'A new normal': Broadway casts, crews prepare for return to the stage after COVID shutdown

David Oliver

"The Phantom of the Opera" will haunt. "The Lion King" will roar. And "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" will dazzle.

Yes, Broadway shows are finally coming back after shutting down March 12, 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic – with plenty of requirements for stars and theatergoers, including vaccinations.

Casts and crews are excited to see colleagues and audiences and to once again experience the joy of live theater. But nerves permeate the air in Times Square, too, as the community remembers the terrifying surge New York City faced last spring and as the threat of the delta variant looms large. The death of Broadway star Nick Cordero in July 2020, after a months-long battle with COVID-19, still lingers, too.

"Everyone's definitely excited," says Maree Johnson, who plays Madame Giry in "Phantom." "But there's also that little air of hesitancy, because it's a new normal that we're all entering."

Maree Johnson stars as Madame Giry in "The Phantom of the Opera."

A new normal panned out Sept. 29, when "Aladdin" became the first Broadway show to cancel a performance after the musical's company developed breakthrough COVID cases. The show later announced that its Sept. 30 performance would go on as scheduled at the New Amsterdam Theatre, and credited its COVID protocol system for giving them the ability to quickly contain the cases.

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The COVID pandemic 'reality check'

Johnson developed a fever and headaches shortly after the Broadway shutdown – ultimately discovering she caught COVID-19, along with her husband and daughter. Back then, it was unclear how the virus spread, so she went into a cleaning frenzy, only to realize she lost her sense of smell when she didn't recognize the strong scent of Pine-Sol cleaner or her favorite perfume.

"I knew then something odd was going on," she says, noting she only regained her olfactory sense six to 10 months later. 

Johnson, who's been a part of the "Phantom" cast since May 2017, was due for a wardrobe fitting in mid-August. But one of the show's "much-loved dressers," Jennifer Arnold, wouldn't be in attendance – she was sick at the same time as Johnson and later died. 

"Halfway through my recovery, I discovered that she was in hospital," Johnson says. "And then we lost her. So we're going back to the theater to our dressing rooms, and she was a big part of that for us. There will definitely be a time that we'll come together and remember her, so there's definitely that reality check."

Rehearsals begin Sept. 27 ahead of an Oct. 22 reopening for "Phantom," Brodway's longest-running musical, at the Majestic Theatre. 

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'We're making history'

While some shows won't start rehearsing until September or later for staggered reopenings, others have already found ways for Broadway fans to see their performances.

"Come From Away" – the musical about stranded passengers whose flights were diverted on 9/11 – filmed a special performance in May, to be broadcast on Apple TV+ Sept. 10 ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

"To walk into the theater and see all your stuff still sitting there, just with a light coat of dust the way you left it 18 months ago, was so surreal," says De'Lon Grant, a cast member. They had only about 10 days to rehearse for the filmed performance – but luckily their director, choreographer and music director were gracious as the cast settled into their roles after more than a year off.

"The hardest hurdle was just convincing yourself that it would come back," he says. Rehearsals begin Sept. 1 ahead of a Sept. 21 reopening.

Emily McGill, a communications consultant, was in the small audience for the filming. Expect goosebumps galore: "I didn't realize how emotional of an experience it would be to be sitting in a theater again," she says. To her, an empty theater feels the way many respond to an empty church or synagogue or mosque – like a place of prayer.

Audiences could certainly use prayer right now, particularly as the country reels from crises. "Pass Over," a modern, timely retelling of "Waiting for Godot," follows two Black friends in search of a better life. Cody Renard Richard, production stage manager, says the  show emphasizes Black joy and Black hope.  The show returns Aug. 22, the first Broadway play to reopen in 18 months.

"We're making history," Richard says, trying to take in the moment. He contracted COVID-19 in March in New York, like Johnson.

"Our first preview (for "Pass Over") was unlike anything I've ever experienced," Richard says, which included standing ovations before the show even started. "It just also reminded us that the audience has been missing live theater so much. They're hungry for this. The people who were in that audience gave us so much energy. It was crazy."

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Hope for Broadway's future 

Johnny Milani is eager to return as a stage manager for "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child."

"The idea of getting back into a theater is daunting but incredibly exciting, because we get to create all of that magic all over again," he says. Rehearsals are scheduled to begin in October for an updated version of the production – it had been split into two parts – to premiere Nov. 12.

James Snyder, who plays Potter, says the heart and soul of the story is still there, but it is much more streamlined. His wife, Jacqueline, co-founder of The Product Boss small-business coaching platform and podcast, became the primary breadwinner during the pandemic, giving him newfound perspective as he prepares for a life of theater once again.

James Snyder stars as Harry Potter in "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child."

"I'm a different human being day to day, not to mention 18 months later, having ended an amazing run and then dove immediately into being a stay-at-home dad who was homeschooling his kids and just trying to find work when I could and really support my wife as much as I possibly could," he says.

He's curious how rehearsals will go – will they need to wear masks be required?  – but trusts his producers, who covered his health insurance throughout the pandemic.

While she feels safe, Johnson wants to protect others. "The thought of me accidentally transmitting it and causing a health issue for someone else, that's probably where the anxiety is living in me," Johnson says.

Snyder learned his role as a father and husband is just as valuable as his job. "What's amazing is that really, at the end of the day, it was as rewarding, if not more rewarding, than stepping out onto a stage in front of 1,600 people, eight times a week." 

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