NEW YORK — A digital marquee in Times Square says it all: “The Wait Is Over.”
Eighteen months after the global pandemic shuttered live theater in March 2020, Broadway takes a big step forward Tuesday when three powerhouse shows — “The Lion King,” “Hamilton” and “Wicked” — rev their engines again with new safety protocols.
“I think we all feel extremely excited,” said “The Lion King” director Julie Taymor. “We’re back. I think we can breathe easier even if it’s behind a mask. We can feel relaxed about the fact that it works.”
“The Lion King,” “Hamilton” and “Wicked” all staked out Tuesday to reopen together in early May after then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo picked Sept. 14 for when Broadway could begin welcoming back audiences at full capacity.
The trio of shows were beaten by Bruce Springsteen’s concert show in June and the opening of the new play “Pass Over” on Aug. 22, as well as the reopening of two big musicals — “Hadestown” and “Waitress.”
But the return of the three musicals — the spiritual anchors of modern Broadway’s success — as well as the long-running “Chicago” and the reopening of the iconic TKTS booth both on Tuesday are important signals that Broadway’s most valuable shows are back, despite pressure and uncertainty from the spread of the delta variant.
“We go to a theater for catharsis. Literally that’s what we go for: to be in communion with each other, hear a story told in the dark and experience catharsis,” said “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. “For a while, it wasn’t safe to do that. And it’s safe to come back now with the protocols we have in place.”
Ticketholders to all three mega-hits must prove they are fully vaccinated with an FDA- or WHO-authorized vaccine and masks must be worn at all times, except when eating or drinking in designated areas.
“I think it actually won’t feel real to me until we have an audience in front of us,” said L. Steven Taylor, who stars in “The Lion King” as Mufasa. “It’s such an important element to this, and especially, I think, after everything that we’ve gone through.”
Actors across Broadway say they’re itching to get back on stage after more than a year of waiting, trusting the health experts to make the process safe.
“It’s a little bit like when you’re on an airplane and there’s turbulence,” said Sharon Wheatley, a veteran actor in the show “Come From Away,” which resumes its Broadway run Sept. 21. “I have to trust the pilot, I have to trust the air traffic controllers. I feel nervous, but I have to understand that I don’t know as much as these people do.”
“Hamilton,” which opened six years ago, “Wicked,” which opened 17 years ago and “The Lion King,” which opened 23 years ago, form the bedrock of modern Broadway, virtually immune to downturns, shifts in tourism and rivals.
On Tuesday, they planned staggered openings — 7 p.m. for “Wicked” at the Gershwin Theatre and 7:30 p.m. for “The Lion King” at the Minskoff Theatre. “Hamilton” at 8 p.m. at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, all three at full capacity.
Another sign that Broadway is inching back to normalcy is the reopening of the famed TKTS booth in the heart of Times Square, where visitors can get same-day and some next-day discount Broadway and off-Broadway tickets.
“It’s such a big step forward,” said Victoria Bailey, executive director of the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund, which runs the booth. “To get it open and such a symbol to people that theater is coming back.”
Bailey says Broadway’s return will be less like a flick of a light switch and more like a dimmer, with a slow build to regular attendance. “We’ll know so much more in two or three weeks, but you can’t swim unless you can start by dog-paddling.”
For Miranda, getting his visionary show back in front of a live audience after 18 months will help the actors and crew but also businesses all over Times Square that rely on the theaters, like his favorite pizza shop. There’s nothing like live, he said.
“It’s one thing to see something on the screen. And I’m thrilled ‘Hamilton’ was was available on a screen in a time when we couldn’t go to a theater. But I’m even more thrilled that now it can be experienced the way it was meant to, live in front of an audience, the final collaborator every night.”