- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
It was March 12, 2020, and NY1 reporter and “On Stage” host Frank DiLella’s phone was lighting up.
“I was at my desk and was starting to get text messages from friends who were in this Broadway League meeting. The texts were saying ‘Broadway’s shutting down, Broadway’s shutting down,'” DiLella recalls of the meeting with New York city and state government officials at the start of the pandemic. It was a meeting that would ultimately close the curtain on Broadway — an industry DiLella says “that brings in more money to New York City than all of the sports teams in the tri-state area combined” — for an unprecedented 18 months.
At the time, the near 20-year journalism veteran took to his show to tell viewers that Broadway would likely be shutting down and that he and his team would make one sure commitment to the community: “We would be there when those lights go back on.”
But DiLella was also having conversations with fellow reporters, including a longtime friend and veteran anchor at NY1, that had a very different bend. “They were like, ‘Frank, this is going to be longer than what we thought was going to be a couple of weeks.'”
Ahead of the two-year anniversary of the shutdown — and amid Broadway’s omicron surge — DiLella released one of the latest chapters in PBS’ Great Performances series, Reopening: The Broadway Revival. The doc, like several others to debut in fall 2021, chronicles the Great White Way’s comeback. But unlike the others, it doesn’t end at reopening night’s curtain call. The Broadway Revival features Broadway icons like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Adrienne Warren, Sara Bareilles and Kristin Chenoweth, who all help capture Broadway’s fight to return in September and the ups and downs of working through the pandemic fall.
DiLella spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how he teamed with PBS, what it took to get his inside look at Broadway’s return off the ground amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the biggest challenges of delivering a documentary amid a shifting public health landscape.
You’ve reported on Broadway through the pandemic, but when did the idea for this documentary first come to you, and when did you start working on it?
We on my team at “On Stage” started doing these pillar episodes every month, tracking the community and how they were getting through all this. When the Black Lives Matter movement took center stage and the Broadway community really felt this and demanded change, we did a whole episode dedicated to that. In September of 2020, when we were tracking artists who are trying to survive, we went to Tony nominee, Broadway performer and ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild’s apartment on the Upper West Side, where he was selling flowers out of his apartment. I realized then and there, that there was something here.
Then out of the blue in May of 2021, I got approached by a production company in L.A. saying we’ve been following your stories and we love what you’re doing for the theater community. We’d love to talk to you about some things that we could work on together. I and one of my friends and collaborators at “On Stage,” Cody Williams, had talked and joked around, saying, there’s a documentary here about the reopening. Then when this production company reached out to us, we just started having conversations and then ultimately PBS expressed interest and then we hit the ground running. So that’s the long story of how this all came to be.
You weren’t just there for the road to opening night. You traced the reopening through the fall. What was it like having to capture all this during the pandemic?
We use some footage, which you do see in the film, that was taken during the height of the COVID pandemic, so that’s how we were able to plug in those elements. In terms of the interviews themselves, we actually prematurely started gathering interviews with people just in case. We knew we were very close to PBS signing off and giving us the green light. Like Sara Bareilles was all done while she was in rehearsal, and that was in the summer. But for all of these folks, what you see in the film is what you get. We’re following them as they go into the rehearsal room for the first time, as they go on stage for the first time. Michael James Scott from Aladdin, in particular, we see him from the very beginning, getting to the rehearsal room, figuring out his body is not as in shape as it was when he was doing this two years ago.
Then, I’ll never forget, on Sept. 28, they had their reopening, and the next night the show shut down. The day after they reopened, and then again, shut down for 10 days. We were there for that whole thing. I remember calling Cody, the director of the film saying, “What do we do?” He’s like, “Frank, this is part of the story.” We were planning on being with his whole family that weekend up to the show, and going backstage, but instead, we’re on the terrace of his apartment, and he’s talking about the show being closed for 10 days. So they are all in the moment. We tracked those folks from, I’d say, August up until the end of November, early December.
You have quite a few major Broadway stars in this talking pretty openly and intimately about their experience returning to the stage. How you were able to get all of these people to speak so vulnerably about what they had and were still experiencing?
When we were casting the film, in terms of who to follow, a lot of these folks were just phone calls. Adrienne Warren was getting ready to reopen Tina at the time, and I ran into her at the park. She was walking her dog in September, and I was like, “Hey, how are rehearsals going?” “Trying to remember the show, trying to remember the show,” she kind of laughed. I remember I then called her on a Sunday and said, “Adrienne, we’re putting together this documentary. I know you’re busy. I know you have 3,000 film projects in the works. I know you’re getting ready to do the Tonys and reopen your show, but please do this documentary. It’s for Great Performances.” She said to me she grew up loving PBS. “It changed my life, so you can count me in.”
For Kristin Chenoweth, we did a Broadway is back special for NY1. We rented out The Majestic Theatre, I hosted it and called on Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jessie Tyler Ferguson and Kristin Chenoweth to come visit me at the theater the night The Lion King, Wicked, Chicago and Hamilton all reopened. Kristen was very supportive of this and she said, “Whatever you need for the documentary, I’m in.” She was like, “After I do your show at The Majestic Theatre on Sept. 14, I’m going over to Wicked to do their welcome back speech, and then I’m going over to Lion King. You should have a crew just follow me around. I’ll interact with the Glinda, you’ll see me interacting with the stage crew.” That was her recommendation. She was like, “Just have someone come with me in the car and follow me around. We need to let people know Broadway is back.”
We shot in the private Schubert penthouse above Sardi’s. No one has access to that. They never put that out there. But Charlie Flateman, who was one of the heads of the Schubert, said “I love what you’re doing. You want to use our space? No one shoots up there. We don’t allow it, but go set up shop.” All the spaces were donated to us. David Rockwell just built a hotel in Midtown, dedicated to the theater. It’s Broadway-themed. They were under construction during the time we were filming, but he was like, “Just use our hotel for free.” They would stop construction so we could film in that bar area. That was the kind of support that I got putting this film together.
Particularly with the PBS partnership, how else did you want your documentary to be different from others?
The one thing we really wanted to hit home, and I’m speaking for Cody Williams, who directed the film and also executive produced this with us, is that we wanted to kind of show the heart of the industry, the strength of the industry. This is an industry that was the first to shut down and the last to come back. This is an industry that fuels hotels, shops, parking garages. New York City is not New York City until Broadway is back in full force. So we wanted to show what that meant with this all gone and the strength of these people — how resilient these folks are — to push forward even in a world of so much uncertainty. We had to deliver this to PBS in early December. So, obviously, that was before omicron really hit Broadway in the community, but as it was happening, I remember talking to the producers on the project. There is another ending that we had that unfortunately could not get loaded in because of the stations across the country. The community has been hit really hard, but even with omicron, there’s still this fighting spirit that this community has. That was so important for us to convey with this film, and I think that does come through.
What were some of the biggest challenges of getting this off the ground?
In terms of challenges, it was 1-2-3-go for us. We got the green light from PBS in early September. We were shooting on our own, just knowing or having that gut feeling that everything was going to go through, but we really got the green light right around the time Broadway was reopening. So the biggest challenge for me was doing my day job and keeping our viewers up to speed on everything that was happening and then inserting here and there every single time we could get a crew to sit down with the folks that you see and that we follow in the film. Access was a no-brainer. The challenging thing was managing time and the crew’s time. In terms of hiccups along the way, I would say the biggest one for me was Aladdin having that brief pause, which kind of foreshadowed what we saw happen in December with a lot of these Broadway shows. Fortunately for us, Disney and the people involved with Aladdin, it came back, and it’s going strong.
Great Performances’ Reopening: The Broadway Revival is presently streaming, concurrent with broadcast on all station-branded PBS platforms, on PBS.org and the PBS Video App through Feb. 15.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day