Theater buffs who couldn’t snag a seat at this year’s Tony Awards will find some solace in “Broadway Rising,” a heartfelt tribute to all the shows that were shuttered between 2020 and 2021.
It does initially seem as though the film might suffer from a touch of solipsism, as actors talk expansively about centering their feelings during a period that wrought so much suffering across the globe. But director Amy Rice (“By the People”) wisely expands the story beyond the stage stars, making the impactful case that behind the bright lights lies an entire ecosystem essential to the city.
As such, she includes a range of representatives from the tens of thousands of Broadway workers who found themselves unemployed and worse during the early days of COVID-19.
Usher Peter McIntosh, for example, was described publicly as “Broadway Patient Zero” when he became one of the first New Yorkers to test positive while working at “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “Jagged Little Pill” stage doorman Ernie Frost Paylor was another early patient, who wound up living with long-term consequences. No one needed work from costume makers John Kristiansen and Brian Blythe, leaving them with a shuttered business. And without anyone wearing costumes, Winzer Dry Cleaners went similarly silent.
Rice’s wide net also includes performers and producers from shows like “Six,” “Waitress,” “Hadestown” and “Lackawanna Blues.” And because she tracks their experiences in real-time, from shut-down to reopening, she also winds up crafting a miniature portrait of the pandemic itself.
Early scenes reveal heartbreak and devastation, as several people end up in the hospital or suffer otherwise horrific personal traumas. Actress and new mother Amanda Kloots loses her husband, “Waitress” actor Nick Cordero, while producer Tom Kirdahy also watches his husband, playwright Terrence McNally, die from COVID-related complications.
But after the initial shock and despair, many of Rice’s subjects land in surprising places. “Frozen” dancer Adam Perry spends the initial months of quarantine battling COVID, and then depression, as he wonders if he’ll ever work again. But when a fellow performer suggests they use the time to begin a business, he undergoes a fully unexpected reinvention. Kristiansen and Blythe found the Costume Coalition, with the hope of aiding fellow theater artisans. “Wicked” actresses Mary Kate Morrissey and Ginna Claire Mason teach remote musical-theater lessons to an impossibly adorable collection of pint-sized fans around the country.
Still, other participants use the time to reflect on nationwide shifts, determined to expand the nascent Black Lives Matter movement into lasting change. Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Lynn Nottage both consider this period an opportunity for introspection and motivation, each working toward ways in which the theater can become more inclusive. Adrienne Warren, the star of “Tina” and a co-founder of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, notes that “The world is screaming in all the ways. And we can no longer pretend that we don’t hear it.”
And then, on Sept. 14, 2021, the lights turn back on. The casts and crew gather once more, and Rice — who pulls us in when she should, and hangs back when she ought — ensures that the thrill of opening night is palpable even to us.
She does follow so many people (Patti LuPone, Danny Burstein and Lin Manuel-Miranda are among the other luminaries interviewed) that it’s hard to connect with everyone. But a few of the stories make a particular impact, and together they build toward a message every one of them would approve: Through tragedy, melodrama or triumph, the show always goes on.
“Broadway Rising” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.