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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

A standing ovation for the return of Broadway

Douglas Abell
Douglas Abell

The Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City was alive with contagious energy on the night of September 2 as audience members rose to their feet, cheering loudly before the curtain had even risen. Just moments later, Sara Bareilles stepped onstage, opening her musical, “Waitress,” on Broadway for the first time in nearly 18 months. 

A block away, the Walter Kerr Theatre was buzzing as André De Shields sauntered onstage, shook the hands of each of his cast members, gestured to the musicians, threw open his suit jacket and asked aloud, “Aight?”

Of course, a fresh bout of applause followed, for “Hadestown” was back. 

Musical theater has returned to Broadway, and not a moment too soon. Ever since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, 2020, actors, musicians, crew members and everyone else involved in the theatre industry have been out of work due to the temporary theater closure. Most of them have been struggling financially for over a year, trying desperately to find creative ways to generate income through their art. New York City itself was also losing steam without Broadway, an area which is essential to the city’s flourishing. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader from New York, reportedly spoke to the cast of “Waitress” before they opened, telling them that “without Broadway, New York would never come back economically.” 

Though the dangers the new delta variant brings are worrisome to many, the public’s determination to return to a more normal world is only growing stronger. Broadway shows are returning to full capacity, though all audience members must wear masks the entire time and provide evidence of vaccination. Children too young to be vaccinated must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. 

In spite of the protective measures taken, a bump or two in the road was inevitable. An actress in “Waitress” tested positive for the coronavirus even after being fully vaccinated and was unable to perform because of it. Almost instantly, the actress was replaced by an understudy, the rest of the cast was tested and everyone involved moved forward with a sense of renewed faith in the phrase “the show must go on.” Additionally, the “Waitress” cast honored one of their original members, Nick Cordero, who passed away after a long and grueling battle with COVID-19 last July. The beloved actor’s single, “Live Your Life,” was performed onstage as a tribute by the cast and Cordero’s wife. The show’s set has also been modified to honor the late actor: the pie menu board now includes the phrase “a big ol slice of live your life pie” in reference to Cordero’s song. It is clear while the pandemic has impacted the theatre community in more ways than one, the pieces it left for the world to pick up will serve as reminders of the struggles and newfound strength that have emerged as a result. 

“Waitress” and “Hadestown” seem to be the perfect shows for Broadway’s big reopening, as they both deal with themes of grief, love and hope. Audiences found themselves connecting more than ever to certain lyrics and songs, such as the closing number of “Hadestown,” “Raise Your Cup.” The world has seen much hardship and loss over the last year and a half, and Broadway is no exception. The industry is persevering nonetheless, more determined than ever to bring light to the world after theaters have been dark for so long.

Audiences will be able to treasure the experience of Broadway for years to come, but it is evident that nothing will be quite like seeing the lights go down, watching the curtain rise and hearing the well-known first song of Bareilles’ musical, “Opening Up,” as if for the very first time.