"A Lot of Tears Shed": An Oral History of the Broadway Shutdown, Part 6
Nearly a week after the theater industry shuts down, Covid cases start to rise, and two high-profile shows announce they've closed.
Business was booming. Nearly 15 million people had seen Broadway shows during the 2018-19 season. The total box office gross was $1.8 billion. And as the calendar pages flipped to January 2020, every theater had been booked for what was expected to be a prosperous spring, with 21 productions scheduled to open between the first of the year and the late-April Tony Awards cut-off.
By Friday, March 13, that was all moot. The curtain had unceremoniously fallen the afternoon before by order of New York State, as cases of the novel coronavirus ravaged the city and rapidly filled hospitals beyond capacity. There were hundreds of different ways to have seen this eventuality coming — audiences began to thin, whole companies and other theater personnel were getting sick — but Broadway lives by one motto: The show must go on.
The September 11 terrorist attacks kept Broadway closed for a few days. Labor strikes had darkened theaters in the past, but they were generally resolved within weeks. Covid-19 has caused the longest shutdown in the history of the Broadway industry, and while there are glimmers of hope on the horizon in the form of a vaccine, there is still no definitive end in sight.
As we hit the summer of 2020, I started documenting stories from across the Broadway community in an effort to make sense of it all. This is the sixth in a multi-part oral history of the Broadway industry shutdown and its aftermath, as told by the artists making theater eight times a week. These conversations have been lightly edited for clarity and nothing else, but they all paint a picture that could be a metaphor for the world itself: we were all blissfully naive to impending disaster, until.
In This Section
David Bryan, composer of Diana: A True Musical Story
Kelly Devine, choreographer of Come From Away and Diana: A True Musical Story
Crystal A. Dickinson, actor in Gnit
Joe DiPietro, book writer and lyricist of Diana: A True Musical Story
Brandon Dirden, actor in Take Me Out and director of Radio Golf
Patsy Ferran, actor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Gaby French, actor in Hangmen
Tom Kitt, composer of The Visitor and Flying Over Sunset
Lorin Latarro, choreographer of Mrs. Doubtfire and The Visitor
Rory O'Malley, actor in Hamilton in Los Angeles
Brad Oscar, actor in Mrs. Doubtfire
Debra Messing, actor in Birthday Candles
Lauren Patten, actor in Jagged Little Pill
Shereen Pimentel, actor in West Side Story Scott Rollison, stage manager of Hangmen
Ethan Salter, actor in Assassins
Blair Underwood, actor in A Soldier's Play
Tony Yazbeck, actor in Flying Over Sunset
Joe DiPietro: On the Friday, March 13, we met in my New York apartment to go over where we were with Diana creatively and what we wanted to do when we got back. We were at my dining room table for probably four hours — exactly what you're not supposed to do — and then, two days later, I was talking to David Bryan on the phone, and he's coughing. I was like, "Are you OK?" And he's like, "You know, I think I'm just stressed."
Kelly Devine: I live alone, and two of my associates live alone. When it started to get really serious in New York City, I got us a house in the Poconos, we rented a car, and we self-isolated ourselves there. The day we got there, we all got sick. All of us. I didn't have a bad case. I'm very lucky. I just couldn't smell or taste for 10 days. I got calls from a few people I know that they had tested positive, including David Bryan.
David Bryan: It's pretty obvious where I got it — I was in New York in a theater with 1,000 people for a week of previews. By Sunday night, March 15, I was in bed. I was in bed for about a week. Actually…Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Like four days. Then it started to get into my lungs a little bit, and I was like, "OK, time to go to the doctor." I went and got tested, it came back positive, and then my wife immediately tested positive. My doctor immediately put me on Hydroxychloroquine and Zithromax.
Lauren Patten: It can be 14 days until you're symptomatic, so it could have just been hanging out in me. I totally could have gotten it from doing Jagged Little Pill, considering we had several people who got sick. My boyfriend at the time was also sick, so I could have given it to him, or he could have given it to me. It could have been the Westside Market that I went into that Thursday, which was wall-to-wall full of people who weren't wearing masks, because masks and social distancing weren't really a thing back then. It could have been any of those things. No idea.
Ethan Slater: It's a little hard to tell whether I got it while commuting to rehearsal for Assassins, which is possible, but I got it two weeks after the shutdown.
Crystal A. Dickinson: You know, it is possible that we had it. We went through a loop of sickness in our house from Thanksgiving through February and March.
Brandon Dirden: When I was down in Red Bank, New Jersey, directing Radio Golf at Two River Theatre in late February, I had a pretty bad fever and sore throat. I was still functioning, but I went to an urgent care and had a strep test and everything came back negative. They were like, "We don't know what this is, but here's some antibiotics." And then I was fine after about a week. But now, of course, you start thinking, "I bet I had this thing."
Rory O'Malley: I'm shocked we didn't get sick. We were in Times Square February 17-March 5 rehearsing Hamilton. That we got out of there without getting sick is kind of a miracle to me.
Tom Kitt: My cough became worse and I lost my voice. I had been doing some Zooms, so that might have set me off, but I don't know. David Hyde Pierce, who was one of the stars of The Visitor, saw me coughing on a Zoom and texted me to check in and make sure that I didn't have a fever, which I didn't. There were enough moments where I felt like I must have had it. But I had two antibody tests and I don't have them, so I guess I didn't.
Ethan Slater: I was really fortunate that it didn't progress to a particularly scary point, but it was two weeks of being quite sick. And, you know, [as of December 2020] I still can't really smell things, and it's like this weird lingering thing that happened.
David Bryan: It was semi-brutal. Not as brutal as others, and I didn't have to go to the hospital. I mean, I was sick. I had a 101 fever. I lost like nine pounds. I was pretty weak. That second week, I started to get a little bit better every day, and then I was done with the fevers, and I was able to get out of bed. It took another two weeks to get strength back, like, just walking around my house. Then there were crushing headaches for six weeks. It took six weeks for the headaches to stop. And then it was a full three months before I stopped hacking shit up out of my lungs. And after three months, I was like, "Oh, I think I'm not sick anymore." At first you think, "Eh, it's just a flu," and then you see the death toll on TV every day. I lost two of my friends, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, and Nick Cordero, who was my Toxic Avenger. It's serious stuff.
Debra Messing: It's inconceivable and really impossible to explain to people how you've worked so hard and gotten ready to share this story to your audience, and then it's just cut.
Blair Underwood: A Soldier's Play would have closed on Sunday, March 15. There were a number of shows that were going to open in the coming weeks, and looking at the bigger picture, I'm just so grateful that we had the opportunity to pretty much finish the run.
Kelly Devine: I was very upset when things shut down. I felt like I was mourning. The fact that all of the work that we had done for years — all of these Come From Away productions across the world — just went away in one phone call. It completely stopped, which I found so upsetting.
Scott Rollison: My concern was that since Hangmen was already a limited run, even if Broadway came back in four weeks, what if we couldn't make it because they couldn't work out the budget or extend the cast for the weeks we were going to lose. But given what we were hearing in the news, Hangmen closing wasn't a shock. We got individual phone calls, which was the kind way to do it.
Patsy Ferran: I think they were trying their best to see if Virginia Woolf could continue in some capacity, and I know there were interactions to see about my availability. I manage my expectations by expecting the worst and being OK with it. I was never, at any point, going "it's gotta come back, it's gotta come back." Never. That's out of my control. So when the official closing of the show came my way in March, I didn't properly take it in because I was always like "Yeah, I know. Next." The thing that made me go "it's over" happened in August, right around the time when the show was supposed to close, when I received two boxes filled with all the stuff I left behind.
Gaby French: Even though we knew deep down it wasn't coming back, you still hang on to that hope. I was really upset when that phone call came in.
Scott Rollison: I've gotten a few phone calls like this before. The really surprising one was during The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 2001. We had just shot a really big commercial and thought we were gonna be a big summer tourist hit and the plug got yanked. The same with Little Women in 2005. Obviously, this sucks. I was most sad because so many people in our cast were making their Broadway debuts. It was the first big, exciting thing for a lot of people, and to see those dreams get dashed, I was sadder about that.
Gaby French: I was absolutely gutted. It's not just the show closing. It was the change of life for me. I came to do Hangmen off-Broadway in 2017 and I really fell in love with New York. So to go back and live there for what would have been six months was really exciting. I genuinely look back on that time and feel so lucky. Because we weren't pulled in rehearsals. We had 13 performances on that stage, which was wonderful. But you wake up in a gorgeous city, and then all of a sudden, you're going back to Wales. It's a reality check.
Patsy Ferran: The main thing for me, really, was being in that city. Russell Tovey took me under his wing. He knows a lot of people and he just sort of went, "Do you want to join me when I go for dinner with this person?" So thanks, to him, my experience felt really full. I would do this daily video for my girlfriends back at home, giving them an update. "Look at what donut I bought today!" "This is the first sneak peek at my costume!" I look back at it like a diary and I go, "God, there's a girl having the time of her life." It does feel like I had to leave the party early, so I do still pine for that city quite a lot. But I got to experience it for two-and-a-half months, so I can't fully complain.
Shereen Pimentel: I won't lie about it, there were a lot of tears shed. I'm a lot better in getting through it now. The first few months were the hardest. Because it really was like, "You guys are gonna be off for a month," and then the weeks went by and there was no way were going back. And then on top of that, I was graduating from college, which became virtual. So everything that I was looking forward to was gone, and I'm sitting in my childhood bedroom. I love my family and my house and all that, but I never imagined coming back home. I always dreamed of, even if I was in the city with no theater job, just like, survival of the fittest.
Brandon Dirden: I didn't really mourn Take Me Out, because we hadn't been in performances yet, and we were constantly getting messages from the theater [about their commitment to the project]. There is a feeling that we'll pick back up at some point. I did have a sense of mourning, if you will, for Radio Golf, because I'm so close with the Two River community and all of those audience members who are on this journey with us to try and see all of August Wilson's plays staged in their lifetime, and there were a lot of people really looking forward to checking this one off. But the set is still up, and the artistic director checks in with me all the time, so I still have hope.
Tony Yazbeck: I have a tap studio in my house, and I practiced every day and kept my diet so we could be ready in two weeks to go back. I was holding off anything emotional. I didn't have time. I had to stay in shape. I was reading my script. We were doing Zoom calls with the cast. There was a certain energy and a certain discipline. We could have gone back and had five hours of rehearsal and then done the show. Once they announced that it was going to be months, I lost it. I was heartbroken. We were so close, and now it's just a big question mark.
Debra Messing: I was gutted. I sank really hard. I was really in a depression. Birthday Candles is such a magnificent play. I had been looking forward to getting back into the rehearsal room, and doing it with Vivienne Benesch directing, who was my classmate at graduate acting school at NYU, and then it was gone. But I couldn't give up hope. I just kept thinking, "Whenever we can do this play, I will be there." And then Todd Haimes contacted me, and it was, "We're shutting down for the season, but I just want you to know that I am 100 percent committed to this play and to you, and we will do it when you can do it." I just broke into tears, from gratitude and relief. I was terrified that as time went on, that somehow things would get complicated and we would eventually fall out of the lineup. I honestly don't know what I would do if I had gotten that phone call. I think I would have just crumbled.
Rory O'Malley: I was so looking forward to this. I love doing Hamilton. Who wouldn't? I'd known that it was going to happen for nine months. My husband and I have a 2-year-old, so we arranged our life to make eight shows a week happen. I only recently stopped playing this terrible game of having the parallel universe where none of this happened playing in my head. Being like, "Oh, today's Friday. This would be the start of a five-show weekend. I'll never complain about one of those again." You definitely go through the denial that it's happening, and the grief of thinking about what it would be. Especially when you know how great it is.
Tom Kitt: It absolutely feels like grief. It's a huge amount of grief. It was going to be a monumental spring for me. I was putting out art in a way you can only dream of, and, as you know, it's a culmination of years of work. A combined decade of work, almost, on Flying Over Sunset and The Visitor, and I felt like I was going in some exciting new directions. The scores to both of those shows are the products of my desire to challenge myself and try something new. Going back and forth between those two shows was so hard, too. I wasn't seeing my family; I was just immersed in the work. And Jagged Little Pill, and some of the other projects I have in development that got pushed. We were in the studio recording some tracks for Almost Famous on February 24, sort of building towards a New York run. You want to see the culmination of that. I cried a lot.
Lorin Latarro: I'm trying to stay positive. It was a big year for me. I was about to offer something to our community, and it feels a little unborn. At the same time, there's a silver lining. With my daughter being 2, it couldn't be a more perfect time to really bond with her. It's been really magnificent that way, and I would have missed it because I would have been working this whole time.
Tony Yazbeck: I've always wanted this, in a way. I've always wanted to be home with my family more. I've always wanted to feel like I wasn't always leaving the house so I could be with my son. So there was this oddly delightful part of it, even though it started to get dark, emotionally. I had to figure out how to adapt to life as a husband, a father, with a house in the suburbs and a mortgage, and health insurance. I just had my 30-year anniversary of being an Equity member. I've made this business my life. Usually, when you don't have a job, you just keep going. There's auditioning, networking. This is the longest I've gone without auditioning. I've never been trained to figure something out like this. It was a really, really scary time.
Brad Oscar: I don't feel the finality in the way that I do when a show closes. It's just a fear of the unknown — not knowing, realistically, when we're going to get back on our feet. Yes, film and television are starting up again, but that's not necessarily my bread and butter. So the thought of "When will I work again?" is disconcerting and upsetting. That's what gives me anxiety.
Lauren Patten: Jagged Little Pill will most likely come back, and everyone feels positive for the future, which I'm grateful for. But because we don't have any information about that, for all intents and purposes in my life right now, the show is closed. I think that's been one of the hardest parts of this; there's been absolutely no closure in any way. We basically had a closing with no feeling that this was the last show. We just left the theater and never came back.
To be continued on Monday, March 8.