(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 1/21; via Pam Green. Photo: Behind the scenes of “Moulin Rouge,” which is on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic in New York, Jan. 10, 2021. 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. Thomas Prior/The New York Times.)
NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- From a window in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, theater director Alex Timbers can see the Moorish arcade adorning Broadway’s Al Hirschfeld Theater. 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 $28 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 $799 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 Jan. 30, the World Health Organization 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.