In “Reopening: The Broadway Revival,” an hour-long documentary on PBS that’s a bit painful and embarrassing to watch, actor Andrew Rannells compares the start of the shutdown of Broadway in 2020 to the end of “Fiddler on the Roof”: “Everybody kind of scattered…it was like ‘Maybe see you in the new country. I don’t know when we’re coming back.’” But if the pandemic resembled a form of entertainment, it wouldn’t be a Broadway musical. It would be a tiresome TV series that should have been canceled ages ago.
The episode of “Great Performances,” which premiered on Tuesday night (and is now available online) with NY-1 theater reporter Frank DiLella as host, follows a narrative arc that is so out of sync with reality these days that PBS has attached a title card explaining that the show “was produced in the Fall of 2021” and “is not reflective of current developments in the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But was it ever reflective of reality?
The story line goes like this: Broadway was at its peak in early 2020, “vibrant,” setting box office records; then it all stopped, the streets of the theater district were emptied. But the Broadway community rallied and now Broadway is back! “Broadway is New York City at its best,” says Sara Bareilles, the composer of “Waitress.” These are the opening words of “Reopening,” followed by several of the 17 other Broadway people interviewed for the program with their own “Broadway is…” sentences (“exhilarating…awesome…a family…joy…absolute joy”), interspersed with lightning-quick clips from various musicals.
The problem with this narrative begins with how it ends. Broadway may have reopened by the end of 2021, but it is struggling to stay open at the beginning of 2022; after next Sunday, only 19 out of the 41 Broadway theaters will be occupied. (The hopeful news is that “Omicron is in retreat.”)
But Broadway’s continuing struggle is not all that is glossed over. If Broadway was “setting box office records” right before the pandemic struck, that’s because the prices had climbed higher than the average would-be theatergoer could afford, becoming primarily a destination for tourists, who were willing to splurge while on vacation. The change in demographics has helped turn Broadway from the natural home of great, original plays that were central to the country’s cultural conversation into a marketplace for what the late great critic Terry Teachout called the “commodity musical.” (“unchallenging confections…that are more or less slavishly adapted from Hollywood hits…”)
It feels emblematic of “Reopening” that it dwells on Jeanna de Waal and “Diana The Musical” – “The chance to portray Princess Diana on Broadway is the honor of a lifetime” – but it does not mention that critics dismissed the musical, often savagely, and it closed after just 34 performances. That omission is more understandable than the program’s failure to mention the musical’s one true innovation – that it was taped on a Broadway stage without an audience and live-streamed on Netflix before it started on stage. The rise of digital theater apparently doesn’t fit the narrative.
Although five of the 18 people interviewed in “Reopening” are African-American — one of them a co-founder of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, another a founding member of Black Theatre United — there is zero mention of the movement for racial reckoning and equity in the theater that gained ascendance during the pandemic.
“Reopening” includes a scene about the 2020 Tony Awards, presented as simply a celebration and a fulfillment of personal dreams. Many theater lovers, by contrast, saw it as an embarrassing if well-meaning stumble: Delayed 15 months, it was a night celebrating inclusion, the first half of which excluded anybody who didn’t pay to subscribe to a streaming platform owned by CBS.
There are some wonderful scenes in “Reopening,” most of them familiar to those theater lovers who were following Broadway’s trials and triumphs in Fall, 2021 – the cast of “Waitress” rehearsing for the first time, open air performance at Father Duffy Square, Andrew Lloyd Webber d-jaying the free block party upon the reopening of “Phantom of the Opera,” Kristen Chenoweth’s reopening night speech in Wicked.
But it’s instructive to compare “Reopening: The Broadway Revival” to “Reopening Night,” a documentary on HBO about the making of “Merry Wives” at the Public Theater’s Delacorte Theater in Central Park. That documentary was inspiring and entertaining, but also honest about the challenges and the shortcomings. There is a downside to #BroadwayisBack boosterism. Without an honest reckoning, it’s hard to see Broadway returning to a central place in the cultural conversation.