coronavirus

As Lights Go Out On Broadway, Worry and Confusion Take Center Stage

Bronx resident Cornelius Mohabir returns a pair of tickets for a canceled performance of “The Lion King” at the shuttered Minskoff Theatre.
Bronx resident Cornelius Mohabir returns a pair of tickets for a canceled performance of “The Lion King” at the shuttered Minskoff Theatre. Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

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If all the world’s a stage, then what does a worldwide pandemic mean for the theater?

Part of the short-term answer is playing out in the planned month-long darkening of Broadway, which has left members of the theater community reeling and wondering what they’d be doing until April 13, the earliest shows could reopen.

Choreographers, stage hands, operating engineers, producers, actors and wardrobe dressers alike grappled with the uncertainty that comes with the suspension of an iconic $1.83 billion industry.

THE CITY spoke with some of the cast of characters who bring the theater to life about the unexpected drop of the curtain as they wait for the next act.

The Pit Musician and the Dancer

One couple — a pit musician and a dancer, both with longtime Broadway gigs — are slowly adjusting to life off the boards.

They’re OK financially for now, the musician said, “but if we’re not back April 13, this could be an issue.”

“The owners are saying we’re all one big happy family, but they’ve got powerful lawyers, and if they can get away with not paying people, they will,” he said.

“No one really knows anything at this point,” he added.

Keeping occupied, the musician said, will be a challenge for folks in the benched Broadway crowd and beyond.

“Once we get over the shock, this is going to be one big bore,” he said. “There’s no baseball, no basketball, no jazz at Lincoln Center — not even the library.”

The Producer

Tony Award-winning Broadway producer Patricia Klausner referenced a lyric from one of her hit shows when discussing the closure.

“This is bigger than our little corner of the sky,” Klausner said, borrowing a Stephen Schwartz line from “Pippin.”

Though “incredibly sad” about the decision to suspend shows, she agreed with the move.

“It’s the socially responsible thing to do,” said Klausner, who was most recently a co-producer on “The Band’s Visit.”

“The sooner we take action the quicker we’ll be back,” she added. “This is larger than just us. We all have to come together. What else can we do?”

The Theater Engineer

The operating engineer on duty at one of Broadway’s biggest hit musicals was dealing with a fire extinguisher inspection when he got word from his supervisor that the theater was going dark.

The Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street announces a suspension in shows due to the coronavirus, March 13, 2020.
The Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street announces a suspension in shows due to the coronavirus, March 13, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“He calls me and goes, ‘Lock everything down, I’ll be in touch,’ and I was like, ‘What?’” said the engineer, whose job entails everything from the maintaining the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, to ensuring the toilets are working.

“So this is where we’re at,” he added. “We’re not in the same situation as the actors or stagehands. Whether or not there’s a show, we can still be called in to do other stuff, because what we do is not necessarily connected to the show. Plus, these buildings are old, so there’s always a list of things to get to.”

The engineer, who didn’t want his name used because he’s not supposed to talk to the press, added: “Nobody’s freaking out, but come on, do we really need to do this? People just want to work and they want to know what’s going to happen.”

Over the last few weeks, the owners of his theater had the staff steam clean the upholstered seats and disinfect all hard surfaces, he said.

When a part-time usher who had worked at the Shubert’s Booth Theater during performances of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” fell ill with COVID19, management organized a coronavirus seminar and stepped up the cleaning efforts, the engineer said.

The shame of the closing, he noted, was that “we’ve been playing to a packed house every night, even with everything going on.”

The Ticket Clerk

At the Minskoff Theatre on West 45 Street, Peter, the booth clerk, discussed a ticket return with Cornelius Mohabir of the Fordham Heights section of The Bronx, who had a pair of tickets for a now-canceled show.

“Well, Cornelius, I can give you January 20th [2021],” he said.

Mohabir, 30, opted for a refund instead.

“I’m really sad about this,” he said. “I bought the tickets for me and a friend. I had to take the subway down here to figure this out, and I still don’t know when we’ll get to see ‘The Lion King.’ I just know it’ll definitely be after April 12.”

Peter, who said he couldn’t give his last name, raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and shot his coworker a look when asked about the move to close Broadway.

“We really don’t know ourselves what’s going to happen,” he said. “We were told to come to work, so here I am. We do what we’re told.”

The Union Reps

The shuttering of Broadway left Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing actors and stage managers, and her team dealing with questions from anxious members.

There is, she said, “tremendous uncertainty for thousands who work in the arts, including the prospect of lost income, health insurance and retirement savings.”

A worker unloads equipment at the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street, March 13, 2020.
A worker unloads equipment at the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street, March 13, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

For Paul Dean, theatrical business manager for Local One, the stagehand union of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the decision came as a gut punch.

“The governor and the mayor decided to do what they did, and we’ve got to live with it,” he said. “I can’t wrap my head around this right now. I don’t have the answers.”

The Choreographer

Lorin Latarro-Kopell was in the middle of rehearsing the Act One final dance routine for “Mrs. Doubtfire” when the cast heard that coronavirus had shuttered Broadway.

“It was a bit surreal,” the downtown Manhattan resident recalled.

Latarro-Kopell chose to remain optimistic. She pointed out that Broadway had survived  9/11, Superstorm Sandy and a musicians’ strike.

“It feels catastrophic at the moment, but Broadway will bounce back,” she said. “In fact, people will need to come to the theater more than ever. They will realize what they are missing.”

Going dark for the near future was the right decision, she added.

“What could be more important than our health?” she asked. “If all of New York City works together and stays away from each other, then we can really put a dent in this.”

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