(Jonathan Allen’s article appeared on Reuters, 10/24; Photo: Leading actors Ben Crawford and Meghan Picerno rehearse a scene during preparations to reopen “Phantom of the Opera” at New Studio 42 in New York, U.S., October 12, 2021. Picture taken October 12, 2021. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs.)

NEW YORK, Oct 24 (Reuters) – Meghan Picerno was back at work after 18 months of pandemic limbo, overjoyed to be singing and dancing again with her “Phantom of the Opera” castmates as they rehearsed for the return of Broadway’s longest-running show.

As the musical’s late October reopening neared, sometimes all Picerno could think about was making it to the first curtain call unscathed by the breakthrough COVID-19 cases that had sidelined vaccinated actors at other shows.

Outside long days in a chilly mirror-lined rehearsal studio near New York City’s Times Square, Picerno had put herself back on what she called lockdown.

“I’m a full-on monk now,” she said during a rushed lunch break between back-to-back run throughs.

She knew her job came with risks of exposure. Playing the show’s heroine Christine required Picerno to kiss two co-stars daily and to sing full-throated love songs with them unmasked and at close range.

“Hopefully, none of us have it, because if one of us have it, we all have it,” she said.

The crowded Broadway theaters, vital to the city’s tourism industry, were the first places closed by the New York government as the coronavirus began to ravage the state. Word of the abrupt shuttering came during a “Phantom” matinee at the Majestic Theatre on March 12, 2020, as some cast and crew themselves were falling sick.

Now, after an unprecedented shutdown, the theaters are among the last workplaces to reopen. Their return this fall is viewed as a test of the city’s efforts to restore some new sense of normalcy.

Reuters watched as the “Phantom” company prepared for its return. The pandemic left unmistakable marks.

Within a few weeks of the show going dark, COVID-19 had claimed the life of a beloved dresser, Jennifer Arnold, who had been with the show for more than three decades.

After protests filled U.S. streets last year in outrage at the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, newly unemployed Broadway workers pushed the industry to make overdue changes to increase racial diversity in theater companies.

In August, “Phantom” producers announced they had cast the first-ever Black actor to play Christine since the show opened on Broadway in 1988. The actor, Emilie Kouatchou, would make her Broadway debut as an alternate for Picerno.

For the returning cast, there were tweaks to lyrics and staging to learn, making it more straightforward to cast non-white actors in principal roles. The entire company was required to be vaccinated and twice a week went to get their noses swabbed at a nearby theater lobby repurposed as a temporary coronavirus testing site.

Picerno said she was happy to embrace whatever was needed to get back on stage.

In the dark days of 2020, living back in North Carolina with her parents and claiming unemployment benefits, she said she “almost felt like a failure.” She sang her part every day to keep it fresh in her mind until the singing made her too sad and she stopped.

Emotion again overcame her on the first day reunited with her castmates in late September. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had swung by the studio to deliver a pep talk to the cast before they sang through the familiar score.

Picerno’s singing dissolved in tears during the love duet “All I Ask of You.”

“Sing along! Help her!” the conductor urged the masked chorus, whose voices carried Picerno until she regained her composure.

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