“I don’t want to take live theater for granted ever again, do you?”
That was Lin-Manuel Miranda, in a brief curtain speech welcoming back the first Broadway audience at “Hamilton” since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down every show in New York on March 12, 2020. The Sept. 14 performance was part of a coordinated re-opening of some of Broadway’s biggest shows, as five productions — long-running musicals “Wicked,” “The Lion King,” “Hamilton” and “Chicago” plus new play “Lackawanna Blues” — opened their doors to audiences on the same night.
Those shows joined musicals “Hadestown” and “Waitress,” as well as new play “Pass Over,” which were already up and running.
Fan enthusiasm was high, and the standing ovations were loud and long. At “Wicked” the first came during the initial words of the pre-show announcement, and theatergoers remained standing throughout a curtain speech by Kristin Chenoweth, one of the original stars of the show.
Wearing red-sequined high heels in a nod to the musical’s “Wizard of Oz”-inspired storyline, Chenoweth clicked her feet three times and told the crowd, “There’s no place like home!” Soon thereafter, the crowd rose and the show stopped again following the character Glinda’s famous entrance line: “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?”
For a theater industry only just beginning to revive after the prolonged shutdown, the night was another step in getting Broadway back up and running with new safety protocols in place, including vaccine mandates and masking in every theater. With eight more productions to open or re-open this month alone, a dozen in October and six more in November, optimism and enthusiasm was the mood of the night, despite lingering uncertainties around new virus variants, breakthrough infections and the sustainability of the business with city tourism still at an ebb.
In general, the first audiences at the freshly reopened productions said they were satisfied with the safety measures. “It makes me feel comfortable to know everyone in the theater is taking precautions to make sure we’re being safe,” said theatergoer Jazmine Polite, 34, while she stood in line for “The Lion King.”
At that show, director Julie Taymor gave the curtain speech. “I want to applaud this audience for being here,” she said. “You have the desire, the enthusiasm, the courage to lead the way. Because as we know, theater in New York is the lifeblood and soul of the city.”
It’s also big business. Prior to the pandemic, Broadway contributed an estimated $14.7 billion to New York City economy, all of which evaporated when COVID hit. Now, the industry is crossing its fingers that the reopening goes as smoothly as hoped.
For the night’s attendees, at least, the evening felt like a turning point. Khristine O’Connor, 51, traveled from New Jersey with her three kids to see “Hamilton,” and said she thought the night represented “the end of the pandemic and the rebirth of New York.”
She added, “”This is the beginning of me and my three kids leaving the house. They went to school on Monday and now we’re coming to the opening of Broadway today. It’s huge.”
With many fans dressing to match the shows they were attending, Broadway’s celebratory mood spilled out onto the sidewalks and into the streets. In the hours before curtain, news trucks clustered around marquees. A live band played blues-inflected rock in front of the Friedman Theatre to celebrate the first preview performance of “Lackawanna Blues.” At “Hamilton,” Miranda led cast members from both “Hamilton” and “Lion King” in a rendition of “New York, New York,” in a brief performance that marked a return of the Ham4Ham series of pre-show performances.
In the auditoriums, emotions ran high, both for the creators seeing their shows remounted and for the fans.
“I have all the tissues ready. I brought so many tissues,” said Lithia Knopp, 48, who has seen “Hamilton” 10 times and flew in from Maryland for its re-opening night. She wore a “Hamilton”-themed scarf and mask as well as homemade earrings crafted from original Playbills.
“I brought an extra mask in case I cry through this one,” she said.