Inside the 1st In-Person Broadway Performance Since the Coronavirus Pandemic Shutdown
Tony winners Savion Glover and Nathan Lane entertained frontline workers from The Actors Fund and Broadway Cares during the special NY PopsUp event.
As a ghost light illuminated the bare stage of Broadway’s St. James Theatre, pre-show audience chatter began to fill the house for the first time in over a year. Familiar faces, now behind masks, reconnected from a social distance, sharing anecdotes about working from home and the last time they had been in an auditorium.
Rather than a cacophony of indistinct conversations, the individual catch-ups rang through the house, easy to make out from across the row of taped off seats.
For its first performance since March 11, 2020, the theatre welcomed an audience of frontline heroes and volunteers from The Actors Fund and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS—two organizations that have continued to provide relief to the full spectrum of arts workers throughout the pandemic. The show, organized by the state’s NY PopsUp initiative, promised “two Broadway giants,” and it delivered.
Shortly after 1 PM, Savion Glover took the stage, receiving Broadway’s first post-shutdown entrance applause. The Tony-winning dancer-choreographer’s signature tapping evoked the hustle and bustle of a district that had been brought to a halt. His percussive footwork kept the beat as he began to sing out refrains of theatre staples, including A Chorus Line’s “I Hope I Get It” and “One,” Cats’ “Memory,” and “Fabulous Feet” from The Tap Dance Kid, which marked Glover’s Broadway debut.
As he continued (feet never not moving), Glover interpolated lyrics in a meditative fashion. Some, like “Scott Rudin asking me if I could sing, these are a few of my favorite things,” got laughs. Others, like “knee on your neck in America” thrown into the West Side Story showstopper, ensured that the audience not forget the systemic injustices and violence in this joyous moment. But throughout all of his cries, his tapping prevailed—even as his rattling moves toppled over a piece of sound equipment. Now that he was finally dancing again, he wasn’t going to stop.
Next on the double bill was fellow Tony winner Nathan Lane, performing a monologue written by Paul Rudnick for the occasion. Playing the type of theatre die-hard that would have fit right in with this particular audience, Lane started off with some musings on quarantine go-tos: Zoom theatre, online shopping, and sweatpants.
But while his mind may have been on COVID, his heart belonged to the Great White Way, as Lane shared with the crowd his late-night vision of a parade of theatre stars (led by Hugh Jackman) stopping by his apartment to entertain him. Lane seemed defeated upon admitting it was just a fantasy, and that he wasn’t sure when theatre would really be back. But leaving audiences with the vision of Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone in a Battle Royale sing-off, Lane and Rudnick painted a picture of the spectacle and whimsy that will be waiting on the other side of the curtain, once they rise again.
The invite-only event was the first of 10 that will play Broadway houses over the course of 10 weeks (it had previously been reported that the Music Box Theatre would be the first to take part). The Main Stem offerings are a fraction of the hundreds of performances on the NY PopsUp roster, which began in February and will continue through Labor Day, culminating in the 20th anniversary of the Tribeca Film Festival and the opening of Little Island at Pier 55.
Those performances that do reopen Broadway theatres will serve as pilot programs for a more complete reopening, building a bank of effective health protocols along the way. For this first event, safety protocols included contact tracing, mask enforcement, and staggered entry and exit times; audiences were also required to show proof of full vaccination, a negative PCR test within the past three days, or a negative rapid antigen test within six hours. The Jujamcyn-owned theatre had MERV13 filters implemented, and required all crew and staff to be tested negative on the day of the performance.
The various steps were a means to reopening the theatre’s doors, but a clear indication that theatregoing habits will undergo an overhaul in a post-pandemic landscape. But even if audiences were masked and distanced from one another, Glover’s lyrics were indeed accurate: it was “great to hear that tapping again…now that the Tap Dance Kid is here.