It was a Broadway smash with big plans until 25 company members took ill and a shutdown put everybody out of work. Inside a tumultuous year, in the words of those who lived it.
From a window in his Hell's Kitchen apartment, theatre director Alex Timbers can see the Moorish arcade adorning Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre. For years, Timbers dreamed of working in the century-old house, and in the summer of 2019, he got the chance with Moulin Rouge!, a hotblooded musical about bohemian artists whose revelry is tragically disrupted by infectious disease.
The show, adapted from Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film, was last season's big swing — it cost US$28 million ($38.8 million) to bring to Broadway — and it was shaping up to be a home run. Set in fin de siècle Paris but supercharged by 75 pop songs, it opened to a rave from The New York Times ("This one's for the hedonists," exulted Ben Brantley), and it was regularly selling out all 1,302 seats, even during a holiday season when it cost US$799 ($1,107) to watch from a cafe table encircled by cancan dancers.
But over the winter, trouble began. The novel coronavirus was discovered in China. The Covid-19 outbreak spread to Europe and then to New York.
On the morning of March 12, the show's producers decided to cancel that day's performances because a cast member was symptomatic. A few hours later, Broadway shut down, and it has been closed ever since.
Outside the Hirschfeld, three cast-stone columns are still sheathed in posters of the show's stars, Danny Burstein, Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit, all of whom fell ill. At least 25 members of the Moulin Rouge! company wound up infected, making this the hardest-hit show on Broadway.
The once-glittering marquee, which Timbers looks upon from his apartment window, has been darkened for longer than it was illuminated. "There's something sort of grim and poetic about it," he said.
Timbers was among 52 people employed by Moulin Rouge! who shared their experiences of the last year by email or by phone. This oral history contains edited excerpts from those exchanges.
As 2020 dawned, Moulin Rouge! was settling in for what the company hoped would be a long and lucrative run.
RICKY ROJAS (actor): The show was on fire, man. The schedule was superhard, and I was constantly tired, like a zombie, but my wife and son were visiting from France, and the fact that they were there made everything better.
PALOMA GARCIA-LEE (actor): People were coming back for a third or fourth time. People were bringing their families. It was beautiful seeing what it was becoming.
ALLIE DUFFORD (associate company manager): In January and February alone, we were preparing for our appearance on Good Morning America, a visit to the Grammys, a performance at a conference in the Bahamas, not to mention running eight performances a week. And once that dust settled, we were going to be full steam ahead to the Tonys.
MICHAEL DAVIS (trombonist): I was looking forward to playing the show for all of 2020 and hopefully for several years beyond that.
JOHN LOGAN (book writer): We were talking about rollout plans, auditioning for the national tour, discussing London and Australia and even thinking about translations. It was new territory, but exciting.
On January 30, the World Health Organisation declared a global health emergency.
TVEIT: We all heard what was happening in China, but that had happened before, with H1N1 and SARS. I just assumed it was like that, and it would be OK.
SEAN DRISCOLL (guitarist): I had read The Hot Zone years ago and am a fan of zombie/post-apocalyptic films, so I was maybe primed to be a little scared of diseases that emerged quickly with the possibility of spreading globally.
AARON TIEN (merchandise manager): I became very self-conscious as a Chinese American. Reading and watching footage of hate crimes against Asian folks on the rise, I started to distance myself in public if possible.
KATIE KRESEK (concertmaster/co-orchestrator): My Italian in-laws and friends were sending daily stories of the severity of the situation in Milan and Florence: hospitals filling up, doctors and nurses overwhelmed.
SAHR NGAUJAH (actor): My father is Sierra Leonean, so we saw Ebola firsthand. By the time it reached Italy, I was pretty certain it was coming for New York.
MELISSA KAUL (laundry/wardrobe): I started taking extra precautions when washing the clothes, and keeping my hands covered in gloves while touching the costumes.
Throughout February, members of the cast were getting sick. But many thought it was just a bad cold and flu season; the first Covid case in New York state wasn't confirmed until March 1.
JEIGH MADJUS (actor): We have so many international tourists come to the show, and I always do the stage door. They hug us, we take photos together, and they're just talking right into our faces.
MAX CLAYTON (actor): I thought I was getting a cold, and then I became fluish, with fevers and chills. The day before Valentine's Day, we had a cast meeting, and I was like, I cannot do this evening's performance. Three of my best friends were going to be in the audience, but I didn't have the strength, and my brain was cloudy.
OLIVO: I lost a whole day — woke up around 8 or 9, went to the restroom, passed out in a chair and woke up again at 10:45 that night. That was the beginning of it for me. The weakness was so bad, I had to hold onto the wall to get to the restroom. But I'm an asthmatic, so I thought, "I have bronchitis, yet again."
GARCIA-LEE: I was out of the show for almost a week. I had the worst flu of my life. But it's Broadway, so you come into the show sometimes when you're not feeling so well. I came back to work long before I was better.
CLAYTON: I was paranoid that I was letting people down, looking like a weak, incapable dancer, a whiner — all of the things that so many actors fear. I didn't feel great, but I went back. We are expected to show up.
ROBYN HURDER (actor): You're just waiting. You see one person's out for a week, and then another person's out for a week; you're like, OK, take your echinacea and your elderberry.
Burstein, who portrays the cabaret proprietor, was performing through a particularly difficult period. His wife, actress Rebecca Luker, had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in November, and the disease was progressing rapidly.
BURSTEIN: I was exhausted. I wasn't sleeping. And there's a point in the show when Karen Olivo, as Satine, tells us that she has consumption, and there were times where that really hit home. One night I was so choked up I couldn't speak; nothing would come out. But doing the show saved my sanity, because I was able to have an escape.
In early March, the cast started to notice a smattering of empty seats in the audience and a few patrons wearing masks. On March 6, the production barred the cast from greeting fans at the door or giving backstage tours. And then on March 12, Tam Mutu, who plays the villainous Duke of Monroth, told management that he had a fever.
DYLAN PAUL (actor): I was headed into the theatre to play an ensemble role. I received a text giving me a heads-up that I'd be on for the Duke instead. I ate vitamins on an empty stomach, threw them up on 47th, grabbed a smoothie, and started putting on lots of eyeliner.
KEVIN CURTIS (actor): I was in full drag makeup, ready for the matinee, when the company was called down to the house.
MORGAN MARCELL (actor): I was holding hands with someone who later tested positive for Covid while they made the announcement we'd be closed.
GARCIA-LEE: They were like, "If anyone isn't feeling well, let us know." I remember sitting there and knowing. I went up to the company manager at the end of meeting and said, "I suspect this is what I have."
MATT HONG (woodwind player): We were told only that that day's matinee and evening show would be cancelled and that we should wait to hear about the rest of the week. Within an hour or two, the governor had shut down all of Broadway.
CURTIS: I left the theatre and sobbed the entire train ride back to my East Village apartment. All I could think was, I finally made it to Broadway, and my mother didn't see me. She had tickets for March 15.
OLIVO: My husband and I both made a risky call to get out of New York because we were afraid we would not be able to see our kids, who we co-parent with their biological mother in Wisconsin. Thirty minutes after the shutdown, we purchased tickets. I had two N95 masks in a go-bag; I grabbed a duffel bag and my dog and got on a plane.
DAVIS: Those of us in the horn section began estimating how long we would be shut down. None of us guessed a date beyond April 28, 2020.
In the days following the Broadway shutdown, numerous company members realised they had Covid. Some had mild symptoms; many were quite sick. At least two were hospitalised, but all of the company members recovered.
JUSTIN LEVINE (musical supervisor/orchestrator): Two or three days after everything closed, I got sick. I had a high fever and aches, but the biggest symptom was complete exhaustion. I was winded by walking to the bathroom.
TVEIT: I was sleeping 13 hours a night, was very lethargic, and I felt like I had chlorine up my nose for two weeks. It was bad, but I was one of the lucky ones because it didn't go into my chest or lungs.
MICHELE GUTIERREZ (electrician): I was roasting some dried chiles on a comal when my daughter complained that the smell was burning her nose. Since I have a nose like a bloodhound, I was confused. I reached under the counter and sniffed the ammonia. It was as if a switch had been turned off. I had zero smell or taste for four weeks.
GARCIA-LEE: One night I was laying on the floor, struggling to breathe, with the lights really low, and I kept saying, "If in 10 minutes it's as bad as it is now, I'll call 911." But I was scared to go to the emergency room. I was sick for six weeks.
BURSTEIN: I was in the shower, and I started coughing up blood, and I thought, "This is bad." My son walked me over to the hospital. I was there six days, and one of the days in the middle was particularly difficult. I'd made peace with dying, because I felt myself going there. I couldn't breathe. I asked everybody in my texting family to send me jokes because I felt the curtain closing, and I thought the only way I could combat it was with humour.
HURDER: I was a textbook case — not being able to breathe, going into coughing fits. I deal with guilt every day, thinking about how I recovered, because one of my closest friends, Nick Cordero, is not here anymore.
BURSTEIN: I heard all these people dying around me, and I thought, "The longer I stay here, the better my chances of dying." So I basically acted up a storm — did my deep-breathing exercises from acting school, anything that would help me raise my oxygen level when they were in the room, and I fooled them, and I fooled myself, and they let me go home. My wife wound up getting it as well, we're pretty sure — she lost her sense of smell and had terrible headaches — but thankfully it wasn't so severe.
In late May, a wave of protests around the world began, prompted by the killings of Black Americans by police officers. The protests renewed attention to racial injustice in many segments of society, including the theatre.
BOBBY WOOTEN III (bassist): As a Black/Puerto Rican American, witnessing murder at the hands of America's racist justice system was nothing new for me, but corona made it different for white America. In America's collective pause, a veil was lifted.
JACQUELINE ARNOLD (actor): What was shocking was just how many people had no idea that racism was still this prevalent in this country.
KHORI PETINAUD (actor): I was like, "Welcome! I'm glad everybody's seeing this now."
CARMEN PAVLOVIC (lead producer): We wanted to say something publicly and quickly, but at the same time, I didn't want it to look tokenistic or self-righteous. I'll be really honest and say I felt really afraid of doing the wrong thing.
BILL DAMASCHKE (producer): We held feedback sessions and brought in an outside facilitator. We met with every department head to talk about opportunities on Broadway and on tour.
PETINAUD: Having conversations with other Black-identified people in the company was helpful for me before I was ready to open up to others. We all came in knowing that what we did not want to do was bare our Black pain over and over again, because we were so far beyond that point. We wanted to have actionable conversations.
ARNOLD: We are a massive show, and we have a cult following, so we have to take on some social responsibility. Every iota of the production has to be on point. And Moulin Rouge!, like other shows, could benefit from having more people of colour behind the scenes, most definitely.
PAVLOVIC: I do feel like we could have done better, and we should have done better, and we want to do better.
OLIVO: Eden Espinosa and I started this nonprofit, AFECT, to educate other artists about the business. Part of it is educating people to the inequities, because the numbers are irrefutable.
WOOTEN: I started an Instagram video project that I am extremely proud of called "America, Learn Your History." In two-minute episodes, I tell history through a Black/Puerto Rican lens.
OLIVO: I hope that everyone is working to change the industry and not just trying to get back so we can fill our coffers again.
The production has given cash grants of varying amounts to company members and has offered to help those facing financial emergencies. Nonetheless, without a regular salary, many say they are struggling.
DRISCOLL: It took me almost 20 years in NYC to build up a sustainable freelance musician career — half of it while simultaneously working a day job to make ends meet — and it was gone in one day.
KAUL: Getting unemployment benefits took months. I am going through my savings at an alarming rate and will have to decide in a few months if I can even afford to stay in NYC. I have looked for other work but haven't found anything.
TOM BURKE (follow spot operator): Moulin Rouge! was going to be my last show, win, lose or draw. I may retire in order to collect my pension. I'm too old to start a new career or side hustle.
MICHELLE SESCO (dresser): I'm sewing patches onto travel bags for way less than what I used to make at my union job. We'll see if I have to leave my apartment that I've been in for 10 years to couch surf.
DAVID DIGNAZIO (sound engineer): I've had only one paid day of work since March 12, so money is a constant source of stress.
A substantial number have left New York, at least for now.
PAUL: New York didn't feel like New York anymore. I got out. I'm in Lawrence, Kansas, historically an abolitionist stronghold and my hometown. I'm working on a musical about the Harpers Ferry raid of 1859. I'm waiting out the pandemic here, two blocks from my family that I have ignored far too much as I jetted from contract to contract.
AARON FINLEY (actor): We were hemorrhaging money, and we needed a stress reliever, so we made the decision in mid-June to move out of our house, put our things in storage and go to Bozeman, Montana, where I grew up, to be with and near family. It was the best decision we could have made. I firmly believe we would have drowned in debt and stress otherwise.
KERRY CANDELORO (guest services coordinator): Needless to say, moving back home at age 26 without work wasn't what I had in mind.
MADJUS: I'm 20 pounds (9kg) heavier since March, but I'm safe, healthy and am living like a retired senior citizen with my parents in Toronto.
Some, particularly performers and musicians, have found other work. Catherine Zuber, the costume designer, spent months in the Czech Republic, working on a film version of Oslo; Ngaujah kept busy voicing Doomfist for the video game Overwatch.
CURTIS: I'm currently back out West auditioning for film and television projects in Los Angeles. It feels like a shot in the dark to pivot this way in a pandemic, but it feels like my only option until live theatre is back.
RACHEL GOLUB (violist/violinist): Beginning in September, small jobs began to trickle in: a recording session, an orchestral video shoot.
CORY SAVAGE (assistant props stagehand): I spent a good chunk of October in the props department for the live capture of Michael Arden's Christmas Carol, filmed uptown. Not a day passed where you didn't remember we were this small handful of people in our industry of millions working.
TVEIT: I've been extremely fortunate; I shot a Christmas movie in July that came up out of nowhere, and I was in Vancouver for three months shooting a new musical series. But I'm acutely aware that our industry is gone at the moment.
Many spent time developing new hobbies, pursuing new lines of work, even welcoming new family members.
ASHLEY RODBRO (associate director): I realised I hadn't sat still in years, and I wasn't sure I even knew how to.
GARCIA-LEE: I've been doing eight shows a week on Broadway since I was 17. I've missed everything in my life. So the moment I got better, I was like, this moment is not going to be lost on me. I was a competitive horseback rider when I was younger, so I started riding again. I love archery and bought my first real bow and arrow set. I bought a mandolin and started learning how to play. I picked up figure skating. I'm truly a child at camp.
CAITLIN MOLLOY (hairstylist): I'm currently writing a play with my best friend, making baby mobiles and putting together some quilt coats. I've also reupholstered some chairs.
DARCY CHEN (dresser): Like many others armed with fabric stock and a sewing machine, I made face masks.
DEREK MCLANE (scenic designer): I bought a lot of acrylics and oil paints and set up at the dining room table. I started by painting our cats.
BURKE: I spent a lot of time at the beach. And put on 25 pounds (11kg). And still watch way too much TV.
HONG: I'm up to 125 pushups per day. When I started I couldn't do 5 in a row.
JUSTIN TOWNSEND (lighting designer): I have been having ballet classes with my 3-year-old. I have my own tutu.
GUTIERREZ: My son and I began picking up trash in and around the park. We then tackled the block we live on, weeding the tree lawns and replanting them. People noticed.
TIEN: The one that stuck was becoming a "Plant Daddy." In April, I started with one pothos, and now I have eighteen different plants of all sizes scattered around my apartment.
NICK GINSBERG (associate general manager): Me and my husband adopted a little baby girl!
NGAUJAH: Taking care of the little one, my first child.
PETINAUD: I think getting a few weeks to rest and reset my body aided me in being able to get pregnant. He was born December 29. His name is Carver Elijah Petinaud. It's amazing, and hard, and so many things at once.
RODBRO: I launched my production company, Heredia Vision, to make digital content and provide opportunities for women in entertainment.
CLAYTON: I have completely changed careers for the moment. I am now in luxury real estate.
ARNOLD: My wife and I had started a very small CBD topical business that mostly served the Broadway community. Since the pandemic began, we have grown so much. It keeps us afloat in terms of finances, and it makes sure that we're happy ladies.
SAM CAHN (actor): I decided to enroll at the Bellevue Massage School here in Washington state. I may very well have discovered my post-theatre career, but I hope that is a long way away.
After several delays, on October 15 the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing announced Tony Award nominees for the abbreviated 2019-20 season. Moulin Rouge! scored 14 nods, including for the show itself, as well as for Burstein, Hurder, Ngaujah, Olivo and Tveit (who, in a highly unusual situation, was the only person nominated in his category). Ten months after the last performance of the season, an awards ceremony remains unscheduled.
MARCELL: A tidal wave of emotions ravaged me: excitement, adrenaline, confusion. I have no one to congratulate; no show to do at 1,000 per cent that night; no team, community. Is celebrating what's necessary right now? I'm swept up.
HURDER: I forgot that they were announcing them, but I got a text saying "fingers crossed," so we watched it. When I saw my name scroll across the screen, I threw my body up off the couch and hurled out this animalistic, barbaric roar and started crying.
ZUBER: I was in Prague, and I got a text from [Oslo director] Bart Sher saying, "Oh, my God, you just got nominated." I was so excited. It felt for a brief second like life was normal again.
TVEIT: It was a strange day because of the circumstance. I was so happy they decided to go forward with it; it was a strange year and a shortened season, but there was a lot of great work done. I've tried to think of my nomination as recognition of my work and the performance. And I did reach out to [The Lightning Thief actor] Chris McCarrell, who was the other person who could have been nominated; I've had a couple of difficult Tony mornings, so I understand what that feels like.
BURSTEIN: The nominations came on a day that was particularly tough for my wife, when she was choking and gasping for air. My phone was blowing up — "How does it feel to be nominated?" — and I'm trying to save my wife's life. It put everything in perspective.
Burstein's wife, Luker, died of complications from ALS on December 23. She was 59.
BURSTEIN: You're going 900 miles an hour, and all of a sudden it stops, and it's over, and there's nothing, and it goes to zero. You walk around, and it's just you in space. I have 23 years of incredible memories — a wonderful marriage and a wonderful friendship — and as crazy as it seems, I feel very blessed and lucky to have spent those years with her. But there's a hole in my chest where my heart used to be.
The producers of Moulin Rouge! say this fall is the earliest they can envision returning to Broadway and opening in London, and they are eyeing next year for a North American tour. Meanwhile, this month they resumed auditions in Australia, hoping they can open a production in Melbourne in August.
JIM CARNAHAN (casting director): It's full circle. I came down last year to do prescreens with the Australian casting director, and I was here for a week when Carmen said, "You've got to get out." Now we're literally picking up where we left off.
KARLI DINARDO (dance captain): I'm one of three Australians in the Broadway company, so in December I came back to spend the holidays with my family and help run the auditions.
DAMASCHKE: It needs to be a much longer process because of safety; we can see many fewer people at a time, and we have to sanitise the rooms in between. We're going to livestream the final auditions to New York for the creative team.
JANET HINE (Australian costume associate): There's about 400 costumes, and there will be about 70 people working on them — beaders, crystal applicators, shoemakers, milliners. That's why we're so excited about having it start up.
DINARDO: We've had a maximum of 12 people auditioning in a room that could, pre-Covid, fit well over 60. It's a little different than we're used to, with all the protocols, but I'm excited. It's a snapshot into our immediate future.
Months after they recovered, some of the Covid survivors are worried about lingering effects.
CLAYTON: Every once in a while, like at bedtime, I feel like I have a 25-pound dumbbell on my chest.
GARCIA-LEE: I don't think I have my full capacity back. I've started dancing again, and it just feels like something is off in my chest.
OLIVO: I have yet to go to the doctor to check out what my lungs look like, but I know I'm going to have to have someone look. I sang a song for a benefit, and when I went to get it on tape, I was struggling.
HURDER: I'm terrified, because my show is so physically demanding. I am concerned about what that's going to be like when I go back. I guess we're going to find out.
The show's advance sales, once hefty, are now zero. The lead producer says she expects to spend at least US$3 million ($4 mllion) to restart the show on Broadway. But hope is increasingly replacing despair.
SONYA TAYEH (choreographer): That's all we have now, is dreaming.
SAVAGE: I'm so hopeful of Broadway's return that I've not gone to pick up my things from the theatre. It's all just sitting there.
CLAYTON: I imagine that our reopening night will be even bigger than our first. The return of Broadway is going to be epic.
ARNOLD: The second you hit the stage and hear the sound of those snaps in the music, you take your first position, and everything goes away. You're the baddest bitch there is at that moment, and it feels like nothing you've ever felt in your life.
TVEIT: I will be there with bells on. I can't wait.
DINARDO: Having the chance to perform before live audiences again is going to be an incredible feeling.
BURSTEIN: This is my 18th Broadway show, and it will be traumatic, no doubt about it, when I see all my friends again and get back on that stage. But that's OK. There's something about the story — that love survives — that's worth telling. And it's not just the storytelling, but the friendships I develop over the course of the run. It's the love that you put out and that you receive in turn; that's most important at the end of the day.
Written by: Michael Paulson
Photographs by: Thomas Prior, Sara Krulwich and Nath Bajar
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES