from Away talk about being back and the challenges of not performing for more than a year.

To step foot in Times Square in New York City today is to know that Broadway is back. 

The signs are everywhere. 

There's one at the top of the shiny red steps in the area's busy pedestrian plaza. In bright lights and big letters, it reads: "Broadway is back."

There's a regular rotation of people taking selfies at another sign with the letters of Broadway stacked together in a perfect Instagram-friendly square. The sign is next to a kiosk selling theatre tours and souvenirs. 

On 47th Street, the lines are back at the TKTS booth, the popular discount ticket seller.

Around the block, there are even more comeback proclamations on the marquees of theatres that have been dark since the coronavirus pandemic struck a year and a half ago. 

For the first time in 18 months, the Minskoff Theatre in Manhattan is open again for an evening performance of The Lion King. (Kris Reyes/CBC)

"It's very symbolic," said Chris Heywood, executive vice-president of NYC & Company, the city's marketing organization. "It was the dinner bell that we were waiting for to signify New York's comeback."

It was in March 2020 that then New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced the closing of all shows, marking the beginning of the longest shutdown in Broadway history. 

Its long-awaited comeback started with a couple of shows in the summer, including Springsteen on Broadway. But curtains up really began in earnest on Sept. 14 when the biggest productions reopened at full capacity: Hamilton, Lion King, Wicked and Chicago

By the end of the year, 38 shows should be up and running again. Currently, 15 shows have reopened. 

High stakes

After months of rigorous preparation for the reopening, the stakes are high. The Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry, estimates the economic loss from the shutdown is at least $1.8 billion. 

Already, there have been setbacks. 

One of Broadway's most popular shows, Aladdin, had to cancel its evening performance Wednesday, one day after reopening, because of breakthrough COVID-19 cases in the cast and crew. 

On its website, the show announced that ticket sales will be refunded and that the health of their cast and crew is the top priority. Performances resumed on Thursday.

An actress from the musical Waitress tested positive for the virus and couldn't perform on opening night Wednesday. An understudy was brought in to replace her and the show went on. 

"Despite many thousands of tests and hundreds of hours of labour each week, some breakthrough transmission is inevitable," said Charlotte St. Martin, President of the Broadway League.

"However, given the thoroughness of our COVID protocols and an entirely vaccinated workforce and audience, Broadway is proving to be among the safer activities of daily life, both backstage and for our audiences." 

COVID-19 safety officers have become a new theatre mainstay on Broadway, checking all theatregoers for identification, masks and vaccination cards. (Kris Reyes/CBC)

New York began to reopen in June, but Broadway was months behind as the industry laboured to meet high standards of safety. 

Theatre owners banded together to hire an epidemiologist to guide their reopening. Each show has a team of safety officers. Cast members must be fully vaccinated and are tested twice a week.

Every theatre upgraded or renovated its HVAC air filtration system in line with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   

Outside the Minskoff Theatre, a full crowd recently gathered for a Tuesday evening performance of Lion King

At the theatre door, they were greeted by staff in bright yellow T-shirts identifying them as members of the COVID-19 safety team. 

WATCH | The cast of Come From Away runs through a rehearsal: 

Rehearsals for Come From Away

2 years ago
Duration 1:08
The cast of Come From Away rehearses for the musical that returned to the Broadway stage on Sept. 22.

Every ticket holder 12 and older must be fully vaccinated and show proof of a WHO- or FDA-approved vaccination, which includes Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca.  Kids who aren't eligible for a vaccine must show a negative COVID test. Everyone has to wear masks during the performance.   

Theatre buff Robert Gardner travelled from California to take in five Broadway shows. He said the new safety measures have not taken anything away from the magic of the theatre. 

"The first time I sat in the theatre [post-reopening], it was emotional and powerful just to see performers on a live stage again," he said. "Took my breath away."

Come From Away is back

Inside the rehearsal studio for the Canadian-penned hit Come From Away, the energy is palpable as the cast runs through one of its musical numbers. The show reopened on Sept. 22. 

One of the company's actresses, Astrid Van Wieren, said she has to hold back tears when talking about returning to the stage. 

"I feel like I'm coming home," she said. "I think people go to the theatre to work out ideas, to feel things, to rehearse their empathy, which is what we need right now."

Come From Away actor Astrid Van Wieren holds a prop from the show during rehearsals. (Kris Reyes/CBC)

Broadway's comeback has been hard-earned and, at times, painful. The theatre community lost two of its own to COVID-19 early on in the pandemic: playwright Terrence McNally in March 2020 and actor Nick Cordero three months later. 

The pandemic shutdown put tens of thousands of theatre workers out of work for months, with many leaving New York City.   

"It came on so fast," said Tim Dolan, owner of the tour company Broadway Up Close. "The shutdown happened so quickly that you just scrambled to kind of make any sense of anything."

Dolan is thrilled that Times Square is starting to look like its old self: crowded, loud and frenetic. 

"We're back to talking to people with their ticket in their hand on their way to see Wicked and you're like, oh, I love this," Dolan gushed, "I can say: 'What are you seeing?' and you can say: 'Wicked.' " 

Industry experts know that bringing in the billion-dollar revenues of pre-pandemic Broadway won't be as easy as flipping a switch, but ticket sales offer some hope. 

Many of the shows running are sold out or selling out. And that's without international tourists, yet. 

Ten new shows are slated to open by year's end, including ones about Diana, Princess of Wales, and Michael Jackson. 

"I don't think there's anyone that is knowledgeable and has been a part of Broadway for a while that doesn't believe we will be back better than ever," said St. Martin. "Not this year, maybe not next year, but we believe we're going to be back and be very strong."


Kris Reyes

Foreign correspondent

Kris Reyes CBC’s correspondent based in New York. She is a multimedia journalist with more than 15 years of experience in broadcast and digital newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada, as a host, producer, anchor and reporter.