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The Broadway community is celebrating another year of pandemic survival

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's been a tumultuous year on Broadway since the reopenings of "Hamilton," "Wicked" and "The Lion King" marked an end to the COVID shutdown. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The sold-out audience packed the Richard Rodgers Theatre on September 14, 2021, for "Hamilton's" return to Broadway and gave Lin-Manuel Miranda a standing ovation before the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Welcome back to the theater.

(CHEERING)

JEFFREY SELLER: That moment was joyous, celebratory, jubilant...

LUNDEN: Jeffrey Seller is lead producer of "Hamilton".

SELLER: ...And a manifestation of our resilience.

LUNDEN: A few Broadway shows had opened before, but New Yorker theater critic Helen Shaw says the symbolism of three of Broadway's biggest hits reopening when no one knew if audiences would return was hard to miss.

HELEN SHAW: It was more important to them to come back than to make extreme profit because they knew that it would sort of recreate the environment of a functioning Broadway.

LUNDEN: And to a certain degree, audiences did return, even if that meant waiting on long lines to show their vaccination status and ID and wearing masks inside the theater. Shaw says in addition to the return of the long-running hits...

SHAW: The other story of the programming of the fall was that it was very risky. It was a whole lot of first-time playwrights on Broadway. It was a whole lot of first-time directors.

LUNDEN: Including many works by Black artists making their Broadway debuts. As the fall continued, more and more shows opened and then omicron hit. At a certain point, half the shows on Broadway went on hiatus because there weren't enough people on stage or backstage. Jeffrey Seller says Hamilton was hit hard.

SELLER: Our Broadway company was out for about a week and a half over Christmas.

LUNDEN: Critic Helen Shaw says New Yorkers could jump back on the subway to go home if their show was canceled, but tourists didn't have that option.

SHAW: That's what was really horrible and gruesome about December is it trained tourists to believe that Broadway wasn't a sure bet. And I think we are still in the shadow of that lesson.

LUNDEN: And while a show like "Hamilton" could weather the loss of income, many of the less-established shows were forced to close. As the spring came and COVID receded, Broadway made a mad dash towards the Tony Awards' eligibility deadline. Sixteen shows opened in April - a lot more than in previous years, says Helen Shaw.

SHAW: It was a really, really wild time. I don't know that we had ever had two shows opening on one day, that you would have one show opening at the matinee and one show opening in the evening.

LUNDEN: As Broadway reaches the first anniversary of its return, there are some changes. While casts and crews are still required to be vaccinated, tested and wear masks backstage, audiences are no longer asked to show proof of vaccination or even wear masks in the theater. And there's a complete slate of new plays, musicals and revivals set to open this fall, says producer Jeffrey Seller.

SELLER: Let's get on with the future. We made it. We're thriving. We're rebuilding. Let's keep going.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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