Maybe you were at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, taking in a matinee of “La Traviata” from a primo seat. Or packed into the 9:30 Club in Washington, clutching an IPA as the Drive-By Truckers blew through 30 songs in 2½ hours. Or you could have been at home, on the couch, tuning in to one of the Jimmys or Stephen Colbert and wondering why the in-studio crowd was so quiet.
It was a year ago this month that it all came apart.
The rumblings from China and Italy began rattling lives in the United States, crowding hospitals, rewiring businesses and clearing classrooms. The NBA would soon suspend its season, Broadway started shutting down and Tom Hanks, looking like he had signed up for a “Castaway” sequel, quarantined after being diagnosed in Australia. A mysterious novel coronavirus was fast becoming a global pandemic. Arts and culture would be among its many victims.
The sobering anniversary arrives as many of our great halls and museum galleries struggle to reopen, our rock heroes are relegated to online gigs, and we continue to wait anxiously for the great unknown of whenever it’s okay to resume live entertainment. This is the story of those last shows — staged and stopped just as the crisis was unfolding — as told by the artists, producers and organizers caught up in the largest cultural shutdown in modern history.
Prelude to a pandemic
In late February 2020, fewer than 3,000 covid-19 cases had been reported outside of China, where the virus began surfacing in late 2019. The first non-travel-related cases in the United States, indicating community transmission, wouldn’t be reported until the end of February. Around that time, Margaret Cho taped a TV program with fellow comedian Howie Mandel in Los Angeles.
Stand-up comedian and actor.
[Mandel] was the one person who was really warning about it. Obviously, he’s known to be quite a germaphobe and he was really upset, really terrified. And this is a few weeks before I went out on the road.
On March 1, in Los Angeles, singer Susannah Melvoin walked into SIR studios to rehearse with the all-star band playing a Prince-themed set at a fundraiser at the Oakwood School. It featured actress Maya Rudolph and singer-songwriter Gretchen Lieberum on vocals, Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on drums and alt-rocker Beck on guitar, along with Wendy Melvoin, Susannah’s twin and the onetime guitarist in the Revolution.
Singer-songwriter who worked with Prince in the 1980s.
I had a friend of mine and he’s one of these guys that spends a lot of time on the Net. He said, “This is what’s happening in China and I want you to know it’s on its way here.” And then [there was] that one doctor who sounded the alarm in China and was silenced and died of covid-19. I was like, this is it.
Founder and lead singer of the Foo Fighters.
I thought she was being alarmist. I’m like, “What do you mean?”
Melvoin See bio
Dave said his sister didn’t think it was going to be a big thing. I said, “Dude, get yourself a mask now, because they’re going to be gone.”
Grohl See bio
And I remember on the way home stopping in an Ace Hardware store. Sold out. Then I go to Home Depot. Sold out. And that’s when I thought, like, “Oh, my God, this is really happening right now.”
Extreme measures to combat the virus’s spread were already being taken in Europe, where Milan’s La Scala opera house had shut down in late February.
Lead singer for Old 97′s.
I have a friend who’s a musician in Italy, and I was getting emails from him. And he was saying, “You guys don’t get it. All of this [entertaining] is going to stop.” And I said, “Bro, it sounds like you’re overreacting.” But the more I read, the more I realized this was going to be a real thing.
In Seattle, on Friday, March 5, a single Starbucks employee’s covid-19 diagnosis was enough to make national headlines and close the store temporarily.
Guitarist and composer.
I was in Seattle for a show at the Moore Theatre. Some of my friends were planning to come. But one friend is diabetic and said, “I better not.” I heard, prior to the show, ticket sales were amazing. But when we got there, it was like, what the hell. Maybe it was one-third full.
LEFT: Musician Bill Frisell’s pocket calendar, opened to March 2020, shows plans canceled as venues shut down and travel was curtailed. RIGHT: In April, Frisell notes the death of longtime friend and music producer Hal Willner on the 7th. Willner died at 64 and had symptoms consistent with covid-19. (Photos by Bill Frisell)
The shift from normal to nervous to no-show was swift. On Feb. 27, at the National Gallery of Art, curators of the “Degas at the Opéra” exhibition were thrilled when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then 86, showed up for the preview.
Curator of 19th-century French paintings at the National Gallery of Art.
[Ginsburg] was always a tiny woman, but you could really see just how bird-boned she was and how fragile. And I was leaning over her chair, talking to her so she could hear me. And it was very intimate. And, you know, it’s just like you’re in the presence of, like, you know. … Talk about a celebrity! Forget about, you know, Brad Pitt! This is RBG!
The show opened March. 1. There was a public lecture, March 8.
Jones See bio
We had a full house. And at that time, I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I don’t think anyone really was. The full ramifications weren’t hitting yet. We knew there was something going on, but no one was thinking, “Oh, we should cancel this.” But that was literally the last public event.
Eleanor Jones Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, remembered the first alarm came when she saw a couple in an airport in Wyoming wearing masks when she returned from a lecture Jan. 31. Weeks later, she felt the weight of the unknown at the museum as workers organized her long-planned Alexander von Humboldt exhibition.
Eleanor Jones Harvey
Senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Don’t shake hands, don’t hug, keep your distance. … It was this weird pas de deux where we are maneuvering around each other to give each other room [to work]. I realized that I’m not an epidemiologist, but I am curious. I had been working 6½ years on Humboldt. I started digging into the 1918 pandemic, and I wasn’t convinced that we were ever going to open this show.
Film director and screenwriter.
I was at the Harvard Film Archive on Monday [March 9] for a screening [in Cambridge, Mass.]. During the Q&A, one of the attendees refused to touch the microphone. He was told he couldn’t ask his question. It’s interesting that he was looked at as the guy with the tinfoil hat for that night. But in fact, a week later, we’d all be wearing gloves to the grocery store.
On March 10, schools in the University of California system went remote. This came only hours after Pearl Jam canceled the first leg of its upcoming tour to play the United States and Canada. The Dance Theatre of Harlem flew from New York to Detroit to premiere “Higher Ground,” a ballet set to the music of Stevie Wonder.
A member of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
I’d never I thought I’d be picked to dance it. I’m more of a jumper, and this one was the turning girl part. I was doing that one, and this other long, beautiful dancer was doing the jumping one. We were all really excited and nervous and ready. We got up at 7 to get to the theater for a Dance Theatre of Harlem lecture demonstration for a couple hundred students. … As the curtain goes down from the lecture demonstration, we get called together. Our stage manager, Heather Olcott, had our director, Anna Glass, on the phone. She told us we’re not going to be performing.
Outside the United States, performers began to panic as travel restrictions were put in place.
Country singer and songwriter.
I had five more dates in London when we waited up until 2 a.m. [March 10] to watch President Trump’s speech about the travel ban being established. I stayed up and packed, and by 8 a.m., we were heading to the airport. We canceled that week of shows in London.
Reality starts to settle in
There was confusion and concern for safety as artists took in the restrictions, which varied by region and seemed to change daily. In New York City, the Love Rocks NYC benefit concert on March 12 was set to feature Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Ivan Neville and a house band that included multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, 66, a veteran of Bob Dylan’s touring group. Hours before the show, organizers learned they couldn’t let ticket holders into the Beacon Theatre. They held the show, but went to a live-stream format.
A guitarist in Bob Dylan’s band for seven years.
I remember thinking, “Okay, let’s be cool. Let’s keep the hugging and kissing to a minimum.” But I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. I have pictures with my arm around Jackson and a couple of other people and Ivan, and all three of us ended up getting [the virus]. I don’t know for a fact that it was spread at this event. But it was a couple of days after that, I was knocked down.
In the District, Washington National Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello thought back to the 1980s and the AIDS crisis. The company was in the middle of rehearsals for the contemporary opera “Blue,” set to open March 15.
Artistic director of the Washington National Opera.
I was a young director of the San Francisco Opera. And people [in the chorus] would say, “I’m not standing next to that person, because he’s gay” or “I’m not going to share a makeup table with that person, because they’re gay,” you know? And [the reaction to covid-19] was like the same thing. … You’re like, “Well, do we wear a mask?” “What do people do?” Nobody knew what was going on.
On Broadway, there was a growing sense that potentially disastrous forces were swirling. Actor Nick Cordero, 41, would initially be diagnosed in March with pneumonia. He would die in July of complications related to the coronavirus.
Tony Award-winning actress and star of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.”
Nobody knew very much back then. Then we heard an usher at the Booth Theatre, which was right next door to us, had the coronavirus. Then we heard that several cast members in “Moulin Rouge,” which was across the street, were infected. So we didn’t really know what it was, how it was transmitted. We were still performing.
Producer of the “Jagged Little Pill” musical and author of “The Fifth Beatle.”
I missed the last two shows. I was sick. There were a lot of us who were sick. This isn’t terribly unusual for mid-March. I had covid-19, which I didn’t know at the time. I thought I had a small fever which turned into a terrible flu.
Actor portrays Nick Healy in Broadway’s “Jagged Little Pill.”
That Sunday, the 8th, I did just feel like I was coming down with the allergies and I was struggling with different parts of the show vocally. I took a Claritin, was drinking lots of tea, using a humidifier, but nothing that was alarming. I sat out that week. I was calling urgent care. I told them all of my symptoms. And I still wasn’t qualified to get a test.
Tiwary See bio
My wife rushed me to the emergency room because I passed out. And when I got there, I didn’t have, quote unquote, “enough symptoms” to state it was covid-19.
Klena See bio
It wasn’t until the following Sunday [March 15] that I finally got my results. Two weeks after that, once we were shut down, I would say half of our company ended up getting covid and testing positive.
LuPone See bio
We had heard rumors of Broadway shutting down, but that’s unheard of. You don’t compute that information. Broadway never shuts down.
The losses mount
Comedian Sarah Silverman, in New York preparing for the off-Broadway opening in May of the musical adaptation of her memoir, “The Bedwetter,” spent March 11 working on songs with Emmy-winning composer and friend Adam Schlesinger, co-founder of Fountains of Wayne.
Comedian, actress and host of a weekly podcast.
We’re reading through the script, because we’re starting rehearsals Monday. We’re looking at our phones. “Oh, they canceled the NBA.” And two or three days later, Adam texts. “You won’t believe this. I think I have this thing. I have like a super high fever and a cough.” And we’re like, “Jesus.” Then I get another text, a few days later, and he’s like, “You’re not going to believe this. I’m in the hospital with pneumonia from covid.” [Schlesinger, 52, would die on April 1.]
On March 12, Broadway shut down. The next day, director Reichardt learned that her new film, “First Cow,” would be pulled from cinemas in New York and Los Angeles, where its theatrical release had just begun.
Reichardt See bio
It was funny, a friend kept telling me, “I can’t believe how well you’re taking it. You’re just taking it so well.” There were bigger fish to fry, so to complain about your film not coming out seemed unseemly.
Before a March 13 show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, Elvis Costello took his mother, Lillian MacManus, 93 and in a wheelchair, to greet his bandmates. That would be the last show of his tour. It would also be the last time his mother saw him perform. She died in January.
I saw the holes in the crowd in an apparently sold-out house in Manchester [March 12], and even at Hammersmith, at the interval, there was about half a house. We thought “Wow, people have really taken this seriously.” … Two weeks later, I’m reunited with my family after two weeks of quarantine when I get home. I’m in a little cabin on Vancouver Island going, “Where did the world go?”
LEFT: There are elbow bumps rather than handshakes for the staff and crew of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in March 2020, as politician Pete Buttigieg, center, fills in as host in Los Angeles. RIGHT: “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” producers and writers, including from left, Jill Leiderman, Gary Greenberg, Molly McNearney and Danny Ricker work with Buttigieg on the show. (Photos by Randy Holmes/ABC)
The pandemic will not be televised
Late-night television depends on studio audiences to supply energy and laughter, but it was becoming clear that taping talk shows before a crowd wasn’t safe. On March 12, former Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg was in Los Angeles guest-hosting “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” while the show’s namesake filmed “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
Co-head writer and co-executive producer of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
I remember watching rehearsal and one of the things [Buttigieg] had to do was stand in front of the audience … and I just remember thinking, “That’s probably not a good idea.”
Producer for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
We came to work [at “Late Night With Seth Meyers” in New York] that Thursday and planned to do a show, and yet we knew that there were things happening. I was on a text chain with all of the other showrunners of all of the other late-night shows and saying, “What are you doing?”
LEFT: Seth Meyers tapes his late-night show in New York on March 15, 2020. Talk shows began eschewing in-studio audiences as the pandemic took hold in the United States. (Lloyd Bishop/NBC) RIGHT: “Watch What Happens Live” host Andy Cohen, left, is pictured with Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio. The late-night show halted in-studio production in March 2020. (Bravo Media).
McNearney See bio
We felt like we were kind of setting [Buttigieg] up to fail [by pulling the audience], but we had to do that. And in the monologue, he talked about a bill he was [advocating for] in Congress to help people get unemployment and make sure everybody could get free covid testing. It just didn’t feel right for him to be delivering that to an audience.
Host of “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen.”
That was the last day we taped [the Bravo late-night show in New York] and we had [“Project Runway’s”] Nina Garcia and Brandon Maxwell on. We had no audience, and it was supremely odd. We were all trying to be cognizant of each other’s space, but compared to what’s going on now, it was a superspreader event.
Shoemaker See bio
We were still planning to do a show. And our guest was John Krasinski. We got a call he was canceling. I texted him that day to say, “This is actually great, because it is helping solidify in my mind that maybe we should cancel this show.” All the clues were there. Then Broadway announced they were shutting down. I had tickets to see Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” that night.
McNearney See bio
I remember then we sent everybody home, people grabbing rolls of toilet paper and paper towels from the office. And I remember saying goodbye to the writers, thinking, “It’ll be two weeks. It would be crazy to not be back here in two weeks.”
In New Orleans, the cast of “Queen Sugar” gathered to hear from show creator Ava DuVernay. They had shot the first episode of Season 5 of the OWN series. The second episode would have to wait until the fall.
Actress on the OWN series “Queen Sugar.”
I was hearing what she was saying, but at the same time, my body was trying to process it. Like, this is it? We’re just going to go home. I remember being so shook. But also I knew it was serious and I knew this was the best thing we had to do in the moment. I trusted her enough that I knew that when we came back, we were going to be okay.
In for the long haul
Nobody was prepared for an extended shutdown that, with some starts and stops, would last a year — and counting. In 2001, Broadway reopened within 48 hours of the World Trade Center attack. This time, the days blurred into weeks, into months. Artists, accustomed to spending months on the road, were now at home, trying to adapt.
Rapper and songwriter.
I’m a tour artist. I sell out every show. So when you take that away and you kind of just give somebody, like, a screen and a cool Instagram with a bunch of followers and say, “Make this work,” it kind of like took all the joy away.
Frisell See bio
The first day I got a guitar, my friend across the street got a guitar and we had a band. The summer of ’65. That’s all I’ve done since. I’ve never been comfortable talking. I wasn’t smart in school. I can’t read books. All I do is play my guitar and play it with people. That’s my language and everything. So this was seriously traumatic.
Concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra.
I’ve been playing violin since I was 5. I’m almost 46. And is this where it ends suddenly?
Deputy director for collections and administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I was part of the team called the collections managers, who came in to check on the safety of the collection and did a round through the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] once a week. It was very dramatic. The museum was entirely dark. We walked around with our flashlights. It was a very emotional time. We missed our visitors, we missed our colleagues, we missed having the building open, but at least we were taking care of it.
As the calendar filled with cancellations, the leaders of American Ballet Theatre in New York started what they described as “a cadence of daily emails.”
Kara Medoff Barnett
Executive director of American Ballet Theatre.
Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and I would write an email late at night; it would go out at 9 a.m. Some days, it would have news. Some days, it would just be a poem or quote or a link to a piece of music. We wanted everyone to feel connected. To know they were not alone.
Others found ways to perform, whether online or in more casual, outdoor gatherings.
Magician and host of the Netflix series “Magic for Humans.”
For the first couple months, I would see all these people popping online. The magic purist in me was like, “That’s just not how it’s meant to be done. I’m going to wait it out.” Then I started doing shows on Zoom [from Los Angeles]. And they were fun. When you log in and see all these families … you can kind of tell this is the most people I’ve kind of seen without a mask in a year.
Funk bassist and musician.
We gave [virtual concerts from Cincinnati] a shot, and it feels like the next best thing. … It’s as different as night and day, but at least you get to do what you love.
Frisell See bio
Some months went by and a friend of mine was doing things on his front porch [in New York City]. We played outside. That was the first time I played. Sometime in the summer. That just felt so good to play. Another friend of mine, I started going out to his place to play. I did that three or four times throughout the summer. That was a lifesaver. Just to be able to do that.
But as the anniversary of the shutdown arrived and the U.S. death toll passed 500,000, many were wondering whether they would ever perform again.
LuPone See bio
We left that night and left all our personal belongings. A month later, they let us back in. It looked exactly like a day off: a water bottle half filled, the set was in the final position. And I was scared. I think I took my trunk home. I said goodbye to the Jacobs Theatre, and then I realized I was saying goodbye to my life in the theater. I had a breakdown in the car. I just cried.
About this story
Bar-Josef has served as concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra since 2001.
Kara Medoff Barnett
Barnett became executive director of American Ballet Theatre in 2016 after nine years as a senior executive at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Bayer is a scholar of Italian Renaissance art and serves as deputy director for collections and administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Campbell, a multi-instrumentalist, was a member of Bob Dylan’s band for seven years and is currently featured in the 10-part Amazon series “It Was the Music.”
Cho has toured steadily as a stand-up, starred in her own situation comedy (“All-American Girl”) in the mid-1990s, and acted in dozens of films.
Cohen hosts Bravo’s late-night talk show “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen.”
Collins played bass for James Brown, Funkadelic and Parliament, and has released more than a dozen albums under his name.
Singer-songwriter Costello’s most recent album, “Hey Clockface,” came out in October. It is his 31st studio release.
Frisell, a guitarist and composer, has released more than 40 albums since his debut in 1983.
Singer and guitarist Grohl founded the Foo Fighters in 1994 after the dissolution of Nirvana, for which he was the drummer.
Hammack’s debut, “If It Wasn’t for You,” came out last August and included a duet with country legend Reba McEntire.
Eleanor Jones Harvey
Harvey is a senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her exhibitions have included “The Civil War and American Art” and “An Impressionist Sensibility: The Halff Collection.”
Jones has served as a curator at the National Gallery of Art since 1995, where she specializes in 19th-century French paintings.
Klena was nominated for a Tony Award in 2020 for his portrayal of Nick Healy in “Jagged Little Pill,” which was inspired by the 1995 Alanis Morissette album of the same name.
LuPone made her Broadway debut in “Three Sisters” in 1973. She has won two Tony awards (“Evita” in 1980 and “Gypsy” in 2008) and she has been inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
McNearney is the co-head writer and co-executive producer of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
Melvoin is a singer who worked with Prince in the 1980s, and she co-wrote songs performed by Eric Clapton and Madonna.
Singer-songwriter Miller leads the alternative country band Old 97′s, and he writes short stories and essays.
Nasty is a rapper and songwriter whose debut studio album, “Nightmare Vacation,” came out in December.
Reichardt has directed 10 films, starting with her 1994 debut, “River of Grass,” and the 2016 London Film Festival winner, “Certain Women.”
Serrano is a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Her repertoire includes “Cinderella,” “Firebird” and “Swan Lake.”
Shoemaker has worked as a producer for “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and, most recently, “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
Silverman, a comedian, has starred in films and TV programs, released a best-selling memoir (“The Bedwetter”) in 2010, and hosts “The Sarah Silverman Podcast.”
Tiwary has produced multiple shows on Broadway, including “Jagged Little Pill,” and is the author of “The Fifth Beatle,” a best-selling graphic novel.
Wesley stars as Nova Bordelon on the OWN series “Queen Sugar.”
Willman is a magician and the creator and host of the Netflix series “Magic for Humans.”
Zambello serves as general director of the Glimmerglass Festival and artistic director of the Washington National Opera.