Knocked out by COVID, Broadway tries to get off the mat
For years, Professor Harold Hill has told residents of River City that “Trouble” begins with a capital “T”, which rhymes with “P” and stands for swimming pool. But then his misplaced musical alphabet went viral and The Music Man, the quintessential poser/predator, himself fell victim to a dark spell that translated around the world: the real problem, did you -it discovered, starts with “C” and ends with “D”.
And at that, Hill and a host of other Broadway characters took a hiatus of up to two years, thanks to the transcontinental transmission of COVID, which had more KO power than any critic: the pandemic s proved to be the ultimate casserole, closing show after show on (and off) Broadway.
But if some thought the disease would spell the end of Broadway, well, Hill and others have helped turn the tide: He’s back on Broadway, as are many of his theatrical cohorts whose shows had to surrender. in the hinterland. After two years, the slightly bruised and dented Big Apple is almost back to normal, demonstrating that the show must go on – with changes.
What kind? All of this begs the question for those looking for a silver bullet to save the season:
Who was this masked man?
Well, that was…me. And as I attended a Saturday matinee of The Music Man at New York’s Winter Garden Theater, I sat amid a sea of other masked music mavens — men, women, and children — in mufti, under forms as effective as Hill’s (the marvelous Hugh Jackman) concealing his talent for trickery on stage.
As enticing as the family show was, the real drama drifted offstage, with a series of serious rules and regulations used to constrain the virulent disease that knocked the ticket for so many on Broadway and beyond.
Prior to entering the theater, ticketed patrons were required to show proof of up-to-date vaccinations and government or school-issued identifications, a pandemic safety kit including the aforementioned masks, which were required to be worn at the inside.
And Broadway means business: an usher holding a “Mask Up” sign was a true sign of the times greeting those who found their place.
That covers the more selfish among theatergoers who wanted to take selfies without their masks. A gentleman a few seats away took off his blanket for a selfie, only to be immediately advised by an usher to put it back on. (It was hard to tell if the usher was smiling when he said it; he had a mask on after all.)
And if Broadway seems a bit out of the picture for those looking for entertainment these days, there’s always Broadway next door – like off Broadway, about 90 miles away. The Bristol Riverside Theater and New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse have full seasons with their own cautionary tales: According to their websites, BRT currently offers a mask option while requiring full vaccination and proof of identification or a recent COVID test negative, while the Playhouse is currently masks mandatory with no proof of vaccination requested. (Theater goers should check venues or call theaters for changes.)
Back on Broadway, not everyone needs to bring an N95 to 51st Street: Artists mingle on stage without them and even canoodling can’t concede to COVID: When Hill and Marian the Librarian (Sutton Foster ) finally kiss on stage, sealing the deal with a kiss, it was such a celebratory moment that the audience could have been forgiven if they ripped off their masks and threw them in the air. (Well, maybe not forgiven; rules are rules, and no one has.)
(It should be noted that both stars had crossover issues during the run. Both came down with COVID early in the show’s engagement and followed CDC protocols for dealing with the disease.)
However, not all stars of the stage avoid masks: The Phantom of the Opera began wearing one on Broadway 34 years ago and continues to this day. But it doesn’t go smoothly onstage: indeed, the Phantom must face off against Broadway’s only recognized anti-masker as Christine tries to rip him out of his face at every performance. (It’s not the music of the night that the audience hears; it’s its cry.)
Broadway’s Spring Awakening this season is a heroic reminder that is not out of place: after all, what other performing art has the masks of comedy and tragedy as its iconic symbol?
Comedy tonight? After two years, wary theatergoers look set to have fun again as the industry’s own COVID protocols are evolving and easing. (Best to contact the theater for any rule changes.)
Curtain up – and, for now, masks too.
Michael Elkin is a playwright, theater critic and novelist. He lives in Abington.