Live theater exists in the breath.
Live theater is about those moments when the theater is so silent that you can hear when the actors’ breathing changes. It’s about watching actors talk through someone coughing in the front row and resenting the tipsy couple behind you as they giggle their way through the big death scene. It’s about the moment that comes only in the very best shows, when everyone in the whole theater starts to breathe in the same rhythm.
Breath is what separates theater from the movies, from pre-taped stage shows like Hamilton on Disney+, from anything you can watch in your living room. Breath is what gives live theater its special energy, the near-religious euphoria it can inspire: sitting in a dark room and breathing with other people.
Covid-19 changed the way we think about other people’s breath, perhaps for the rest of our lives. It turned the essence of theater into something dangerous. It shut down Broadway, the center of the United States’ theatrical community, for longer than Broadway has ever closed in its history.
Now, after the vaccines and the delta coronavirus variant surge, theater is slowly returning to the world. Broadway is opening its doors fumblingly and cautiously, one theater at a time, with mandated vaccine checks and a mask requirement in place. And one after another, audiences are walking back into theaters to find out what it’s like to try to breathe in the same rhythm through a mask.
“Thank you for leaving your homes,” David Byrne said at the top of his concert special American Utopia, with understated tenderness. The audience sighed back at him.
Times Square has missed Broadway. Some 300 street performers depend upon the crowds of tourists who used to descend upon the neighborhood every night to take in dinner and a show, and who vanished as Broadway closed. When I arrived for the hallucinatory Pass Over at the end of August, before Broadway was fully functional, Times Square was deserted to a level I’ve only ever seen before on TV shows meant to demonstrate that the apocalypse has gotten really serious: just empty streets and blaring neon. Few theaters were open yet, delta was still clobbering the city, and the tourists were keeping their distance. So the street performers did too.
But when I walked out of Six at the beginning of October, I walked straight into a man in a giant panda suit watching a street dance battle in the middle of the road. Times Square was back up and running.
Broadway has returned like a resentful old lover, desperate to convince you that you’re lucky to have them back, and desperate to convince you that they know how lucky they are to have you back.
“Welcome back to Broadway!” say the ushers outside the theater. Then they check your vaccination card against your ID and usher you through an anti-terrorism metal detector, so that walking into a theater has come to bear a certain resemblance to boarding an airplane.
Inside, ushers parade up and down the aisles with signs reminding audiences to keep their masks on and up, and audience members slip their masks slyly down their faces anyway for their pre-show confabulations. The closer to the stage they sit, the more brazen they become — except at Six, where I saw teenage girls coordinate their masks to their sparkling tiaras and argue over which of Henry VIII’s six wives is their favorite.
At The Lehman Trilogy, Sam Mendes’s exquisite and pointless music box of a show, I listened to two old men behind me arguing about whether or not the theater should be checking IDs at the door.
“The thing you have to understand,” one of them kept repeating, “is that they have to be absolutely certain, absolutely sure, that you are who you say you are. Because immunization records can be faked, and this stuff is serious!”
“Listen, I am an American citizen,” the other one kept responding, with mounting outrage, “and we do not require identification papers in this country.”
In the bathroom line for the joyously campy Little Shop of Horrors, two older women debated whether or not they would be lining up to get the newly available booster shots.
“I should really do it,” one of them mused. “I just can’t seem to find the time.”
“It’s not about the convenience, it’s about whether it’s necessary,” the other said. “Now did you see how much immunization fades after the first six months?”
Then the lights went down, a disembodied voice said, “Welcome back to Broadway! We’re so glad you’re here with us,” and all the conversations dissolved in a great roar of cathartic delight.
There is a new energy on Broadway now. Amid the long wane of the pandemic, everything is more ferocious, more brittle. All the performances have been punched up; all the audiences are angrier. They are eager to be delighted, but their attention is harder to win.
The new energy can work like a shot of adrenaline on a fading show. Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations jukebox musical, has been aging like a cut flower since it first premiered in 2019. It’s a workhorse of a production that was built to deliver covers of famous songs to happy tourists, to do so efficiently and without too much fuss; as such, it’s the sort of musical that stops feeling exciting or interesting very rapidly.
But returning to the stage after such a long and anguished pause has given a new drive to Ain’t Too Proud’s excellent cast, making their covers pop and sparkle in new ways. Matt Manuel is playing tortured and brilliant David Ruffin with a fury that’s much more interesting than anything in this safe, mediocre show has any right to be, in a performance that perhaps would never have emerged under any other circumstances.
The post-shutdown energy is a mixed blessing, though. New arrivals Six and Chicken and Biscuits are hectic, even frantic; the relief of performing at last after such a long delay rolls off the cast in waves that become exhausting as the evening goes on. And the uneasy new ethos broke Jagged Little Pill apart.
The Alanis Morissette jukebox musical was the subject of multiple controversies during Broadway’s 19-month closure, and emerged on the other side having recast one principal actor and three ensemble members. More ambitious than Ain’t Too Proud, Jagged Little Pill was always on the messy side, but it opened in 2019 with a cheerful insouciance that made it work more than it didn’t. Now, with the forceful cohesion of the original cast gone, the messiness is painfully apparent. Lauren Patten’s explosive rendition of “You Oughta Know” still brings the whole house down, but the show around her is in shambles: flat, dull, and, to borrow from Alanis herself, so unsexy.
Some of the shows that have fared best after the shutdown are small in scale or tightly controlled. Is This a Room, which renders the FBI interrogation transcript of NSA leaker Reality Winner into a taut 65 minutes of terror, effectively matches the arc of the audience’s restless enthusiasms to Reality’s response to her interrogators: She is at first scattered, uncertain, and then her energies narrow to a vicious point as she hurtles along and takes the audience with her.
Meanwhile, just off Broadway, a revival of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s cult classic Little Shop of Horrors is rocking Hell’s Kitchen’s intimate Westside Theatre. The new production has the top-tier talent any Broadway production would envy (Jeremy Jordan plays against type as nerdy Seymour; Christian Borle goes fabulously sadistic as Orin the dentist), but it is pleasingly scaled down to fit its small space. Without the pomp and spectacle required to fill a Broadway venue, this little Little Shop is able to make its pulpy plot feel intimate, like an inside joke with every person sitting in the theater.
In the best of Broadway’s returning shows, the pandemic has brought out new dimensions of a story that already worked. Hadestown, which took home the Tony for Best Musical in 2019, has always benefited from the layers of Rachel Chavkin’s careful direction, which allows the show to take place from one angle in a Greek temple, from another in a Rust Belt factory town, and from a third in a post-apocalyptic New Orleans jazz club. It was never designed to feel like a show that takes place in 2021 during a pandemic. But its heart-wrenching finale, built around the moment the heroes try to escape from hell and then get sucked back down in spite of themselves, certainly holds new resonances in this particular moment.
Every time I’ve seen Hadestown, the audience has gasped in unison at the same moment of the finale. (Chavkin is an expert at getting people to breathe together.) But this time around, in early October, the gasp came with a few more tears than usual.
There’s another show on Broadway that can match the heights of Hadestown: The Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Caroline, or Change is a stunner. A collaboration between Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), the show first premiered in 2003 to polite skepticism and disappeared swiftly thereafter. But in 2021, America seems finally ready for this tender, crackling musical portrait of 39-year-old Caroline, a Black woman working as a maid in Louisiana in 1963.
Caroline, played now by the terrific Sharon D Clarke, sings the line “I am tough and I am mean” over and over again over the course of Caroline, or Change as she labors in her employer’s basement. She’s repeating it as much to convince herself as anyone else. But we can see the cracks in her stern edifice; we might now dimly grasp some of the ways she’s been pummeled by the world. And when she sings, in the depths of her self-loathing fury, “Y’all can’t do what I can do; y’all strong, but you ain’t strong like me,” I felt every single person sitting around me hold their breath.
There in the cool late October night, the theater went silent. The bruised, erratic attention of the audience sharpened and focused ferociously on Clarke, standing alone on the stage. She took it, held it, pulled it tightly in and clasped it to her as she climbed to the climax of her song. Then, as she hit her final note, she let her arms loose and let the audience go.
We all breathed out as one.