Hollywood Pantages Theatre
Hollywood Pantages Theatre

The Road to Reopening Theater Across the Country

From coast to coast, theatres hosting touring Broadway shows have been recovering from COVID-19. Since August 17, when Hamilton began a run at the Pantages Theatre’s Broadway in Hollywood in Los Angeles, venues have welcomed productions including My Fair Lady (Oklahoma City, September 28), Cats (Davenport, Iowa, October 3), Wicked (Greensboro, North Carolina, October 5), Fiddler on the Roof (North Charleston, South Carolina, October 29), and Alton Brown Live: Beyond the Eats (Tuscon, Arizona, November 10). And for theater-starved fans across the country, the holidays have indeed begun early with How the Grinch Stole Christmas which began performances in Washington, D.C., November 23.

When CIBC Theatre, one of Broadway in Chicago’s several houses, reopened with RENT October 5 — its first production since the pandemic forced its doors closed on March 13, 2020 — Broadway in Chicago president Lou Raizin delivered a short speech riffing on the musical’s popular “Seasons of Love,” which starts with the lyric “525,600 minutes,” a reference to the time span of a year. After thanking the audience for following safety protocols — wearing masks and showing proof of vaccination — Raizin said, “We have our own number. It’s 822,900 minutes. That’s the one year and seven months that our theatres have been dark.” He thanked all the behind-the-scenes workers as well, noting, “We employed 1,000 people prior to the pandemic. We went down to 14. The 14 people worked during the pandemic like 140.”

RENT Opening night at Broadway in Chicago.
RENT Opening Night at Broadway in Chicago.

During the shutdown, Broadway in Chicago kept in touch with fans and subscribers through social media and a mailing list numbering 140 million. Some were surely in the sold-out crowd that night when, following Raizin’s speech, the actors appeared on stage to an immediate four-minute standing ovation. “This was before they said a word,” Raizin notes, adding that the performers were left “with tears in their eyes, as was the audience. It was a special moment.” Outside the venue, seven film crews were on hand: “The number of interviews the team took was enormous.”

Local media also turned out when North Carolina’s Durham Performing Arts Center, which had shut down March 13, 2020, relaunched its Broadway season on October 5 with The Band’s Visit. “It wasn’t just our opening night, but the relaunch of the show’s tour,” notes Josette Roten, DPAC’s assistant director of marketing. “Some members of the cast had been with the production before the pandemic and others were new to the tour. We have a little outdoor plaza, a gathering place where the marquee is located, and we put together a special preshow performance where five of the cast members who play musicians played a few songs.”

The Band's Visit at DPAC.
The Band’s Visit at DPAC.

DPAC offered a few other performances starting in August, including a production of STOMP in September, and kept patrons engaged online during the pandemic with trivia games and contests in which fans could win clothing and other merchandise. But the October 5 event was especially celebratory. “We didn’t tell people about it beforehand,” Roten notes. “It was a big surprise, and people were delighted — some of them hadn’t seen live musicians since before COVID.”

When Broadway San Jose came charging back October 11 with Hamilton, the excitement was equally palpable — particularly among younger audience members. “I always like to talk to the kids who see our shows,” says general manager Gretchen Feyer. “I asked one 7-year-old boy who was dressed to the nines if he was excited to see the show, and he very shyly said yes. Like a lot of kids, he had seen Hamilton on Disney+. One girl was about 10, and she said her favorite song was ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ because it’s about empowering women.” With Halloween approaching, several children arrived dressed as characters from the musical: “There were three girls and a boy, all siblings, who came as the Schuyler sisters and Alexander Hamilton.”

Hamilton at Broadway San Jose.
Hamilton at Broadway San Jose.

Broadway San Jose had also kept patrons posted during the shutdown, and Feyer, like Roten and Raizin, stresses that the safety and comfort of both audiences and staff remain paramount. “Over the past year, we had talked about reopening at maybe 40 or 50 percent capacity, but I knew in my heart that with a megahit like Hamilton, we’d be at full capacity.” The floor print at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts was extended “so that we could have a larger space for people to eat and drink.” A pair of outdoor lounges was added as well, “so that anyone who wanted to eat or drink outside could do that. We had one or two nights of rain, but other than that, the weather held up. We had full audiences every single night, and knowing that those had chosen to come had read our materials and followed the protocols gave me peace of mind.”

Broadway San Diego at the Balboa Theatre reopened with Alton Brown Live, featuring the multitasking TV personality, chef, and musician, on November 14, and Hairspray arrived at the San Diego Civic Theatre on November 16. “Being able to connect with audiences for both as we relaunch is pretty neat,” says general manager Vanessa Davis. “We’ve gotten emails from our patrons saying, ‘Hang in there, we miss you too and we’ll be back.’ We didn’t have a lot of people cancel their season tickets; they rode the wave. We’ve been in San Diego for 45 years, so we’ve earned the trust of our patrons.”

Hairspray, with its buoyant spirit and inclusive message, feels particularly appropriate for the occasion, says Davis, who points out that venerated director Jack O’Brien — former artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, as well as a Broadway veteran — will be at the helm, as he was for the original production. “The show is a San Diego favorite, and we’ve got these performers with wigs and spotlights and an important story. It’s electric.” Mayor Todd Gloria is even issuing a proclamation on the day of Hairspray’s first performance to commemorate Broadway San Diego’s 45th anniversary and the return of live theater to the city.

Raizin notes that when another pandemic, the Spanish flu, wreaked havoc just over 100 years ago, “it was culture that led the way, with the Roaring Twenties. We’re hopeful that if anything good can come of this, culture will lead the way again.”