Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.
Opening night was fewer than four weeks away for Rob McClure, the actor cast in the title role of Broadway’s Mrs. Doubtfire musical. The Jerry Zaks-directed adaptation of the 1993 comedy — one of McClure’s favorite films — had already played a pre-Broadway engagement in Seattle, previews were underway at New York’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre, and the cast and creative team were counting the days until the big night on April 5.
When April 5 came, the cast would instead be singing their songs to one another on Zoom, performing a run-through to keep in musical shape for whenever Mrs. Doubtfire and the rest of Broadway would return from the COVID-19 shutdown that began March 12.
Now, McClure, whose Broadway credits include Chaplin: The Musical, Something Rotten!, Avenue Q and, most recently, Beetlejuice, finds himself in the position of so many other theater stars, disappointed, even heartbroken, but fully cognizant of the fact that having a Broadway show waiting for him at the end of this global nightmare is, all things considered, a privilege. When the Stephen Sondheim Theatre reopens, McClure will take its stage as divorced dad Daniel Hillard, the character, made famous by Robin Williams, who turns himself into Scottish nanny Euphegenia Doubtfire to keep close to his kids and learn a thing or two himself.
In this conversation with Deadline, McClure, from his home in Philadelphia, speaks frankly about his mixed feelings, about his pride in the theatrical community’s response to a crisis, and why he believes Mrs. Doubtfire could prove more relevant than ever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
DEADLINE: How are you? Where are you?
ROB McCLURE: I’m hunkered down in my house in Philadelphia, and, um, it’s weird. It’s just a waiting game. I mean, we’re just waiting, waiting for more information, waiting for this wave of whatever this craziness is to pass and waiting for people to feel confident enough sitting shoulder to shoulder in a theater so we can do this show that we’ve painstakingly made with tons of heart for the last going on a year, and for the writers longer. We built this thing we’re so proud of and that we think has something really beautiful and wonderful to say and actually has a message about family and redefining family that we think could be really valuable especially now. So we can’t wait to get back to it. But we do understand there’s a larger problem at hand, and we, like everyone else, just have to wait.
DEADLINE: Your production came from Seattle to New York. Were you aware in Seattle that something was unfolding?
McCLURE: Not at all. It was probably a solid three weeks to a month after we had left Seattle that they started to talk about Washington having an outbreak. None of that was being spoken about when we were there, at least to our knowledge. Luckily, our company has been healthy, and everyone at the Sondheim has thus far been okay, so we’re just hunkering down and praying that with social distancing we all stay healthy.
Broadway and the theater prides itself on, like, the show must go on, right? Like that’s our thing. Especially in times of crisis, like 9/11, we were right back at it, understanding that people need the escapism of going to the theater. But we have redefined what essential means these days for the human experience – it’s essential that you get to the grocery store. But what’s essential for our spirit? So we pride ourselves on bouncing back, and this is the first time I can think of in my lifetime where we couldn’t just bounce back. We had to wait. We do not want to be part of the problem, so we need to wait until the scientific community gives us the green light and people are confident gathering again.
DEADLINE: Mrs. Doubtfire was well past the rehearsal stage, so I’m assuming everything will be ready to go?
McCLURE: We were in previews, so we were very much working at the theater every day, all day, implementing changes from the night before. We had just done our third preview on that Wednesday, and then on Thursday afternoon we were mid-rehearsal, implementing some changes, when we got word that we were stopping. And not just us, obviously, but everybody. It was devastating because as you can imagine, the building of a Broadway show is an exciting time. Theater people don’t do things casually. We pour ourselves into it, and we fall in love with what we do and the projects that we do. We believe in them. We believe that they have something special to share with our audiences. So the idea that we had spent so much time and effort building this thing, and we’re at Okay, here we go. Here we are. We’re ready to share it, and three previews in we just have to press pause and we left the theater just as it was – sitting there with all my stuff in my dressing room, just waiting.
And Broadway is not the only artistic community devastated by this. The Philly theater community, like regional communities around the world, are canceling the rest of their seasons, and for local artists in cities like Philly, who feed their kids on regional theater paychecks, this is particularly devastating.
So it’s heartbreaking but I think it’s important to have a larger perspective. It’s important to say, Yes, when we are working on something in the theater, it is the most important thing. We think that the theater changes hearts, it changes minds, it changes lives. But there’s a larger problem right now, and we have to maintain perspective that staying home, and people staying home and not going to theater, is the right thing to do right now. We need to understand that, as heartbreaking as it is to not do what we love, and to get back to work and to make a living.
DEADLINE: You’re the star of this show, the title character. Honestly, you have to have mixed feelings…
McCLURE: It’s, well, it’s heartbreaking. Um, yeah. I was so sad to not get to go to work every day. I was so sad to not get to see my my theater family at work every day. And I was sad I did not get to share what I had created. I know the time will come, and I’m confident that we will be back when that time is right and that I will get to share the work that that I did, when the time is right, but it was…Someone said to me yesterday it must have been like coitus interruptus [Laughs].
DEADLINE: I know it’s putting you in an awkward position to talk about your disappointment because there are plenty of people out there worse off than any of us. You’re about to star in a Broadway show…
McCLURE: That’s the thing. That’s exactly the thing. I was starting from a place where I’m going like, Wow, I was about to star in the Broadway musical version of one of my favorite movies ever. I was so excited. But it is very, very difficult right now to feel Woe is me when you see what’s happening to doctors and nurses at hospitals. It’s very, very difficult. We all have our own experience right now, and I can say this was really hard for me, but it is important to maintain perspective more than ever. It’s important to realize what’s actually at stake right now.
And the world will be waiting when we’re ready. I think theater and going to the theater will be more essential on the other side of this thing. I think people are going to crave seeing a story told to them that’s not on a screen. I think it’s going to be more more special and more important than ever.
DEADLINE: But are people going to be afraid? Everyone’s going stir crazy, sure, but are people going to be too scared to do anything about it?
McCLURE: I think it’s going to take time – time for the science to give people the confidence to go. Do I think that Broadway and the theater will be back? Absolutely 100%. But like anything else, like sitting at a crowded table at a restaurant, it’s going to take a second. It’s going to take time for people to see that it’s safe enough out there for them and their families to do so, and that they’re not going to get something and bring it back to their home. It is. That’s just the reality. We’re all going to have to wait it out and see. Any industry that thrives on interaction is going to have a weird climb back to its regular numbers as people gain confidence. That’s just the reality.
DEADLINE: What are you hearing from your producers about your show? Some have already postponed until next season, some others have canceled outright.
McCLURE: All I’m hearing is that we’ll be back. That’s all I’m hearing – we’ll be back. When this passes we’ll be back. I’m proud to say that all of our stuff is still sitting in our dressing rooms waiting for us to go back in and inhabit them. And that confidence is so immensely comforting. I think that’s part of why it isn’t as devastating to me as it could have been because there is the promise of returning – and returning in a show with an immense amount of heart and positivity. So the idea of being a part of a show that makes people feel so overwhelmingly positive, I can’t wait to be the deliverer of that message when all this passes. So when I hear from our producers that, as hard as it is, we just have to hold tight, I can do that. The shows that closed before they ever got to open, it’s heartbreaking. I can’t imagine what that must be like. You want to show the world what you made, right? But also just paying your bills and getting your health insurance weeks and all of the practical stuff. This is an industry like any other. So we’re missing paychecks, we’re missing 401-K contributions, we’re missing health insurance weeks. This is our job. So there’s a practical side about not going to work as well.
DEADLINE: At this point it has only been a matter of weeks in isolation, but a month is still a month when you have to pay bills. What are you hearing from people in theater about how they are adjusting?
McCLURE: I’m hearing the same thing I’m hearing from people in the restaurant industry, that it is, temporary or permanent, a layoff. We’re not going to be making money for a while. And this is an industry that already can be really volatile to actors and dressers and members of the orchestra, our musicians and ushers, the idea of where is the next paycheck coming from if your skill set requires social interaction. What are you going to do? So I think people are scared. But the theater community is also one where we take care of each other. There’s The Actors Fund. The theater community has come together for innumerable charity events for The Actors Fund, which takes care of anyone in the entertainment industry who’s going through a tough time financially or medically or otherwise. The theater community has come together in a way that is really incredible. I was part of that Rosie O’Donnell fund raiser for The Actors Fund and Seth Rudetsky’s Stars in the House series. The amount of money being raised to help each other out in this time is just really cool. I mean, theater people, they can get it done one way or another. They get it.
Again, in a time where doctors and nurses are the real superheroes, you don’t want to give too much credit to an actor. But what I want to say is that what our expertise as actors is, is empathy. Our expertise is putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. That’s what we literally do for our jobs. We go to work and we imagine what it must be like to be someone else. And in times of disaster and times of real fear and danger, it is very easy for us to imagine what it must be like to be out of work, to be struggling to feed your kids, to be sitting at home with this disease, to be somebody with an immunodeficiency sitting at home waiting to see if you get this thing.
Fear is easy for us to imagine, and I think it lights a fire under our asses to help. And there are plenty in our community who both are fighting this disease and who we’ve lost to this disease, this virus. Losing Terrence McNally was something that hit us hard. So we mobilize quickly and in the ways that we’re able, and we leave things we don’t know about to other people. But we are very good at causes and rallying around a cause. Members of the dressers union are churning out masks because they can sit down at a sewing machine and crank these things out. Theater people, they get it done.
DEADLINE: Actors are used to having long periods of time between jobs. You must know how to sit at home when so many people don’t.
McCLURE: Oh yeah. People who work in this industry know when there’s going to be a couple of months where you don’t have a job, your brain goes, Oh, so I need to do what I did those other times when I had four months, five months, or however long it was. We are good at scrambling. There is certainly an aspect that part of our lives is being creative in terms of income. For sure in addition to empathy, scrambling to pay our bills is another expertise we have.
DEADLINE: How are you passing the time in Philadelphia?
McCLURE: I have a 15-month-old daughter and she thinks this is the greatest thing ever because Mom and Dad are home all day, every day. So I’m going through what so many other people are going through where you’re trying to balance the idea that you should make the most of this time, and then you have days where you go, No, I don’t need to make the most of a pandemic. I need to deal with it. I need to watch the news and find out the science and find out what I need to be doing or not be doing. But then you have days where you’re like I need to play video games and sit with my daughter and teach her how to roll a ball across the floor, I’ll use today to do that, and be grateful for the time to do it.
DEADLINE: Are you in touch with the rest of the cast at this point?
McCLURE: Yeah. Opening night was supposed to be April 5, so what we decided to do is have the entire cast get on Zoom and run through the show, just to make sure it’s still in there. We’re probably going do that every two weeks from now until we’re back to work just to make sure it’s still in there. Once we get the green light, we’re going to want to move quickly. We don’t want to go through an entire rehearsal process again. So just to make sure it’s still fresh and still in there, we’re going to do Zoom run throughs. Something that didn’t exist five weeks ago.
DEADLINE: And you’re staying in shape, vocally and otherwise? Are you keeping a regimen?
McCLURE: I don’t think I’m alone in saying to myself, Stop eating. Why are you eating? My wife is a lot better at it than I am. I get inspired by seeing her go for a run or go upstairs and do yoga. It’s important, though, especially with a role as athletic as Doubtfire was requiring of me. You build up stamina for a show by doing it every day and rehearsing it every day. I have to maintain that physically. There are all kinds of tricks and physical things and choreography that I am going to run through just to keep it in my body. In terms of singing, I sing to my daughter every day, so there’s that.
You know, there’s a lot of of online content right now, a lot of channels where people are looking to express themselves creatively. But I think I have mixed feelings on all of that right now. Obviously, anything that’s for charity is awesome, and anything that takes advantage of people’s craving for theater and turns it into an opportunity to help people is something that I will always jump at. But turning my Instagram into a place for me to express my need to perform is not something I’m interested in. My brain can’t turn this into an opportunity, it just can’t. So I reserve my interest in performing to causes that I think are worthy. I just think it’s a weird thing to think of your social media as a place where people go to see you perform now.
DEADLINE: One last question. Do you have any idea when Broadway will reopen?
McCLURE: I genuinely don’t, and that is heartbreaking for me to say. Anytime I ask anyone who I think will know, they genuinely have no clue. Every time a strategy comes up it is thwarted by new information. We still don’t know if this wave has crested yet. That’s the hardest part of all of this. I am sitting at home ready to star in a Broadway show, and I have no idea when that will be. It’s a weird thing to just wait for. But it’s a fantastic thing to have to look forward to on the other side of this thing. That is 100 percent true, both to actually perform and to do it for the audiences. I’m excited – this is a show that has a gigantic amount of heart, and it’s a show that ends similarly to the film where Mrs. Doubtfire turns to the audience and says, You’re going to be all right. And, I can’t…it chokes me up to think about…I can’t wait to be able to look at a full house again, and be able to deliver the line, All my love, poppets. You’re going to be all right.