Broadway’s ‘Company’ One Year After Covid Shutdown: Patti LuPone, Katrina Lenk And A Dozen Co-Stars Chronicle A 12-Month Pause In Being Alive – An Oral History

The cast of 'Company' Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

To hear the cast of Broadway’s Company tell it, the industry’s shutdown one year ago today was perhaps more shocking than surprising, arriving swiftly but maybe not swiftly enough. For at least a couple of the musical’s preview performances leading up to the city’s historic closing of March 12, 2020, the stage jitters had little to do with the usual pre-opening night nerves. In fact, the show was doing very well – the revival and its biggest star Patti LuPone had been a hit in London, Broadway performances with LuPone and an otherwise new American cast were falling into place, advance ticket sales were strong, audiences were delighted, and the spring Tony Award season had its most anticipated pairing in LuPone and The Band’s Visit‘s Katrina Lenk, one a true icon of the theater, the other one of two or three more recently arrived stars with the talent, the pull and the guts to stand beside her. And all in a revival of a Stephen Sondheim-George Furth masterpiece that had been given a fresh, gender-switching take by the Tony-winning Angels in America director Marianne Elliott.

“Everyone was feeling really secure in their work,” says actor Bobby Conte Thornton, who plays PJ, the Company character formerly named Marta and blessed with one of the show’s tongue-twisting show-stoppers “Another Hundred People.” “But then we heard rumblings about this virus from another continent. There was an usher at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Booth who had it. I think that was sort of the beginning of the end.”

Everyone knows the rest. Broadway shut its doors and turned out its lights on March 12, 2020, an instant metaphor for Covid-19’s catastrophic impact on business, the arts and New York City itself. In the year since, Broadway has been a bellwether in the city’s ongoing hibernation, as one shutdown extension followed another until even Summer 2021 began to seem like a pipedream.

But now, with the arrival of no fewer than three effective vaccines and for the time in twelve very long months, producers can speak about a 2021-22 Broadway season without sounding like desperate Pollyannas or a mendacious president. “I’m hopeful that in the next couple of months the governor will give us the green light that Fall is possible,” says Company producer Chris Harper, “that around April or May we’ll have clarity as to when Broadway will be able to reopen with full capacity. That’s when we would announce tickets going back on sale.” The plan, Harper says, is to bring Company back in the fall, though Spring 2022 remains a possibility as well.

Until then, the $13 million production will have to sustain itself on what Broadway Journal editor Philip Boroff has reported is an $8.8 million business interruption insurance payout from Chubb, an amount roughly equivalent to nine weeks of 80% potential ticket sales at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Even with the cast, crew and musicians off payroll, the past year, Harper says, has been difficult. (The producer would not confirm the specific dollar figures). “We’ve had to make sure that what money we do have is able to last us for a significant period of time,” he says. “It’s been very tricky, a really difficult process to survive.”

“The reason why I feel so confident about bringing the show back is because we had a fantastic advance when we closed,” Harper continued, expressing conviction that the entire Broadway cast will return. “People were booking in very large numbers, but once everything was canceled, all of the tickets were refunded. So we’ll be starting from zero.”

In recent months, Deadline has conducted a series of interviews with all 14 principal cast members of Company, each performer sharing insights, hopes and fears, and a year’s experiences – personally, professionally, economically, emotionally – as they find their way through an unprecedented crisis in their industry and their city.

“My dilemma,” says LuPone, “is, Will I have the energy to go back to work? Will I have the energy, especially, to go back on stage? I mean, I am a descendent of Italian peasants, so I have phenomenal energy. But will I have stage fright? Will I be able to get back on the bike? I don’t know that, and I also don’t know if I even want to. It’s been so long that I’m questioning my desire to continue in this business.”

In this first installment in a multi-part series, LuPone, Lenk, Thornton, Matt Doyle, Christopher Fitzgerald, Christopher Sieber, Jennifer Simard, Terence Archie, Etai Benson, Nikki Renée Daniels, Claybourne Elder, Greg Hildreth, Kyle Dean Massey and Rashidra Scott describe the walk-up to Company‘s first Broadway preview at the Shubert Organization’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on March 2, 2020. Opening night was scheduled for March 22, Sondheim’s 90th birthday.

All interviews, conducted separately, have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Company Announcement, August 30, 2019: Elliott & Harper Productions and The Shubert Organization announced today that on the heels of its Olivier Award-winning, sensational hit run in London’s West End, the visionary new production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s landmark American musical, Company, directed by two-time Tony Award winner Marianne Elliott, will open on Broadway this spring. The production will star Tony and Grammy Award winner Katrina Lenk as Bobbie, while two-time Tony Award and two-time Grammy Award winner Patti LuPone will reprise her unforgettable, Olivier Award-winning turn as Joanne.

The quintessential musical comedy about the search for love and cocktails in the Big Apple is turned on its head in Elliott’s revelatory staging, in which musical theater’s most iconic bachelor becomes a bachelorette. At Bobbie’s (Lenk) 35th birthday party, all her friends are wondering why isn’t she married? Why can’t she find the right man? And, why can’t she settle down and have a family? This whip smart musical, given a game-changing makeover for a modern-day Manhattan, features some of Sondheim’s best loved songs, including “Company,” “You Could Drive a Person
Crazy,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Side by Side,” and the iconic “Being Alive.”

Kyle Dean Massey (plays Theo, renamed from the original Kathy) I auditioned and got the job and so then I came back to New York from California on January 5th or 6th to start rehearsals. I had to find an apartment to rent, take out a lease and actually furnish it and move in because I was expected to be there for a year.

Claybourne Elder (Andy, originally April) Most of my professional career has been doing Stephen Sondheim shows somewhere on Broadway or otherwise. My first job ever was in a Stephen Sondheim, his last new musical, at The Public Theater called Road Show. When I heard of this production and heard that it was coming over I was like, oh, it is far too much to dream that I will get to do that show because I want it way too badly and usually the ones you want so badly are the ones you never get. But I did. I got cast.

Katrina Lenk (Bobbie, originally Robert) When Company was happening in London, I remember being obsessed with it. In my brain I was trying to figure out maybe there was some way I could just go and see it. When I heard that they were going to be doing a production on Broadway with an all-American cast, I was super thrilled.

Christopher Sieber (Harry) I had done a production of Company in Los Angeles, a concert version. I played Bobby, and I never wanted to do that show as Bobby ever again. You never leave the stage, it’s all about you, and it’s a lot. A beast of a part. After I did it I went into some kind of mental spiral for a couple of days, down a rabbit hole.

So fast-forward, and I was doing a show called The Prom on Broadway that I helped create with Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Angie Schworer, Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, the whole gang. I was asked if I wanted to audition for this Company revival that they’d been doing in London where Bobby is played by a woman. I said absolutely – because I knew that I couldn’t be Bobby.

Jennifer Simard (Sarah) My first audition was in August of 2019, and I was very happily employed at Mean Girls on Broadway. I went in not really thinking I was going to get it, but I’ve been a fan of Sondheim and this entire team for a very long time, and I thought, well, how can I not try? Like all things in life, when it rains it pours, and all good things seem to happen at once. It was hard for me to give my notice at Mean Girls, but I was so delighted to get involved with Company. The original Company opened on Broadway the same year I was born, so I was really looking forward to the parallel of the show turning 50 the same year I was turning 50. And when rehearsals started in January, I was reunited with my good old pal Christopher Sieber, whom I first met when we were both cutting our teeth in our 20s, and then we did Shrek together years later on Broadway. And now here we are playing husband and wife. Just a delightful time, you know?

Nikki Renée Daniels (Jenny) I was in Hamilton in Chicago for most of 2019, so I was flying back and forth from New York to Chicago. When I saw that Company was happening in London and that it was coming to Broadway, I asked my agents if I could be seen for the role of Jenny. I’d looked at the London cast and Jenny was the Black lady. And I’m a Black lady. I figured that they were probably looking for a person of color for that role. It turns out they ended up casting both Jenny and Susan as Black women. So I closed in Hamilton on January 5 and started rehearsals for Company in New York on January 6. It was quite a whirlwind.

Bobby Conte Thornton (PJ, originally Marta) I remember when I was a teenager I watched the John Doyle production of Company on Great Performances on PBS, and that was the first Sondheim show I’d ever seen. It very much put me on a path towards wanting to devote my life to making a living playing pretend. The fact that I was offered the opportunity to be involved with this show now was very heartwarming and serendipitous and just so overwhelming to that 14-year-old kid. We did about six weeks of rehearsals, which is very rare, especially for a show that had already had a production elsewhere. Marianne was imploring us to bring our individual selves and sensibilities and eccentricities to the material to make it feel alive and fresh and real.

Greg Hildreth (Peter) I had the Company vinyl cast recording in middle school and high school, and wore it out. I went to an all-boys private Catholic school that was, like, a hockey school, so I think I was most likely the only boy listening to “Sorry/Grateful” and thinking I knew what it meant. When I did Company in college, before I lived in the city, it seemed like this fantasy of New York. I was obsessed with how the characters talk and behave in the city, how cool it all seemed. Now that I am a person who talks and behaves like that, I still think “Sorry/Grateful” is one of the greatest songs ever written for musical theater. In these times when we’re all forced to be with our significant others 24 hours a day, and we’re bouncing off the walls, that song really speaks to me.

Rashidra Scott (Susan) I was doing Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations on Broadway when I got the audition for the role of Susan in the Company revival. I wasn’t really thinking anything of it. I’m the least knowledgeable musical theater actress you probably will ever meet in your life. I should be ashamed of myself, but I didn’t know it was a bunch of different vignettes taken from George Furth’s work. So I’m reading through it, trying to figure out the storyline and a background and I’m not finding anything. I spent the day between Ain’t Too Proud shows one Saturday looking at The Kennedy Center production I found online. It still didn’t help.

But I was talking to a group of my really good girlfriends – four of us who are working actresses, and I call us the Blacktresses. We’d kindled our sisterhood friendship at the final callback for Head Over Heels on Broadway, which none of us got but we at least got this great sisterhood out of it. Now three of the four of us had an appointment to go read for this Company audition. Two of us kept telling one of the girls, “You do know you’re going to book this, right? Because I keep reading this part and all I keep hearing is you doing this role.” The audition was Monday and I believe it was either Saturday night or Sunday that I said to her, “I’m not going because it doesn’t make sense. You’re going to book it so what’s the point of going in for something that clearly has your name written on it. Besides I’m tired from eight shows a week of Ain’t Too Proud. I’m not going in.”

Well, they very quickly put me in my place. “We do not turn down principal auditions. You are going in for this and one of us is going to book it.” Five-and-a-half weeks later, my girlfriends were the first people I called when I hung up from my agent. They could not have been more excited.

Matt Doyle (Jamie, originally Amy) Marianne Elliott called me in to read for the character of Paul, Jamie’s wonderful, loving and doting husband. I’d worked with Marianne on War Horse and we were very, very close during that process, so I knew that if she thought I was right for Jamie she would have called me in for Jamie. I even actually asked my agent to double check on it and they said, no, she wants to see you for Paul. Within the first 30 seconds Marianne said, oh, gosh, you are a Jamie. She asked me to learn “Getting Married Today,” and gave me 24 hours. My partner, Max Clayton, was opening in Moulin Rouge! that night, and I had to miss it. I just said, “I have to stay home. I can’t go in front of Marianne tomorrow and screw this up.”

Terence Archie (Larry) I went through a couple of auditions, and got a good feel for it and felt good about it. I got the offer and we started rehearsing in January of last year, which doesn’t even seem that long ago. We were a week away from opening when we really started hearing rumors of increased cases of this new virus.

“There’s This Thing That Is Happening In China”

Claybourne Elder The big first challenge I faced was knowing that my character was supposed to be in really good physical shape and I was going to be in my underwear on Broadway. I know that sounds like such a strange thing to worry and stress about, but I knew that was such an important part of the character, and I am not a person that is always in really good shape.

So I’m working out for months and months, even before rehearsal started, really trying to get in the shape that I felt was appropriate for the character, for the joke about him being kind of dumb and handsome. Now, I’m a father of a three-year-old, who at the time was a two-year-old, and waking up at 7 with him, getting him to daycare, going to rehearsal all day, coming home, and then going to the gym. I was getting New York Times notifications about this Covid thing popping up on my phone, but I’m so busy going 100 miles an hour that I’m just not really paying attention to it.

Rashidra Scott About a year before I moved to the city I was on the opening team of Hong Kong Disneyland. Most of that ensemble cast is Hong Kong, Chinese locals. So I had been seeing my friends from there posting about this thing, and I knew that a lot of China and Hong Kong was shut down, but it was also one of those ignorance is bliss things. Plus I was in the middle of leaving one show in the middle of the holidays, going to another show, and I was not really paying attention.

It was the parents in the show like Nikki Rene, who’s my dressing-room mate, and Chris Fitz and some people on the crew who started talking about being afraid to send their kids to school. Nikki spent her entire dinner break three or four days in a row going to every drugstore trying to find disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.

Christopher Fitzgerald (David) The first inkling I got was actually from my wife, Jessica Stone, who’s a director. She was in preproduction on a show, and a designer that she was working with had been in China. Maybe a month before everything started happening here, this designer mentioned to Jessica on the phone, like, “Hey, there’s this thing that is happening in China, and it’s kind of freaking me out.” So we just started to watch what was going on more carefully than I felt like a lot of my colleagues were. That’s not a criticism, it was just that my wife happened to have this very, very clear connection to what was going on. I was the one at work that was starting to be like, hey guys, have you heard about this?

Etai Benson (Paul) Christopher Fitzgerald, whose dressing room is right across from mine, was picking up on it a little earlier than the rest of us were, from what I recall. None of us knew to take it as seriously as we ended up taking it. We all thought, okay, this is something that’ll pass. We’re the United States of America and this stuff doesn’t really happen here. But Christopher was digging deep into the news and he would come to us and say, guys, I think this is going to shut us down, I really think so. My dressing room mate, Greg Hildreth and I were more like let’s wait and see. I wouldn’t say we laughed it off, but we were, like, let’s not get too panicky about this.

Bobby Conte Thornton Like any preview process, it’s just about getting to feel like you have a sense of ownership over the material, slowly but surely, especially as you add the necessary collaborator – the audience. We were feeling really close, a couple shows away from freezing it, meaning that you’re no longer making changes. We had been given the generosity of the George Furth Estate to have access to every previous incarnation of Company, including the vignettes that were written pre-1970 that the musical is essentially based off of. He had written a film treatment, he had written a number of plays, all of which we had access to. Even if we were putting new words and new elements into the show, they were still George Furth’s words, and of course everything that was changed was cleared by Stephen Sondheim.

Christopher Sieber The crowds were going nuts. The line was down the block to get a ticket. But even before our first preview we kind of got an inkling of something coming. Normally, you get to invite friends and family and they can come backstage, but the Shuberts said no backstage visitors. They couldn’t even meet us in the alleyway. There was no autograph line. They said we couldn’t even sign Playbills.

Kyle Dean Massey I thought it was being sensationalized, quite honestly. There’s always a big deal about these things, and then nothing really happens. Then one day it was like something had turned, and it suddenly became really scary. Our last couple of shows to me felt irresponsible. We were hearing of ushers next door testing positive and here we were in this old, tiny theater, totally sold out, people shoulder-to-shoulder, and the show wasn’t really playing the same. People weren’t laughing, you know? A person in the audience might cough and it was just, like, this deafening silence. I have this very intimate scene with Katrina Lenk where I’m very, very close to her face and I just remember thinking oh, gosh, enunciate but don’t let any spit fly out of your mouth.

Nikki Renée Daniels There’s a party game section of the number “Side by Side,” where Katrina and two other people have to pass an orange to each other using their mouths, and we’re all kind of like cringing, like, should we really be adding this into the show right now? Chris Fitzgerald, who plays my husband, and I have a little kiss in one moment and in rehearsal we wouldn’t do it. I don’t know what we thought we were avoiding, now that we know how the virus works, but little things had started to creep into the atmosphere about how we felt being in that theater.

Christopher Fitzgerald There’s this feeling when you work in the theater, especially on Broadway, that the show must go on. We have something in our guts which blinds us to any pain we endure just trying to be actors and being part of this business and this process where the odds are against us. You get in that mode where it’s very hard to advocate for what you need, and for what makes sense, because really what’s driving you even more is the need to tell the story. When the theater is calling you, real life is a weird thing you push off to the side. So there was a lot of hemming and hawing about how to handle this, what to do, who to listen to, how to move forward. Do I say to my director and producer that I’ve got to quit? That I don’t want to come in tonight? Do I call my union and say, what are you guys doing to handle what’s happening right now? When the NBA canceled its season, my heart sank, and my survival instincts clicked in.

We had several different meetings with the producers and the Shubert Organization, who are the theater owners, to discuss what they knew, and what they were doing. We were in one of these meetings, probably the day before things shut down, and we’d had maybe done a rehearsal, and people were kind of airing their fears, and producers were doing their best to say what they were doing and how they were evaluating things and how we were still going to do the show that night, and it was all very tense and concerning.

And then one member of the company, not an actor but somebody who I think was doing the magic in the show, there’s a few illusions, and he raised his hand and said, “Is there somewhere I can go at intermission? Because when intermission happens, there’s a huge flood of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people lining up for the bathrooms right here, and there’s just no place for me to go.” I still feel that hot-neck, slightly sick-to-my-stomach feeling, imagining all these people all crowded downstairs in this lobby, right by where they serve the drinks in this very dead, no-air space. All these older people crowded together at intermission to use the bathroom. And it was like, oh my god.

I enter the stage from the audience, and the experience of walking through the audience became more and more surreal. Standing there amongst thousands of people, laughing and enjoying themselves, and I’m feeling like I knew something that they didn’t know, and just feeling dread, and horror, and fear.

“You don’t have a show tonight, do you?”

Claybourne Elder I don’t remember that last performance at all because it was just another preview. In fact I joked – and this has sort of haunted me – but on the way out of the theater I said, “Alright everybody, see you in two weeks because we’re going to get shut down.” It seemed so ridiculous that I didn’t mind joking about it out loud.

The next day, I went to the gym before rehearsal and I was in the locker room and someone came up to me and said, you don’t have a show tonight, do you? I was like, yeah, we have a show tonight. He said, Oh, no, Broadway just got completely shut down. I remember standing there at the gym literally not knowing what to do or where to go. I hadn’t had free time in so long I didn’t even know what to do. So I called my husband and I said I’m ordering a pizza and I’m picking up a cake and we’re going to go home and I’m going to eat whatever I want.

Christopher Sieber I live out in New Jersey so I have to leave at like 9, 9:30 in the morning to get to rehearsals that always begin at 11 a.m. So I called our production stage manager, Tim Semon, and I said Tim, should I even come in today? And he says no, don’t come in.

Katrina Lenk I was on my way to meet Patti to do some press, and I got a call on the way saying since I’m near the theater I should just go and get some things from my dressing room because we might be shutting down for a bit. There was no kind of epiphany for me, because Broadway doesn’t just shut down. There was that one time when Hurricane Sandy hit when it was shut for a couple days, but that was it. I had this weird sort of disbelief. So I just grabbed two things from my dressing room – stupid stuff, like oh, I need that orange I left there yesterday. Well, good thing I got that orange, huh?

Patti LuPone Chris Harper, our producer, said it’ll be maybe two weeks, three weeks. I left my dressing room expecting to go right back to work.

Katrina Lenk It seemed like, oh, it will be nice to have a couple days off because we’re all exhausted and to have a couple days to sleep seemed, well, not so bad. At least there was the relief of finally knowing something. It was only later that there was the despair of, God, this could go on and on forever.

Jennifer Simard I’m not really a pessimist nor an optimist. I’m a realist. The husband and I started buying some rice and some quinoa just in case. You’re better off being more prepared than surprised. I will say, though, that your self defense mechanism kicks in and you think, Is this really going to last a year? Behind closed doors, we thought July seemed like the outset.

Bobby Conte Thornton It was going to be three weeks of shutdown, and after a big conference call, the company manager said does anyone have any questions? And I remember Chris Sieber saying yeah, what am I supposed to do without seeing you guys every day? And that really hit us, like, oh, this is real.

Terence Archie The entertainment industry can be insecure enough as it is, without a government-mandated lockdown. Thoughts had started crossing my mind, as well as the minds of my colleagues, as to what will we do without theater? Without our livelihood? Just on a personal level, how would we make a living?

And then we began imagining bigger. We imagined New York City without theater. America without theater. The world without theater, without art in general. That line of thinking inevitably leads to a greater appreciation and understanding of the value of art, of the value of theater. I started to think that when non-theater people work their nine-to-fives, what do they do with their earnings? They spend it on the theater, on entertainment. When we want to express ourselves but need the vehicle of relatability, theater is the thing that reflects us onto ourselves and holds us communally accountable.

I think we started to feel – I started to feel – the vacuum, in just seeing how bored people were, and how people would have a hard time expressing themselves when they couldn’t even meet each other. I think it made me want to be better and more succinct at what I do, and maybe even apply some sense of holiness to the task at hand of the theater artist. It began to seem so essential.

Coming up in Part II:

Patti LuPone I said goodbye to the Jacobs, and then I thought, No, goodbye to the Royale, because the Royale had been a much more elegant theater name than the Jacobs. And then I burst into tears and said goodbye to my life in the theater…

And…

Greg Hildreth Every time the Broadway League announces an extension of the shutdown, it feels like you’ve just proposed marriage to somebody and she says “I’ll marry you. Just not yet.”

And…

Matt Doyle The reality of how severe the illness could be was still something that needed to sink in…and that didn’t really happen until a friend of ours was dying. When Nick Cordero got sick we were making him videos and sending them to his wife and thinking there’s just no way we’re going to lose him. This guy is so strong, so healthy, so full of life.

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2021/03/broadways-company-one-year-later-covid-19-pandemic-shutdown-patti-lupone-katrina-lenk-1234709757/