The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives in so many ways that it may be years before we can make anything like a final accounting. Still, some changes are felt immediately, and few felt the impact of COVID-19 harder than those who work in live theatre—and while you may think of the theatre as “just” entertainment, it’s also a multi-billion-dollar industry. Case in point—when the Broadway theatres closed on March 12, 2020, 96,000 people suddenly found themselves out of work.
Amy Rice’s documentary Broadway Rising helps put a human face on all the people that make Broadway happen, most of whom will never appear on stage—among them stage door managers, ushers, composers, producers, costume makers and technicians, as well as those working in ancillary businesses like Winzer Cleaners, which specialized in dry-cleaning Broadway stage costumes. Just like everyone else, people working in and around the theatre were exposed to the risks of COVID-19, and some became ill, leaving them to deal with illness at the same time that their means of earning a living (and their health insurance) disappeared, with no certain timetable for when things would get back to normal, if they ever would.
Theatre is an uncertain business in the best of times, but when COVID hit, “We all had a sense that things were happening very, very quickly, and there was so much fear in the air” according to Tom Kirdahy, producer of Hadestown and Little Shop of Horrors. “You could feel the walls closing in, and the sense of fear that was taking over the city.”
Add to that the uncertainty about the virus itself, particularly for people who make their living with their voices, since COVID-19 can affect the throat and lungs. According to actor Patti LuPone, “It was almost like the AIDS pandemic, where we didn’t know what it was. So we didn’t know if it was in the building, we didn’t know if it was airborne, if it was [spread through] saliva…” Given such uncertainty, the usual admonishments like “be careful” and “take care of yourself” didn’t have much meaning, because no one knew what you would need to do to fulfill them.
Peter Macintosh, an usher at the Booth Theatre (then home to a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton), was among the first to fall ill. The shutdown came quickly once it became known that a Broadway usher had tested positive (although his name was not revealed, of course, and I’m only using it here because he appears in this documentary identifying himself as the usher in question).
The shutdown was originally meant to last a month (it ultimately lasted 18 months), which was unprecedented for most of the people then working on Broadway. “The show must go on” isn’t just a catchphrase, after all, and cancelling a performance, let alone all performances, is just not done. The musical Six was scheduled to open the very night of the shutdown, but, like everyone else on Broadway, those involved with the show were forced to recognize a new reality. Many actors and musicians dedicate their lives to perfecting their art, and to have it all suddenly taken away was a blow to their egos and identities as well as their bank accounts.
Broadway Rising is composed primarily of interviews and clips from Broadway performances, making it a must-see for theatre fans. But this film’s appeal reaches far wider—it’s a document about how a specific, tight-knit community responded to unprecedented conditions. There were tragedies—the deaths of playwright Terrence McNally and actor Nick Cordero among them—but also hope, as some people use the unexpected interruption as an opportunity to pause and reflect. The results, for some, included teaching remotely, creating online communities, taking up new professions, and planning ways to make the theatre more inclusive. | Sarah Boslaugh