By Sarah Rebell
Broadway is back! This fall it felt like the entire city was celebrating the long-awaited return, from Jimmy Fallon to the Tony Awards, from the mayor’s office to subway ads. But what was it like to return to the Broadway stage (or pit) after so many months away, while the world is still very much experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Towards the beginning of the Broadway shutdown, in May and June of 2020, I spoke with a number of women in the Maestra community who had been set to make their debuts or to achieve other significant career milestones during the 2019-2020 theatrical season. The original goal of the piece was to celebrate the accomplishments of those women breaking into music positions in the often insular world of theatre. What I discovered was an inspiring picture of creativity, strength, and resilience, even at one of the darkest, most uncertain times in Broadway’s history.
This piece is the second half of the story – a hopeful, if not totally happy, ending. After all, how do you pick up the pieces and resume your life, your art, your music when your community has endured so much, when it is all still so fragile, and the pandemic is not yet over? And yet, as Six drummer Elena Bonomo said, “It’s really nice to be able to talk about these things now, almost 18 months later, and share some good news.”
This past October and November, prior to the emergence of the new Omicron variant, I spoke with eight Maestras in fall 2021 who had returned to their jobs in bands and music departments on five different Broadway musicals that had originally opened (or been scheduled to open) last year: Tina, Jagged Little Pill, Six, Diana, and Company. Some of these women participated in my 2020 Maestra piece and several newcomers contributed a fresh perspective.
We discussed the joys and challenges of resuming their tracks in their shows, how the pandemic has influenced the ways that they now approach music, and what they learned during the shutdown that they carry with them into the future. Some of the shows mentioned in this piece have, sadly, shut down since, and others have had to cancel individual performances due to COVID-19. My conversations with these women were rooted in a slightly more optimistic moment in time, but the takeaways from those re-opening experiences will nevertheless continue to inform and serve these Maestras moving forward.
While everyone seemed grateful to be back, the general consensus was that they were conscious of the need for meaningful changes towards equity and inclusion in this new theatrical landscape. Now more than ever, they are more aware of the importance of both taking care of themselves and supporting their fellow company members.
During the second week of March in 2020, when Broadway was on the verge of shutting down, a number of cast members and musicians from the musical Tina were calling out sick. “There was just a terrifying feeling of apprehension amongst us,” recalled Sara Jacovino, who originated the trombone chair for the Broadway production. Then, she received a phone call informing her that Broadway was shutting down; she had until 5 p.m. to get her things from the theater. “It was almost a relief in a weird way,” said Jacovino, after so many days of dreading the impending shutdown. “But of course, we weren’t prepared to be gone for 19 months.”
At this point, Jacovino’s fellow Tina bandmate Yuri Yamashita, who originated the Broadway percussion chair, already had COVID-19. When she learned that her show would be shutting down, she had to process “the shock of losing a job” while “trying to figure out how to get better.”
Yamashita ended up bedridden for three weeks and turned her thoughts toward the future throughout her recuperation. “I eventually realized that Broadway would probably be the last industry to reopen,” said Yamashita. “I was always hopeful. I knew it was going to come back, but I didn’t really think about when and how.”
JUST AS THEY LEFT IT
Musicians finally returned to their orchestra pits and stages, starting around September 14 and for the ensuing two months.
“Everything was exactly the same – just where we had left it. Nothing had moved. It felt like we just hit pause,” recalled Jacovino. “It was surreal.” Yamashita had similar feelings about returning to her percussion setup. It almost seemed as though the past year and a half never happened. “I felt [at] home immediately.”
“I envisioned coming back to the stage as if we had never left. In some ways it felt just like that,” described Tia Allen, the original viola chair in Jagged Little Pill. She recalled small details like how her music stand was “still nailed into the platform so nothing goes flying when our platform moves.” Despite the 20-month hiatus, the music rushed back to her; Allen likened playing her track in the show to “the muscle memory of riding a bike.”
Cynthia Meng, the original keyboard chair on the Company revival, used the same bike analogy, adding “I honestly would have thought that I would [have] forgotten more…They’ve changed some orchestrations, a few cues, but my part has remained the same.”
Of course these musicians are well-aware that not everything is exactly the way it was before. “I definitely missed seeing some cast and band members who did not return,” acknowledged Allen.
Upon its return, Six decided to create a new position in the band originated by Mariana Ramirez as their percussionist. Her track is a combination of parts that had previously been split primarily between the keyboard and drums. For drummer Bonomo, the addition of a percussion book is a welcome change that makes the show “a lot more comfortable and a lot more playable for everyone.”
Ramirez believes that the new percussion track helps to enhance the arrangement. “We might be five musicians playing on the show, but it sounds like a full orchestra.” Although Ramirez has subbed on several Broadway shows (and Six is technically her second all-female pit after Head Over Heels in 2018), she is fulfilling a longtime dream of holding a chair long-term.
However, Ramirez had to learn her part unusually quickly in the rapid rehearsal process because the rest of the band already knew the show. She credited her experience working as a sub with helping her navigate the challenge. When Ramirez joined the Six band, “I had to observe them, and get to know them, and be sensitive to them,” she explained. “I tried to put their needs first. [And ask myself] how could I make the environment better instead of disrupting it?”
Six is not the only new musical to have made changes to the score during the pandemic. As one of Diana’s associate music directors and an alternate conductor, Haley Bennett practically never stopped working on the show. She participated in several Diana-related events during Broadway’s closure, prioritizing the undertaking of recording the cast album and filming the Netflix version.
“To have begun previews on Broadway, then met again in masks and face shields for our Netflix quarantine bubble, and now, to be back at the Longacre [Theater], is such a unique sequence of events,” Bennett reflected. “Every time we are reunited, the best part is seeing everyone’s faces once again.”
THE CHALLENGES OF RETURNING
However, upon returning, not everything was exactly as they remembered. Meng laughed about how the pit is “still this tiny little space allocated for the band… In some ways, you romanticize it in your head when you miss it.”
“My first week back was overwhelming in so many good ways,” said Bonomo. “After all of the feelings, and all the stress, and the anxiety from like the past 18 months, finally it was like, ‘Okay, we’re back. We don’t have to worry about that anymore.’ But it was super emotional. I cried so much in rehearsals.”
Yamashita had braced herself for similar feelings when she returned to Tina. “We were always joking within the band, ‘Oh, when we go back and start playing the first note, we’re going to all start crying.’” She experienced “the almost-crying moment” when the band was revealed onstage. “The moment when I saw the House on opening night,” explained Yamashita, “that’s where I teared up.”
That’s what Meng was most looking forward to about resuming performances as well. We spoke shortly before their dress rehearsal for Company, when they’d be performing for an audience for the first time since last March. “Having a live audience there to laugh at the jokes and to have comedic timing make sense again [is] going to be really special,” Meng said, especially during Patti LuPone’s big number “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
“Honestly, it just didn’t feel real at all,” said Bonomo on Six’s opening night. “I tried to relax. I did some yoga in the morning, I booked some appointments, I wanted to get my makeup done and then head to the theater.”
This time, the day went as planned. Nonetheless, “I didn’t believe it was happening until I was on the stage and I heard the audience.” The reality of the moment finally registered “once I was at the drum set and the curtain dropped down. [We] saw the whole audience and everyone was screaming.”
Michelle Osbourne, who holds the bass chair in Six, described her first show back as “electric” and credited it to the energy of the audience. “For many people, I’m assuming that was their first Broadway show since the shutdown. You just pick up that energy; you pick up that positivity,” she said. This opening night felt extra special because the shutdown happened on the day that was supposed to have been their original opening.
“I think that everyone was very grateful to have been given another opportunity to open back up and play on Broadway and perform to audiences,” reflected Osbourne. The memory of the uncertainty that she felt during the pandemic cast a long shadow. “There were a couple of shows that didn’t come back, and we didn’t know what the future held for us. So, to be at that point, it’s very gratifying.”
Allen’s gratitude was also fueled by her awareness of the pandemic’s devastating impact. “Some musicians did not even have a show on Broadway to return to,” she pointed out. “I’m just grateful to collaborate and play for audiences again.” As a result, she approached each performance with excitement and appreciation. “It’s not “I HAVE to play Jagged Little Pill tonight,” it’s “I GET TO PLAY JAGGED LITTLE PILL TONIGHT!”
MOVING FORWARD MINDFULLY
While the women who participated in this piece are eagerly embracing the return to Broadway, they are still asking difficult questions and remain committed to remembering the lessons learned throughout the challenging months of the shutdown.
For instance, the isolating experience at the height of the pandemic led Bennett to think deeply about “what it is that makes a room a collaborative and positive place to be.” She is also quite aware of the entertainment industry’s vulnerability; she believes it underscores the importance of collective accountability. “I think there is a newfound responsibility that falls on each of us individually as well to take care of ourselves in order to take care of the show and each other.”
This emphasis on self-preservation, prioritization of healthy work-life balances, and ethical workplace practices have wide-reaching ramifications that have sparked conversations about the quality of life for arts workers in all facets of the industry. Broadway pits are no exception.
“Prior to the pandemic, I was really burnt out,” admitted Jacovino. “We’re in a really, hyper competitive environment, and the urge is to take all the work that you can get. Not to say I don’t love most of the work that I do, but you feel like you just have to say ‘yes’ all the time. It’s physically and mentally exhausting.”
During the shutdown, Jacovino was able to focus on the aspects of her career that bring her joy. “My approach to being a working musician has changed a bit. I’m trying to maintain mental health, which I think is really important and we ignore all too often.”
Jacovino was not alone in feeling overwhelmed before the shutdown. “Music was always an obligation, a duty, a responsibility,” revealed Yamashita. “But that changed during the pandemic. I truly enjoy it now.” As a result, she approaches her track in Tina with a new mindset. “I just want to be freer, and I want to have more joy.”
The pandemic also created an opportunity for Bonomo to reconsider how she plays her track in Six. “With the hustle of being a musician in New York, in the ‘before times’, it was just so hard to find time to actually practice,” she explained. The hiatus enabled her to practice her drum part extensively.
“Now that I’m so much more comfortable with my own book, I can be a more active listener,” said Bonomo. “It makes the show sound better overall, when you’re less in your own head, and you’re more open to listening to everybody else.”
Similarly, Osbourne finds herself now able to listen more attentively to the rest of the show, instead of staying moored in what she referred to as “bass world.”
As a result, she finds herself discovering new things in the score and new moments that are happening onstage between the cast. “It makes everything more exciting and keeps you on your toes,” she said. “Coming out of my own world, I get to see other people’s perspectives.”
“In art, I think it’s very important to be a good musician, but it’s also very important to be a good person,” Ramirez said, referring to the experience of being a working musician in the new landscape of this recently reopened, still fragile version of Broadway. “That’s the challenge to balance: being a good musician and being a good team player.”