Max Clayton, left, and Matt Doyle near their home in Jersey City, N.J. Photo for The Washington Post by Christopher Gregory

Matt Doyle had just finished a preview performance for the highly anticipated new staging of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” when the news arrived March 12: Broadway was shutting down.

The gender-flipped revival, in which Doyle plays the role of Jamie alongside the venerable Patti LuPone, was set to open at Broadway’s Jacobs Theatre on March 22, coinciding with Sondheim’s 90th birthday.

Less than a block away inside the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, his boyfriend of almost five years, Max Clayton, and the company of the box-office hit “Moulin Rouge” had received troubling news of their own hours earlier. That musical, in which Clayton is part of the ensemble, voluntarily canceled its performances after a cast member showed coronavirus-like symptoms. More than a dozen of those involved with “Moulin Rouge” would later test positive for the coronavirus, Clayton said, himself included. Doyle also contracted the virus.

Both men recovered from their mild cases, but “Moulin Rouge” never returned and “Company” never opened. Instead, Broadway toasted Sondheim with a virtual birthday tribute on YouTube, and the 2020 Tony Awards, for which both shows were likely to receive nominations, were postponed indefinitely (and may be canceled entirely).

For the past three months, Doyle, 33, and Clayton, 28, have spent most nights bingeing “Jeopardy!” and “Nailed It” in their Jersey City apartment – a domestic phenomenon unheard of in their previous lives.

It’s a strange time to be a Broadway star dating another Broadway star. Accustomed to strenuous schedules and eight shows a week, couples now find themselves out of work indefinitely. Two big personalities cooped up without their usual creative outlets or incomes.


“I can hear Matt singing from all the way down the hall when I get off the elevator,” Clayton says. “I’m shocked the neighbors haven’t said anything, but I think they know we’re going through something.”

There is no modern precedent for a prolonged Broadway closure. Theaters reopened just two days after the 9/11 attacks. But in this global pandemic, tickets to shows at Broadway’s 41 theaters are being refunded or exchanged through Sept. 6, and the shutdown will probably extend far longer with live entertainment venues expected to be some of the last to reopen.

While the Actors’ Equity Association paid performers for the first two weeks of the shutdown, those payments and any health insurance benefits have since run out for most. And as protests against police brutality continue nationwide, the shuttered theater industry is grappling with its own inherent racism.

So, how are theater actor couples navigating life without a stage?

Kyle Selig as Aaron Samuels and Erika Henningsen as Cady Heron in “Mean Girls.” Joan Marcus

As Cady Heron and Aaron Samuels in the musical “Mean Girls,” actors Erika Henningsen and Kyle Selig flirted, fought and kissed in front of more than 1,200 people multiple times a week. Offstage, their chemistry quickly led to a real-life romance.

The duo began dating two years ago, when dinner meant grabbing Chipotle as they ran to rehearsals at the August Wilson Theatre. Now, the 27-year-olds make homemade fajitas in their Hamilton Heights apartment in Manhattan, which they recently returned to after initially isolating at Selig’s Airbnb property in Hewitt, New Jersey.


“There are actors who are like, ‘I will never date another actor,’ ” Selig says. “For me, it’s such a weird industry and it’s so emotional that you need to be with somebody who understands what you’re going through at all times. Quarantine and COVID-19 are kind of an extension of that because we’re all in this crisis mode.”

Henningsen left “Mean Girls” in February and was slated to co-star in a limited-run musical, “Flying Over Sunset,” at Lincoln Center in April. The morning of the shutdown announcement, she’d had a callback for the upcoming musical adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook.”

“It is interesting to watch the thing that we held so dear and also took for granted be gone,” she said. “A silver lining is that we spend so much time inside when we’re performing or rehearsing that now even just going outside for an hour a day feels like a luxury. I can’t remember the last time I saw a spring sunset before this.”

L. Steven Taylor and Holly Ann Butler outside their home in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens. Photo for The Washington Post by Christopher Gregory

In the Woodside neighborhood of Queens, L. Steven Taylor, who plays Mufasa in Disney’s “The Lion King,” and Holly Ann Butler, who was in previews playing Princess Diana’s sister in the new musical “Diana” ahead of its intended March 31 opening, are spending more time together than ever in their three-bedroom apartment.

Between watching “Making the Cut” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” with their Yorkshire terrier, Westley, they’ve sewn more than 200 face masks to donate to residents in nearby public housing and filmed a coronavirus-themed video spoofing the “Tango: Maureen” duet from “Rent” (aptly called “The Tango Quarantine”).

“One of the things that I’m realizing is how much of performing was for us as it was for the audience,” says Taylor, 40. “I’ve been trying to do as many online concerts as possible to figure out ways to not feel useless. My voice hasn’t been in this good of shape in a very, very long time because we never get to let our voices reset.”


Physical fitness is equally important. Both Taylor and Butler, who’ve been together since 2017, became ill with what they think was the coronavirus before testing was readily available, but they’ve since recovered and are intent on staying in shape for their eventual return to the stage.

” ‘Diana’ is a shockingly physical show,” says Butler, who is also a champion pole dancer. “I’ve been trying to work out to the best of my ability on my equipment and go on runs, so that when I get back I’m not like, ‘Oh, my God, I (don’t have the stamina to) read or sing.’ ”

On the West Coast, the national tour of Disney’s “Frozen” had just started its run in Portland, Oregon, when that state implemented a ban on large gatherings in mid-March. Married co-stars Caroline Bowman (who plays Elsa) and Austin Colby (Hans) had canceled their lease on their Washington Heights apartment in New York and sold a portion of their belongings when they joined the tour for a year-long stint starting in November 2019. Now, with “Frozen” tour stops postponed or canceled, they find themselves untethered.

“Every actor’s dream is to have their whole year planned,” says Bowman, 32. “And so, to be in that mindset and then abruptly taken out of that mindset, it’s been quite an adjustment for us to figure out what our purpose is going to be for however long this lasts.”

After sheltering in an Airbnb with several of their co-stars for those first uncertain weeks, the pair packed up their German shepherd and drove cross-country to Bowman’s grandparents’ empty lake house in Swanton, Maryland, to self-isolate for 14 days before moving in with her parents in Howard County, Maryland, for the foreseeable future.

As Bowman and Colby watch some states where the tour had scheduled runs begin to relax their social distancing laws, emotions are mixed about the possibility of local theaters operating again.


“The idea of states reopening gives us hope, but at the same time, I wonder what risks are going to be taken,” says Colby, 31, “and whether or not people will feel comfortable coming to a show and sitting elbow to elbow with a stranger.”

Jenn Colella earned a Tony nomination in 2017 for her role as the pilot Beverley Bass in “Come From Away,” a musical about the kindness of strangers in a small Canadian town on 9/11. Now, the 45-year-old is sheltering across the border, living with her Canadian girlfriend, actress Chilina Kennedy, and Kennedy’s 5-year-old son in Kingston, Ontario.

“Part of what has made our relationship work is that we’re both crazy busy,” Colella says of the couple’s three-year romance. “We had two separate homes. We enjoyed living apart. We had just started talking about maybe moving in together this fall. And then boom, all of a sudden we’re not only living together, but we’re with her son and her baby’s father is across the street.”

These days, Colella and Kennedy, who starred as Carole King in “Beautiful” and is artistic producer at Toronto’s Eclipse Theatre Company, bake salmon Wellington and take turns sitting in the car in the driveway doing remote therapy sessions because it’s the only place they can’t be overheard.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to spend this kind of time together,” says Kennedy, who’s also become an at-home “master barber,” shaving Colella’s hair into a fauxhawk. “So, we’re taking this opportunity to live as well and as healthfully as we possibly can.”

Colella adds, “There are moments when I feel claustrophobic, and then there are moments where we’re all laughing and gathered around the dinner table together and it’s absolute bliss.”


But with no timeline for reopening in sight, finances are a growing concern. Pre-shutdown, the minimum Equity salary for a performer on Broadway was $2,168 a week. Many actors are now on unemployment, but others, such as Taylor, Doyle and Clayton, are incorporated and don’t qualify for government funds. “I’m very fortunate, but I’m working through that nest egg,” Taylor says.

For some, the Cameo app, in which users can purchase personalized video messages from celebrities as diverse as Steve Guttenberg to Stormy Daniels, has provided a much needed source of income and fan connection.

“I had a real problem with the concept of Cameo before all this, but I signed up because I wanted to somehow make money from my apartment,” Doyle says. “It’s getting me through, miraculously. I get to sing for people and give pep talks. It’s almost like daily affirmations, like, ‘We will get through this.’ ”

Zoom dance lessons and college audition coaching have also proliferated as side hustles, and many performers are finding ways to raise money for Broadway Cares, the Actors Fund and a new initiative, Broadway for Racial Justice, founded by “Cats” actor Brandon Michael Nase in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Through everything, the desire to connect with audiences, even virtual ones, remains. Bowman and Colby are experimenting with TikToks set to “Frozen” songs. Henningsen and Selig reteamed with some of their “Mean Girls” co-stars for a virtual reading of a first-grade class’s canceled spring musical. And Clayton recreated “High School Musical” songs with his friend, actress Vanessa Hudgens, on Instagram. “We need people to smile and laugh right now,” he says. “What better way to engage with fans and friends than to do a little social distance duet?”

But such efforts also have highlighted the aching absence of a live audience.


“I think we’re all seeing that as lovely as it is to be online and to be able to do things from your own home, it’s definitely not the same,” Kennedy says. “You have to share space. You have to breathe together.”

Exactly how and when Broadway audiences will breathe together again is anyone’s guess. Thin margins mean most shows can only afford to play to full houses, a scenario unlikely to occur before a vaccine is widely available.

“We are built, ready to go with a cast standing by,” Doyle says of the eventual opening of “Company.”

“It will probably be one of the most incredible moments of my life to get to do this material again,” he says, “no matter how long we run or what the state of ticket sales and Broadway is at that point.”

And for these stars who’ve weathered the pandemic with a fellow actor by their side, the return to the Great White Way will be especially sweet.

“If we can make it through this, as performers and as a couple,” Henningsen says, “we can make it through anything.”

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