Six months ago, Broadway—and theatres all over the world—shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. But even as they were reeling from the news, the theatre community banded together virtually (and occasionally outdoors, while practicing social distancing) to entertain the masses.
Check out seven ways Broadway came together in the COVID-era.
1. Support for Those Affected by COVID-19
At the onset of the pandemic, one phrase was prevalent everywhere: personal protective equipment (or PPE). Hospitals all over needed masks, gowns, googles, and more, so leave it to the recently out-of-work wardrobe department and costume designers to step in. Groups like Open Jar Studios and McCarter Theatre Center led the charge by creating virtual factories that not only churned out needed protection, but paid its workers.
On top of making PPE, stage and screen stars posted on social media supporting frontline and essential workers during the daily evening applause sessions. Among the notable repeat cheerleaders were Sara Bareilles, Sarah Silverman, and Bernadette Peters.
In addition to the support for workers, Broadway stepped up to help COVID-19 patients, some of them stage favorites themselves. The Actors Fund, Broadway Cares, and many other charities hosted dozens of fundraisers to support those suffering from the debilitating virus. In a major loss for the community, Tony nominee Nick Cordero lost his battle with the virus in July.
2. Calls for Equality in the Industry
For decades, there have been calls for equality in the theatre industry, on stage and behind-the-scenes. Inspired by the protests against the police slayings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and other deaths at the hand of racists in America, BIPOC theatre workers demanded a change. Despite the inability to meet in-person, the entire community came together to speak, listen, and heal.
Among the more notable moments that came out of these calls for change were the Rally for Freedom, a three-day industry-wide forum hosted by Broadway Advocacy Coalition, the 31-page list of demands published by We See You White American Theatre, and the formation of Black Theatre United by a host of Tony winners.
In addition, a number of events planned for early June, including the Drama Desk and Obie Awards, postponed their ceremonies in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Changes have been made since then—among them white artistic directors stepping down and dance shoes in new shades are being released—so theatres can carve out more space for BIPOC performers, playwrights, producers, directors, designers, technicians, and other workers.
3. Theatre Moves Online With New Productions
With theatres closed, artists needed a virtual space to present their art. Zoom seemed poised to become the standard bearer but, as the community is apt to do, experimentation with the digital medium proved fruitful. Shows like The Line and Richard Nelson’s The Apple Family pandemic trilogy got the ball rolling, but as the shutdown dragged on, summer festivals got even more creative. Now, Broadway favorites are starring in fully produced murder mystery musicals—all made from home.
In addition, the rise of digital talk shows and virtual productions made for some of the buzziest headlines in the past six months. Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley have hosted some long-awaited reunions on Broadway in Stars in the House; Andrew Barth Feldman and Alex Boniello played games with fans on Broadway Jackbox, and then created an interactive murdery mystery interactive experience.
Even The Old Vic in London found a way to bring Fleabag favorite Andrew Scott to our screens, and it was a trio to end all trios when Meryl, Audra, and Christine became our new favorite ladies who lunch, not to mention the Pride Month readings from Pride Plays and Playbill, culminating in our Pride Spectacular, as well as our recent Women in Theatre concert.
Add to that a plethora of virtual concert and digital reading experiences with starry lineups, and audiences have had something new every night to enjoy while sitting at home.
4. Fans Revisit Their Favorite Moments in Theatre History
While theatre fans are always craving something new, the unprecedented shutdown and stay-at-home orders often required some comfort. There was no better time to stream the never-before-seen-unless-you-were-there Bombshell and Bernadette Peters concerts. The former was so popular, it even led to revived plans to create a musical based on NBC’s Smash. Across the pond, National Theatre at Home presented the NTLive filmed productions of hits like the Gillian Anderson-led A Streetcar Named Desire and the revival of Lorraine Hanberry’s Les Blancs. Add to that countless airings of live TV musical presentations, and the joy of live theatre was never more than a thumb click away.
There was one show, however, that blew every streaming option out of the water: Hamilton. The Internet nearly broke July 3 when the film capture of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit dropped on Disney+, featuring most of the original principal cast.
5. The Industry Honors the 2019–2020 Season Digitally
While we await more details on the 74th annual Tony Awards happening this fall, other organizations shifted to a virtual platform to honor the 2019–2020 season. A Strange Loop, The Inheritance, and Moulin Rouge! won big at the Drama Desk Awards while The Obies celebrated Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning queer musical and Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning.
The inaugural Antonyo Awards, celebrating Black excellence on Broadway and off, struck a balance in tone between acknowledging the June protests and Black Lives Matter movement while also honoring the great work achieved last season.
In addition to examples within our own industry, perhaps the Tonys will turn to this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards for inspiration. The virtual ceremony, with several theatre favorites vying for a trophy, airs September 20 at 8 PM ET on ABC.
6. Theatres Slowly Reopen in Their Own Way
With lots of planning—and plenty of trepidation—theatres did slowly reopen beyond when deemed safe to do so. While some groups like HERE presented solitary experiences like Gelsey Bell’s Cairns, others held outdoor solo shows with socially distanced audiences, like Harry Clarke at Barrington Stage Company.
The first Equity-approved musical to break out was Berkshire Theatre Company’s Godspell. Using plexiglass, masks, and many more safety measures, the Stephen Schwartz-John-Michael Tebelak extravaganza proved so popular, the production was extended two weeks through September 20.
Moving forward, Equity has approved three indoor productions to take place this fall in New England. Only 13 in-person productions since the shutdown have been given the green light, but by following guidelines set forth by health and safety officials, the future looks bright for both audiences and performers.
7. Stars Get Intimate Despite the Distance
Broadway stars refused to let their fans down when the shutdown sent everyone packing. With a mass exodus from NYC, performers were left to their own devices and, even without a script, they shined from afar.
Patti LuPone’s tours of her basement sent theatre-lovers into a Twitter frenzy with her fast-talking showcase of theatre memorabilia. Those looking for solace turned to Tina star Adrienne Warren’s Instagram page, where she frequently popped online to share mindfulness exercises.
In addition, photographers like Jenny Anderson managed to capture stars quarantining at home over Zoom, offering a look at our stage favorites in never-before-seen moments.
Some artists even founded a new business outside of the industry. Tony nominee Robbie Fairchild started a flower shop, fight choreographer Joe Isenberg launched a furniture company, and Broadway alum Chris Dwan founded an e-store to sell goods made out of recycled materials. That’s on top of the stars like Krystina Alabado, Noah Ricketts, and Telly Leung taking part in virtual hangouts and workshops.
With everything that’s happened in the past six months, theatre lovers can rest assured there’s plenty still to come until theatres reopen.