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As the pandemic shutters Broadway and beyond, writers, actors and crew members must acclimatize to an uncertain new world

Last Tuesday, Jessica Altchiler led a ballet class. But instead of the long, sleek barre she would normally rely on for support, she grasped on to a TV stand. And if that alone didnt prove she wasnt at a conventional dance studio, the red-and-black plaid pet bed in the background gave her away.

Still, she tendued, relevd and coached other dancers, even though she couldnt see them.

Im already sweating! she said as she ducked into the camera frame. I hope other people are sweating, too.

Not even a week before she was teaching on Instagram Live, Altchiler had been in Detroit as part of her first professional job in the national tour of Fiddler on the Roof. While she and her fellow cast members performed in the show, they saw headlines about Broadway shutting down and March Madness being cancelled. Then, their own tour dates were postponed, and a suddenly unemployed Altchiler boarded a nearly empty flight back to her family home in Connecticut.

Its strange for me to think about people still having a job because, for me, the world was just turned upside down, she said.

All of the savings that she and her co-workers had been carefully growing to move to New York, pay for an apartment or invest in classes now have to be redirected toward survival during this unprecedented time in theater history, and some of her colleagues are scrambling to find a place to stay after months on the road.

As the world wrestles with Covid-19, Altchilers new reality isnt particularly uncommon among artists. Theater professionals are frightened, and theyre mourning a lot of art that may never again see the light of day as venues shutter at least temporarily and would-be audiences disappear. But even as performers suffer great personal and professional losses, theyre working overtime to send messages of hope and peace, provide necessary resources to others who are struggling and offer a balm for the social-distanced and self-isolated.

A note outside the theater for the hit play Hamilton explains why they have closed. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On an at-home edition of The Tonight Show last Wednesday, Lin-Manuel Miranda joined Jimmy Fallon to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids Covid-19 emergency assistance fund. The Hamilton star performed his song about parents wanting to give the best possible version of the world to their children, as parents everywhere, including Fallon and Miranda, stare down a global crisis alongside their own kids.

Also online, the theater legend and radio host Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, his producer husband, quickly organized twice-daily at-home performances to fundraise for the Actors Fund. A long list of Broadway A-listers immediately signed up. Kristin Chenoweth was all dressed up when she appeared on the web series from her bathroom over the weekend, and on Saturday, Lea Salonga will call in to sing at 2am Manila time.

Artists love the world, and they love helping, Rudetsky said. So every single person we wrote basically just wrote back right away and said: Im in, Im in, what do I do?

Meanwhile, theaters are trying to figure out how to stay afloat and take care of their own as the very notion of live entertainment has become taboo. Susi Damilano, co-founder and producing director of the San Francisco Playhouse, said she hasnt had to fire anyone, and shes asking hourly workers to submit their schedules on a week-to-week basis for compensation. Shes hoping patrons will donate the value of a ticket and landlords will ease up on rent; if not, her playhouse will only be able to pay people for a few months.

I think that the arts and culture are proving to be where we all turn in times of difficulty, and yet are the first and hardest hit economically, said Damilano. And people are realizing that.

Photograph: MediaPunch/Rex/Shutterstock

As theaters take a financial clobbering, some are requesting that playwrights refund advance payments. Lynn Nottage one of Americas foremost playwrights who has earned two Pulitzer prizes for her work was asked by a large regional theater to return her advance, even as everything she had scheduled was cancelled before her eyes and she lost what would have probably been the majority of her income for the year.

Nottage said most companies arent making such requests, but she did worry about whats going to happen as theaters another place where people go to heal close down for the time being. She empathized with the young artists who had debuts in Seattle, New York and Chicago, the up-and-coming actors, playwrights and directors who usually present work during this time of year and even the singers who were performing in her first opera at Lincoln Center.

On Broadway, young performers who were ready for their big breaks got caught in limbo, some even before their first performances. Michael Lepore, who is making his Broadway debut alongside 12 others in Sing Street, had just walked on the Lyceum Theatre stage for the first time when all of Broadway closed at least until April.

It was all these dreams come true, with this thing hanging in the air of like, Oh God, this is going to be it for a little bit, he said.

With everything delayed, he retreated to his parents home in Connecticut with all his instruments as a cover, hes required to know the show on acoustic and electric guitar, bass, piano, synthesizer, baritone electric guitar and stylophone. Hes been getting his notes in order and making sure hes off-book. But hes also started working on his own music, and hes recording a few things.

People are adapting, Rudetsky said. Quoting the musical Closer Than Ever, he started to sing: If someone told me even just a week ago I would have said youre crazy, Id have burst right into tears, but here I am.

Yes, the things we plan on happening are not gonna happen, he said. But, who knows what will happen?

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After another smash hit year at the box office, the next 12 months promises more of the same … with added controversy

The lights are bright on Broadway. Blinding even. With 35 plays and musicals now running, Broadway looks likely to have grossed over $1bn in 2019, having played to more than 8 million people. National tours have become de rigueur for every musical that doesnt absolutely flop and satellite productions pop up across the globe.

But with big business comes big risk. Running costs remain steep. Most shows fail to recoup. A few New York not-for-profits (Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Second Stage, Lincoln Center Theater) have Broadway houses, yet even those companies rarely program shows without the reassurance of a well-known star or creator. Both the not-for-profits and the for-profits have been busily making wagers on which known quantities and out-of-town successes will attract New York audiences and the tourist trade. 2019 was fairly lively Slave Play, What the Constitution Means to Me, Choir Boy, Freestyle Love Supreme, American Utopia, a recuperated Oklahoma!, Hadestown, Gary (a miss, but still a big swing). But looking ahead to 2020, most of those wagers appear conservative, probably too conservative. Subtract the star casting and only a few plays and musicals will generate much excitement.

Of the musicals so far announced, six are new (or newish) and four are revivals. Two jukebox musicals are promised, one relatively innovative and one baffling. In Girl from the North Country, which had a successful run at the Public Theater two years ago, Conor McPherson transposes the songs of Bob Dylan to Depression-era Duluth. Why the playwright Lynn Nottage and the director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon are charging ahead with MJ, a biomusical based around Michael Jackson, remains a mystery, but it seems telling that the production has revised its former title, the innuendo-available Dont Stop Til You Get Enough, with the more innocuous MJ.

Queens, princesses, an unlikely drag act and an unlikelier acid trip inspire the other new musicals, such as Six, the hit London power-pop musical about the wives of Henry VIII. It joins Diana, with music by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, a biomusical about the peoples princess. Following in the high-heeled footsteps of Tootsie comes Mrs Doubtfire, an adaptation of the Robin Williams movie about a divorced dad who puts on a dress to get closer to his children. Perhaps the most original entry is Flying Over Sunset, a new musical with a book by James Lapine and music by Tom Kitt that details the mid-50s LSD experiments of Cary Grant, Clare Booth Luce and Aldous Huxley.

If that doesnt sound like enough of a trip, Katrina Lenk, a Tony winner for The Bands Visit, will star in Marianne Elliotts gender-flipped Company, and Hugh Jackman, that great showman, will lead a revival of The Music Man. Ivo van Hove returns the Sharks and the Jets to the stage in a new version of West Side Story, with choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. Sharon D Clarke will reprise the title role in Caroline, or Change, in Michael Longhursts celebrated revival of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesoris underrated blues and klezmer musical.

Laura Linney during the My Name Is Lucy Barton photo call. Photograph: Walter McBride/Getty Images

Its difficult to discern much of a melody in the varied roster of new plays. Two of them, Martin McDonaghs Hangmen, now starring Dan Stevens, and Stefano Massinis The Lehman Trilogy, with Simon Russell Beale, arrive after successful runs both in London and Off-Broadway. Two solo shows chronicle the stages of a womans life, Elizabeth Strouts My Name is Lucy Barton, adapted by Rona Munro and starring Laura Linney, and Noah Haidles Birthday Candles, starring Debra Messing. Grand Horizons, the Broadway debut of the celebrated off-Broadway writer Bess Wohl, centers on a golden-years divorce. The not-so-happy couple: Jane Alexander and James Cromwell. Tracy Letts, who brought Linda Vista to Broadway in 2019, returns with The Minutes, in which he also stars, alongside Armie Hammer and Jesse Mueller. Directed by Steppenwolfs Anna D Shapiro, it charts a town council meeting in real time.

When it comes to play revivals, producers have stuck to American properties, all of them penned in the last 60 years. It hasnt been long since Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf and American Buffalo were on Broadway. But here they are again, with Laurie Metcalf (who can never, it seems, not be on Broadway), Rupert Everett, and Russell Tovey attached to the former and Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell to the latter. (One might have anticipated that after Bitter Wheat, the theater might want a David Mamet breather. Not so much.) Paula Vogels How I Learned to Drive was recently revived off-Broadway, but it has its keys in the ignition again, this time with its original stars, Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse, attached.

Star casting will also gin up anticipation for Kenny Leons revival of Charles Fullers wrenching drama A Soldiers Play, now starring David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood, and Richard Greenbergs comedy-drama of baseball and sexuality, Take Me Out, with Jesse Williams and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Husband-and-wife Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker star in Neil Simons Plaza Suite, playing two couples and one near couple, all occupying the same hotel room.

Want to place bets on which shows will still be running this time next year? Ante in.

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After a trial run in Denver, the stage adaptation of the animated smash hits New York and a passionate fanbase is already out in force and in costume

The cold never bothered them anyway.

On a chilly Thursday evening, 200 people jammed the sidewalks outside the St James Theater in New York, where the musical Frozen, the latest venture from Disney Theatrical Productions, had staged its first Broadway preview.

Frozen remains the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, making $1.2bn worldwide since its release in 2013. Very loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen, its set in the fictional land of Arandelle and describes Princess Annas quest to find and redeem her older sister Elsa, a blond icemaker with a thing for statement gloves.

To adapt the film for Broadway, the original creative team composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and writer Jennifer Lee reunited to shift scenes, lose a snow monster and add 12 new songs. One new number, Elsas ballad Monster, would be released that same night online, but several people came out humming another new tune, Hygge.

As the wind lashed 44th Street, attendees stood comparing merchandise fluffy snowmen, fur-trimmed sweatshirts and swallowing the last of pricy cerulean cocktails like the Heart of Arendelle. Not too many adult women had come in costume, but several had assembled blue and white outfits. One man proudly displayed his blue socks. Many tiny Elsas stood near the stage door, hoping for autographs, and a few Annas, too, even though it was hours past bedtime.

It was really, really good, one of the Annas, 10-year-old Molly Sarfert said. There were some new songs, but they were really on it. She even claimed to like the hidden folk, one of the musicals innovations replacing the films trolls.

You said they were creepy, her mother Geri, 46, countered.

Development of the $25 to $30m musical, now directed by Michael Grandage and designed by Christopher Oram, was initially fraught, with the production cycling through two directors, two designers, three choreographers and cast changes, too. Reports from the pre-Broadway tryout in Denver were on the cheerful side of tepid.

The cast of Frozen at the end of the first night on Broadway. Photograph: Disney Theatrical Productions

Frozen, which stars Broadway regulars Caissie Levy and Patti Murin as inclement princesses, could flop, like Tarzan, but it could also go on to crush the Broadway box office, like The Lion King, which has earned nearly $8bn, or Aladdin, which continues to post strong profits. It will have some competition this spring from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which begins previews next month and should also appeal to family ticket-buyers.

But for several in the crowd, there was no competition at all. Dustin Overfield, 34, stood outside holding a huge bag of souvenirs and waiting for his wife. Theyd flown out from Detroit to see the show. Its her Valentines Day present, he said. Hes already pre-ordered the cast album and he proudly showed off a piece of sheet music signed by the composers.

Away from the stage door, other groups clustered. Adam Kaufman, 43, who had come with his fiancee and some friends, described the show as amazing, totally magical. His friends, who had bought sweatshirts, thought so too. A few of them were surprised by what Kaufman called a number that was a little risqu.

There was more nudity than expected from Disney, said his friend Jenn Mante, 36.

But everyone agreed that the reindeer, Sven, was an improvement on the movie, and so was the snowman, Olaf.

Half an hour later, the crowd still hadnt dissipated. Some people are worth melting for, Olaf says. And some shows are worth shivering for.

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In interviews, the great American playwright Edward Albee could be as quotable as his characters. Here are 10 of his best observations

I failed as a poet, a novelist, a short-story writer and as an essayist, but I was determined to be a writer. So I began writing plays. in a Guardian interview in 2010

We all insist hope? that we havent written our best works yet, and we all harbour deep, almost religious faith, in our most dismissed or despised efforts. in a Guardian interview in 2007

I find that when my plays are going well, they seem to resemble pieces of music in a Paris Review interview in 1966

Most critics cant tell me if anything is good. in a Guardian interview in 2010

A playwright or any creative artist is his work. The biography can be distorting, or its just gravy. The work is the essence of the person. in a Telegraph interview in 2011

All plays, if theyre any good, are constructed as correctives. Thats the job of the writer. Holding that mirror up to people. Were not merely decorative, pleasant and safe. in a Guardian interview in 2004

I suspect that every play I write is part of one large play. in a Guardian interview in 2007

The only two things you can write about are life and death. in a Guardian interview in 2001

People dont know anything about themselves. They shouldnt write about themselves. in a 2013 interview with the Believer

Men dont like the way I write about them because I puncture the male fantasy of what they think they ought to be. I show them as they really are and this upsets a lot of them. Women think Im right on target. from Conversations with Edward Albee

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They are one of the greatest combos in the history of musicals. The Pulitzer-winning pair behind Into the Woods talk about bumpy first nights, how to read audience coughs and why shows today are too loud

Stephen Sondheim once gave James Lapine, his friend and longtime collaborator, a useful if inadvertent piece of advice. The two first worked together in the mid-1980s on Sunday in the Park With George, and a revival of their second musical, Into the Woods, is transferring from the US to London this summer. They are very different, says Lapine, when we meet in a rehearsal space near Times Square in New York. Although in life, Sondheim is the dark soul and Im the light one, when it comes to work, Lapine characterises himself as the gloomier of the two. I just think everything will flop, he says, while Sondheim once shocked him by saying: You know, I think everything I do is going to be a huge success. I said really? Why? He saidbecause its so interesting to me, I assume it will be interesting to others.

The lesson of this is to confine ones anxieties to the project at hand. When I see Sondheim a day later at his home in New York, he confirms that Into the Woods was not written as a critique of the contemporary world, nor with an eye on the box office nor the potential longevity of its appeal. I was just thinking about telling these fairytales, he says. I had no sense of anything but showbiz.

The 2013 movie adaptation of Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick, renewed interest in the musical, which weaves together classic Grimm Brothers fairytales, before complicating each story and rolling it on. The revival, by the Fiasco theatre company, is what Lapine calls a ground-up production, driven by the ethos of lets get in a room and play and against what has become the unwieldy mega-musical of Broadway.

Sondheim has only praise for the group, which is not always the case with revivals. Legally, a theatre company is prohibited from changing a single word of the text without running it by the author, but quite often they say to hell with that, and they do it anyway, he says, and cites the example of a production of Merrily We Roll Along, staged at a university in Long Island in which the entire timeline of the musical was reversed. They only had a weeks worth of performances but we stopped it, says Sondheim, who diagnoses the problem as one of directors showing off. This is, he says, particularly true of student directors. They take it upon themselves to distort in order to draw attention to themselves.

The new ground-up production of Into the Woods, at Londons Menier Chocolate Factory. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

If this sounds a little stern, it is. Lapine and Sondheim have, through long experience, learned that the effects of even minor tweaks on a show can catastrophically or, miraculously affect its impact. The question, for the creators, is when to tweak and when to leave be, a decision made by interpreting tiny fluctuations in the response of an audience.

Before it ever got to that stage, the two men would meet once a week to go over the work in progress and, Lapine says jokingly, for him to make sure [Sondheims] working. Im sort of the go-getter. Ill throw anything on a piece of paper, I dont give a shit. And hes like … everythings so meticulous. Its hard for him to let go of things. Were a good combo that way.

No, not at all, says Sondheim, when appraised of this assessment. No, no, no, no. The point is, writing a scene is one thing; writing a song is another. Writing a song you are restricted; you have certain rhythms and meters and rhymes. You cant just go (he makes a retching sound) whereas you can write a scene that should be two pages long and is eight pages, and just vomit on the page and then you cut back and edit and go to your collaborator. But thats not the same thing.

Watch the trailer for the film adaptation of Into the Woods

Sunday in the Park was their first collaboration and it was, Lapine believes, a mark in his favour that he wasnt a huge Sondheim devotee before they met. Id only seen one show he had done. I knew of him of course, but I wasnt a fan. That was kind of good. I think in retrospect he must have liked that it wasnt somebody whod seen everything hed done and was so impressed with him.

For the most part, he says, writing a musical with someone else is so much silly fun. Stimulating, and hes so funny, and we enjoy each others company. And theres real excitement to it. It never feels like work. How would conflict be resolved? Easily. He always said whoever cares most, wins. Weve never had an argument. Never. The nice thing about the theatre is you can always change it. With a movie, once its there, youre stuck with it.

Depending on the collaborator, Sondheim sees each of his shows as inhabiting a unique and entirely different colour. George Furth was very urban and contemporary. John Weidman was very political. James is a poet. Theyre writers of distinction. They have their own whatever-it-is.

The hard part is what Lapine calls the birthing process and many of the musicals had a bumpy first run. In 1994, he and Sondheim wrote a musical called Passion, to which the reaction, says Lapine, was just so hostile that we had to change it. We knew we hadnt solved the fundamental problem. Its one thing if people dont like it, and you like it. Its another when theyre not getting it. Then you have to solve it. And then if they dont like it, its fine.

Oh, now you like it Sunday in the Park With George, inspired by the painter Georges Seurat. Photograph: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images

This, Lapine says, was the case in 1984 when Sunday in the Park opened. The audience, he says, didnt know what they were seeing; it wasnt what they wanted. Then the night after the review came out in the New York Times, we got a standing ovation. And it made me go, Ew. Like, oh, now you like it?!

Sondheim says: Its not as simple as that. The New York Times wrote a favourable review and it may have affected the audience, but it certainly didnt change it from everybody booing to everybody standing on their feet. This only happened over time. For Sondheim, the most important principle is to start at the very beginning of the show and say: does the audience understand whats going on in this scene? Do they understand what the musicals going to be? The point is when you fix something for the better, it affects everything that follows. I mean everything. I mean an hour and a half later, youll suddenly get a laugh on a line you never got a laugh on.

Are focus groups ever useful? Sondheim makes a face like Dracula being struck by a beam of sunlight. Focus groups are the death of all entertainment. Some forms of entertainment depend on that kind of death. Instead of a focus group, he says, you listen to the audience. You can tell from silences, from restlessness, sometimes from coughing. Sometimes from the quality of the applause. The key is not to rush into a response. Its a great mistake just to go home and rewrite. Or just fire an actor. To zero in on whats wrong immediately is always wrong. You gotta let it play.

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim in 2014. Photograph: Vera Anderson/WireImage

One of the biggest rewrites he did was in 1962 on the musical A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, which bombed in its out-of-town tryouts. Then he changed the opening number from a sweet romantic song, which set up the wrong expectations in the audience, to something more raucous that announced the burlesque show to come and it opened to a rapturous reception in New York.

Hamilton aside, the current health of Broadway musicals relies heavily on stage adaptations of blockbuster movies, something regarded critically by both men. Most musicals are real crowd pleasers, says Lapine.They just want to fuck the audience. Sondheim sees the effect on Broadway musicals of pop music where the idea is to sing loud. Thats what its about. Make loud songs. And so musicals are now very loud. Over an evening, that can get tiresome.

Does he think they pander to the audience, that theyre market driven? I suppose. Im not sure that the people who write and produce the musicals know the difference.

Sondheims art is a question of specificity. Story is all. I dont think the theatre is about converting people to new ideas, he says. I think its about confirming ideas you have by dramatising them and making them human. As opposed to novels which, as Tolstoy proves, can teach you things. At its most basic level, its about how you combine song and dance and libretto to make a whole. Thats what its about; its an exercise in style.

Its making a puzzle for yourself to solve, says Lapine and, as Sondheim says, in the spirit that has defined his career there is only one way to do that. You have to try to be free, and try not to worry about what people think.

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