New Documentary Explores How South Korean Theaters Kept Running Through Covid
It felt like the old days. On August 9, a semichaotic cluster of theatergoers outside the Majestic Theater was met by security and ushers — though this time they were asking for proof of vaccination instead of bags to be made ready for inspection. Inside, the absence of the bar and merchandise stands turned the lobby into a waiting room, and guests cheered when they heard the familiar call of "Ladies and gentlemen, the house is open!" The air hummed with excitement as I walked into the home of The Phantom of the Opera and saw the chandelier and proscenium in their full glory.
As crowds filtered in, I could tell they were basking in the same feeling of being in a theater again, many for the first time in nearly 18 months. Cast, crew, fans, and "phans" (Phantom devotees) waited for the curtain to rise on the premiere of Sammi Cannold's new documentary, The Show Must Go On. An introduction to the evening and to the work of the Actor's Fund, for which the evening was being held, was followed by a surprise performance of a reworked "Could We Start Again, Please?" featuring the always glorious Josh Groban.
Following the energetic live performance, the premiere began. The Show Must Go On weaves together the stories of two productions in South Korea, a country with a robust theater scene, during the Covid shutdown. The documentary revolves around various updates and interviews from the in-progress world tour of The Phantom of the Opera and a new production of Cats, as the bad news about Covid restrictions trickles in about mandated lockdowns around the world.
The experience was a bit like watching a horror movie when you know the ending. South Korea initially had the most Covid cases outside China and was a hot spot in February, but the outbreaks in the US and other Western nations became far worse. South Korea was determined to make sure the show went on. Strict adherence to protocols that had been developed in response to previous respiratory virus outbreaks of SARS and MERS in the country allowed theaters to continue operating while others around the world shut down.
The documentary serves as a stark reminder of how differently the pandemic was handled in the East and West, and it does not shy away from showing measures that push the boundaries of personal privacy. It's hard to imagine that Westerners who are wary of masking and so-called vaccine passports would be willing to submit to the contact tracing apps and continuous surveillance that South Korea used so successfully. On the other hand, it was heartening to see that the people of Korea were so committed to keeping theater alive that they worked around the clock to ensure the safest environment not just for performers and patrons, but for every single person in the building, with little to no resistance or protest.
As someone who spent three years teaching English in Seoul and saw the previous iterations of the world tour of Phantom of the Opera and Cats there in 2014, the evening was special in many ways. While the documentary filled me with pride and awe for the small but mighty country, there was a tinge of despair lingering in the back of my mind. Broadway still seems skittish about reopening now that fears about the Delta variant have arisen. We've seen other nations continually adjust or postpone reopening, and we wait with bated breath to see how Broadway will fare in the coming weeks.
Apprehension aside, the evening ended with a hopeful rendition of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," from Sunset Boulevard, complete with Phantom's candelabras and passionate performances from Sierra Boggess, Adrienne Warren, Ariana DeBose, Ali Ewoldt, and Shireen Pimentel. Overall, it made for a joyful, reflective night at the theater. With shows announcing casts and opening nights imminent, one can certainly hope that there's magic in the making and that Broadway will come back bigger and brighter than before.
The documentary is available for streaming here through 6:30pm ET on August 11.