Watch CBS News

How Broadway's workers kept hope alive when their entire industry went dark

Ghost Light: The Year Broadway Went Dark
CBS Reports | Ghost Light: The Year Broadway Went Dark 43:59

Watch the CBS Reports documentary "Ghost Light: The Year Broadway Went Dark" in the video player above.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, much attention was paid to the devastation it wreaked on industries like hospitality, travel and sports. But few industries shut down as completely or for as long as Broadway in New York City.

"Broadway makes more money for New York than all of the sports teams combined … yet we are invisible," said Fran Curry, who worked as a star dresser on Disney's "Frozen" until the pandemic forced the show to close its doors for good. 

"We weren't kind of given the same weight as other components of New York City and I do not know why," "Flying Over Sunset" actress Michele Ragusa said.

While much of the nation reopened, the Broadway community has been suffering for more than a year.

"Because it's all shut down, you can't just go find another job," said Dan Micciche, the music director and conductor for "Wicked." "This is something you've worked and trained [for] your entire life ... to have that ripped away and to have no sight when it's going to come back. And it's not like you can go call up another theater or another orchestra. It's stopped."

Dan Micciche, the music director and conductor for "Wicked" on Broadway. CBS News

Restaurants, gyms and other venues adapted with measures like limited capacity and outdoor options, but the theater business simply cannot be sustained at limited capacity.

"Somebody said, 'Well, theaters can reopen. You just run at 30%.' And one of the producers I know said, 'Yeah, we close at 30%. We can't stay open unless we're at the very least 80%,'" explains Michael Korie, the lyricist of "Flying Over Sunset," which was scheduled to play its first preview at Lincoln Center the night the theaters shut down.

Isaac Hurwitz, who was working as a producer on the "Mrs. Doubtfire" musical at the time of the shutdown, echoes that sentiment.

"I've been in the industry long enough to understand that the economics are hard in the best of circumstances. It's an expensive — very expensive — art form. So there's just no way to make the numbers work without having full capacity available," Hurwitz says in the CBS Reports documentary "Ghost Light: The Year Broadway Went Dark."

Many Broadway professionals watched as their hard-earned savings drained from their bank accounts. 

To make matters worse, the industries they had historically turned to for back-up work in between Broadway gigs were not hiring either. With restaurants and gyms having to lay off much of their own staff, they weren't looking for additional waiters or fitness instructors. And without jobs, many Broadway professionals couldn't afford to stay in New York City.

"It has fractured us, I think, in a really big way that maybe not a lot of the country has realized because so many other people became work-from-home," said Kevin Matthew Reyes, who was working as an actor in "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" at the time of shutdown. "For a lot of us, it was like we could only live here when we were working. We've been severely displaced and there are many artists and workers from the theater who have left this town and maybe are unsure about when they'll be able to return."

Reyes had to give up his apartment and spent the next six months couch-surfing with friends and family until a room opened up in October in a friend's apartment.

"It's been very nomadic. I haven't felt settled for the longest time," he said.

It's a cruel reality that has affected thousands of Broadway workers — not just actors.

"You may see eight or nine people or 20 people on a stage. There's 200 people in every theater employed on that show," explains lyricist Michael Korie. "From the ushers to the spotlight operator, they all have families and they all depend on bringing home the paycheck. And so it's hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were affected. And perhaps a bit unfairly, they've kind of been lost in the shuffle and haven't gotten as much mention because people think of [Broadway] as expensive and expendable. It's not expendable to those of us who depend on it for our daily bread."

Nate Rocke, who worked as an usher on "Harry Potter," told CBS News that during the first few months of the pandemic he worried about paying his rent and wondered if aid would materialize.

"You would hear stirrings of like, 'This bill is trying to be passed,' but it's taking weeks and weeks and weeks. And it's like, 'Well, in a week, am I going to have toilet paper? In a week, am I going to have food?'"

Ultimately, like so many other Broadway professionals, he was forced to pivot to a new job in order to make ends meet — first at a gym in Hell's Kitchen, then in customer service for a pet medication manufacturer.

Don Darryl Rivera, who has played Iago in Broadway's "Aladdin" since it opened in 2014, made the difficult decision in May of 2020 to pivot completely and pursue his real estate license. After "seven years doing the same show every night, eight times a week," he's spent the last year working for the real estate team that sold his family their home in New Jersey.

Don Darryl Rivera played Iago in Broadway's "Aladdin." He started selling real estate during the pandemic. CBS News

"I've spent a third of my time just in tears," he told CBS News. "I literally don't know what to do. And maybe even on bad days in real estate, I'll look at my computer screen and be like, 'How did I get here? Why am I here? What am I doing?'"

Because work on Broadway isn't just a job.

"Broadway was a way of life for a lot of us," said Rivera. "You see a lot of Broadway performers, they were probably either professional performers when they were children or they got their degree, their BFA, their MFA in theater. Some people just fight their entire career to get to Broadway. Some people don't even get that opportunity. So when it's literally, they put the ghost light out, they lock the doors and nobody is allowed in the theater, we don't know what to do." 

Maria Briggs, who was a swing, or backup performer, for "Mean Girls" at the time of the shutdown, says it led her to experience depression for the first time in her life.

"It's so hard to have it taken away, which is such a huge part of your identity, and then have to figure out who you are," she told CBS News in the spring of 2021. "I'm having a really hard time getting out of bed during the mornings. I'm having like really vivid dreams that I've never experienced before. I'm also losing motivation to do something that I've loved so much."

Maria Briggs lost her job with "Mean Girls" on Broadway when it closed due to the pandemic. CBS News

"It really felt like all of us, everyone walked into a dark tunnel," said Shereen Pimentel, who was cast as Maria in the ambitious 2020 revival of "West Side Story," before it became yet another casualty of the pandemic. "We knew that there was going to be a light at the end, but didn't see it, and didn't know when it was going to pop up. And that was the scary part. Two weeks turns into a month, and the month turns into two months, then six months. But once you hit six months, you're like, 'OK, I'm just going to strap in for the long haul.'"

The light at the end of the tunnel finally came in May, with the announcement that Broadway shows could resume performances in September 2021 at full capacity. Broadway mainstays like "Wicked," "Hamilton" and "The Lion King" set a reopening date of September 14, with vaccinations and masks required. A cascade of other shows followed suit.

The new musical "Flying Over Sunset" is scheduled to begin performances on November 11. Of that much-dreamed-about day, the show's composer, Tom Kitt, tells CBS News: "I think reopening is going to be filled with tears. I think people are going to be crying. I know I will."

"I think we're coming back as different people," adds James Lapine, the show's book writer and director, who's won three Tony Awards over the years. "We're going to be investigating what we're doing in a different way. … It's going to be a really interesting, unprecedented opportunity to be able to refract something differently through something that you started six years ago with one intention and realizing that the world has changed, and figuring out how to keep going and moving the work forward in a way that speaks to us today."

James Lapine's new musical, "Flying Over Sunset," was supposed to have its first preview the night the pandemic shut down New York City theaters. CBS News

Broadway's signature slogan is "The show must go on." After 9/11, it roared back to life after only two days. Superstorm Sandy forced it to close for four. Nothing has ever kept Broadway dark for as long as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, in one sense, the Great White Way never truly went dark.

"The ghost light," says Chuck Cooper, a Tony Award-winning veteran of the stage, referring to the single bulb traditionally left aglow in an otherwise darkened theater. "I love the ghost light. ... The practical purpose that the ghost light serves is to, if some workman is walking across the stage late at night, they won't fall off the edge of the stage because the ghost light is on and they'll be able to find their way. But it's also a wonderful metaphor for the theater because, with a ghost light, the light of understanding, the light of compassion, the light of witness, the light of so much that's good about human beings is never extinguished. The theater, that light, always shines."

It's a tradition that's endured since the late 1800s.

"I hope that they were all on the whole time," Cooper said. "I trust that they were. I feel that they were. It's a light, an energy, that gave us hope to help us get through it."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.