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When she arrived home last night, Bianca Marroquín, who plays Velma Kelly in Chicago, told The Daily Beast she had asked her husband, “What just happened? Was that a dream?”
On Tuesday night, four of Broadway’s tentpole musicals resumed performances for the first time since the industry went dark in March 2020 due to the pandemic: Hamilton, Wicked, The Lion King, and Chicago. TV crews from around the world descended to capture a mood of unadulterated joy and excited anticipation. (Below, read how the Daily Beast spent the evening with those fans, family, colleagues, and friends ecstatic to be back at the theater.)
The four musicals returning Tuesday night were not the first shows back; Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over became the first new play to perform on Broadway August 4, and the musicals Hadestown and Waitress returned September 2.
But the juggernauts that returned to Broadway this week are pillars of longevity and box office success. Prior to the pandemic, Hamilton routinely topped $2 million in weekly grosses over its 6-year run, very often the most of any Broadway show; Wicked (which has been running for 18 years) and The Lion King (24 years) were likewise among Broadway’s top earners, averaging more than $1 million per week. A leaner production with more modest returns, hovering around half a million prior to the shutdown, Chicago is the longest-running American musical on Broadway, marking its 25th anniversary this year.
Nearly 30 productions are slated to begin Broadway performances before the end of this year. They include Tony-winning musicals resuming healthy runs, like Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away, as well as productions from the pre-shutdown season competing at next weekend's long-delayed Tony Awards, namely Moulin Rouge, Jagged Little Pill, and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
Many new productions are also hoping to make a splash, including a revival of The Music Man headlined by Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, the gender-swapped Company starring Patti LuPone, MJ, a new musical featuring the Michael Jackson catalogue written by Pulitzer-winner Lynn Nottage, and more. Half a dozen new plays, most of them written by Black artists, are scheduled to begin as well, including Thoughts of a Colored Man by Keenan Scott II and Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew.
The audiences for the shows returning post-pandemic—where masks and proof of vaccination and ID are mandatory—were Broadway’s most faithful: the most dedicated fans of the shows themselves and those who have missed theater desperately since Broadway went dark on March 12, 2020; families and friends of those involved on and off stage; and other performers and theater professionals wanting to support colleagues.
Addressing those gathered in line for Hamilton, its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda said he would never take live theater for granted again. Kristen Chenoweth, who originated the role of Glinda in 2003, appeared at Wicked to welcome audiences back. On 45th Street, opposite where LuPone will star in Company when it returns to Broadway, the sound of pealing bells rang to a familiar tune: “There’s no business like show business.”
Brian Shaffer, the maître d’ at the enduringly popular theater haunt Joe Allen, said people had left early to go the shows, concerned at how long the checking of their vaccination status would take. The restaurant asked for the same, and Shaffer had experienced no “crazy problems” around that yet. Bookings were healthy, he added, and while he had “learned not to count my chickens, right now things feel good.”
At a few of the theaters The Daily Beast visited, a team of “COVID-19 Safety Team” volunteers in bright yellow jerseys were keeping the human traffic moving, and making sure people had their proof of vaccination and ID ready to present, and masks ready to put on.
At Chicago, director Walter Bobbie dedicated the return performance to Ann Reinking, the dancer, actor, and Tony-winning choreographer who died last December, and whose choreography for the revival of Chicago was influenced by Bob Fosse, her onetime mentor and paramour.
“She was a beauty, the finest collaborator I ever had the pleasure to work with,” Bobbie told the audiences. “She was smart, funny, she was wicked. She was a world-class dancer, teacher, and photographer.” To laughter, Bobbie looked up and down. “Wherever you are,” he said, addressing Reinking’s spirit, “you’re on this stage.”
The ovation not just for this, but numbers like Velma and company’s “All That Jazz” was standing and thunderous—just as it was reportedly at the other shows reopening Tuesday night. Lillias White did not have to sing a word of “When You’re Good to Mama” for the Ambassador Theatre to stand as one and erupt in whooping and clapping.
Marroquín said she had not been expecting “such a generous and loving audience. We were all stunned and surprised by the applause and standing ovations. It was difficult to process and control and stay in our characters and our zone. I kept telling myself, ‘Keep telling the story.’ I came home and told my husband, ‘I felt like Cinderella.’”
The spotlights are so bright, the cast still can’t see the audience’s faces. “It didn’t sound like they were wearing masks,” Marroquín, told The Daily Beast, laughing.
Of the time away from the stage, Marroquín said that, as a dancer, she had “never stopped being physical—running, doing yoga or doing a dance class, but not eight shows a week, running up and down in the subway. My husband and I went upstate. But playing Velma, after two decades playing Roxie, is a delicious challenge. She’s more athletic and aerobic than Roxie.” Her body still responds to Roxie’s cues, she laughs. Chicago is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and next month Marroquín celebrates 20 years with the show. “I’m so humbled, grateful, and honored,” she said.
Marroquín also joins a distinguished group of actors to have played both Velma and Roxie (Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, and Ruthie Henshall). Marroquín (from Mexico) and Ana Villafañe (whose parents are Cuban), who plays Roxie, are also proud, Marroquín says, to be the first Latina actors to lead the show as Velma and Roxie.
“We’re also so lucky we’re the ones kicking off Broadway, and kicking off Chicago, said Marroquín, “but there are a lot of colleagues waiting to get back on stage, and so we in a sense are representing them—and I was very conscious of that last night in my heart.”
Despite the collective euphoria of Tuesday night, many unanswered questions remain. How long can shows financially survive, particularly ones which have been open a while and already seen by a tristate and domestic audience? The most recent research by the Broadway League revealed that Broadway audiences were split between tourists (65 percent) and locals (35 percent).
Last year, Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, told The Daily Beast, “The area we are most concerned about is international tourists: they were 19 percent of business last season and we do believe it will be a while before they are back because of travel restrictions and so forth.”
St. Martin said she hoped that domestic tourism to New York City increases—when visitors feel comfortable to do so. “We do know there are a lot of avid theatergoers who will show up the minute they are allowed to show up,” said St. Martin. “This is a time of uncertainty, but at the end of the day I believe we will be back, and eventually we will be back to where we were before.”
Other questions-to-be answered: Will general audiences be happy to return to the theater, sitting in close proximity to each other just as before with no social distancing, fully vaccinated, and happy to wear masks for the duration of shows? What if a show has to close because of a COVID outbreak, on stage, offstage, or in the audience?
The prevailing mood at least on Tuesday night was one of resounding optimism, and the feeling that the future success of Broadway could be manifested by the presence of shows opening again, and the optimism and optics of seeing all this transmitted around the world. Now, beyond the most fervent of fans and dedicated theater supporters, the challenge will be to see how far, and fast, that message spreads to keep Broadway open.
Isabella Phillips and Adam Schaefer had come from Philadelphia. “We’re Elphaba fans all the way,” Phillips said. “I am absolutely ecstatic to be here. Words can’t even describe how excited I am for tonight. It’s been awful living without Broadway. I am so grateful to be back, and I appreciate everyone trying to make everything as safe as possible. As they say, art is healing.” Schaefer said: “I’ve been counting down the days for this, since the tickets went on sale a couple of months ago. Tonight is a historic night, and I am so happy to be part of it.”
Hannah Christy and her mom, Lisa, had come from Long Island. “We had to be here, and it’s awesome,” said Lisa. “I am so excited,” said Hannah. “I have been dying for Broadway to reopen as soon as they released tickets, and wanted to be at opening night, no matter what. I think as long as they enforce protocols and vaccines, everything will be smooth and good. Next we’re seeing Little Shop of Horrors in October, and Hadestown in December. I’m ready!”
Aminah Daniels, from New York City—“but a shoutout to my hometown, Akron, Ohio”—saw Jagged Little Pill just before Broadway shut down, and wanted her first return show to be a “Broadway classic.” This was her fourth time seeing Wicked. “It’s the perfect show to come back to,” Daniels said. “It was the first show that drew me to Broadway. I knew all the music before I saw it. I became a ‘Broadway baby’ right from there. I’m optimistic. As long as people continue to get vaccinated, wear their masks, and just be safe, I think we have all the good lessons learned.”
Willow and Adam Padilla were at Wicked, celebrating their seventh wedding anniversary with children Rose, 6, and Xavier, 5.
“SO EXCITED!” Rose shouted into this reporter’s recording device.
Willow said, “We love musicals. We love Wicked. We’re so happy Broadway is back. It’s been such a crazy year, and honestly, music has helped us through a lot of it. We’re excited to be here to see it in person again. We’re optimistic about the future. That’s how you keep moving.”
Adam added, with a smile: “Like Elphaba says, ‘They’ll never bring us down.’”
“SO EXCITED!” Rose exclaimed again.
Nicole and Natalie Dion from Sacramento, California, were dressed up as Elphaba and Glinda. Natalie said she loved Wicked because it “celebrates difference.”
“Wicked is iconic,” said Nicole. “We’ve seen it a bunch of times, and we know Ginna Claire Mason, who plays Glinda. We’re here from California and just wanted to be part of the revitalization and reopening of Broadway. Theater is everything. It’s magic, and it’s a magic we’ve been missing. I’m glad to have it back.”
The Lion King
Mary Antonini and Juwan Crawley, from the cast of Aladdin, had come to support their sister Disney show. “We’re so excited to have live theater back. It’s a beautiful thing,” said Crawley. It’s crazy that it’s been so long. Jumping right back into rehearsals, my body feels alive in a way it hasn’t for a long time. Our shutdown was abrupt, very cold, and callous. It had to be, but I’m so happy New York City has gotten back to a place to do art again. I hate that art is our livelihood, and also our ego and survival, but it truly is. Now we get to sing and dance for people, and nothing could be more joyous.”
Antonini said that the evening was “a sign things are coming back. I don’t think anybody is jumping any guns. We’re in rehearsal, and soon to be on stage. I think everyone is being very careful. Disney is testing us every day. Safety is the first thing. Being both a performer and an audience member tonight, that makes me feel taken care of. It’s really nice to be back.”
Aaron Jackson was with his son Action Jackson, who was holding a rose for his mom, chorus member Lindsey Jackson. The family, originally from Los Angeles, live in Harlem. “We’re really excited,” said Aaron. “She has worked really hard. She just had a baby (Shine) three months ago. We are here to support her. I missed Broadway, and New York missed it. There is no New York City without Broadway.”
Jessica Esgueria and Felicity Esgueria (who turned 14 on Tuesday), were excitedly waiting to enter the theater. “It’s been a long time that theater has been happening, and it’s good to see people out and enjoying themselves. If we follow the rules, everybody can be safe and it shouldn’t be a problem.” Felicity said she was excited to see this, her first live Broadway show.
Karen and Matthew Johnston from Florida had seen the show a number of times. Karen, a producer, said she was “a little nervous” about the evening, and how things would go “with protocols and numbers of people,” but was still planning many more theater visits. “I’m very vaccinated. I’m good,” she laughed.
Matthew said the couple loved Broadway and were “especially fortunate to come to opening night and feel the energy we were anticipating. We expect the show to go on a good ten minutes longer than usual because of the applause. We’ll see in a couple of weeks if there are any kind of spikes in infections, but if we do what we can do, Broadway can hopefully continue.”
LaDrina Wilson from Davenport, Iowa, was with friend Ted Stephens III, from New York City, at her first ever Broadway show. “I’ve always been a Hamilton fan. My friend here invited me to experience New York, post-COVID, and I’m happy to see people come together, and be happy and safe.” Stephens said he was “thrilled that people can come back together and experience these types of things. As long as people continue to be responsible when it comes to other people’s safety, we can go back to normal and enjoy each other’s company.”
Sarah Good, from Tarrytown, and Tina Good from Long Island were “feeling great, wonderful,” Sarah said to be at Hamilton. “We were living for Broadway to reopen. We were missing Broadway, and also the arts in general. We’re so happy to be back, and celebrating opening night. We’re seeing Six next week.”
“Look at how many people are here, all vaccinated,” said Tina. “I feel like this is a kind of hope.”
Sarah said the return of Hamilton had led to a (for now) decreased ticket price. She had been optimistic about the return of Broadway until a few weeks ago when her own job had returned to in-office work. Now she wonders if both may have to shutter again. “I know how much money producers have to invest to try and keep these shows open for as long as possible,” she said.
Andy Fawcett from Manhattan was all dressed up for Hamilton. “I’m so excited, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Fawcett said. “Hamilton speaks to what is happening in the country right now. I love how the show celebrates change and looking forward. I think Broadway has done a great job of pulling it together and making us as safe as we can be in a world where there is no certainty. I wanted to be here to celebrate everyone making these shows possible—not just the stars and people behind the scenes. Everybody.”
Nissa Kahle, pianist, and Nicole Benoit, a longtime ensemble performer in the touring show of Chicago covering Roxie, were there to “support family,” said Benoit. “It was surreal, exciting, and emotional to watch the show. I’m so happy for everybody and feel so bad for everyone sitting around us because we were screaming the whole time. We needed so many tissues. It was so magical. I’m overwhelmed. I’m very hopeful for the future. Theater is full of creative, optimistic people who know how to find ways to things work, and protect each other.”
Kahle said the creative mind was “so resilient,” and watching the show, registering the tweaks in costumes, lighting, and intonations proved how theater and art “can still grow even when it has been shut down for 18 months.”