The chandelier inside the Majestic Theater — the iconic gold fixture that plummets into the audience as the “The Phantom of the Opera” reaches its act one climax — is still dark, and it’ll stay that way until at least the end of October.
But on Monday evening, the theater community gathered at the Majestic — the first time in more than 500 days that the Broadway theater opened its doors — to celebrate the premiere of “The Show Must Go On,” a new documentary chronicling the pandemic shutdown of theater worldwide.
Co-directed and produced by Sammi Cannold and Dori Berinstein, “The Show Must Go On” chronicles the industry’s closure and follows the world tour of “The Phantom of the Opera” and the South Korean tour of “Cats” — two productions that, against all odds, continued with their schedules in the spring and summer of 2020 to open shows in South Korea as early as May. While Broadway shuttered and world economies collapsed, both productions became beacons for theatrical innovation during the pandemic, likely the only live theater in the world.
On Monday, the irony of that comparison abounded.
“It’s pretty meta to be in a theater watching a film about two productions who forged ahead,” Cannold told Variety at the premiere. “And the irony isn’t lost on me that we’re here at the Majestic tonight and ‘Phantom’ isn’t.”
“When we first planned this premiere,” she continued, “it seemed as though the pandemic was in the rearview mirror and we were armed for theater’s resurgence, but now we’re in a precarious state again.”
With shows like “Hadestown” beginning rehearsals this week and two productions in theaters — Bruce Springsteen’s solo concert show and Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” a new play which began performances at the August Wilson Theatre last week — Broadway is on its path toward reopening. But the industry — which generated nearly $2 billion in 2019 and employed 100,000 people — is still in shambles, tiptoeing into the fall with no clear idea whether rising cases will stall a reopening, presale ticket purchases will pick up, or out-of-towners will return to fill seats on a sustained basis.
“From chaos always comes opportunity,’ Imogen Lloyd Webber, author and daughter to Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose advocacy in the U.K. drove the West End’s reopening, told Variety on the red carpet. “I think it’s an exciting time for theater and Broadway,” she said. “There are wonderful shows and new writers. In London, everybody was leaping up from their seats.”
But on Broadway, it was unclear whether her optimism was earned.
Yes, the theater community came out in droves to celebrate the film — with Sierra Boggess, Adrienne Warren, Ariana DeBose, Shereen Pimentel, Lillias White, Jason Gotay and Amber Gray, the latter still carrying her “Hadestown” rehearsal binder, in attendance. Josh Groban took the stage before the screening to sing “Could We Start Again Please?,” and after, Boggess, Warren, DeBose and Pimentel performed “As If We Never Said Goodbye” with cast members from “Phantom” and “Cats.”
But, in truth, could the U.K. model for theater’s reopening, buttressed by a $2 billion government bailout and significant technological innovation inside theaters, and the South Korean example, facilitated by a country able to band together to quickly curb the pandemic, be a practical roadmap for Broadway’s return?
Cannold says there’s a lot to learn.
“In the 17 months that the Korean theater industry has run during the pandemic, there’s been zero incidents of audience-to-audience transmission of COVID,” she said. “To me, that tells us everything we need to know about the safety of going into the theater. There have been mass outbreaks in Korea traced to nightclubs, churches, schools, you name it. None to theaters.”
“That’s what this film is about,” she continued. “To say: Now that many of us are vaccinated and there are protocols in place, it’s time to come back and make sure this industry survives.”