The understudy just hours away from stepping into the spotlight. The 74-year-old star still celebrating his first Tony Award win. The usher who greets hundreds of audience members before the curtain even rises.
On March 12, 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered Broadway to shut down due to the coronavirus, closing 31 plays and musicals—and upending the lives and livelihoods of the more than 96,000 people whose jobs rely on the industry. That number includes the cast and crew of the 2019 Best Musical Hadestown, who would bring the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone to life each night at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
They used to play for packed houses eight times a week. Now they’re just doing all they can to get through this pandemic. Slate spoke to 10 people who help make Hadestown to tell the story of the day it all came to a halt, how their lives have changed, and what it will take to safely bring theater back to the Theater District.
Before the shutdown announcement on March 12, a Thursday, Hadestown’s cast and crew weren’t sure whether it would ever come.
TJ D’Angelo (head usher at the Walter Kerr Theatre): We heard that this virus was coming, but it felt like, it’s not going to happen here. This is 2020, this is New York. Then it started to really hit. Every day for two weeks was a different day at work because nobody wanted to be the first show to do anything. We heard that an usher tested positive. We were asking, “Can we wear gloves?” Originally, no. And then, yes, you can wear gloves, but they have to be these black gloves that we issue because we want them to look not like a medical thing.
J. Alex Huerta (audio assistant): I took a trip to Hawaii for my birthday at the end of February, and the day after I got back, there was a report of someone who had traveled through Hawaii that had COVID-19. It was one of the first few known cases in the U.S., so I felt like I had dodged a bullet there. And here I am, back at work every day, and I’m putting my hands on André De Shields, the Tony-winning, 74-year-old actor. And every day the news is getting worse. You’re hearing people cough on the subway and wondering what’s going to happen and just mentally pleading for someone to take some drastic action.
Timothy Hughes (chorus member, Hades understudy, tall guy): I remember we had a cast meeting about health and safety where we decided not to do the stage door anymore. And that felt like a big change.
André De Shields (actor who plays Hermes): The curtain would come down—although there actually is no curtain, but you know what I mean—and then there would be a crowd of 100, 200 young people standing at the stage door wanting selfies and photographs, and we would go out and the screaming would start all over again and we would spend another hour giving them what they desired. On Saturday, March 7, it was announced that that ritual was no longer going to happen. Although we were aware of [the virus], the panic and fear had not set in.
Jennifer Diaz (house carpenter at the Walter Kerr Theatre): On Wednesday night, during the evening show, an actor asked before they entered the stage, “Do you think they’re going to shut down Broadway?” And I was like, “Absolutely not. It’s never going to happen. There’s too much money to be lost.”
Brian Drye (trombonist): That show on March 11 was a wild show. We were all wondering, what’s happening with this thing? I don’t know if it was the energy of the band or the actors or the crowd, but there was something in the air that night.
TJ D’Angelo: It’s theater. Everybody likes rumors.
On Thursday morning, the cast and crew still expected to perform their evening show. Two of Hadestown’s supporting actors, John Krause and Jewelle Blackman, were on the cusp of major career breakthroughs. Blackman, who has been with Hadestown since its Canadian run, had just recently become the understudy for the lead role of Persephone, and planned to fill in later that month. Krause, a member of the chorus, had been the understudy for the part of Orpheus since the show opened on Broadway 11 months earlier—but in all that time, star Reeve Carney never missed a performance.
Krause was scheduled to debut as Orpheus for the first time on Thursday night.
John Krause (chorus member, Orpheus understudy): In December 2018, I auditioned to be the Orpheus standby, meaning I would only go on if Reeve had called out. You know, there are the Elphaba standbys in Wicked—her literal job is just to be there to get green very quickly if she has to. They thought Orpheus was going to be such a difficult role that Reeve would probably only do seven [out of eight] shows a week.
But Reeve Carney is a god amongst men and he can sing forever and never get tired, so my role mutated. I was very grateful when I got the call that I was going to be in the ensemble and be the understudy, because it meant I would get to be in the show every day.
Beverly Jenkins (production stage manager): Reeve Carney has never missed one minute on that stage, God bless him. March 12 was the first day of Reeve Carney’s vacation.
John Krause: I had done the role of Orpheus in a few put-ins, meaning I had done the role in costume, onstage, with lights, sound, just no audience. I felt really good about it. I felt ready.
Timothy Hughes: I was at rehearsal, and the excitement in the room was heightened because it was the first time ever that an understudy was going on for Orpheus. After rehearsal I was supposed to run to get all of these doughnuts that John’s wife had ordered for his opening night.
John Krause: They had just recently stopped all sports. But it was like, OK, well, those are big stadiums with thousands upon thousands of people. Our theater’s just over 900 seats. I was making excuses and not allowing myself to even think that shutting down was a possibility. My parents flew in from Los Angeles, against my brother-in-law’s better judgment. They didn’t want to miss a chance to see their son be the lead of a Broadway show.
Everything was still bustling. People were in restaurants. People were still like treating it like a flu, like, just wash your hands and don’t touch your face kind of stuff. We went to Times Square.
Rachel Chavkin (director): [Hadestown producer] Mara Isaacs and I were in auditions for the national tour, and Mara is apologizing to everyone, saying, “I just might have to go at any moment,” checking her phone. And indeed, about halfway through the morning session, she had to go over to the [Broadway] League.
Timothy Hughes: The producers walked in. John wasn’t at the theater yet. We knew something was wrong. Whenever the producers show up unexpectedly, it’s not the best of signs. They explained to us that they had been at a meeting, that the governor was shutting us down for 30 days. Everybody was kind of stunned and nobody knew what to do.
John Krause: My parents were still a little jet-lagged, so we decided to take a nap. I remember waking up in their hotel room to Cuomo on the TV and tons of texts. I remember the announcement and just staring at it. And then I started to cry, but I pulled myself together. Maybe I was trying to hold it together for my parents.
There was an impromptu company meeting, so I walked to the theater. I walked onto the stage, and everyone hugged me. [choking up] Oh, man. Just thinking about it, it’s making me really emotional. They surrounded me, and I just wept in a full release.
Beverly Jenkins: Seven o’clock curtain. And here it is, 4 o’clock and it is snatched from him. It was heartbreaking.
John Krause: It felt like something died. It was a state of shock.
Timothy Hughes: I was immediately like, I think we need those doughnuts. I don’t think I realized that the doughnuts from John’s wife were going to say something, but we opened them up and they said, like, “To My Orpheus,” and I was like, “Oh, no!” I was hoping these would just be a basic dozen from Dunkin’, but they spelled out something beautiful about him going on for the first time.
Jewelle Blackman (one of the Fates, Persephone understudy): I felt sick. I couldn’t believe that after getting to Broadway and being in a hit show and on the precipice of showing the world my Persephone, it was all coming to a standstill. I went up to my dressing room and was in there for a while by myself. I believe some people did get together to go to this bar across the street for a little rendezvous, but I was not in the mood. I was like, “This is just too much.” I was not in a happy place at all when it happened.
André De Shields: I had been in Florida doing a gig, and because I wanted to be my professional best when I returned on March 12, I thought, Well, I’m not even going to stop home and drop my bags. I’m going to go directly to the theater because I want them to know: I’m back. I’m ready. Let’s hit it!
I go into the theater and I don’t even realize that the lights are not up on the stage. It’s before a half-hour to showtime, and the production stage manager, Beverly, walks out of the office and she says, “Mr. André, what are you doing here?” And I say, “This is Thursday, March 12. I’m supposed to return to the show.” She looks at me in the way only a Black woman production stage manager can look at you, and she says, “Have you been looking at your phone?” I open my phone and, of course, there is one text after another from her saying to me that the show is closed.
I’m still in my fresh-from-Florida humorous mood, and I say to her, “What’s the problem? I go away for four days and you can’t keep the show open?” And she says, “André, Broadway is shut down.” So then, you know, the cold water hits my face.
The initial shutdown was only supposed to last one month, with Broadway performances returning the week of April 13.
Jennifer Diaz: We were really like, “So we’ll take this month off. Have a good St. Paddy’s Day. Have a nice April Fools’. We’ll see you guys around Easter.”
J. Alex Huerta: I remember I was packing up to leave the theater and I thought, Do I take my utility knife and my alcohol swabs in case there’s, like, an apocalyptic event and I need to battle my way through New York? [laughs] I didn’t know how to prepare at that point. At the time, a month both seemed like way too long to go without work and not nearly enough time to solve any problems.
Rachel Chavkin: It was very unclear how long it would last, so there was sort of this feeling of a snow day.
Beverly Jenkins: A lot of the crew was in already, and so were the electricians, so we took the water out of the [fog machine] pipes so we wouldn’t come back to find them growing mold on us.
Jennifer Diaz: We shut the set, we made sure everything was powered down, and we left.
Timothy Hughes: Originally, my body enjoyed the time off. I had not had a vacation. But that lasted only like two weeks, and then I was like, OK, what am I going to do? I tried to turn on the soundtrack and sing through the score and dance through the show and it was just not satisfying. It wasn’t filling the artistic well that I needed to be filled at the time.
Jennifer Diaz: During that month, I was paying attention to the news, watching what was happening and I realized, no, there’s no way we’re going to be back in a month.
TJ D’Angelo: We’ve never really closed down for longer than maybe a month. There was the Local One strike. [The Local One stagehand strike in 2007 lasted 19 days. The longest shutdown in Broadway history took place in 1975, when a musicians strike shuttered Broadway for 25 days.] We’ve had other strikes that lasted a weekend, or a hurricane for like two days, but never anything longer than a month—except maybe when a show is closed. But if Bruce Springsteen’s show closes and we’re going to have Hadestown coming in in three or four months, great, I know I’m going back to work. With this, God knows! And every day it changes.
As the coronavirus crisis became more and more dire in New York City and elsewhere, Broadway was forced to push back its return date to June … and then push it back again to September … and then to January. The most recent announcement extended the shutdown through May 2021. Now facing at least six months before they can return to work, the cast and crew are filling their time with family, art, and teaching gigs. Some aren’t sure whether they’ll return at all.
Beverly Jenkins: I teach stage management at NYU and at the Shenandoah Conservatory and I have contact with all these young stage managers, and we do a lot of talking about what they have to look forward to when they get out of school in May. But, what can they do? My heart breaks for them a little bit.
Jennifer Diaz: Both my husband and I are stagehands, and we are both unemployed, so that’s hard. My husband works at the Opera House, and they announced that they’re not back until September 2021. A silver lining—well, not even silver, more like a gold lining—is that we have a baby. She was seven months old when COVID hit. Since we’ve been home with her, we got to experience her crawling for the first time together.
TJ D’Angelo: My husband’s worked this whole time. He works in a grocery store. Up until maybe a month ago, he slept on the couch in the living room because he was afraid to potentially pass the virus on to me. Stupidly, I’m writing a play for myself. I’m a short Italian guy, 5 feet tall, and I’m writing a one-man show called Little Italy, about a little guy who takes over the Mafia. I’m also learning Italian.
Jewelle Blackman: One of the other Fates, Yvette [Gonzalez-Nacer], brought up the idea of making a Christmas album with all three Fates. Everyone, 100 percent of the cast, is on the album. I didn’t expect that at all. But it says so much about how everyone who’s involved in the show really wanted to create something together again. It was a way for us to feel connected.
Recently, I was able to shoot an episode of a Canadian TV show. I’ve been auditioning for a lot of television stuff because TV production is, like, out the roof out here. Everyone on set has a mask, you have to have a test a week before you actually get on set, and there’s no more craft table.
André De Shields: I live in Hell’s Kitchen, which is the bedroom of Broadway. Although the show has not played since March 11, people still encounter me on the street, call me Mr. Hermes, and then, sometimes eagerly, sometimes cautiously, share something very personal about their lives with me. And what I’ve learned is I cannot not have time to listen. I’m Hermes, I’m a god, I live forever. Of course I have time. What’s on your mind? What’s on your heart? Share it with me.
I like to remain healthy as much as I can, so I do my shopping at a natural food place. I only have to take a half block detour to visit the theater. I always take that detour, and I place my hands on the stage door and bless the theater, bless the spirit that we left inside, bless the ghost light. When you leave the theater, you’re leaving your second home. No matter where you live, no matter how much money or little money you have, if you’ve chosen the profession and the profession has chosen you in return, that is your second home. Eight shows a week. Eventually you have in your dressing room a miniature version of your home: You have your teapot, you have your tea, you have your spices, you have the sage. You have your Tony and your slippers and your robe. And you want to know that there’s a keeper of the flame—that’s the ghost light.
TJ D’Angelo: I went to a doctor’s appointment in Manhattan recently and I just had to walk by the Walter Kerr and be like, “I miss you, old friend.” It was strange to see it dark. I’ve been an usher for 17 years. For the last four years, I was the commissioner of the Broadway Bowling League, so I got to know a lot of people. I feel like I’m the mayor of that area, and when I looked around, there just wasn’t anybody, no tourists or actors walking by. It really hurts the soul.
Jewelle Blackman: I always make sure to at least pass by the theater and take a picture out front, just to remember. I don’t know if I necessarily feel hope, or sadness, or despair. It just feels like it’s stuck in a moment of time and it’s there, waiting.
John Krause: My wife, Molly, and I just got married last year. I was on the road for a while. She works in L.A. primarily. We’ve kind of had to make it work by going all over the place. But now we have a dog, and we’re considering getting a home and starting a family. Can I justify going back to New York for the long term?
If I don’t go back to Broadway, there will 100 percent be a part of me that will always wonder what could have been, and what it would have felt like to have that moment, to have that spotlight, because that’s been my dream since I saw my first Broadway show: to lead the show.
J. Alex Huerta: My current train of thought is that I’m going to hold off on any big life decisions until January or February, until there’s a new administration and hopefully more stimulus benefits. I’ve been considering exploring career retraining programs. Some of the artists I work with are looking at programs that teach you how to code. I spent so long working on a career—you know, you move to New York City, you work your ass off, long days and long nights for nothing, in order to move up the ladder. I spent so much time on all of that. There is a certain appeal in finding something that doesn’t take too much out of me.
But it’s impossible to imagine not being there when Hadestown can finally happen again. Audience members who haven’t seen a show in more than a year being able to sit there and listen as the trombone starts to play? If I can be there, in any way, I really would want to be.
When Broadway does reopen, the challenge will be doing so safely. In the 2018–19 Broadway season, 14.8 million people attended a Broadway show; 65 percent were tourists. The industry relies on packing hundreds of people from all over the world into close quarters.
Rachel Chavkin: We’re going to be watching plays, I’m assuming, with quite a lot of people in masks for a while.
Beverly Jenkins: Theater will be back. It will take more than a minute for us to be back at full capacity, sure. But I belong to the COVID-19 Think-Tank. We’re theater-makers who are working closely with the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy at how we can go back safely. The actors and crew want to be back, but we also have to make sure the audience wants to come back.
J. Alex Huerta: I make all the mic rigs that the actors wear, I test and maintain them regularly, I help make sure actors get them on. So I was brought on to the COVID Think-Tank to talk about issues that people like me are going to face.
One of the main projects I’ve been directly involved in is setting up a time and motion study. It’s an exploration of exactly who is where at any given point in the workplace. What is their path? Who are they coming into contact with, and what could potentially be done to change that? The goal is to figure out how all contact can be reduced before we even start rehearsals again.
It’s a lot of work. I filled out my own track as an example, and I think I had 50 items on the list of paths I cross and things I touch before we even start the show. There’s a reason why theater was one of the first businesses to shut down. It takes so many people to make a show, and it is so hard to avoid contact, especially on Broadway when we’re packed into these old theaters.
TJ D’Angelo: When people come in with their tickets, sometimes they can be disgusting and they don’t mean to be. I’ve seen hundreds of people put their tickets in their mouths while they take their hat and gloves off, then hand it to me and say, “Where am I sitting?” I’m the first person that audiences see when they come into the theater. Nine hundred and thirty-six people have to walk past me in a half-hour. I’m gonna have to be wrapped up in cellophane.
While the House Democrats’ Heroes Act contains a provision to support independent theater called the Save Our Stages Act, the stimulus bill has stalled for months. Without consistent work, thousands are expected to lose their health insurance. It’s unclear just how many jobs will return when performances begin again, and what the long-term effects of the shutdown will be on Broadway and beyond.
J. Alex Huerta: The economics and politics that we’re dealing with right now are people in office who continually dismiss the arts, which is an industry that’s bigger than the airline industry.
Everyone being at home right now, watching Netflix or watching recordings of plays, it’s even more frustrating because I’m absolutely not saving anyone’s life, but if you don’t have art and entertainment in your life, then is it really worth living? It seems like it’s all we have to keep us going right now.
Brian Drye: I have a few part-time jobs, and because I was putting in way more hours after Broadway shut down and I make literally just over the limit, I didn’t qualify for unemployment. I lost two-thirds of my income. It’s financially been pretty rough for us. This is the least I’ve played in my entire life. But I’m grateful to have a job, with so many people out of work.
If you’re in Prospect Park on a Saturday, there’s usually five bands playing at any given moment. I guess the problem for me with that is that we’ve worked so hard to get paid as artists. I’m all for playing, but when it turns into a gig and you’re just taking donations outside, I wonder if that diminishes our stake in being paid correctly for what we do.
Rachel Chavkin: Who is talking about us? We’re obviously hearing about the restaurant industry, but it doesn’t feel like there’s really a conversation about how we need income. Artists are workers, and our industry is completely shut down. And there is some incredibly heinous intimation that there’s a froofiness to the arts. We are workers as sure as a wait staff at a restaurant or a factory worker in Redding, Pennsylvania.
TJ D’Angelo: My fear now is: Is unemployment going to go past March? They said that unemployment’s good for 52 weeks. I’m sure they’ll figure it out between now and then, with the government extending benefits for people who are still out because of the pandemic. I’m hoping. If not, I’m really screwed.
In spite of everything—the personal sacrifices, the financial uncertainty, the political abandonment—all of the workers I spoke to trust that theater will make it through, and may even be better and more inclusive for it.
André De Shields: The generation that’s younger than I am looks to the generation before them for an answer. We don’t have an answer. But we do have stories to tell, so I say to them, “In my lifetime, there was another pandemic: AIDS.” And they say, “But that’s a manageable disease now.” I say, “Yes, it is. But it took 50 years. When it first hit, it was madness, and those who were infected with HIV were the scum of the earth, were evil. We haven’t found a vaccine, but now we have learned to live with it and beyond it.” This is my perspective: We can deal with this if we don’t panic and react in fear, if we understand that we’re all in this together and it’s nobody’s fault.
Timothy Hughes: I’m super optimistic that people will return [to the theater]. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I think that connection, the visceral experience that I have as a performer and as an audience member of live theater, will be what everybody is craving after this. I’m biking through the city these days and I saw a jazz trio pop up outside of the wine shop, and it drew such a large audience on the street, because people are desperate for live entertainment.
Jewelle Blackman: Had the world not been on pause, I don’t believe that all of these protests for Black Lives Matter would be happening. I don’t think people would be looking at the many issues with equity and race that are prevalent in theater. When we do go back to normal, I don’t want it to be normal. There needs to be a new normal.
Rachel Chavkin: I expect and hope that as we begin to come back, we’re going to see over the next couple years an incredible flourishing of Black writers and directors, artists of color, designers, choreographers.
Beverly Jenkins: Once we get out of this, hopefully we’ll be able to bring theater to more people, you know? It’s very exclusive. If you can’t come to where we are and sit down, you don’t get to see it. The whole field is developing around what this pandemic has put us in. Maybe now there’ll be ways where we can make it accessible.
Rachel Chavkin: I hope it’s not hubris to say I’m not worried about Hadestown coming back. Theater is the oldest thing we do. So we’re going to keep doing it. Sitting together and hearing a story—that I have no doubt is going to come back.