Anniversaries are usually a cause for celebration on Broadway. Not so long ago, every few weeks, a long-running musical such as “Chicago” or “Wicked” would announce that it had reached the second, third, or whatever-year anniversary of its opening night performance. Back in January 2020, “The Phantom of the Opera,” the longest-running show in Broadway history, reached its 32nd anniversary. And at the time, one assumed that it would have easily reached its 33rd anniversary in January 2021.
Instead, Friday of last week, March 12, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary of the shutdown of the 41 theaters that comprise Broadway – not to mention so many other professional performing arts venues in New York City that shut down on or around the same date – due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But rather than sulk in a corner, on that spring-like Friday morning, the creative artists and professionals of the New York theater community converged on Duffy Square, next to the TKTS Booth in Times Square, for “We Will Be Back,” a pop-up, starry, celebratory and safely socially-distanced song-and-dance concert and pep-rally organized by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, NYCNext and the Times Square Alliance.
The free event included celeb appearances (i.e. Chita Rivera, Matthew Broderick, Joel Grey) and performances by the likes of André de Shields, Nikki M. James and the Broadway Inspirational Voices of musical numbers such as “On Broadway” from “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Home” from “The Wiz” and “Magic to Do” from “Pippin.”
One would not think that the anniversary of the shutdown would be a cause for celebration, but it was because the artists treated it as an opportunity to optimistically look ahead to brighter days and the eventual reopening of Broadway.
Tony-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell, who made remarks in his capacity as the chairman of the Actors’ Fund, described the event as “a day of hope” and heralded the COVID-19 vaccine as “what’s going to get everybody back to the Broadway theaters. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel that we can now see and almost touch. It’s why I brought a little piece of sunshine in my pocket today.” (During the early days of the pandemic, Mitchell would sing “The Impossible Dream” from his apartment window on the Upper West Side each night to raise people’s spirits.)
The Broadway shutdown has yet to be officially extended past May 30, 2021. But at this point, no one honestly believes Broadway will reopen before at least Labor Day. In order to reopen, Broadway theaters will need to be allowed to seat full capacity audiences (nothing less will work under Broadway economics), producers will need sufficient time and resources to remount their shows and professional unions such as Actors’ Equity will need to sign off that conditions are sufficiently safe for their members to return to work.
Nevertheless, performing arts venues now have governmental permission to reopen at 33 percent capacity beginning April 2, and a handful of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theaters are ready to do so. And in the most hopeful sign to date, the Public Theater announced Tuesday that Shakespeare in the Park will return to the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park this summer.
Here’s looking forward to the day we can celebrate the anniversary of the full rebirth of live professional theater in New York.