Covering Broadway’s Bustling Week on a Deadline

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I’m the theater reporter at The New York Times, which means I see a lot of plays and musicals — about 100 a year. But I don’t often go to opening nights. Those evenings are celebratory, and audiences are filled with the productions’ friends and supporters. The press is generally invited to attend performances on the nights just before (those are called previews) or after the openings.

This year was different. My colleagues and I noticed some months ago that April — always a busy time for Broadway as shows scramble to open by the deadline to be eligible for the Tony Awards — was shaping up to be more congested than usual. Twelve shows were opening in a nine-day stretch.

This is a tough time for Broadway. Production costs have risen and overall attendance has fallen since the pandemic. I suggested to the Culture desk’s editors that it might be interesting if we sent a reporter and photographer to every opening, chronicling these moments of hope at a time of challenge.

As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

That’s how I wound up spending nine days with the photographer Landon Nordeman, lurching from show to show; watching as many performances as I could; hanging out on red (and yellow, and pink, and blue) carpets; listening to curtain call speeches; and even popping in to a few after-parties.

I worked with two photo editors, Jolie Ruben and Amanda Webster; a visual storytelling editor, Josephine Sedgwick; the theater editor, Nicole Herrington; and the Arts & Leisure editor, Andrew LaVallee, to hash out a strategy. We asked ourselves: How would we differentiate the openings from one another? And how could we use the sea of events to help our readers, most of whom live far from Broadway, understand more about this industry and this art form?

Our goal was to try to capture a different activity at each show — staple events like red carpets, curtain calls and parties, plus some only-at-this-particular-opening moments. We also wanted to give our readers a peek behind the curtain at opening night practices, such as the Legacy Robe ceremony, a backstage tradition that honors ensemble members. I spent a lot of time pleading with productions for access.

We built a sprawling spreadsheet to track ideas for scenes we might want to witness and write about, along with theater locations and the contact information for each production. At one point, we contemplated organizing vignettes along a typical opening night timeline, beginning with an actor for one show getting ready to go to work, and ending with last call at another show’s after-party. We eventually abandoned that idea as it was too complicated and confining. We decided instead to organize our article according to the calendar of opening nights, beginning with “The Wiz” on April 17 and ending with “The Great Gatsby” on April 25.

During the nine-day sprint, Landon and I talked every morning. I would give him a plot summary and a who’s who for the shows we were going to visit, and we would consider how to make the most of our time. Each night, I updated the spreadsheet to let our editors know how we had done, and what we hoped to find the next day.

Specificity is always a journalist’s friend, so I was happy that on Day 6, the play “Patriots” let us photograph a backstage preshow game with a Koosh ball. And on Day 8, we were able to watch dancers from “Illinoise” warm up on a sprung floor installed in a basement below the stage. The scene was filled with Broadway debut performers so exuberant and emotional that both Landon and I teared up.

There were disappointments and compromises, of course. I was sad that we didn’t get to photograph a “fight call,” a nightly preshow practice in which productions with stage violence or sexual situations hold slow-motion movement drills to make sure everyone feels safe. And I wish we had captured an actor wrapping gifts or addressing cards to castmates, which some do on opening nights.

But we were able to photograph several close-up moments. Gayle Rankin of “Cabaret” let Landon watch her get made up for her role as Sally Bowles. The actresses Rachel McAdams (of “Mary Jane”) and Jessica Lange (of “Mother Play”) welcomed him into their post-show dressing rooms.

After the final opening, we had a lot to work with, but not a lot of time — five days to publish before the Tony Award nominations were announced. On April 30, the day the nominations came out, we published Landon’s photos and my dispatches online.

The ceremony is June 16; we’ll have lots more coverage between now and then. Stay tuned.

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