Temperature-taking robots, scanning codes for contact tracing, and generous refund policies are helping shows like “Frozen,” “Come From Away” and “Hamilton” get back onstage.
At the Capital Theater in Sydney, easing pandemic restrictions have allowed for performances of the musical “Frozen.” “It’s great to be out,” one audience member said.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times
By Damien Cave and Michael Paulson
SYDNEY, Australia — The lights were dimmed, the crowd was masked, and plexiglass divided the orchestra.
Jemma Rix, draped in royal blue and holding a sanitized scepter as Elsa, emerged to greet the “Frozen” family — her spunky sister, Anna, the dashing Prince Hans and the stoic reindeer Sven — all tested for Covid-19, belting out familiar lines with new meaning.
“For the first time in forever,” they sang, “nothing’s in my waaaay!”
The crowd erupted in applause, not just for the cast, but for the moment: Actors are back onstage, and audiences are back in seats. At a time when New York and London theaters remain dark, Australia’s stages are (carefully) bright — “Come From Away” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” have reopened in Melbourne, “Hamilton” is scheduled to join “Frozen” next month in Sydney, and “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is preparing for a summer start in Melbourne.
Australia, normally a secondary market for big-brand shows developed in New York and London, has become an unexpected pandemic pioneer: a model and a test case for the global theater industry. Now producers on Broadway and the West End are watching the Australian rebound with envy, hope and a desire to learn what works as a kneecapped art form tries to get back on its feet.
“It’s like living in the future,” said Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatrical Productions, who spent six weeks in Sydney — two of them quarantined in a hotel room — to cheer on the “Frozen” opening. Disney is planning to open 24 stage productions on four continents this year, including “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” on Broadway, and Schumacher is looking to Australia as a harbinger.
Much has changed. Actors are greeted at some theaters by robots that take their temperatures. Patrons must scan QR codes as they register for contact tracing upon arrival, and they are admitted at staggered times so they can be seated by row. After the final ovations, actors skip the familiar stage door selfie sessions with fans.
But the visceral thrill of live theater is back. The “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller, now in quarantine in Sydney as he awaits clearance to visit his show in rehearsal, is giddy at the prospect of seeing actors onstage; he is hoping Australia will be the first of seven “Hamilton” productions to open this year.
“I feel like Dorothy going to Oz,” he said. “Finally the whole world is in full color again.”
Australia has been far more successful at containing the virus than either the United States or Britain, mostly because it adopted strict safety protocols and people have followed public health advice. The differences are stark: Over the past week, Australia has averaged fewer than one daily case per 100,000 people, according to a New York Times database, while Britain has averaged 15 and the United States 21. The raw numbers are even starker: Australia averaged a total of only six new coronavirus cases a day over the past week, while the United States averaged 69,483.
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