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The show must go on: Broadway hopes reopening boom will pay off debts worsened by pandemic
Amna Nawaz: Well, as the saying goes, there's no business like show business.
But for 18 months during the pandemic, there was basically no business in Broadway theaters.
Jeffrey Brown recently visited the theater districts artisans, who are playing a key role in Broadway's return.
It's all part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: The green suit, worn by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the musical "Hamilton." Miranda told the costume designer it should be -- quote -- "the color of money."
Crystals and mirrors on Elsa's ice dress from Disney's "Frozen." From "Phantom of the Opera," what else? The mask. They are defining images of contemporary Broadway. But even live in the theater, you don't get to see them like this.
Brian Blythe, The Costume Industry Coalition: What I think is so great about this is that when you're sitting in the fifth row or the 10th row or in the balcony, you're never this close...
Jeffrey Brown: Yes, that's for sure.
Brian Blythe: ... to the costumes, to the point where you can see the amount of craftsmanship, the workmanship and the details that go into each one of these.
Jeffrey Brown: Brian Blythe helped put together this exhibition called Showstoppers!. He's a founder of The Costume Industry Coalition, a group of more than 50 small businesses that make these amazing garments, like this dress from "Wicked."
Can I touch it?
Brian Blythe: I will let you touch it, yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Why do you do all of this underneath in such exquisite detail?
Brian Blythe: Because they're living in this fantasy world. You know, they're in Emerald City. And when an actor puts this on, they become the character. That's how they realize their character, is through their costume.
Jeffrey Brown: But starting in March of 2020, no characters, no costumes, no shows. Now, gradually, tentatively, the spectacle is coming back.
The musical "Six" was supposed to open the same day Broadway shut down in 2020. The six, by the way, are the wives killed by Henry VIII. Now they have come to life onstage. And opening night recently was sold out.
Gianna Van Rouendal, Theatergoer: This is my first Broadway show back, which is very exciting. And I think it will be so inspiring.
Jack Nix, Theatergoer: We are just thrilled for Broadway, and we cannot wait to see "Six." And we will be back to see a bunch of shows.
Jeffrey Brown: "Six" is one of 15 Broadway shows reopening throughout September. Twenty more are set to open before the end of the year, with patrons masked and required to have proof of vaccination or negative test results to enter theaters.
Charlotte St. Martin is president of The Broadway League, a trade group representing theater owners.
Charlotte St. Martin, President, The Broadway League: We said from day one we will not open unless we feel we can keep the audience, the cast and crew safe.
They might be a little bit sensitive about the Delta variant, but we're trying to spread the message that we're safe, we're secure, and all of the magic they loved about Broadway is still there.
Jeffrey Brown: Magic and money. Broadway is a business with a large behind-the-scenes ecosystem fed by ticket sales, with every production employing scores of workers crucial to making the show go on. And then there's its wider impact on the city.
Charlotte St. Martin: We're responsible for 97,000 jobs in this city, and 80 percent of the tourists that are coming here for pleasure give Broadway as their number one, two or three reason for coming to the city. So we need to be open not just for us, but to bring New York back.
Brian Blythe: We lost over $26.6 million in gross revenue in 2020. And we have incurred an immense amount of debt during the pandemic.
Jeffrey Brown: Showstoppers!, occupying an out-of-business sporting goods store on 42nd Street, was conceived as a fund-raiser, with ticket sales benefiting costume workers.
According to Blythe, they face a collective debt of $3.5 million. In an industry where nothing but the best will do, some of the people who make these costumes took part in the exhibition.
Camilla Chuvarsky is a theatrical milliner she makes hats.
Camilla Chuvarsky, Lynne Mackey Studio: I think there's a bit of a false perception with costumes that they're not as well-made as everyday garments.
And, in fact, the opposite is true. They have to hold up through eight shows a week and still look beautiful the entire time, because, when you're going to Broadway, more than regional theater, what you're paying for is the production value.
Jeffrey Brown: The pandemic, she says, forced some to leave the industry or retire early, revealing just how fragile some of the costuming trades are.
Camilla Chuvarsky: There are a lot of techniques and skills that really are passed down through training on the job and that a lot of people don't know and would honestly be lost. If some of these shops closed, there's knowledge that would just vanish, because it is so particular to the industry.
Jeffrey Brown: Another behind-the-scenes art form, fabric painter.
Hochi Asiatico has worked on Broadway for 25 years, painting everything from the most detailed patterns to a character's sweat.
A painter for a Broadway show, most people probably don't know there is such a thing.
Hochi Asiatico, Owner, Hochi Asiatico Studio: No, people don't know.
And they just get the feeling of something. And I think they get into the character. But, really, the painting is very important for the development of the character.
Jeffrey Brown: Asiatico hand-painted these robes, set in the early 19th century, for the play "Golden Child."
Hochi Asiatico: So, we had to research the colors that were available at the time and the style of the time. Also, we wanted them to look a little bit embroidered. So we have to consider the distance on stage, how the lighting works.
Jeffrey Brown: The people we met are now back at work making costumes for productions.
But will the audience return? With tourism still down in New York City...
Oprah Winfrey, Producer/Philanthropist: This is Broadway.
Jeffrey Brown: ... Broadway League has a new $1.5 million ad campaign narrated by Oprah.
Oprah Winfrey: This is the return of something truly spectacular.
Jeffrey Brown: Strategically targeting those within a car drive.
And, as we saw recently, those who are coming are glad to be back, even amid continuing uncertainty.
Audrianne Speidel, Theatergoer: I'm loving the fact that the shows are back and being able to come and see as many shows as possible. So, yes.
Woman: And please let Broadway open, please.
Audrianne Speidel: Right.
Jeffrey Brown: For now, at least, it is.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.