© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A poster of the popular show “The Phantom of the Opera” appears on the exterior of the indoor Majestic Theater in New York, US, July 2, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo
Written by Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Megan Bicerno is back at work after 18 months of pandemic oblivion, and is so happy to sing and dance once again with her “Phantom of the Opera (NASDAQ:)” castmates as they rehearse for the longest-running comeback on Broadway. to watch.
With the musical’s reopening approaching in late October, all Picerno could sometimes think of was getting to his first curtain call unharmed by the COVID-19 cases that vaccinated actors were sidelined at other shows.
Outside the long days in a cool, mirrored rehearsal studio near Times Square in New York City, Bicerno returned to what she described as lockdown.
“I’m a complete monk now,” she said during a quick lunch break between back-to-back runs.
She knew her job involved exposure risks. Playing the show’s heroine, Kristen, requires Picerno to kiss two co-stars daily and sing soulful love songs with them exposed and at close range.
“We hope none of us have it, because if one of us has it, we all have it,” she said.
Crowded Broadway theaters, vital to the city’s tourism industry, were the first places closed by the New York government as the coronavirus began to devastate the state. The sudden closure was reported during the “Phantom” concert at the Majestic Theater on March 12, 2020, in which some of the actors and crew themselves fell ill.
Now, after an unprecedented closure, theaters are among the last venues to reopen. Their return this fall is seen as a test of the city’s efforts to restore some new sense of normalcy.
Reuters has watched Phantom prepare for its comeback. The epidemic left unmistakable signs.
Within a few weeks of the show’s darkening, COVID-19 took the life of beloved clothing designer, Jennifer Arnold, who had been with the show for more than three decades.
After protests filled the streets of the United States last year with anger over the murder of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer, newly unemployed Broadway workers prompted the industry to make belated changes to increase the racial diversity of theater companies.
In August, the producers of “Phantom” announced that they had chosen the first-ever black actor to play Kristen since the show opened on Broadway in 1988. Actress Emily Cuacho will make her Broadway debut as a replacement for Bicerno.
For the returning actors, there have been lyrics and gradual learning adjustments, making it all the more straightforward to cast non-white actors in the lead roles. The entire company was required to be vaccinated and went twice a week to clear their noses in a nearby theater lobby to repurpose it as a temporary coronavirus testing site.
Bicerno said she was happy to embrace whatever was needed to return to the stage.
In the dark days of 2020, who lived in North Carolina with her parents and is claiming unemployment benefits, she said she “almost felt like a failure.” She sang her part every day to stay fresh in her mind until the singing made her so sad and she stopped.
Emotion overwhelmed her again on the first day of her reunion with her bandmates in late September. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber swung in front of the studio to give the actors a spirited conversation before they sang through the familiar tracks.
Picerno’s vocals melt into tears during the love duo “All I Ask of You.”
“Sing together! Help her!” The conductor urged the masked choir, whose voices carried Peckerno, until it regained its composure.
‘Think of me’
A few days later, the actors rehearsed their dance steps in a mixture of streetwear and the bulk of their 19th century costumes.
Bicerno drew a scarf between her fingers as she danced and sang “Think of Me” to her bell-like sopranos. In a corner of the studio, Cuacho silently reflected Pecherno’s every movement.
Kwacho, the daughter of immigrants from Cameroon, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. “Phantom” was the first Broadway show she ever saw, on a trip to New York with her high school. She remembers stunned Kristen.
I remembered thinking “I could sing this part in my sleep”.
However, she was concerned about stereotyping, and that some might see a mismatch in her voice, soprano operatic, and appearance, which wasn’t the kind of “little white girl” who always seemed to be represented as a showman or heroine.
“I didn’t feel like I had a place in musical theater because I had never seen anyone who looked like me sing like me,” she said.
COVID-19 has turned the living theater vertically and made room for progress.
“The epidemic was terrible,” Cuacho said. “But we wouldn’t be able to have these kinds of conversations and change things like this if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”
Now, as the Phantom begins to manifest its terrifying presence in the first act, a frightened ballerina turns to the heroine and sings: “Kristen, are you alright?”
Before the pandemic and the advent of quacho, the song was always: “Your face, Kristen, it’s white!”
The creepy old Kristen doll that was standing in the Phantom’s Lair, her features unmistakably white, had also come out. A new doll, designed to be racially ambiguous, will make its debut on opening night.
Later that week, Quacho got the first glimpse of one of Kristen’s new wigs designed to match her hair texture.
“It’s curlier and more wrinkle-free and I love it,” Quacho said.
‘point of no return’
On the first full day of theater rehearsals at the Majestic Theatre, company members waited for a demonstration of vaccination evidence in an alley filled with trash cans leading to the theater door.
Backstage, the masked performers helping actors change costumes quickly in the darkness of the wings were experimenting with alternatives to the light bulbs they had grabbed in their teeth before the pandemic. They experimented with small lamps strapped to their foreheads or on gloves, hoping not to confuse the audience by shooting beams of light across the stage in the middle of the show.
From the orchestra’s seats, John Riddle, who plays protagonist Raul, marvels at one of the dazzling lights high up in the stage. Its beam, he said, was illuminating a “permanent cloud of dust.”
“The fact that it’s clear now means something to me,” he said. “They say it’s the cleanest Broadway theater ever.”
However, there was troubling news from the nearby offerings. The Disney musical “Aladdin” was forced to close for two weeks shortly after it reopened in September because several actors have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Mary Johnson, who plays ballerina’s black-clad mistress, Madame Jerry, said she has given in to the possibility that “Phantom” will also record cases of coronavirus.
“It’s going to happen sooner or later,” she said.
Nine days later, on a Friday afternoon, Bicerno was in her locker room when she opened the email with the results of her last coronavirus test before reopening for the night. Relief washed over them. were negative.
That night, members of the audience wore tuxedo gowns, ties, and the occasional “ghost” costume at the stage doors, hunting down evidence of vaccination.
Welcome back to Broadway! Newly recruited COVID safety monitors who waved large signs saying “Masks” twittered to the audience inside.
Backstage at the top of the stairs, a few company members laid out a vase of flowers and a picture of Arnold, the dresser who lost out to COVID-19. Some of the cast and crew stopped at the memorial before resuming the last-minute rush in the nearby locker rooms.
The house lights were dimmed, and the condescending chromatic chords familiar to the “ghost” theme sprang from the orchestra pit. Bickerno danced on stage while Cuacho watched from the audience, sometimes imitating her hand gestures. Kristen’s new doll lies in the Phantom’s Lair, and her face is now silver.
At the last call, the audience cheered with joy. Bicerno ran to the front of the stage to take her bow, her face crumpled and sparkling with tears.