Although some may not have considered the arts an essential function during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the city of New York, the theater industry employs nearly 100,000 artists and craftspeople. So when the year-and-a-half-long shutdown occurred beginning in March 2020, suddenly all of those people were without work—from ushers and doormen to actors, dancers, musicians, costume designers, and producers, to name just a few. As the documentary Broadway Rising reminds us, even the dry-cleaning businesses charged with cleaning costumes after every performance were hurting and scrambling to find a way to either turn their special skills into remote work or find new ways of feeding themselves and their families.
Directed by Amy Rice (By the People: The Election of Barack Obama), Broadway Rising traces the entirety of the New York theater industry’s shutdown, from the initial COVID cases popping up in different productions to the reopening in September 2021, by far the largest stretch in history of Broadway being shutdown (even after 9/11, Broadway only closed for two days). But after surviving everything from the rise of movies and television to the devastation AIDS had on the community, many felt certain the theater would recover (albeit, they thought stages would only be dark for a month or two initially). The film focuses on a few keys shows, such as Wicked, Waitress, Hadestown, and perhaps most frustratingly, the Broadway debut of Six (a musical about the wives of Henry VIII that made its North American premiere at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in May 2019), which was set to debut on the first day of lockdown. Watching the producers and costumers from Six get their hearts broken time and time again as their premiere date gets pushed back repeatedly is a special kind of hell.
Produced by actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Modern Family,” and currently starring in Broadway’s Take Me Out), Broadway Rising makes the wise decision of capturing the enormity of these events by zeroing on a handful of those impacted from every corner of the industry: a musician in the orchestra of Waitress; the actress set to play Galinda in Wicked; a costume shop handling multiple shows; a dancer from the chorus of Frozen, who is 39 and wondering if his body is telling him his dancing days are over; a stage doorman with diabetes, who contracts COVID and ends up losing a foot; as well as writers and producers attempting to stay active and creative while keeping their shows afloat until it’s time to open again. Many of those responsible for creating shows used the tonal shift the country went through after the death of George Floyd and the resulting deepening of the Black Lives Matter movement to build productions around people of color, both on stage and backstage. Director Rice does excellent work showing how the theater world responded to events of the country at large and fine-tuned them to make their community more inclusive.
But the movie also reminds us of the real reason the pandemic scared us all so much as it pays tribute actor Nick Cordero, who slipped into a months-long coma due to COVID and never woke up. Perhaps the highest-profile theater death due to the virus was playwright Terrence McNally, whose husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, is interviewed extensively as both a widower and an active producer (Hadestown, and the current Off-Broadway run of Little Shop of Horrors).
I wish the film had gotten into the weeds about how the various theaters were able to stay alive through the help of emergency pandemic relief funds, but we do find out some of the creative ways individuals stayed above water, from teaching virtual theater classes to pivoting into floral arranging. Lin-Manuel Miranda had to delay the opening of his theater-themed bookstore, Drama Book Shop, until post-pandemic, and we get a quick glimpse of that and him. The only things scarier than shutting it down is the Great White Way reopening with only about three-weeks notice, but the team from Six seemed especially grateful. Broadway Rising is primarily a celebration, but it never loses sight of the lives impacted or lost during this traumatic time. The recurring shots of empty New York streets never loses its impact, and I’m sure those impacted the most will never forget the ordeal. This film is a reminder that these folks are survivors, just as we all are.
The film is playing theatrically in theaters on Monday, December 5 as a Fathom Event and arrives on digital December 27.
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