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By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Meghan Picerno was back at work after 18 months of pandemic limbo, overjoyed to be singing and dancing again with her "Phantom of the Opera" castmates as they rehearsed for the return of Broadway's longest-running show.
As the musical's late October reopening neared, sometimes all Picerno could think about was making it to the first curtain call unscathed by the breakthrough COVID-19 cases that had sidelined vaccinated actors at other shows.
Outside long days in a chilly mirror-lined rehearsal studio near New York City's Times Square, Picerno had put herself back on what she called lockdown.
"I'm a full-on monk now," she said during a rushed lunch break between back-to-back run throughs.
She knew her job came with risks of exposure. Playing the show's heroine Christine required Picerno to kiss two co-stars daily and to sing full-throated love songs with them unmasked and at close range.
"Hopefully, none of us have it, because if one of us have it, we all have it," she said.
The crowded Broadway theaters, vital to the city's tourism industry, were the first places closed by the New York government as the coronavirus began to ravage the state. Word of the abrupt shuttering came during a "Phantom" matinee at the Majestic Theatre on March 12, 2020, as some cast and crew themselves were falling sick.
Now, after an unprecedented shutdown, the theaters are among the last workplaces to reopen. Their return this fall is viewed as a test of the city's efforts to restore some new sense of normalcy.
Reuters watched as the "Phantom" company prepared for its return. The pandemic left unmistakable marks.
Within a few weeks of the show going dark, COVID-19 had claimed the life of a beloved dresser, Jennifer Arnold, who had been with the show for more than three decades.
After protests filled U.S. streets last year in outrage at the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, newly unemployed Broadway workers pushed the industry to make overdue changes to increase racial diversity in theater companies.
In August, "Phantom" producers announced they had cast the first-ever Black actor to play Christine since the show opened on Broadway in 1988. The actor, Emilie Kouatchou, would make her Broadway debut as an alternate for Picerno.
For the returning cast, there were tweaks to lyrics and staging to learn, making it more straightforward to cast non-white actors in principal roles. The entire company was required to be vaccinated and twice a week went to get their noses swabbed at a nearby theater lobby repurposed as a temporary coronavirus testing site.
Picerno said she was happy to embrace whatever was needed to get back on stage.
In the dark days of 2020, living back in North Carolina with her parents and claiming unemployment benefits, she said she "almost felt like a failure." She sang her part every day to keep it fresh in her mind until the singing made her too sad and she stopped.
Emotion again overcame her on the first day reunited with her castmates in late September. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had swung by the studio to deliver a pep talk to the cast before they sang through the familiar score.
Picerno's singing dissolved in tears during the love duet "All I Ask of You."
"Sing along! Help her!" the conductor urged the masked chorus, whose voices carried Picerno until she regained her composure.
'THINK OF ME'
A few days later, the cast practiced dance steps in a mix of street clothes and the bulkier parts of their 19th-century-style costumes.
Picerno drew a scarf through her fingers as she danced and sang "Think of Me" in her bell-like soprano. Off in a corner of the studio, Kouatchou silently mirrored Picerno's every move.
Kouatchou, the daughter of immigrants from Cameroon, grew up in the Chicago suburbs. "Phantom" was the first Broadway show she ever saw, on a trip to New York with her high school. She remembers being transfixed by Christine.
"I could sing that role in my sleep," she recalled thinking.
Still, she worried about stereotyping, that some would see a mismatch in her voice, an operatic soprano, and her appearance, which was not the sort of "petite white girl" who seemed to always get cast as a show's ingénue or heroine.
"I didn't feel like I had a place in musical theater because I didn't see anyone who looked like me who sung like me," she said.
COVID-19 had both upended live theater and made space for progress.
"The pandemic was terrible," Kouatchou said. "But we wouldn't be able to have conversations like this and change things like this if it hadn't been for the pandemic."
Now, as the Phantom begins making his terrifying presence known in Act One, a frightened ballet dancer turns to the heroine and sings: "Christine, are you alright?"
Before the pandemic and Kouatchou's casting, the lyric had always been: "Your face, Christine, it's white!"
The old, creepy Christine doll that stood in the Phantom's lair, her features unmistakably white, also was out. A new doll, designed to be racially ambiguous, would debut on reopening night.
Later that week, Kouatchou got her first glimpse of one of the new Christine wigs designed to match her hair texture.
"It's curlier and frizzier and I love it," Kouatchou said.
'THE POINT OF NO RETURN'
On the first full day of stage rehearsals at the Majestic Theatre, members of the company waited to show vaccination proof in an alleyway lined with trash cans leading to the stage door.
Backstage, masked dressers who help actors quickly change costumes in the darkness of the wings were testing alternatives to the bitelights they had gripped in their teeth pre-pandemic. They experimented with little lamps strapped to their foreheads or on gloves, hoping they wouldn't confuse audiences by shooting out beams of light across the stage mid-show.
From the orchestra seats, John Riddle, who plays the show's hero Raoul, marveled at one of the dazzling spotlights high up in the proscenium. Its beam used to illuminate a "constant cloud of dust," he said.
"The fact that it's clear now means something to me," he said. "They say it's the cleanest a Broadway theater has ever been."
Even so, there was worrying news from shows nearby. The Disney musical "Aladdin" was forced to close for two weeks soon after its September reopening because too many actors tested positive for the coronavirus.
Maree Johnson, who plays the black-clad ballet mistress Madame Giry, said she was resigned to the likelihood that "Phantom" also would record breakthrough coronavirus cases.
"It's going to happen sooner or later," she said.
Nine days later, on Friday afternoon, Picerno was in her dressing room when she opened the email with results of her final coronavirus test ahead of reopening night. Relief washed over her. It was negative.
That night, audience members dressed in evening gowns, bow ties and the occasional "Phantom"-style costume crowded the theater doors, fishing out proofs of vaccination.
"Welcome back to Broadway!" chirped the newly hired COVID safety monitors who waved large signs saying "MASKS UP" at the audience inside.
Backstage at the top of a staircase, a few members of the company had placed a vase of flowers and a photograph of Arnold, the dresser lost to COVID-19. Some of the cast and crew paused by the memorial before resuming the final minutes' rush in nearby dressing rooms.
The house lights dimmed, and the familiar descending chromatic chords of the "Phantom" theme surged from the orchestra pit. Picerno danced across the stage as Kouatchou watched from the audience, sometimes mimicking her hand gestures. The new Christine doll lurked in the Phantom's lair, her face now silver.
At the final curtain call, the audience roared with delight. Picerno ran to the front of the stage to take her bow, her face crumpled and shining with tears.
(Reporting by Jonathan AllenEditing by Colleen Jenkins and Diane Craft)