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BWW Exclusive: Bringing Back Broadway, Part 3- Curtain Up! Light the Lights!

Step inside the stage doors of Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, Pass Over and more to learn what it takes to bring back Broadway!

BWW is giving you an insider look at the reopening process as Broadway gears up for its big return!

In Part 1, we chatted with Broadway League President, Charlotte St. Martin, and more about the reopening process from the administrative end, COVID-19 safety, and the intersection of Broadway and the NYC economy and tourism sector.

For Part 2, we took a deep dive into the trials and challenges facing industries surrounding Broadway as it prepares to make its big return, including a chat with the pros behind SpotCo, one of Broadway's largest marketing firms, and an inside look at the efforts being made to bring Broadway back as a more diverse and inclusive entity.

For our big finale. we're going behind the scenes of some of the biggest shows in town! Come with us as we step inside the stage doors of shows like Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, Pass Over and more to chat with the actors, artists, and technicians tasked with getting Broadway back on its feet!

BWW Exclusive: Bringing Back Broadway, Part 3- Curtain Up! Light the Lights!
Re-opening night at Wicked. Photo Credit: Bruce Glikas

With the city on its way back and the industries behind the scenes getting back on their feet, the time has come to reassemble, rehearse, and reopen! With just a few short weeks to bring Broadway back to life, artists, actors, technicians and more are pouring back into midtown to get the shows back into shape before opening night!

Spearheading this effort are hardworking stage managers, stagehands, and tech pros who will get all of the show's physical elements up and running before the curtain comes back up again.

To get inside this process, we chatted with Greg Livoti, the Production Stage Manager of Broadway's longest-running musical, The Phantom of the Opera. Though the curtain has yet to rise on their show, Greg and the production team began their work months ago, just as re-opening announcements were on the horizon.

He explains, "In very early June, we had our crew in the theatre for an assessment of what the physical state of the production is like after being dormant for over a year. This equipment was used six days a week pretty much continuously for 30 years. So we really needed to do a deep dive in to see what was working and if anything had deteriorated over time. We went in and turned everything on for the first time in 14 or 15 months, and I'm happy to report that everything works! The chandelier fell to earth exactly as it was supposed to."

In order to bring Phantom back to its phans, the first step is making sure that every last element of the physical production is ready to deliver the thrilling experience audiences have come to expect from this landmark musical.

Greg tells us, "Now we're going to be fine tuning our systems and making sure the show is looking in tip-top shape across all departments. The goal here is to have adequate time to make sure that when we have our first audience on October 22, the show is the same quality, not only in performance but in its technical reputation as being a very robust and spectacular production."

In order to get Phantom back on its feet, each department requires a minimum of several weeks for upgrades, cleaning, repairs, and inspections of all the show's working parts before the cast can return to the stage of the Majestic Theatre.

Greg explained, "Things have just sort of been hanging in state for 15 or 16 months. Part of getting everything back up and looking crisp will be a full top to bottom evaluation. This includes things like lighting and sound focus and touching everything up there. We're going through piece by piece to make sure that everything is positioned exactly where it needs to be and and working exactly how it needs to be."

As the team at Phantom buckles down to bring the show back in terms of quality, safety is among the top priorities. All of the show's rigging, motors, lifts, and special effects will undergo rigorous testing, inspections, and rehearsals before performances begin.

He explains, "We have an inspector come in for several eight hour days, where they work in the morning and afternoon prior to performances, going piece by piece, inspecting everything. Extrapolating that out to an environment where we don't have shows every day, we're looking at just a full week of 50 inspections. We also have various aerial elements in the show, where people are wearing harnesses. So all of those systems will need to be checked. Then as we get into rehearsal we are planning to revisit all of those safety elements. Even though our company will be familiar with them, having done them before, we revisit those elements as if it's the first time because so much time has passed."

Similar assessments are taking place all over town as the talented teams behind the scenes return to their posts. Ana Rose Green, Technical Supervisor of Dear Evan Hansen, is charged with running and maintaining all of the show's impressive technology, and is currently overseeing the return of the show's Broadway production as well as its national tour.

Despite Evan's deceptively minimal presentation, it takes a crew of specialized experts to run a battery of boundary-pushing technical elements that bring the social media- centric world of the show to life.

She explains, "Dear Evan Hansen has the look and feel of a small, intimate musical. But it achieves that using a surprising amount of sophisticated technology. There are 36 automated scenic effects, and the video and projection technology that was utilized when the Broadway production first opened pushed the limits of what was possible at the time. While the crew is relatively small for a musical (there are twelve stagehands and four wardrobe and hair [crew members] on Broadway), there is a level of expertise necessary for each position to run and maintain all equipment."

For Ana's part, she is overseeing and coordinating this process, planning for any and all outcomes regarding the show's technical well being as the reopening process begins.

"Once technical equipment is turned on, the crew will run through cueing multiple times to ensure that everything is running properly. We anticipate that some equipment will need to be fixed or changed out, but we may not know exactly which components until we get them up and running. Our team is hoping for a smooth restart while preparing and planning for a multitude of potential scenarios, with equipment on standby and shop support at the ready. We are building schedules for each production that allow for the time necessary to smoothly and successfully restart each show and get back to the quality of production we walked away from over 18 months ago."

With the production team headed back to the wings, sewing machines all over midtown are humming once more as Broadway's wardrobe departments head back to work.

As part of the effort, veteran Wardrobe Supervisor and Tony Award-honoree, Alyce Gilbert, headed back to her home at the Gershwin Theatre, where she and a team of very good witches are reconjuring the wonderful world of Wicked!

Sporting approximately 263 of Broadway's most magical costumes, Wicked's yellow brick road back to the stage had potential to be trickier than most. Each and every dazzling costume element is created and made to order specifically for the blockbuster musical. After over a dozen months in storage, Alyce and her team were anxious to see how their costume stock had fared throughout the shutdown.

"In the reopening of the show, we were dealing with how did the clothes survive? At Wicked, we were very lucky in that the day that we shut down was a Thursday, we had a work call and there also been an understudy rehearsal. So we'd had all the laundry done and we were planning on doing the performance that evening. When they called to say that we were not going to perform and would be shutting down, it was like three in the afternoon. So there was time to cover all the racks of clothes with sheets and drop cloths, because at the time we thought it would be about a month."

She continues, "We bagged up all the laundry, put it in baskets and encased it in plastic. So we were a little better prepared than some shows that didn't have people in the theatre that day. We were very lucky that we didn't get moths in the theatre. A number of theatres did and they are facing much more difficult situations where all of their sweaters got chewed up. There's nothing much you can do if they got to the clothes, except replace them. And we can't go to the store and get more, it really has to be made. So, we've been very lucky that what we have is pretty much in the shape it was in when we left."

Alyce and her team brought the cast in for fittings three weeks before rehearsals began. This allotted enough time to perform alterations that may be necessary for returning actors and fitting new company members for their wardrobe. Items like wigs and prosthetics also needed to be fitted and custom made to for new members of the company.

She explains, "We try on everything that they were wearing when they left. People's weight may have changed. They may be thinner, they may be heavier. At least two of them have had babies. We just want to see where we are with the clothes and what we might have to do to alter or replace. Then there are new hires, so we're trying existing clothes on them to see if we have to get stuff from storage or order new things. Of course, we'll have to order shoes for the new people, and that involves four or five shoe makers in four different countries. My biggest fear at the moment is that people have spent a year and a half in sneakers and flip flops, and don't remember what a real shoe feels like. That can become problematic. People's feet may have changed. And so that's going to be complex."

The complexities of getting a show like Wicked back onstage from a costume standpoint can be summed up in one word: shoes. To achieve optimal Ozian sartorial fantasy, the production custom orders shoes from artisans in Nova Scotia, Italy, Spain and New York. With COVID-19 still raging around the globe, the manufacture and import process has become decidedly more difficult for shows whose production elements may rely on shipping.

Alyce explains, "In Italy, the entire shoe industry shuts down for the month of August. This year, because of the pandemic, our supplier who gets the shoes from Italy decided to only have two weeks of vacation. So maybe they will be able to turn things around faster, but you're also dealing with getting things back and forth. They may have the shoes finished, but they could sit in either Italian customs or American customs for several days because the customs people are shorthanded."

To work around this issue, Alyce and her team put their design skills to use, purchasing and altering footwear to suit the style of the show until the official shoes arrive.

"It's not easy to come up with something that we can use temporarily, but in the world of feet, we often have to do that. Sometimes we have to buy a pair of boots that have the feeling of Wicked, and then paint them to make them look like they belong. Then hopefully we'll get the real design from manufacturers fairly soon. We're going to be seeing some of these actors for the first time, maybe three or four weeks before they have to be on stage. They can learn the show very easily in that amount of time, but they can't necessarily make the shoes that fast."

In addition to maintenance, repairs, and re-fittings, returning wardrobe staff are also re-learning the show's complex quick-change choreography, only this time with the added hurdles of PPE and sanitization added on to their usual routine. Using the recently launched national tour as their guide, the teams of dressers at Wicked are learning how a foggy face shield or latex gloves can impact the show's already tricky costume changes.

Alyce explained, "Gloves would make that so much more difficult. I think we're going to deal with sanitizing the hands every time. You sanitize your hands before you do a quick change and you do it afterwards. I think that will be the thing. I would expect the dressers to be masked. They'll have to decide how they're going to handle actors and masks offstage. I think that they will find that out more clearly when they work through with the tour."

The question of PPE and safety protocols in front of and behind the scenes has been one that arts institutions all over the world have struggled with in their attempts to return to the stage. To see how this new way of working has impacted day-to-day life at a Broadway production, we checked in with Cody Renard Richard, Production Stage Manager for Broadway's first returning play, Pass Over.

"Walking into this, we were all nervous about what COVID protocols would do to our work environment. Sure, there were times where we had to re-calibrate because it was a new way of thinking, but because we've been so transparent about how we're doing it, it has not hindered our process," he explained.

"We have an epidemiologist on our show which is really the saving grace for us. She's an expert in the sciences and she's been able to speak to us in a way that a regular COVID safety manager wouldn't be able to. She breaks down how the virus spreads, she takes away the stigma of testing positive, and tells us what the protocol would be if someone were to. So knowing that takes away the fear. Obviously we're masked and have a responsibility outside the theatre to be as safe and responsible as we can, but knowing how this thing travels and being tested so frequently gives us the freedom to work without having to be nervous. So what's been helpful is really understanding what this moment is."

Among the safety measures implemented over at Pass Over are frequent hand sanitization, near daily COVID testing, mandatory masking (performers are only unmasked when onstage), and air purifiers in all backstage areas, including an updated HVAC system. The most important component of the effort to keep the production COVID-free, however, is cooperation.

Cody explains, "This is a team effort, you know, so we have to be remember that too. That by doing this, each person is helping out the person next to them. So we all pitch in and we do the thing."

While the elements of the physical production are at the forefront of everyone's minds, the mental and emotional impact of the past year and a half is not to be ignored. In his role as Stage Manager, Cody is not just charged with the well being of the show, but of its personnel as well. In his return to the rehearsal room, compassion is at the forefront of his priorities.

"As a stage manager, we have to be able to service the show. If you can't work from a place of service, you're not able to lead. Stepping back into the rehearsal space after all these months was about making sure that we hold space for people to step back in to the room. I think that we have to look after people a lot more than we have before, as much as we're looking after the show. The emphasis has to be on the people because we've all been through a lot," he said.

"Some people are still mourning deaths from COVID. Some people are still dealing with symptoms of COVID. Some people are socially anxious because they haven't spoken to anyone in a very long time or been around a lot of people. Where we can't necessarily solve everything we can just extend grace and let them know that it's okay to be feeling a certain way."

The topic of mental health in the workplace is another big ticket item as our industry returns. During the shutdown, the #MeToo movement gave way to comeuppance for other types of abuses in our industry, including systemic racism and workplace violence. This led to a call for a kinder, safer, and more inclusive American theatre. Pass Over has implemented numerous behind the scenes initiatives based in compassion and inclusivity to make that dream a reality.

"Our playwright, director and producer care a lot. They've come up with initiatives to get newer audiences to the theatre, our cast gets a stipend for mental health care, we have an EDI [Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] expert who's available whenever we need and has had sessions with the company. These are things that we haven't done before. So there are a lot of new things being thrown at our show, but that feels right. We're the first and our company is so passionate about it, it makes sense. We're all allowing space for all of this to happen," he explained.

With the physical production elements being put back into place, it's time for the companies to head back into rehearsals to bring the shows back to life! Though many of the performers will be returning to familiar material, creatives won't be resting on their laurels when it comes to getting their shows back up and running.

As the content of many returning shows has taken on new relevance in the COVID-19 era, casts and creatives are coming to their material with a fresh outlook, one informed by the trauma of the past 20 months and the unbridled enthusiasm of artists returning to their craft.

Ricky Hinds, who is returning to Broadway this season as Associate Choreographer for the Broadway productions of Come From Away and Company, told us, "You probably couldn't find two more relevant shows to come out of a pandemic. Come From Away is about community and love, and Company is about New York, people, friendships, coming together, and sharing space. That's what everyone is going through right now."

As Ricky prepares to get the New York company of Come From Away back to The Rock, he and the cast are discovering new facets of how their show might be received in the COVID-19 world.

"I feel like Come From Away is more relevant now than ever because the entire world just went through this unbelievable time of need. It's in the language of our show, and we all just lived it. We were laughing when one of our characters says, "Stop bringing in toilet paper." You know, we were like, "Oh my God, we just lived that moment!" And everyone that walks into our theatre will have had some degree of separation or experienced loss in the last year and a half, which makes the whole narrative of Hannah have a completely different effect, because we've all experienced such loss."

The idea of finding renewed meaning through trauma applies twofold at Pass Over, which excavates the heartbreak, hope, and joy of young Black men dreaming of ways to rise above their circumstances.

In light of the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed, playwright Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and director Danya Taymor made the decision to revise the play's ending, which originally depicted the lynching of one of its Black characters.

Danya Taymor tells us, "What the murder of George Floyd and the simultaneity of the pandemic did was cause people to be still. And the murder of George Floyd did not allow people to turn away. So, something Antoinette and I talked a lot about was what do people need to see in this moment and experience? Do they need to see that in front of their eyes? No. And that's when she began to dream into something more Afrofuturist, something that doesn't exist, but could exist."

She continues, "But it was also important, even as the ending shifted, not to turn away from the truth that Antoinette is trying to shine a light on. So, I think that the envisioning of the new ending certainly was brought about by everything that happened in the pandemic. And I really do think this version of the play is the strongest version. I love this version. I feel like the changing of the ending allows everything else in the play to sing in a different way."

Though Pass Over ends on a more hopeful note in its Broadway incarnation, the play still retains moments of intense racial violence, ones that Taymor and her team staged with great care in order to preserve the mental health and well being of the cast.

She explains, "I think about the health of the actor, because even though the ending is different, there is still incredibly charged racial violence that happens in this play, and it's part of the truth of this country and the truth of all of our ancestors. That's why those scenes are in the play, they are part of our collective story and history. So we take tremendous care in the staging of them, and in staying in constant communication with the actors."

For a director, the tenor of the rehearsal room can greatly inform the outcome of a piece. Returning to work after this long and traumatic break calls for a grace period of adjustment in order to reestablish the safety and rapport necessary to create a cohesive vision.

Danya explains, "The first hour of rehearsal every day was warm up. That helps get people breathing. It helps get people back in their bodies. It helps them begin the process of being intimate with one another. So we created space for that, and then we just played. I think it's really important also is to make sure that there's a sense of play. Especially after this year full of horror and collective injustice. So, I wanted to make it a joyous space, especially because the play Pass Over is unstinting in its truth- telling. That involves some really traumatic things that we're gonna ask actors to put their bodies through. So making sure that the rehearsal room was always a relaxed, safe, playful space was crucial to the beginning of the rehearsal process."

Companies require a minimum of three weeks for rehearsal. In that time casts and creatives are working from the ground up to create a totally fresh experience for audiences eager to return to the theatre.

Ricky explains, "We're not coming back to just dust something off that already existed and open it as fast as possible. We're going back into a formal rehearsal process because we're different people and it's been a year and a half. We can't expect to just do the same show that we did in March 2020."

He continues, "So, day one is like, get your vocal scores, sit around the piano, and let's start from the beginning; check every vocal part, check every note. Then we transfer all that and get onto our feet. Again, we start at the top of the show, slowly navigate our way through that and check in; find new moments and polish it all up. Then we move into the theatre, we tech all over again, adding the sets, the lights, the costumes. And once again, we start all from the beginning and work our way through that. It's literally like opening the show all over again, just in a slightly more contained timeframe."

Greg Livoti, Phantom's Stage Manager shared similar sentiments, "It is an opportunity, especially for something that's been running as long as Phantom. Everyone's onboarding process based on when they joined the show [pre-pandemic] was perhaps a little different. So this is a really exciting opportunity to get everyone back in the same room, hand out fresh scripts and scores, and begin the process again together. There's a cohesion that comes with being a part of something from the first day that none of us have had the opportunity to do on this show. So that's what is really exciting about getting back together again."

For returning performers, the process of getting back in eight-shows-a-week shape begins long before they enter the rehearsal room. Before they hit the stage, actors, dancers and the like must first hit the gym, dance studio, acting class, vocal coach, nutritionist, physical therapist, and any and all wellness specialists in order to prepare to meet the demands of their performance schedule.

Ivan Hernandez, who currently plays grieving parent Larry Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, discussed his routine in staying show ready throughout the pandemic.

"I drank a lot of wine outside with the neighbors and ordered takeout for the first couple of months. Then after that, you're like, okay, this is enough...You try to maintain some sort of schedule. After everything that happened, there is a temptation to just let yourself go and kind of wallow, but we knew that we had to come back and we didn't know when it was going to happen. I think that really helped me to keep going, take care of myself, and try to stay ready."

He continues, "Part of it is physical. It's just about staying healthy, getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising, all that stuff. The other side of it is just keeping your craft in tune. I love to read plays and monologues and dive into the world of characters. I think that to have the rehearsal process will be a very important thing this time around to get us all used to performing live onstage again."

In addition to his regular prep for the show, Ivan was one of Broadway's actors who contracted the virus early on. Though he and his family thankfully came through their two- month bout with COVID-19 safely, he says he is still dealing with some long haul symptoms as he prepares to return to the stage.

He explains, "I still have some symptoms, basically some sort of asthma, and so my lungs have never quite been the same...but there are people who are a lot worse shape. I can exercise and run and I feel good. It could have been much worse, but it was scary."

With several Broadway productions now up and running, the path back to normalcy remains and long and uncertain one. Though many remain resistant to masking, questioning its efficacy and potential to dampen connection in theatres, classrooms, and the like, director Danya Taymor has noted a markedly opposite effect at Pass Over.

"I've never felt an audience as alive, engaged, and leaning into live performance. They thought that masks would diminish the vocal response of the audience, but it does not at all. I think what it does is it makes people feel safe...It's so much safer than eating inside a restaurant or going to a bar. There's a lot of people there, but nobody takes their mask off, nobody's eating, there's no intermission, we've got the incredible air filtration system on the entire time. So, I think the masks actually make it so that people can relax and forget they're wearing them. We've had so little drama with it in terms of the audience and the company also had incredible buy-in. It's just a rigorous system that ensures that we can do the show safely and successfully and keep both backstage and the audience safe."

With a "so far, so good" mentality firmly in place, every new opening and every COVID- free performance brings a renewed sense of hope and excitement, one shared by industry insiders and fans alike. As more shows prepare to reopen, those waiting in the wings are envisioning their own opening nights, eager to share in what is sure to be an occasion that is equal parts exhilaration and catharsis.

Pass Over's Cody Renard Richard has already gotten a taste of that feeling, and shared it with the world via a viral video depicting the rapturous response to his first night curtain speech.

He says, "I watch my reaction because I'm processing it in real time. Like, oh my God, these people are back in this space for the first time! Oh my God, they're standing! Everything about, it was so shocking. It was kind of like an out-of-body experience. I still have to do my job, but I was also experiencing it for the first time, like the audience was. It was magical."

Director Danya Taymor shared a similar experience, telling us, "The energy was tremendous when Antoinette and I walked into the theatre. It felt like my wedding day in some ways. I've never experienced anything like that as somebody who mostly works behind the scenes. The generosity of the audience and their joy to share space with one another and performers live after 18 months of nothing but screens was just overwhelming in the best possible way. It's a night is going to stay with me forever. It was once in a lifetime."

Though still more than a month out from performances, Phantom's Greg Livoti is already looking ahead to opening night, "When we come back, the butterflies of being back in front of an audience again, and feeling the response...I've thought about it a lot over the last year. That's a day I've been looking forward to for that exact feeling...I'm getting goosebumps now, just talking to you about it. The energy in the building. I can't imagine."

Despite what will surely be a whirlwind of emotions, there is still a job to be done and it's on the hardworking casts and staffers of these productions to ensure a pitch perfect experience from the opening strains of the overture to the final curtain.

Ricky Hinds shares, "I'll be crying like a baby! At Come From Away, our brilliant director, Chris Ashley, always tells the cast, 'You can't cry. As heavy as this material is, you've got to stay focused.' The difference, too, with our show is that we literally walk out on stage and we're staring right at the audience...So to be able to see people's faces and their reactions and the emotion, they'll be looking at it all night. So, for the actors, it's about just trying to stay strong and focused and tell the story. I'll be crying in the audience. And then, of course, they can all cry, once the show ends."

Read Part 1: Waking the City That Never Sleeps, and Part 2: Reviving, Revising & Revitalizing.

TodayTix Black Friday

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