In a world with no COVID-19, Broadway Rose Theatre Company would be celebrating its thirtieth season with a production of Hello, Dolly! starring its founders, Sharon Maroney and Dan Murphy, who are married.
“She’s done Dolly several times and I was going to play Horace Vandergelder and our big plan was that we were going to do Hello, Dolly! at the Deb Fennell [Auditorium],” says Murphy, who is managing director of Broadway Rose, the musical-theater company in Tigard. “And who knows? Hopefully we won’t get too old. It still might be on the shortlist.”
If Maroney and Murphy do get around to starring in Hello, Dolly!, it could be a fitting end to a twisty journey that began after their production of the superhero musical Up and Away closed on February 23, 2020. Cheery, splashy and sprawling, Up and Away was a last blast of traditional Broadway Rose maximalism before COVID-19 forced the company to switch to virtual plays with small casts like Daddy Long Legs.
On July 8 this summer, Broadway Rose began performing its first in-person production in over a year: Analog & Vinyl, a supernatural romantic comedy that fuses the storytelling sensibilities of Nora Ephron and Nick Hornby. And even though the Delta variant threatens the company’s resurgence— Oregon Public Broadcasting recently reported that 133 Oregonians are battling COVID-19 in hospital intensive care units, the highest number in eight months—Murphy is feeling defiant.
THE REBUILD: OREGON THEATERS COMING BACK
“People talk about the ‘new normal,’ and I still want the old normal,” he says. “We’re a live theater company. I don’t want to do any more streaming. I want live people experiencing a live performance that will different the next night and the night after that. And people understand that.”
Recently, I spoke to Maroney and Murphy about how Broadway Rose came to embrace the new normal—and the ways in which they are trying to make their way back to the old.
The Last Year
In April, Broadway Rose released a virtual production of The Last Five Years, a play about a crumbling marriage between an actor and a writer that was directed by Maroney.
“I’m an actress who’s married to another actor,” says Maroney. “I understand that tension, that push and pull, that dynamic very well. And I also understand what it feels like when one artist’s career starts taking off and they start getting work and the other artist does not. It doesn’t make the person who’s having all this good fortune an ogre, but it does make things uncomfortable in the relationship.”
The Last Five Years succeeded partly because it combined the talents of Maroney and videographer Mark Daniels, who worked with Broadway Rose throughout the pandemic. Their successful collaboration helped make the production feel more like a film than a filmed play.
“Because I ended up directing most of the things that we did that were streamed, what I needed to do was learn a whole new set of skills, because I had to direct the actors for the camera,” Maroney says. “There were three cameras that we used out in the seats. That’s a level of complexity that I’d never had to deal with before.”
While Maroney and Murphy embraced the changes necessitated by the pandemic, they didn’t entirely accept them. Murphy says that starting last fall, Broadway Rose began preparing to reopen for in-person audiences, a move that turned out to be premature. “Everything we did we had to do in triplicate just to make sure we would be ready if, on a Friday, the governor’s press conference said, ‘In 10 days, you’ll be able to open up,’” he says.
The Last Five Years and Daddy Long Legs were both profoundly moving productions in which the emotions of two characters became a universe unto themselves, more than making up for a lack of visual scope. Yet Maroney admits that some audiences resisted the company’s intimate new direction, which she says was necessitated partly by the limited number of plays that are allowed to be distributed via video on demand.
“For a lot of people, [The Last Five Years] was too sad of a show,” she says. “They didn’t like it. ‘Why are you doing all these sad shows?’ That’s because there weren’t a lot of shows available to us that we could film.”
Before the pandemic, Broadway Rose sold an average of 6,400 tickets per show. During the pandemic, that number decreased by 90 percent, so it’s no surprise that when Maroney and Murphy saw an opportunity to bring Analog & Vinyl to in-person audiences, they seized it.
Broadway Rose versus Delta
“Somebody said the other day, ‘You could have Dan Murphy reading the Bible and people would come in to watch the show just to get out of the house,’” says Murphy, whose boyish verve belies any suspicion that he’s bragging.
Murphy paints a euphoric picture of his experience seeing audiences arrive at the New Stage—the renovated elementary school cafetorium that has become Broadway Rose’s home—to see Analog & Vinyl, which was presented in four different kinds of performances:
- Fully open performances (100 percent capacity, proof of vaccination not required, masks recommended).
- Vaccinated performances (capacity limits vary, proof of full vaccination required, masks recommended).
- Masks-required performances (masks and social distancing required at all times regardless of vaccination status).
I asked Murphy if the goal was to include both vaccinated and unvaccinated audiences without forcing them to sit together. “That absolutely came into play, because there are people that, for one medical reason or another, can’t be [vaccinated],” he says. “There’s some people that their belief or what’s true to themselves is that they don’t want to or don’t trust it … or whatever reason they say.”
Murphy, who says that all of Broadway Rose’s staff and actors have been vaccinated, seems to recognize that the company’s approach was never going to make everybody happy. “We gave you four ways, and I suppose if there was a fifth way that we could think of, we’d do that too,” he says. “But short of going to people’s houses and performing for them in their driveways, I don’t know what we could have done.”
According to Maroney, Broadway Rose might keep offering multiple viewing options, but the Delta variant threatens to poison those plans. In light of CDC guidelines issued in July that state that vaccinated people should “wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission,” future performances where masks are recommended but not required may not be feasible.
When asked how the company will respond if COVID-19 cases rise drastically, Maroney sounds palpably weary. “I don’t know,” she says. “If things get really bad again, I guess we’ll go back to streaming shows. I’m hoping that’s not the case.”
For now, Maroney and Murphy are continuing with the $3.3 million expansion of the New Stage and sticking to their plans to present the Scotland-set musical Loch Lomond in October and A Christmas Carol in November (Broadway Rose will also continue producing Murphy’s delightful online show Midday Cabaret, which debuted during the pandemic).
Despite Delta, Murphy is still basking in the joy he felt seeing audiences return to the New Stage for Analog & Vinyl (which saw a 160 percent increase in ticket sales from streaming-only shows).
“People were so excited that at one point, it was like I had to push them out of the lobby and into their seats so we could start the show, because they just wanted that human contact—to hear laughter and talking,” he says. “They’re trying so desperately to get back to what is familiar to them and what is normal.”