Now Playing On Broadway: Uncertainty, Unemployment And Displays Of Unity

Apr 24, 2020
Originally published on April 24, 2020 5:27 am

Before everything shut down, there were already jitters. An usher tested positive for coronavirus, actors were no longer taking selfies at stage doors and on March 12, one hour before a matinee of Moulin Rouge: The Musical!, the company held an emergency meeting, says actor Danny Burstein.

"They said that somebody in our cast was currently at the doctor's suffering symptoms of COVID-19 and that they were canceling the show," he recalls.

Later that afternoon, New York governor Andrew Cuomo shut down Broadway theaters, concert halls and arenas. Broadway was part of the first wave of COVID-19 closings around the county, and it has been hit especially hard. With its 41 theaters shuttered indefinitely, thousands of people are out of work, millions of dollars have been lost and some members of the community have been infected by the coronavirus.

The financial impact has been huge. Charlotte St. Martin is president of The Broadway League, an association which represents producers and theater owners. She says every week Broadway is closed, it loses $33 million in ticket sales alone.

"On an annual basis, Broadway contributes over $14.9 billion dollars to the economic impact of New York City," she explains. "And we are responsible for almost 95,000 jobs."

Brittney Mack has one of those jobs on indefinite hold. She was about to make her Broadway debut in the musical Six, when she found out opening night was canceled. "Man, it kind of hits you like a ton of bricks and a crane and a truck," she says.

Mack says she has daily chats with her fellow cast members. Her unemployment application has yet to come through, so she has no income. Still, you can find her singing on Instagram.

Burstein, from Moulin Rouge, is waiting for unemployment insurance as well, but he says: "I'm just happy to be alive." In the week after his show closed, he developed all the symptoms of COVID-19. "I had the fever, the chills, body aches, headaches. A friend of mine described the headaches as a hammer being inside your head, trying to chip its way out."

He collapsed in his bathroom, and ended up spending five days in the ICU at Mt. Sinai Hospital. "I just kept telling myself: 'I'm going to get better. I'm going to get better...' " he says. "I started literally doing dances from Moulin Rouge in my bed with my legs, trying to, you know, mimic what I did in the show, just to keep thinking forward."

It's been three and a half weeks since he left the hospital and, though he still doesn't have his singing voice back, he is getting better. But there have been deaths on Broadway: playwright Terrence McNally, actor Mark Blum. Another actor, Nick Cordero, who's on a ventilator, had his leg amputated. Everyone I spoke with told me Broadway will probably be one of the last places to get up and running.

There's a lot of uncertainty about what Broadway will look like when theaters reopen, says Charlotte St. Martin. For example, the shows Hangmen, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Beetlejuice have all announced they will not return, she says, and two others have been postponed to the fall.

"How many shows come back either from the new ones or the long running shows? We don't know," St. Martin says. "It depends on how long the pandemic lasts."

She estimates it may cost as much as $1 million to get a show rehearsed and back on the boards. She warns that some of Broadway's favorite, long-running shows may not survive the pandemic. People in the Broadway community say they're pulling together and supporting each other, but they worry that the theater-going experience itself may change.

"Will we see people's temperature being taken before they come back into the theater?" St. Martin asks. "Will people wear masks? Will people have certificates or cards that say they've been tested?"

In the meantime, industry professionals, like Brian Stokes Mitchell-- a COVID-19 survivor himself — are finding ways to give people a sense of community. Every evening, after people in New York City applaud health care workers, he stands at his apartment window and sings "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha.

"When I sing this song, I'm singing it for the healthcare workers," he says. "I'm not singing it as a performance. ... At the end, when people clap, I always throw their applause to those first responders and the health care workers ... and kind of just remind everybody: This is why we're doing this. This is why we're here. This is who we're applauding."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Broadway has 41 theaters, and this virus has been terrible for them. They're closed. No one knows for how long. Thousands of people are out of work. And then some members of the Broadway community have also gotten sick. Here's Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: On March 12, one hour before a matinee of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical," the company held an emergency meeting, says actor Danny Burstein.

DANNY BURSTEIN: And they said that somebody in our cast was currently at the doctor's, suffering symptoms of COVID-19, and that they were canceling the show.

LUNDEN: Later that afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo canceled all Broadway shows. Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners, says every week Broadway is closed, it loses $33 million in ticket sales.

CHARLOTTE ST MARTIN: On any given year, Broadway has between 10 and 12,000 direct employees that are in cast and crew. Plus, many thousands of other jobs are affected by Broadway.

LUNDEN: Brittney Mack has one of those jobs on indefinite hold. She was about to make her Broadway debut in the musical "Six" when she found out opening night was canceled.

BRITTNEY MACK: Man, it kind of hits you like a ton of bricks and a crane and a truck.

LUNDEN: Mack says she has daily chats with her fellow cast members. And...

MACK: I've applied for unemployment insurance and still haven't been able to verify. So (laughter) I have no income. But I'm still on Instagram, and I go in there, and I sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTAGRAM VIDEO)

MACK: (Singing) Tomorrow's unknown...

LUNDEN: Danny Burstein from "Moulin Rouge" is waiting for unemployment insurance, as well. But he says...

BURSTEIN: I'm just happy to be alive.

LUNDEN: In the week after his show closed, he developed all the symptoms of COVID-19. And when he collapsed in his bathroom, he ended up in the ICU at Mount Sinai Hospital on oxygen.

BURSTEIN: I just kept telling myself, I'm going to get better. I'm going to get better. This is - and I started (laughter) literally doing dances from "Moulin Rouge" in my bed with my legs, trying to, you know, mimic what I did in the show, just to keep thinking forward.

LUNDEN: And after a harrowing five days in intensive care, he is getting better. But there have been deaths on Broadway - playwright Terrence McNally, actor Mark Blum. Another actor, Nick Cordero, who is on a ventilator, had his leg amputated. People in the Broadway community say they're pulling together and supporting each other. But they worry that shows won't reopen and that the theatergoing experience may change. Charlotte St. Martin.

ST MARTIN: Will we see people's temperature being taken before they come back into the theater? Will people wear masks? Will people have certificates or cards that say they've been tested?

LUNDEN: For now, industry professionals, like Brian Stokes Mitchell, a COVID-19 survivor himself, are finding ways to give New Yorkers a sense of community. Every evening, after people applaud health care workers, he stands at his apartment window and sings "The Impossible Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL: (Singing) This is my quest to follow that star...

People need this, too. They need that connection. They need to be reconnected to themselves, to their own center, to each other, you know, to feel that we're all in this together.

(APPLAUSE)

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM (THE QUEST)")

MITCHELL: (Singing) This is my quest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.