Broadway Rising explores both the toll of the pandemic and the long journey back reopening the many Broadway theaters in fall 2021.
All of the Broadway theaters shut down on March 12, 2020 after an usher and part-time security guard tested positive for Covid-19. This was the first shut down since the terror attack on September 11, 2001. This time around, theaters would stay shut down for some 18 months before beginning to reopen. Initially, the closure was going to be just a month but as the pandemic worsened, they remained closed.
One of the first performers to lose their battle with Covid-19 was Broadway star Nick Cordero. Even now, just thinking about his death is something that gives me chills. Nick’s death came after 95 days in the ICU. His death was one of those wake-up calls that Covid-19 was deadly. Amanda Kloots, his widow, would become the face of grief in the industry. When Waitress reopened in the fall, they paid tribute to Nick by way of naming a pie for him. Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally also died early in the pandemic. His husband, Tom Kirdahy, broke down has he remembers those last moments.
Something else also happened during the pandemic. The death of George Floyd marked an awakening in the industry. Broadway workers started speaking out in favor of equality. Performers and other adjacent workers were calling out the systemic racism. Inclusion is more than just diversity in performers. It means telling different stories on the stage. T. Oliver Reid helped found the Black Theater Coalition as a way of increasing Black employment in the business. Ruben Santiago-Hudson shares his story. His story is very personal and would also inspire the writing of Lackawanna Blues. Not just this but it’s important to have Black creatives. When Broadway reopened last fall, there were seven new works from Black writers.
The Broadway shutdown didn’t just have a devastating impact on the theaters themselves when some 96,000 lost their jobs. Cancelations go a long way in impacting an entire ecosystem. Tourists would not be staying at hotels because they weren’t going to see a show on Broadway. Meanwhile, the surrounding restaurants were now dependent on the New York residents in the surrounding vicinity. Nobody was going to be coming in to eat before or after a show. I don’t know about you but it was eerie seeing images of an empty Times Square in 2020. The ecosystem also expands to theater critics–without theater, what do they have to write about? I say this as someone in an entertainment-adjacent industry as a film journalist. For a while, the only thing that really filled a hole for Broadway performers were the filming of Schmigadoon! and tick, tick…BOOM!
As Lin-Manuel Miranda notes, the story is not finished being written. People left Broadway and might not ever return to New York. When one compiles several months of unemployment due to an industry shutdown, it is enough to give one pause. What if they have no industry to go back to? Longtime Broadway dancer Adam Perry turned to floral design classes. He started a floral business with another dancer, Robbie Fairchild. Perry also suffers from lingering effects due to long Covid. A pair of Wicked performers, Mary Kate Morrissey and Ginna Claire Mason, started teaching musical history.
Bringing Broadway back has not been an easy road. This film largely focuses on the path to reopening theaters. It doesn’t focus on the past few months. The summer of 2021 saw the increase in the Delta variant. Delta started spreading as Broadway was planning to reopen in September 2021. Most devastating of all has been the Omicron variant and its subvariants. Going into 2022, there was no guarantee that shows would survive into the new year. Through the resilience of it all, we’ve seen the importance of Broadway understudies. Either the show goes on with wing performers or they make the decision to cancel. The industry is really having to take it one day at a time.
There are probably more stories out there but these are just a handful. Tom Kirdahy notes that there are nearly 200 people working on a production and they all have their own stories of redemption, hope, and anxiety. I didn’t realize until watching Broadway Rising just how big the ecosystem is in the community. I mean, I knew it was a big community but didn’t realize just how big it was. In the meantime, I tip my cap to the people who are helping with keeping Broadway safe.
To any parents out there that want their children to watch this film, there are a few F bombs. It’s enough language to automatically merit an R rating for a theatrical release unless it gets bleeped out.
Broadway Rising may ultimately become a time capsule in the years to come but this documentary puts a face on the resilience in the long road to reopening Broadway. As the saying goes, the show must go on!
DIRECTOR: Amy Rice
FEATURING: Ernie Paylor, Kevin McCollum, Amanda Kloots, Tom Kirdahy, John Kristiansen, Brian Blythe, T. Oliver Reid, Adam Perry, Jewelle Blackman, Meg Toohey, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Peter McIntosh, Lynn Nottage
Broadway Rising holds its world premiere during the 2022 Tribeca Festival in the Movies Plus program. Grade: 4/5
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