Actor André De Shields knew he was destined for a life on the stage; he told correspondent Mo Rocca he knew "when I was evicted from my mother's womb." And last year, at age 73, he won the Tony Award for his performance in "Hadestown," which also took top honors as Best Musical.
De Shields was performing eight shows a week, until this past March 12: "I go to sign in, and the production stage manager says, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'I'm, well, reporting back to work.' She says, 'But there's no show tonight.'"
And there haven't been any performances since. But the lights of Broadway haven't been entirely dimmed by the pandemic.
The seats may be empty, and the actors and crew nowhere to be seen, but every stage on Broadway has a lamp like the one burning continuously at the Walter Kerr Theatre (the home to "Hadestown"). It's called a ghost light, and it's a tradition that goes back to the late 1800s.
"A ghost light is a light that stays on inside the theatre, even when the house is dark, when a show's not going on, or when a show's not running," said Broadway producer and author Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who notes a ghost light serves a practical function:
"When the show ends and the theatre becomes dark, you have a light on so that the people that are visiting backstage, the people that are keeping up maintenance, can have a way to see, before the whole theater is lit again."
As for the "ghost" part … "The more romantic history of ghost lights is, of course, that they're lit so that the ghosts will either have company and be able to move around freely, or to keep the ghosts away," she said. "So, there's a lot of legends about that in the theater!"
De Shields' earliest memory of a ghost light is a cherished one. It was 1974, and he was auditioning for the title role in "The Wiz": "The only light in the theatre was the ghost light, which was downstage center. And because the theatre was empty, you could hear your footsteps echo. You're walking on stage. Already, the alchemy, the magic, is sort of washing over you."
The song he sang, to the glow of the ghost light? "In the Midnight Hour":
I'm gonna wait 'til the midnight hour,
when there is no one else around.
I'm gonna wait 'til the midnight hour,
when my love comes tumbling down.
Needless to say, he got the part.
Three-time Tony-winner Bernadette Peters is a living legend of Broadway. "You know, I've been in shows since I was nine years old," she said. "I just, you know, took it for granted. There was the ghost light, at night, when we'd close up."
She originated roles in "Sunday In the Park With George" and "Into the Woods," and starred in the 2003 revival of "Gypsy," where she shared the stage with a ghost light. "It's always there," Peters said. "And it does represent the theater. And it's always lit."
Rocca asked, "Do you think that that's a powerful symbol?"
"I do. Because, you know, we're going to come back at some point," she replied.
Before the shutdown, there were 31 shows running on Broadway, and eight which hadn't even opened to the public. These days the theater district is indeed ghostly … the sound of music replaced by the sound of silence.
Veteran stage manager Peter Lawrence, who won a special Tony Award in 2013, was in rehearsal for a new show ("Trevor") when everything came to a stop: "It's like you're running a race and suddenly everybody says, 'Okay, stop and go home.' You think, 'Wait a minute …' I don't know how to describe it, Mo, but our regular clocks are off. That's all I can say.
"Most people that I know in the theater don't really fit anyplace else. You know, there's nothing else we could do other than the theater!" he laughed.
But during this extended intermission, some of Broadway's top talent has simply relocated, from the Great White Way to the World Wide Web, producing socially-distanced videos to raise money for various causes around the Broadway community, or just to entertain a homebound audience.
"Sunday Morning" Matinee has been a series of videos showing Broadway and musical talents, such as the cast of a recent revival of "A Chorus Line" performing together virtually:
Elsewhere online: The dance captain from the musical "Diana," Richard Gatta, has been baking Broadway pies for Instagram:
Rob McClure, who was set to open as "Mrs. Doubtfire," lovingly mocks orchestra conductors:
There's even a "Tiger King" musical parody starring Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth:
"There's just constantly some amazing video being made," said music director, actor and radio host Seth Rudetsky. "Everyone is connecting. So, in a sense we're extremely connected, and we feel very supportive of each other."
For Rudetsky, Broadway is family, which is why he and his husband James Wesley launched "Stars In the House," an online variety show which so far has raised more than $350,000 for the Actors Fund's services during the coronavirus crisis.
"Every day people keep donating," Rudetsky said. "Which is shocking, 'cause no one really has an income. I can't believe people are still donating, but they still are. So, it's been really amazing."
Some stars have still found a way to perform for live audiences. Brian Stokes Mitchell, who recovered from COVID-19, is giving back by singing out of his Upper West Side apartment window:
Bernadette Peters – who has been participating in various fundraising events, including the Stephen Sondheim 90th birthday celebration to benefit Artists Striving To End Poverty (ASTEP), and will soon bring her annual "Broadway Barks" event online this year – has become part of a nightly audience cheering for New York City's healthcare workers.
"The first time I went out there, I was so overwhelmed I had to go inside," she said. "And then I thought, 'Oh, no, I'm going to film this. This is amazing. This is so beautiful!"
She said, "We can't get the applause. So, now we're giving the applause, to people that deserve applause."
It's not clear when curtains will rise again. The Broadway League is hoping for a January 2021 restart.
Peters said, "I'm so looking forward to 'Mrs. Doubtfire,' and then 'Company.' And we're waiting for 'Music Man.' I mean, all those shows, we need 'em!"
Peter Lawrence told Rocca, "This is gonna sound hopelessly sentimental what I'm gonna say to you, but they're waiting for us."
But Lawrence is certain the theatres will reopen. After all, they've left the light on!
"There's a warm heart on that stage," he said. "And those theatres are waiting for us to come back – and I'm very grateful they are."
For more info:
- "Broadway Barks" (Bernadette Petters will participate in a live streamed performance on broadwaycares.org July 17 to benefit Broadway Barks)
- Bernadette Peters will also take part in an online streaming benefit concert for Broadway Cares on July 10
- "Stars In the House" with Seth Rudetsky & James Wesley
- The Broadway League
Story produced by Michelle Kessel. Editor: Carol Ross.