Jeff Lunden

New York's Lincoln Center, as people gather for its reopening on Monday, May 10.
Jeff Lunden / NPR

The performing arts

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo upstaged the Broadway League on Monday. Industry insiders expected the trade organization, which represents theater owners and producers, to say that some Broadway shows would reopen in September with more coming back during the fall. But at a press conference Cuomo beat them to it, lifting most capacity restrictions on restaurants, bars, museums, gyms, salons and retail shops by May 19. That list also included Broadway.

Indoor theater has been shuttered in New York City for more than a year, due to safety concerns associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

But there are indications of slow movement on this front.

Friday is opening night for Blindness at the off-Broadway Daryl Roth Theatre. At a recent preview, there was a short line outside the theater, where invited patrons waited to see the show — a piece based on a novel by José Saramago.

Every year, as a set-up for the Tony Awards, we take you backstage to meet people who aren't even eligible. These are Broadway's essential workers – ushers, stage managers, costumers. But this year, the Tonys seem like a faraway dream; even though nominations for the shortened season were announced in October, no date has been set. So, I decided to check in with some of those essential workers I've interviewed before, to find out how they've been coping since theaters closed.

On Jan. 25, 1996, a new rock musical by a little-known writer, Jonathan Larson, gave its first performance. Friends and family filed into a small off-Broadway theater to see Rent. The show was a retelling of La Boheme, set on the Lower East Side of New York, as people were dying of AIDS. It became an international phenomenon, winning the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, among others, but the performance almost didn't happen. Early that morning, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm. I spoke with some of the people who were there that night.

Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York, knows firsthand about the coronavirus. Eustis was hospitalized with COVID on March 10, and by the time he was released five days later, everything was shut down. "I came out into a world that had no theater, and it's a different world," he says.

Playbill, the program magazine given out at theaters, has been around for 136 years. It's not just a program, it's a cherished souvenir. "It has become kind of the best memento of your night out at the theater," says Alex Birsh, the company's vice president.

But with theaters on Broadway and across the country shut down since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Playbill is just one of the many companies servicing the performing arts that has had to adapt.

Here's a surprising statistic: According to a survey by Chorus America, one in six Americans, or 54 million people, sing in choral groups, whether that's community, school and children's choirs, religious groups or professional ensembles. But since stay-at-home orders have been issued across many states, choral music here and around the world has completely stopped.

Tall and lanky, Nick Cordero played a variety of tough guys on Broadway – a 1920s gangster in Bullets Over Broadway, an abusive husband in Waitress, and a mobster who takes a young boy under his wing in the musical version of Chazz Palmantieri's A Bronx Tale. He died on Sunday at the age of 41, his wife, Amanda Kloots, announced on Instagram.

Broadway shows will remain closed until at least Jan. 3, 2021 according to an announcement from the Broadway League, an organization representing theater producers and owners, which said that ticket holders will be able to get refunds or exchanges for a future date.

As theaters across the world have closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, they've scrambled to find ways get work to the public.

Some have made archival video of productions available, some have created Zoom plays and some have returned to an old art form — radio drama — but with a digital twist.

In the 1930s, with many people out of work, families huddled around radio receivers to listen to audio plays, like Orson Welles' famous broadcast, War of the Worlds.

Before everything shut down, there were already jitters. An usher tested positive for coronavirus, actors were no longer taking selfies at stage doors and on March 12, one hour before a matinee of Moulin Rouge: The Musical!, the company held an emergency meeting, says actor Danny Burstein.

"They said that somebody in our cast was currently at the doctor's suffering symptoms of COVID-19 and that they were canceling the show," he recalls.

When states and municipalities across the country began banning large gatherings, theaters — from regional stages to Broadway — shut down. But, in a creative solution to a difficult problem, some theaters made archival videos of the closed productions available online, for the cost of a ticket.

In March, the American Conservatory Theater, or A.C.T., in San Francisco had a new play on its main stage called Toni Stone. It was about a female ballplayer in the Negro Leagues.

Broadway shut down in March for what it thought would be a month, but with New York at the epicenter of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and with guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and the New York governor Andrew Cuomo, theaters will now remain shut until at least June 7th. The announcement was made on Wednesday morning by the Broadway League, an organization of theater owners and producers.

Hippos can get hungry. Very hungry. So when zoos shut their doors to the public because of the coronavirus, zookeepers keep showing up to work to make sure everyone is fed.

Jenna Wingate feeds Fiona, the Cincinnati Zoo's 3-year-old, 1,300-pound hippo. Fiona was born premature, and Wingate has been looking after her since two hours after she was born.

Legendary Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman has died. The author of the hit musicals Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles was 88.

Publicist Harlan Boll said Herman was taken to a Miami hospital Thursday night complaining of chest pain and later died of pulmonary complications.

The title of Jerry Herman's autobiography was Showtune, and if there ever was a Broadway composer who wrote good, old-fashioned, hummable show tunes, it was Jerry Herman.

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The musical theater director and producer Hal Prince, winner of an unprecedented 21 Tony Awards, has died in Iceland after a brief illness. He was 91.

Prince worked on such major shows as Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and The Phantom of the Opera. But he was always looking forward to the next show, regardless of how the last one turned out.

In 1965, composer John Kander was working on a show that Prince produced called Flora, The Red Menace — and it was not going well.

Opera is an art form well-suited to big emotions and tragic stories, often set in the past. But a new opera, Blue, grapples with a more contemporary tragedy — the killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of a police officer.

Editor's note: This story includes language that some may find offensive.

It was 1968. But playwright Mart Crowley felt he had to write what he knew.

"Nobody wanted the play," Crowley says. "Not even agents wanted to look at this play. They just thought it was pornographic and it was outrageous."

What he wrote in The Boys in the Band was a thinly veiled slice of autobiographical fiction. A group of gay friends gather for a raucous birthday party; by the end of the evening, secrets are spilled, tears are shed.

One of the oldest and most distinguished Spanish language theaters in the U.S. is housed in a converted Manhattan brownstone. "It started actually as a private house," explains Robert Federico, executive producer of Repertorio Español.

The space is tiny — rickety wooden stairs lead backstage and small props are stored in the hallway. The sets are designed to be stashed flush against walls behind black curtains.

In 1943, two 25 year olds — Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein — were about to rock the ballet world. The dance they collaborated on was Fancy Free — about three sailors in a bar, trying to meet women before they ship out to World War II.

"It's such a wonderful little sweet picture of that time ..." says Christine Redpath, one of four ballet masters Robbins chose to stage his work. "It's playful, and they're just fun and innocent. They don't know what's going to happen when they go off to war."

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We Shall Not Be Moved is a new opera that takes its name from both the old spiritual-turned-civil-rights anthem and the Philadelphia black liberation group, MOVE. That group might be best-remembered for a 1985 tragedy: A police helicopter bombed the MOVE house, and the resulting fire killed 11 people and destroyed 62 homes in the neighborhood.

The opera, presented by Opera Philadelphia with the Apollo Theater, had its world premiere Sept. 16. It revisits that house and its ghosts, while remaining centered on stories about young people in Philadelphia today.

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One of the ingredients a successful Broadway show needs is a talented cast. That starts with talented casting directors, the people who can see a Tony-winning star in the making, say, when a performer walks into an audition as a college student named Audra McDonald.

Russian, American and French ballet dancers are gathering Thursday night for a bit of cultural diplomacy at New York City's Lincoln Center. They're celebrating the 50th anniversary of George Balanchine's masterpiece Jewels, considered the first full-length, nonnarrative ballet.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee has been in the news a lot lately. Albee died in 2016, and since then his estate has turned down a multi-racial production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and put his contemporary art collection up for auction for an estimated $9 million.

Lillian Hellman's 1939 melodrama The Little Foxes has two great roles for actresses over the age of 40. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon fill those roles in a new revival on Broadway ... but with one big twist: Linney and Nixon play both roles and switch off at different performances.

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