'It's brutal': With Broadway off, they wait, anxiously, off Broadway for uncertain future
In early March, they were part of the hum of the Theater District, on the way to auditions and two-show days while navigating the crush of tourists.
Seven months later, the most optimistic forecast – one put forward by its producers — suggests that Broadway is not yet halfway to its reopening, pegged at June 2021. Amid that news this week came the Tony nominations, five months late, a bizarre celebration of a theater season in limbo.
Most of the marquees remain, some are even still lit at night, but stagehands, ushers, musicians, producers, dressers, directors and actors have scattered, a Broadway diaspora.
Some went home to live with parents; a lucky few fled to weekend homes in the northern suburbs and stayed for months. Some, undoubtedly, are gone for good, a worrisome creative drain.
“In the midst of all this pain, I just think we don't even know what it's going to be like when we come back, or how it will come back,” said Gavin Creel, an actor who won a 2017 Tony for “Hello, Dolly!"
Tony-winning producer Dori Berinstein, from Bedford, said she's worried, but optimistic.
“I do think that Broadway will return. I do think theater around the country will return and we will have audiences that are ecstatic to be back," she said. "And I think that hopefully most people that have had to go in different direction just to survive will return. I sure hope so.”
That look in his eye? 'Abject fear'
It was a basic theatrical task, a photo shoot, but it captured the precise moment when Daniel Goldstein knew all his plans had evaporated.
On the set of his play “Unknown Soldier” at Playwrights Horizons, a 49-year-old incubator for new plays, Goldstein chatted with photographer Peter Bellamy, the official Playwrights portraitist.
It had taken Goldstein 10 years — during which he lost collaborator Michael Friedman to AIDS. He had directed “Godspell” on Broadway, and was associate director on “Come From Away” as his "day job," but this was a new chapter: His play had opened March 9. He was officially a Playwrights playwright.
His nerves made it impossible for him to watch performances. He would sit in the lobby and look at photos from past shows, ones that had inspired him when he was growing up in Larchmont: “Falsettos,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Marvin’s Room.”
That photo-shoot day was three days after opening.
“We were on the set in the theater where our show was still scheduled for that night. And they were wiping down the seats. There was a moment in the conversation where we both sort of realized how bad it was about to be and that's the picture he took. He said, 'Oh, that's it. What I just saw in your face. That's the picture.'”
What had he seen?
“Abject fear. The terror of what you knew as life in this moment is over — for a long time,” he said.
Within 24 hours, New York theaters had shut down. Within days, Goldstein and his wife, attorney Melissa Lee, had taken their children, Gracie and Ezra, and headed to his family’s summer home in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
They sublet their Park Slope apartment and Gracie finished the school year remotely. Lee, whose work involves filing written appeals and motions, could work from anywhere. By summer’s end, they’d registered the kids in school for the fall.
Goldstein has kept writing: a play about Joan Rivers; a TV pilot; and a musical, “Row,” written with singer-songwriter Dawn Landes, about Tori Murden McClure, who rowed the Atlantic solo in 1999.
Set to play the Williamstown Theater Festival this summer, "Row" will — like all Williamstown shows this season — instead be recorded for Audible.
When Goldstein and Lee returned to New York, for occasional doctor visits, it wasn’t the same.
“It felt very strange to be in the city,” Goldstein said. “I wasn't sad I wasn't in it. I thought I would be very sad. But I was not as sad as I thought I would be.
“I hope that theater comes back the way it should, but I'm not confident that there's going to be anything resembling what there was for 10 years," he said. "I think the community has been really decimated in terms of who's going to be able to stay.”
As for what happened to "Unknown Soldier," which had a run at Williamstown in 2015, Goldstein said he still hasn't processed the whirlwind that was March.
"At some point, I will have that moment of breakdown to mourn the loss of what happened," he said. "It's not lost on any of us that we did our show at Williamstown and two years later, Michael was dead. And then we did our show here and a virus killed the show."
"It all felt a little too poetic and too sad for anyone to actually be able to deal with," he said. "But that's life and everyone is healthy and everyone is OK. And, you know, that's all we can really ask for."
'We are about to be in a very dire situation'
Gavin Creel called from an empty commuter train heading north, through Yonkers — the home of Cornelius Hackl, the character he played in “Hello, Dolly!” for which he won the 2017 Tony — and he couldn’t seem to get trains off his mind.
Creel has been back to Manhattan after spending seven months at his Putnam County lake home in Carmel, where, in March, he battled an undiagnosed case of the coronavirus that was later confirmed by an antibody test.
Creel was uneasy talking about hunkering down at his second home when so many friends have found New York too expensive. He wanted, instead, to talk about the pain his community feels, a pain he fears will only worsen.
“There are tens of thousands of people who are about to have zero health insurance and can’t afford supplemental health insurance they can buy into,” he said, of fellow members of Actors Equity whose insurance is tied to weeks worked or, this year, not worked. “We are about to be in a very dire situation.”
Broadway has lost its lifeblood, said Creel, whose credits include “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Hair” and “Book of Mormon.”
“So many of my friends are moving home and living in the basement of their parents’ house and they're in their 40s,” Creel said. “I have friends who are Tony nominees who are considering new lines of work and training online for real estate licenses or psychology masters.”
That resilience, he said, is the unglamorous, largely unseen lion’s share of working in theater, finding side jobs to pay the bills, auditioning, networking.
But there’s something different about 2020, he said.
“We know this drill, but my God, it's always been that we know that drill while the industry is still humming along like a train. Hopefully we'll be able to hop on or buy a ticket to,” he said. “But right now, there's no train. There's no tracks. There's no destination anywhere. It doesn't exist. All this resilience is almost in a vacuum.”
Creel, an Ohio native, said he prides himself on Midwestern optimism, but the pandemic has taken its toll.
“In the midst of all this pain, I just think we don't even know what it's going to be like when we come back, or how it will come back,” he said.
“But man, we are in the tunnel right now,” he said. “The light that we could see behind us is gone and the light in front of us has not appeared yet. I think we just have to keep faith and keep moving forward.”
By July, The Actors Fund had given grants to more than 11,000 arts workers nationally, totaling more than $13 million. And Broadway Cares gave $1 million to help the Fund launch a campaign to help artists navigate insurance options.
'Deeply, deeply depressed' to 'quarantine OK'
This time last year, Celia Keenan-Bolger ended an 11-month, Tony-winning run as Scout Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
When Broadway went dark, she was “still kind of recovering” from the “Mockingird” run, relishing time at home, cooking dinner for her 5-year-old son, not having to rush to the Shubert Theater every night. She was days away from starting work on an HBO period drama, work that is about to resume as television production inches back in New York.
In March, she and her husband, actor John Ellison Conlee, packed “groceries for 14 days” and found an Airbnb in Kerhonkson, in Ulster County. Two weeks and more groceries later, they found another Airbnb in Kingston. Then they bought a place in Dutchess County, not far from the Connecticut line, their “weekend quarantine home” as their son attends in-person school twice a week in Manhattan.
“I was talking to a friend and said, 'No one would ever say that farmers were not essential workers,'’ she recalled. “And she was like, 'But theater artists are farmers for the soul.' The idea that we have lost this art form for the moment at a time when I would say it is crucial, it is more important than ever to be telling stories and to be seeing people's lives reflected on a stage, it makes me feel like crying.”
An actress known for her emotional range, for "To Kill a Mockingbird," “Les Miserables” and “Glass Menagerie” on Broadway, Keenan-Bolger said the last seven months have sometimes gotten the better of her.
“The waves of what this experience has brought of deeply, deeply depressed and low to hopeful to 'quarantine OK.' The ups and downs have been pretty intense. It would be really nice to have an outlet of creative expression or even just a routine of doing a show eight times a week," she said. "I'm certainly craving that."
She is also craving the company of fellow artists, many of whom have been scattered by high rents and no income or health insurance.
“The question is: How do we keep theater artists in the city so that we will have something to return to?" she asked. "If we're not deemed essential, if we're not being given any sort of safety net, we're hemorrhaging brilliant artists.
"And it means that the only people that get to return are people who had enough money to stay in the city or who had support systems that can help pay for their lives. That's not the kind of art that I think we need right now. We need to know a lot of different stories.”
Then again, she said, the dramatic diaspora could seed a rising crop far from Broadway.
“Maybe this is an amazing moment when the regional theater is able to have a different sort of reemergence because all of these artists have had to go back home or have had to go to places where they could live,” she said.
As for Broadway, it’s a question without an answer, for now.
“I just am really curious as to how that's all going to show up,” Keenan-Bolger said.
'Backstage is just jam-packed'
In her years as a Broadway dresser, on “Phantom of the Opera,” “Aladdin” and “Jekkyl and Hyde,” Jessica Reiner has seen more than her share of quick changes.
But when the pandemic shuttered theaters and film and TV production in March, she made a quick change of her own, moving back to her parents’ home in Peekskill from her apartment in Long Island City, Queens.
Knowing Broadway, Reiner said, she understood that a rebound from COVID-19 wouldn’t be rapid.
“I remember not thinking that this industry would get back up on its feet to be honest, for a while,” she said. “There's just so many people packed together like that and the sheer mass amount of people that are involved, in film and theater, that it was going to take a while.”
“Backstage is just jam-packed with people,” she said.
She devised a completely 2020 career shift: working on the show “Connecting,” which began airing on NBC this month.
“They shot it in actors’ homes in L.A. and I was able to do my job from here in New York,” she said. From Peekskill, she watched a live feed and made sure the actors were wearing the right clothes, that they draped just the right way, that they were lint free, texting the set with any changes or suggestions.
Reiner has also begun commuting back into New York City for television work, where she has found there’s an entire department to ensure safety protocols are followed. (She calls them “The COVID police.) She imagines that theaters will add that role when they return.
“I think we'll come out of it on the other side, whenever that will be, better equipped for something like this and more aware of the dangers out there that we can absolutely overcome them,” she said.
'Until things start again, it's not going to seem real'
Less than a month before theaters shut, Patti Murin ended a two-year run as Anna in Disney’s “Frozen” at the St. James Theatre.
She and her husband, actor Colin Donnell, spent the lockdown at their weekend retreat in Carmel, about 20 minutes from where Murin grew up, in Dutchess County’s Hopewell Junction, where her parents live.
“Two-and-a-half years ago, we bought what was supposed to be a lake house,” she said. “We live here now.” (Gavin Creel is a neighbor.)
The couple became a trio in July, when daughter Cecily was born.
Murin had said her Broadway farewells on Feb. 16, taken her last bow as Anna alongside Caissie Levy, who played Elsa and was heading into “Caroline, or Change” at Studio 54, a show that would not open.
In May, Disney Theatricals announced “Frozen” would not reopen when Broadway reopens.
“I don't think we will really believe it's not coming back until it doesn't,” she said. “It's still limbo. And until things start again, it's not going to seem real. And no one can really move on because there are no jobs for us to move on to. That's also what makes it different.”
Murin thinks often of the industry that surrounds the Theater District industry.
“It's the small coffee shop, St. Kilda's, on 44th Street. I was afraid it was going to shut down when this happened because it's not a Starbucks. And they've survived. But my gosh, the amount of people from our theater that would get coffee there every single day, every morning, every show. I’ve thought about them a lot. As soon as everything went away, everything went away for them, too."
'To go from busy to nothing is just crazy'
For 17 years, as the French horn player in the orchestra at “Wicked,” Theo Primis has been playing “Defying Gravity” while defying unemployment.
For the past six years, he has commuted from Pleasantville, where he lives with his wife, Laura, and daughters Kalliope and Eleni.
He also handled payroll for the "Wicked" orchestra, which last played March 11.
“To go from busy to nothing is just crazy,” Primis said. “And I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be 15 months, but here we are. And that's what it looks like for now —and who even knows if it will be feasible in June?”
With live performances canceled everywhere, side jobs — his work with the New York Philharmonic was to take him to Europe this spring — also fell victim to the pandemic. On Sept. 23, The Metropolitan Opera axed its 2020-21 season.
“These were the jobs that people thought were the secure jobs in the business,” Primis said. “A hit Broadway show or an opera company or something like that in New York? You felt great, and you can make a living as a musician. But all of a sudden: nothing.”
That nothing has meant an exodus, one Primis has seen firsthand, as musicians who have played “Wicked” reach out to him, telling him to forward their tax documents to their parents’ homes in Texas, or Chicago.
“A lot of people are letting their apartment leases expire and moving out,” he said. “They'll come back when the business is back.”
Primis said he’s fortunate from another aspect: His wife is a school speech therapist with a full-time job.
“I know couples where both are in the business and now neither one of them knows when they're going to be returning back to work,” he said.
The road back will be long, he said.
“I’ve said it’s easily five years before New York recovers from something like this,” Primis said.
“New York City, because it's a city that thrives on the tightness of it, the closeness of people, the closeness of restaurants, the subway, everything about New York is tight, in a good way. That's what makes New York thrilling and that's what makes New York special. And that is exactly what you can't have in this current climate.”
There are few spaces tighter than a Broadway orchestra pit, notoriously cramped quarters beneath the stage. Primis wondered how long it would be before musicians feel safe returning to that environment.
”At the Gershwin, our pit is one of the larger pits, but still, there's not a lot of extra room for Plexiglas everywhere and every single person to be divided,” he said. “That's going to be tough, if and when we go back.”
'It's brutal. Brutal, brutal, brutal.'
Nick Wyman’s glass is so typically half-full that he even turned rejection into a positive, writing "Climbing Rejection Mountain," (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, $24.95) a primer for students navigating the fraught world of theater, out this summer.
Wyman was last on Broadway as a corporate mogul who somehow managed to control the rage of Bryan Cranston's Howard Beale in “Network.”
The pandemic has done a number on Wyman. “Lately, I have been falling into depression,” he said. "And I'm one of the lucky ones."
While his age makes him more vulnerable to the virus, he said, he also has Social Security and a pension.
“My heart goes out to everybody, particularly the folks who are Broadway or theater folks," said Wyman, former president of the Actors Equity union. "They're just waiting for live theater to come back. And it's brutal. Brutal, brutal, brutal.”
Even the traditional backup for an actor, bartending or waiting tables, has largely vanished.
Reopening Broadway, Wyman said, has so many moving parts: making theaters safe; convincing audiences it’s safe; figuring out travel to bring in tourists; making a vaccine and having it available and affordable.
“When I think of what a slog these seven months have been. And now it's going to be another eight or nine?" he said. "People are at the snapping point.”
There are glimmers of hope on the margins, with a return of TV and film and a Zoom theater play, “Six Feet,” by Melanie Hoopes, commissioned by Hastings-based RiverArts. (Details at www.riverarts.org.)
When Wyman’s character arrives, he said, he “completely turns everything on its head," which seems an all-too-familiar feeling at the moment.
Flash-mob against tedium
Ali Ewoldt played Cosette in “Les Miserables” and was the first Asian-American to play Christine in “Phantom of the Opera.”
When the pandemic hit, she was between shows, lining up “possibilities,” as she calls them: concerts that took her to Dubai and Taiwan last year and Japan in January. She was to sing in Hong Kong in February, until that concert was canceled, the canary in the COVID-19 coal mine.
When the lockdown came, she bundled up her dog, Mia Belle, and headed north to her parents’ home in Pleasantville. She stayed nearly five months.
Another possibility, — “Chicago” at The Muny in St. Louis this summer — fell away.
"What's so hard about this time is it's not just our jobs that have evaporated. It's everything that we wrap up our passions and lives into. To not really have anything productive to do got a little bit crazy," she said.
A neighbor on Facebook mentioned people in Italy singing out their windows at night, and joked that she hoped her neighbors knew the lyrics to “Les Miserables.”
“My mom just casually mentioned it to me, not realizing that I'd be a dog with a bone,” she said. Soon, Ewoldt had written and distributed parody lyrics and enlisted theater-loving families in the neighborhood, including that “Wicked” French horn player.
The result: a YouTube video in which Ewoldt’s soprano voice floats over Pleasantville as she stands in the sunroof of a moving car past her flag-waving neighbors.
“I was so excited to be brainstorming, something to do to channel my creativity," she said. "Thankfully, all the neighbors were just so glad to have something positive to do and to do it together in a safe way.”
As the pandemic has worn on, the crisis has only deepened, with no lifeline since July's extra unemployment ran out.
“The arts aren’t a fun, little fluffy thing,” she said. “We contribute a significant amount to the GDP. To be treated as superfluous during this time is really hurtful.”
Ewoldt is back in the city, and has traded her drive-around flash mob for a drive-in theater in Astoria, Queens. For two weekends, she was paid to sing at Radial Park, which showed the "Phantom" movie and had a live sing-along.
“Just the feeling of getting to sing again with real people in real time, real musicians was so moving," she said. "It really drove home what we've lost. Audience members came up to us afterwards and said, 'Thank goodness there's at least a little bit of hope.'"
Peter D. Kramer is a 32-year staffer at The Journal News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories. Please follow the link on the page below and become a backer of this kind of coverage. It only works with you as a subscriber.