Musicals Return to Broadway With ‘Waitress’ and ‘Hadestown’

Sara Bareilles stepped onto the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theater a few minutes after 7 p.m. Thursday, a white apron over her blue uniform, as a looped recording of her voice began to intone pie ingredients. “Sugar. Sugar. Sugar, butter. Sugar, butter. Sugar, butter, flour.” And then, with a single note from a keyboard, a high piano chord and a whoosh from a cymbal, she launched into a song about baking.

One hour later and one block north, André De Shields slowly walked across the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater in a silver suit with iridescent silver boots, and, after a long arresting pause, asked the cast, and then the audience, and then the trombonist, a short question: “Aight?” The actors assented; the audience applauded, and the trombonist, Brian Drye, began to vamp.

And just like that, Broadway musicals are back on Broadway.

Well, to be more precise, two musicals are back on Broadway: “Waitress,” about a gifted baker in an abusive marriage, and “Hadestown,” a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.

Even on this first night, there was a reminder of the challenges involved: An actress in “Waitress,” who had been fully vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus, and couldn’t perform. The rest of the cast was tested, the actress who tested positive was replaced by an understudy, and the show went on.

The return of musical theater — the financial backbone of Broadway — marks another milestone as the theater business, and the theater community, seek to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, which forced all 41 Broadway theaters to close on March 12, 2020. On Sept. 14, four of the industry’s tentpole shows — “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “Chicago” — will reopen, with many more musicals planning to start or restart performances throughout the fall.

Audiences were extremely enthusiastic after months away. Both of the reopening musicals sold out on Thursday. At “Waitress,” there was even a standing ovation for a recorded preshow announcement reminding people to keep their masks on.

“We want everything to come back,” said Valerie Tuarez, 21, who said she had fallen in love with “Waitress” through the cast recording and was now seeing it for the first time.

At “Hadestown,” Joey Casali, 18, was wearing the show’s signature bloom — a red ranunculus — behind his right ear. He said he had seen the show five times before the pandemic and was ready for his long-delayed sixth visit. But he was also mindful of the bigger picture.

“This signifies Broadway coming back,” he said. “All eyes are on New York tonight.”

Among those celebrating the “Waitress” reopening was Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, who had worked to secure aid to help live entertainment businesses and cultural organizations recover from the pandemic. He told the cast before the show that the theater industry was not only beloved, but essential.

“Without Broadway,” he said, “New York would never come back economically.”

The longest shutdown in Broadway history started to end in late June, when Bruce Springsteen began a return engagement of his concert show, “Springsteen on Broadway,” which sold strongly and is scheduled to conclude on Saturday; the first play, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” began performances in August, opening to strong reviews, but is struggling at the box office.

The shows are starting at a fraught time, with the Delta variant extending the pandemic’s perils. All Broadway shows are requiring that ticket holders show proof of vaccination to enter (children who are too young to be vaccinated can provide proof of a negative coronavirus test) and wear masks throughout the performances.

The unexpected return of “Waitress,” which had concluded a nearly four-year Broadway run in January of 2020, and the resumption of “Hadestown,” which opened in 2019 and was grossing more than $1 million a week when the pandemic intruded, provide an early test for more complex productions on Broadway, with large (ish) casts, moving sets and long enough running times to require intermissions at which crowds tend to form while waiting for bathrooms and concessions.

The resumption of musicals also means the return to work of musicians, many of whom have been out of work for 18 months.

“This has been extraordinarily tough, from an economic standpoint, from an artistic standpoint, from a personal standpoint and from a professional standpoint,” said Adam Krauthamer, the president of American Federation of Musicians Local 802, which represents Broadway musicians. “There’s going to be some growing pains, and we have to do things in a different way, but we can get back to what we’re meant to do — live performance, on Broadway — and it couldn’t be more exciting.”

The first two shows have small bands — “Waitress,” with a pop score written by Bareilles, has six musicians, five of whom are seated onstage throughout the show, while “Hadestown,” with a folk/jazz score written by Anaïs Mitchell, has seven, all of whom are onstage. At “Hadestown,” the band (except for the trombonist, who is the only wind player) wore masks (in colors chosen by that show’s costumers); at “Waitress,” they did not, opting to conform to the practice of onstage actors.

For the “Waitress” band, which had said goodbye to the show two months before the shutdown, the return is an unexpected treat. “We could never have imagined doing it again, and we’re so happy to be back,” said the show’s musical supervisor and pianist, Nadia DiGiallonardo. “It’s surreal.”

At “Hadestown,” there’s similar joy, along with reassuring familiarity. “It’s kind of like slipping into an old pair of shoes — it feels good, and not as strange as I thought it would be,” said the trombonist, Brian Drye.

But there is also apprehension, given that the public health situation remains unpredictable. “We’re all still holding our breath a little bit,” said the “Hadestown” musical director, Liam Robinson. “Definitely working feels good, and we’re ready. But there are still so many questions about what’s next.”

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