‘Phantom of the Opera’ plots a cautious return to Broadway

the phantom of the opera

Image: screengrab from YouTube/The Phantom of the Opera

NEW YORK — Meghan Picerno was again at work after 18 months of pandemic limbo, overjoyed to be singing and dancing once more together with her “Phantom of the Opera” castmates as they rehearsed for the return of Broadway’s longest-running present.

As the musical’s late October reopening neared, typically all Picerno may take into consideration was making it to the first curtain name unscathed by the breakthrough COVID-19 instances that had sidelined vaccinated actors at different exhibits.

Outside lengthy days in a chilly mirror-lined rehearsal studio close to New York City’s Times Square, Picerno had put herself again on what she referred to as lockdown.

“I’m a full-on monk now,” she mentioned throughout a rushed lunch break between back-to-back run throughs.

She knew her job got here with dangers of publicity. Playing the present’s heroine Christine required Picerno to kiss two co-stars every day and to sing full-throated love songs with them unmasked and at shut vary.

“Hopefully, none of us have it, because if one of us have it, we all have it,” she mentioned.

The crowded Broadway theaters, very important to the metropolis’s tourism trade, had been the first locations closed by the New York authorities as the coronavirus started to ravage the state. Word of the abrupt shuttering got here throughout a “Phantom” matinee at the Majestic Theatre on March 12, 2020, as some forged and crew themselves had been falling sick.

Now, after an unprecedented shutdown, the theaters are amongst the final workplaces to reopen. Their return this fall is considered as a check of the metropolis’s efforts to restore some new sense of normalcy.

Reuters watched as the “Phantom” firm ready for its return. The pandemic left unmistakable marks.

Within a few weeks of the present going darkish, COVID-19 had claimed the life of a beloved dresser, Jennifer Arnold, who had been with the present for greater than three a long time.

After protests crammed United States streets final 12 months in outrage at the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, newly unemployed Broadway staff pushed the trade to make overdue modifications to enhance racial variety in theater firms.

In August, “Phantom” producers introduced they’d forged the first-ever Black actor to play Christine since the present opened on Broadway in 1988. The actor, Emilie Kouatchou, would make her Broadway debut as an alternate for Picerno.

For the returning forged, there have been tweaks to lyrics and staging to be taught, making it extra simple to forged non-white actors in principal roles. The total firm was required to be vaccinated and twice a week went to get their noses swabbed at a close by theater foyer repurposed as a non permanent coronavirus testing web site.

Picerno mentioned she was completely happy to embrace no matter was wanted to get again on stage.

In the darkish days of 2020, dwelling again in North Carolina together with her mother and father and claiming unemployment advantages, she mentioned she “almost felt like a failure.” She sang her half each day to maintain it recent in her thoughts till the singing made her too unhappy and she or he stopped.

Emotion once more overcame her on the first day reunited together with her castmates in late September. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had swung by the studio to ship a pep discuss to the forged earlier than they sang via the acquainted rating.

Picerno’s singing dissolved in tears throughout the love duet “All I Ask of You.”

“Sing along! Help her!” the conductor urged the masked refrain, whose voices carried Picerno till she regained her composure.

‘Think of me’

A number of days later, the forged practiced dance steps in a combine of avenue garments and the bulkier components of their Nineteenth-century-style costumes.

Picerno drew a scarf via her fingers as she danced and sang “Think of Me” in her bell-like soprano. Off in a nook of the studio, Kouatchou silently mirrored Picerno’s each transfer.

Kouatchou, the daughter of immigrants from Cameroon, grew up in the Chicago suburbs. “Phantom” was the first Broadway present she ever noticed, on a journey to New York together with her highschool. She remembers being transfixed by Christine.

“I could sing that role in my sleep,” she recalled considering.

Still, she apprehensive about stereotyping, that some would see a mismatch in her voice, an operatic soprano, and her look, which was not the type of “petite white girl” who appeared to at all times get forged as a present’s ingénue or heroine.

“I didn’t feel like I had a place in musical theater because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me who sung like me,” she mentioned.

COVID-19 had each upended dwell theater and made house for progress.

“The pandemic was terrible,” Kouatchou mentioned. “But we wouldn’t be able to have conversations like this and change things like this if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.”

Now, as the Phantom begins making his terrifying presence recognized in act one, a frightened ballet dancer turns to the heroine and sings: “Christine, are you alright?”

Before the pandemic and Kouatchou’s casting, the lyric had at all times been: “Your face, Christine, it’s white!”

The previous, creepy Christine doll that stood in the Phantom’s lair, her options unmistakably white, additionally was out. A brand new doll, designed to be racially ambiguous, would debut on reopening night time.

Later that week, Kouatchou obtained her first glimpse of one of the new Christine wigs designed to match her hair texture.

“It’s curlier and frizzier and I love it,” Kouatchou mentioned.

‘The point of no return’

On the first full day of stage rehearsals at the Majestic Theatre, members of the firm waited to present vaccination proof in an alleyway lined with trash cans main to the stage door.

Backstage, masked dressers who assist actors rapidly change costumes in the darkness of the wings had been testing alternate options to the bitelights they’d gripped of their tooth pre-pandemic. They experimented with little lamps strapped to their foreheads or on gloves, hoping they wouldn’t confuse audiences by capturing out beams of gentle throughout the stage mid-show.

From the orchestra seats, John Riddle, who performs the present’s hero Raoul, marveled at one of the dazzling spotlights excessive up in the proscenium. Its beam used to illuminate a “constant cloud of dust,” he mentioned.

“The fact that it’s clear now means something to me,” he mentioned. “They say it’s the cleanest a Broadway theater has ever been.”

Even so, there was worrying information from exhibits close by. The Disney musical “Aladdin” was compelled to shut for 2 weeks quickly after its September reopening as a result of too many actors examined optimistic for the coronavirus.

Maree Johnson, who performs the black-clad ballet mistress Madame Giry, mentioned she was resigned to the chance that “Phantom” additionally would file breakthrough coronavirus instances.

“It’s going to happen sooner or later,” she mentioned.

Nine days later, on Friday afternoon, Picerno was in her dressing room when she opened the e mail with outcomes of her closing coronavirus check forward of reopening night time. Relief washed over her. It was destructive.

That night time, viewers members wearing night robes, bow ties and the occasional “Phantom”-style costume crowded the theater doorways, fishing out proofs of vaccination.

“Welcome back to Broadway!” chirped the newly employed COVID security screens who waved giant indicators saying “MASKS UP” at the viewers inside.

Backstage at the prime of a staircase, a few members of the firm had positioned a vase of flowers and a {photograph} of Arnold, the dresser misplaced to COVID-19. Some of the forged and crew paused by the memorial earlier than resuming the closing minutes’ rush in close by dressing rooms.

The home lights dimmed, and the acquainted descending chromatic chords of the “Phantom” theme surged from the orchestra pit. Picerno danced throughout the stage as Kouatchou watched from the viewers, typically mimicking her hand gestures. The new Christine doll lurked in the Phantom’s lair, her face now silver.

At the closing curtain name, the viewers roared with delight. Picerno ran to the entrance of the stage to take her bow, her face crumpled and shining with tears. JB


WATCH: After 18-month shutdown, Broadway reopens for big musicals; actors serenade city

Broadway returns with high hopes and touch of butterflies

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