The Main Stem experienced immense joy and alarming setbacks in 2021, a year of exciting comebacks and devastating losses. Look back on some of the top stories that dominated theatre headlines over the past 12 months.
Curtain Up, Light the Lights
After an 18-month hiatus, Broadway reopened its doors to audiences eager to once again bask in the magic of live performance. Bruce Springsteen brought his theatrical concert to the St. James Theatre over the summer. In August, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandus’s Pass Over became the first play to take the Broadway stage in 2021. The following month, musicals like Hadestown, Wicked, Hamilton, and The Lion King began to bring song and dance back to the Main Stem. From vaccine checks at the door to masks in the house, the theatregoing experience took on a new look, but those who came back often found resonance in familiar works and embraced new and compelling stories.
Keeping Control While Falling Apart
Though 2021 was the year Broadway reclaimed the spotlight, uncertainty was never far from center stage. Most shows that reopened in the fall were able to play their full performance schedules as planned without incident until December, as the highly contagious Omicron variant caused COVID cases to rise once again in New York City. But even as cancellations and closures spark headlines eerily similar to those of last March, a large-scale shutdown has stayed off the table for now. Productions did their best to stay afloat when possible, in large part due to the efforts of COVID safety and compliance officers and the constant grace under pressure from understudies, standbys, and swings.
Sometimes People Leave You
Over Thanksgiving weekend, the theatre community said goodbye to a genius and titan: Stephen Sondheim. The composer died at the age of 91, leaving behind an extensive library of lyrics for mourners to process the loss and celebrate his art. His words and melodies flooded social media, and could be heard on at least two New York stages at the time: on Broadway with a revival of Company and in the Classic Stage Company production of Assassins. “He was truly the greatest artist that we in our lifetime, possibly will ever know in this art form,” Company director Marianne Elliott said as she addressed the audience at the first performance after the news broke. Meanwhile, at Assassins, John Doyle reminded the crowd that art will live on long after the artist is gone: “He would be curious if you sat here sadly tonight. I would ask you to sit back, to luxuriate in his extraordinary words and music.” And we will continue to do just that.
Shot by Shot, Building Up the Image
While live theatre remained dark for the majority of 2021, musicals had a chance to shine on the big screen throughout the year, with some titles (In the Heights, West Side Story) premiering after a delayed release schedule, and others (Dear Evan Hansen, tick, tick…BOOM!) having entered production during the pandemic. While box office performance and critical reception may not have been glowing across the board, early awards season shortlists indicate that at least a few of these titles will remain in the news in 2022. And as for future movie musicals, well, we have some witches in the wings.
Amid a sea of theatrical traditions “looking a little different this year” were the Tony Awards. The 74th annual ceremony took place September 26, effectively bringing the 2019–2020 season to an official close a year and a half later than planned. The two-part ceremony split the action between a streaming awards presentation and a broadcast celebration of Broadway. While the move did bump a majority of the winners’ speeches off CBS, it did allow viewers to catch every category (including Creative Arts) for the first time in several years, and the four-hour duration upped the number of production numbers and performances. The evening delivered several milestones, including the first Latine Tony-winning playwright, the oldest living actor to win a Tony, a trophy for Danny Burstein after seven nominations, and, with no eligible scores from musicals, the first Best Score win for a play.
Worlds to Change and Worlds to Win
If 2020 was a year of reckoning, several artists-activists and organizations ensured 2021 would be a year of action. April’s March on Broadway and September’s Trans March on Broadway were both, in part, responses to mega-producers whose words and actions jeopardized the safety and equity of theatre workers. Black Theatre United, formed in 2020 against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, released a “New Deal” calling for the implementation of chief diversity officers, audits of unions staffs, and more. Company members of various productions spoke out against mistreatment and misrepresentation of marginalized communities in their own theatres. And as shows did begin to reopen, individuals like Broadway Advocacy Coalition President Britton Smith admonished that a return to the stage should not come with a return to harmful practices. “My biggest worry is that when we come back to the machine—that that opening will close and push out empathy and push out challenge,” he said when the organization received a Special Tony Honor. “But this award is evidence that moving forward requires calling out.”