Special Reports

We Will Be Back: Springtime for Broadway After the COVID Winter

A flash concert in Times Square offers hope that the live theater will return in 2021.

Lillias White and André de Shields
Lillias White and André de Shields
(© Heather Gershonowitz/NYC Next)

A whole year after Broadway went dark, the use of simple future tense is encouraging to me: "We Will Be Back". It's not the exuberant present tense of a family comedy (We're Baa-aack!). Nor is it the squishy modality with which we have become all too familiar in the past year (We might be back…if 85 percent of you get vaccinated and never EVER remove your masks). By charting an assertive middle course, the organizers of last Friday's surprise concert in Times Square have followed President Biden's example and given us all a sense that Broadway's longest sustained shutdown is coming to an end — even if they cannot say exactly when.

I attended with a small delegation from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, one of the many tribes (including the Costume Industry Coalition and Local 802) gathered before the large red steps in Father Duffy Square to call Dionysus back to his rightful home. It felt a bit like a class reunion, complete with those awkward few seconds it takes to recognize someone you have not seen in a year during which physical appearances were liable to change significantly. If anything, this year has taught me just how reliant I am on the bottom half of people's faces.

As could be expected, the event shared many of the features of any public gathering in the COVID era: old acquaintances furiously waving with two hands in order to compensate for the lack of physical contact, a fashion show of face coverings, and a temperature check at the point of entry that dubiously seemed to score everyone near death (I have been told by multiple restaurant hosts and dental receptionists that I hover at a vampiric 94.4 degrees).

After making it through the initial check-in, I found a relatively secluded spot on the stairs from which to observe this hybrid concert-rally. It included speeches from some of the most beloved stars on Broadway including BD Wong, Chita Rivera, Joel Grey, and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Executive Director Tom Viola gave a rousing address in which he looked forward to the day we no longer have to wear masks, a widely shared sentiment that is rarely expressed out loud in Manhattan these days.

There were performances too, beginning with an energetic rendition of "On Broadway" from Joél Pérez, Derrick Baskin, Charl Brown, and Kelvin Moon Loh. Not to be outdone by the boys, Lillias White, Nikki M. James, Peppermint, and Solea Pfeiffer sang the hell out of "Home" from The Wiz. No one was phoning it in after suffering through a year of Zoom calls. These were the glorious vocals of people who no longer appear onstage eight times a week, and do not know when they will get that opportunity again.

Homecoming was a major theme: A new song by Allen René Louis, performed by Broadway inspirational Voices, deployed the refrain, "Can't wait for the day when we come back home." The question on everyone's mind is, when will that day be?

While President Biden has circled the Fourth of July as the date on which he hopes Americans can meet with friends and family for a cookout, mass indoor gatherings like Broadway will be slower to return. But if the president's plan to make vaccines available to every adult American by May 1 is successful, it stands to reason that everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be by the end of the summer.

Like the start of a new school year, Labor Day would make an elegant relaunch date. And barring a serious spike in cases (perhaps brought about by a variant strain), that seems achievable. Should events pan out better than expected, with a steady downward trend in cases and a big uptick in vaccinations, it is likely we will see soft openings before that, with socially distanced seating. If the recently announced run of Blindness at the Daryl Roth Theatre is any indication, this is already happening off-Broadway.

So at the risk of sounding like George III in Hamilton, I think we really will be back, not like before, but perhaps even sooner than Dr. Fauci predicted just two months ago.That can only really happen, however, if we're willing to adapt.

Watching André De Shields lead the company in "Magic to Do" from Pippin, I was struck by how joyously the performers were able to roll with adversity and turn the moment into something truly magical. This wasn't just evident in the vocalists belting out their souls through face shields, or the dancers performing socially distanced leg extensions (always the safest way to perform them). There was also the smoothness with which De Shields, noticing the thunk of an outsize earring as it tumbled from Drag Race star Jackie Cox, casually scooped up the bauble and handed it to her as if part of the choreography. Adapting to circumstance is what theatermakers do, so there is no reason to think they are not up to the challenge of reopening. The real question is, are we?

The theater community has sacrificed so much in terms of lost income, thwarted opportunity, serious illness, and even death. And yet they are still fearlessly adapting to make live performance a reality. The least we audience members can do is adapt with them. If that means providing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test at the door, and masking throughout the show, these seem like relatively small adjustments to me — ones I am eager to make if it means coming home to the theater.

Chita Rivera, Kelvin Moon Loh, Derrick Baskin, and Joél Pérez
Chita Rivera, Kelvin Moon Loh, Derrick Baskin, and Joél Pérez
(© Heather Gershonowitz/NYC Next)