‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ Was Set to Open, Then ‘the Universe Hit Pause’

Wuhan. Bergamo. Seattle. New Rochelle.

By the time cast, crew and fans assembled on March 9 for the first preview of a new musical version of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the coronavirus was at the stage door.

All over Broadway, theater operators were installing hand sanitizer dispensers and scrubbing armrests. Ticket holders were beginning to bail.

“Mrs. Doubtfire” got through three performances before Broadway shut down.

“Our house manager texted us and told us to hold on, and then she said, ‘Don’t come, don’t come, don’t come’,” recalled Lisa Berger, a “Doubtfire” usher. “It wasn’t a total surprise, to be honest. I just didn’t think it was going to happen that quickly.”

Now two months have gone by, and almost everyone associated with the production — about 150 people — is out of work: actors and musicians, obviously, but also bartenders and box office workers, carpenters and choreographers, designers and dressers, programmers and propmasters. A few vendors — the publicists, for example — were furloughed and then rehired under the federal Paycheck Protection Program — but even they expect to be unemployed when that money runs out after eight weeks.

“People think of Broadway as very glamorous, but I don’t think they understand how many families and lives depend on it,” said David Korins, the show’s set designer. He was forced to lay off most of his employees after all 24 productions his company was working on, including “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Beetlejuice,” abruptly stopped.

“Everything went away,” he said. “It was a cascade. And, by the way, I fully endorse it. But, literally, our income went to zero.”

Broadway, of course, is a summit for theatermakers, a symbol of New York and a big business that, until now, had been enjoying an extended boom. Last year was the best attended on record, with 14.6 million patrons; Broadway shows collectively grossed $1.8 billion.

The shutdown brought an abrupt end to that prolonged party. And among the 39 plays and musicals halted were 16 that never even made it to opening night, “Doubtfire” included.

“Doubtfire” was a big bet, aimed squarely at the sweet spot of the Broadway audience: a $17 million musical, adapted from a hit movie, that aspired to be funny, poignant and family-friendly.

Now the “Doubtfire” family has scattered across the country — some as close as Times Square, some as far as London — trying to stay safe and sane. They, like the rest of their theater world colleagues, have no idea when New York will settle in to some new normal, no idea when Broadway will attempt a comeback. They are worried, but also hopeful — a microcosm of an industry that is distressed but determined.

“Mrs. Doubtfire” is a story about family. One family, really: The Hillards — Daniel, Miranda and their three children. The parents split up, and the father (memorably portrayed in the 1993 film by Robin Williams) is so determined to spend time with his children that he pretends to be a woman to land a job as the housekeeper.

Hilarity ensues. Trouble looms. Lessons are learned.

After a five-week pre-Broadway run at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater, the stage adaptation headed for Broadway facing headwinds — reviews in Seattle were mixed, shifting gender politics had made men in dresses an unreliable laugh line, and a stage adaptation of “Tootsie” had just flopped. Plus, every Broadway show is enormously risky, because most of them fail.

But the producers, led by the Broadway veteran Kevin McCollum (“Rent,” “Avenue Q”), were feeling confident as they sped toward an April 5 opening night. The audiences in Seattle seemed to like the show. And the lead actor, Rob McClure, who scored a Tony nomination for playing the title role in “Chaplin,” starred in “Honeymoon in Vegas,” and was featured most recently in “Beetlejuice,” was nailing his bifurcated performance.

Then, McClure said, “The universe hit pause.”

On that final day, the cast had gathered for an afternoon rehearsal knowing that, at any time, Broadway might shut down. “I’ll never forget checking my phone during our Wednesday evening performance and seeing that the N.B.A. had suspended the season, and knowing what was coming,” said Brad Oscar, a two-time Tony nominee for “Something Rotten!” and “The Producers.”

Jenn Gambatese, the actress starring as Miranda (a role played on film by Sally Field), was center stage, rehearsing new blocking for her big solo number, when a stage manager told the company to brace for a closing announcement. She kept going for another 90 minutes.

“I felt calmer than I had in a while, and felt like I could focus better,” said Gambatese, who had been so unnerved by the drumbeat of virus news that she brought a suitcase to work in case her commuter rail line was shut down and she got stuck in Midtown. “Every day was getting scarier and scarier,” she said.

Midafternoon, McCollum and the show’s director, Jerry Zaks, assembled the company and told everyone to grab their stuff and go home.

And just like that, it was over. The costumes were stored in dressing rooms. The souvenir tote bags and tumblers were locked in a cabinet. The ghost light — a bare bulb placed onstage when a theater is empty — was illuminated.

Many expected they’d be back in four weeks — the initial projected length of the shutdown. “I remember placing my pencil down on my script and thinking to myself, ‘It’s so weird — that pencil is going to be in exactly the same place when we come back in a month,’” said Philip S. Rosenberg, the lighting designer.

McClure went home to Philadelphia. Tara Llewellyn, a dresser, joined her grandmother in Connecticut. KJ Hippensteel, a member of the ensemble, fled to his father-in-law’s house in Cleveland with his wife and their two sons.

“Both of us lost our jobs, for now, and we had no reason to stay,” he said. “Really, we panicked and had to take action to feel like we were in control. In hindsight I think we were super lucky to have gotten out when we did.”

Among those who stayed: Peter Bartlett, a comedic character actor and the oldest member of the cast, who plays a television host named Mr. Jolly. “At 77, this is the true passages of terror,” he said.

Most of the time, Bartlett has been holed up in his one-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, sustained by savings, Social Security and union pensions, talking to friends, reading, cleaning his kitchen and washing his hands. “Did I ever think I’d watch a dog rescue on YouTube? Now I’ve watched hundreds of them,” he said. “Anything to distract myself.”

Others are finding their own distractions, like making ice cream, or practicing yoga. “Destruction leaves a lot of creative space to occupy,” said Akilah Ayanna, an ensemble member who is working on an album.

So Alexandra Matteo, a company member who understudies several parts, is podcasting. Tommy Kurzman, the makeup and prosthetics designer, adopted a dog. Paul Woodiel, the concertmaster, is singing cowboy songs with his wife (they are both violinists).

“We have nice harmonies going on ‘Keep on the Sunny Side,’” he said, “if only I could get through the lyrics without choking up.”

Broadway is a coveted corner of the theater world for many reasons — prestige, large audiences, enormous talent. But it’s important for a much more materialistic reason: in a low-paying, high unemployment field, it’s a place where theater artists can earn a good salary. The base pay for actors on Broadway is about $2,200 a week.

But the shutdown has thrown thousands out of work. Most union members got a few weeks’ pay after the closing, but that has long since ended. And the usual fallbacks when stage shows are scarce — television, film, even waiting tables — are unavailable during this phase of the pandemic.

“Pretty much everyone I know is planning on not paying their rent, because how are we expected to do that?” said Cameron Rasmussen, one of the show’s three guitarists.

Several members of the company are married to others in the industry, meaning they are now facing a double income loss. Michael Rico Cohen, a stage manager, is married to a freelance television producer. “It’s going to be quite a few months before either of us sees a real paycheck again,” he said. And Colleen Dietz, the show’s music copyist (preparing the score for individual musicians), is married to Zachary Dietz, the music director. “I know we will come back from this, but it will be a long, hard road for New York and for our family,” she said.

Among the more complex predicaments is that facing the family of 9-year-old Lily Tamburo, who was cast as the understudy for Natalie, one of the three Hillard children. Lily lives in the Setaukets, on Long Island, with her mother and three older siblings; when the late-night commute proved too exhausting at her age, her mother, Lauren Zummo, rented an apartment in the city for the two of them. But when the pandemic hit, Zummo was forced to shut down the Pilates and yoga studio she runs on Long Island, and, of course, Lily lost her income. Zummo was able to walk away from the Manhattan sublet, but not the studio, where her landlord is insisting on being paid.

“The virus has bankrupted us, obviously,” Zummo said.

This pandemic is primarily a public health crisis, and Broadway has been hit hard by the disease — multiple members of the “Moulin Rouge!” cast fell ill, as did a number of theater artists, producers and publicists. The “Doubtfire” family has been relatively fortunate on that front, but not unscathed.

Korins, the set designer, lost his uncle to Covid-19. He was 80, and had just moved in January from Florida to Yonkers, N.Y., where he fell ill at an assisted-living facility and died at a hospital. “He died alone, not having spoken to anyone for several days,” Korins said. “It’s one of those unbelievably tragic moments.”

Others have found themselves caring for those infected. Calvin L. Cooper, an actor in the ensemble, saw one friend test positive for Covid-19, and then another fall ill.

“For nine long, scary days I helped nurse my friend back to stable levels,” he said. “He is called presumably positive. I am presumably asymptomatic.”

And both members of the show’s choreography team — Lorin Latarro, the choreographer, and MJ Slinger, her associate, are partnered with doctors who worked with Covid patients. Latarro is married to a neurosurgeon who was redeployed to Covid care; she and their 2-year-old daughter moved out for several weeks to avoid infection. “I know some families have it worse,” she said. “We are back home together now.”

Maria Dalanno was one of the last people to join the “Doubtfire” cast. She was 18 and still in high school in Ohio when she submitted an audition video shot by her mother; five days later, she booked a part as the understudy for Lydia, the older Hillard daughter.

She left high school, deferred college and moved to New York. Now she’s back home, playing with her dog and painting.

“I made my debut in previews, and then moved right back home in the midst of a pandemic,” she said. “I am now worrying about following social distancing guidelines, being able to pay for my apartment, and when I will see my new friends and castmates again.”

For the six performers playing children in the “Doubtfire” cast — each character has an understudy — the shutdown has been particularly tough to understand.

“Getting a break on Broadway, especially for a child, is nothing short of a miracle,” said Shanna Sell, whose 9-year-old daughter, Avery Sell, was making her Broadway debut as Natalie, the younger Hillard daughter. The Sells live in Florida, and Avery is now back in New Port Richey. “Having the rug pulled out from underneath her little feet, just weeks before her debut, has been nothing short of heartbreaking,” Shanna Sell said.

Jake Ryan Flynn, the 13-year-old Massachusetts boy who plays the Hillards’ son, Christopher, has his own concern — that if the Broadway shutdown drags on, he will age out of the role. This is his second Broadway show — he was one of three boys alternating in the title role of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and he knows that contracts allow producers to replace children as they grow too tall.

“My parents keep telling me to only worry about what I can control,” he said. “But right now it feels like I’m in control of nothing in my life. I can’t control if I grow. I can’t control if my voice changes. I can’t control when I will see my cast mates again. I can’t control if the creatives and producers take a look at me in a few months and fire me because I’m too big. It just makes me sad.”

The invitations came from Mark Evans, a Welsh actor playing Stuart Dunmire, the new love interest for Miranda Hillard.

Put on something fun. Grab a snack or a drink. Turn on your computer.

On April 5, the night that “Doubtfire” was scheduled to open on Broadway, the company instead gathered online and performed the show — beginning to end — just for one another.

They called it their Fauxpening. Eighty-two people participated. Kaleigh Cronin, an ensemble member sheltering with her husband and dog at her parents’ house in New Hampshire, wore the dress from her 8th grade dance, which she found in her childhood closet.

There were speeches and stories, songs and slip-ups — Evans was so busy organizing that when the second act rolled around he forgot his lines. Onscreen, the actors sang their songs. In the chat section, some of the stage managers typed out cues.

“Zoom was still a novelty, as opposed to the norm,” Evans said. “It felt like a miracle that we were all able to connect.”

There are other forms of connection, too. Felicia Shulman, the guardian responsible for protecting the show’s child actors, has tried to knit the four youngest members of the cast together through group texts and FaceTime. “Keeping them all in touch is something that I think is very important during this time of the unknown,” she said.

There’s also a newsletter of sorts. Aaron Kaburick, an actor who plays several minor characters including a “Chef Louis,” distributes a weekly email. It was originally called “Chicken on the Block,” a reference to the show’s spatchcocking scene; it’s now called “Chicken on the Couch,” because of the quarantine. The publication is just a few sentences — fabricated gossip, inside jokes, the ensemble member Doreen Montalvo’s recipe for “Quarantine Coquito” and a “Doubtfire”-choreography-inspired workout routine from Casey Garvin, an understudy.

And there are ongoing get-togethers. Fauxpening was three weeks and three days after the closing, so, at Gambatese’s suggestion, the company decided to plan another reunion every three weeks and three days. The second one was late last month. “It was adorable,” McClure said. “We shouted over one another.”

The Stephen Sondheim Theater, where “Doubtfire” was being staged, exhibits many of Broadway’s real estate complexities. Its history, and its facade on West 43rd Street, go back to 1918, but the interior, which opened in 2009, is underground, beneath the 55-story Bank of America Tower at One Bryant Park.

The 1,055-seat theater is operated by a nonprofit, the Roundabout Theater Company, which is renting it to the commercial producers of “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

The building is still “Doubtfire”-branded, with a marquee and pastel-colored posters promoting the show. But there are also signs of the times: Anita’s Way, a pedestrian passage alongside the theater, has become, with the disappearance of pedestrians, a resting spot for the homeless.

The only person still regularly going inside is Deosarran, a one-named 58-year-old Guyanese immigrant who works for Roundabout as a building engineer.

Once or twice a week, Deosarran — everyone calls him Dino — gets into his car and drives in to Times Square from his home in Harrison, N.J., to make his rounds at the four theaters Roundabout operates in Midtown. He starts early — around 5 a.m. — to increase the ease of social distancing, and he checks the buildings’ temperature, the humidity, the plumbing and even the roofs.

“In the beginning I was nervous, but I bought some masks and gloves and I mingle with no one,” said Deosarran, who moved to the United States at age 14, took a job pumping gas and has been working in Broadway theaters for most of his adult life. “It’s very strange to see these theaters with no show. On 42nd Street you see one or two people walking. It’s unbelievable.”

There are other eyes on the building — security, cops and a few less expected observers. Connie Robinson, the manager of theater operations for Roundabout, monitors by video camera from her home in the Bronx while baking up a storm — sweet potato buns, banana pudding cheesecake, crepes. “It’s so empty, it’s unreal,” she said.

And James Kabel, the wardrobe supervisor, walks over from his apartment in Times Square. He gazes at the “Doubtfire” images on the theater’s windows, just “to make sure it’s not just a dream.”

It was one of the first scenes the writers cooked up: Deep in the second act, Daniel Hillard would have a nightmare in which he is haunted by multiple Mrs. Doubtfires, forcing him to confront his feelings of inadequacy.

The power rock song, “You’ve Created a Monster,” was rousingly sung, wild to look at (a stageful of Doubtfires!), and regularly prompted applause. But gnawing at the creative team was the sense that it stopped the storytelling.

The problem: The number as written suggested that Daniel Hillard’s big fear was that Mrs. Doubtfire was better than him. But the musical is fueled by his more fundamental terror: that he would lose his children.

So, in one of the surest signs that Team “Doubtfire” fully expects the show to return, the now-dispersed creative team, who previously collaborated on “Something Rotten!”, overhauled the song via Skype. Wayne Kirkpatrick, back home in Nashville; his brother, Karey Kirkpatrick, in Los Angeles; and John O’Farrell, in London.

So they decided to refocus the scene. “You can’t have a song that’s not moving the story forward,” Karey Kirkpatrick said. “So we made it about the kids — they’re no longer dressed as Doubtfires, and there are lyric changes to support the storytelling.”

And they set about shortening the musical’s ending. “You want to leave them wanting more, as opposed to saying get on with it already,” Karey Kirkpatrick said.

Trimming was not easy because in the final 12 minutes McClure has six costume changes, from Hillard to Doubtfire and back again — and each one takes at least 23 seconds. But the writers now have a series of proposed cuts they want to test whenever they get back to the stage.

“If you just listen, the show will tell you what it needs,” Karey Kirkpatrick said.

It’s unclear what happens next. Industry leaders say that September is the earliest they can imagine Broadway resuming performances, but that it is possible shows won’t return until next year.

Broadway has multiple vulnerabilities: high costs, tightly packed seating, and a fan base that includes many tourists and seniors.

The longer the shutdown continues, the more shows are expected to close before even opening, succumbing to cash flow issues and economic concerns. Zaks, a four-time Tony winner directing on Broadway for the 25th time with “Doubtfire,” refuses even to consider that this show could be among the missing. “I’m not going to imagine anything but that it’s going to happen,” he said.

He can taken solace from McCollum, the lead producer, who vows that “Doubtfire” will return. “I’m sad that everyone has to wait, but the show is ready to go, and when people gather, we’ll be ready to open,” he said. “We’re birthing this new piece, and I can’t wait to show it to the world.”

As for McClure, the show’s star, he is practicing a combination of patience and optimism.

“I don’t think it would be in Broadway’s best interest to open too soon and be part of another wave of this — I don’t think anyone in our industry is interested in that,” he said. “But when I think about the first night back, when the overture starts and the curtain goes up, I choke up. I really do. It’s the culmination of everything we’re craving — more than the singing and the dancing and this great American art form, it’s a bunch of people telling a story and a bunch of people receiving a story. We’re craving the collective experience of being human. And that’s what theater is.”