Broadway is back, and Mainers are in the thick of it.

Windham’s Robyn Hurder is tearing it up as Nini in her Tony-nominated performance in the Tony-winning best musical “Moulin Rouge: The Musical.” Meg Doherty of Steep Falls is back as a company member in “Wicked” after her long-awaited Broadway debut was cut short because of the pandemic. Sara Esty of Gorham will return to Broadway for the second time in her career, in the role of Meg Giry, when “The Phantom of the Opera,” Broadway’s longest-running musical, reopens Oct. 22.

And Broadway veteran John Cariani, who grew up in Presque Isle, will finally open the revival of Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” on Oct. 27. He and the cast were one day shy of their first preview when they scrambled for the safety of home in March 2020 as the pandemic began ravaging New York, shutting down subways, closing office towers and suddenly silencing theaters, offering the rest of the country a preview of the real-life horror about to unfold across the land.

During the 18 months away from the theater and on his return to the rehearsal room in September, Cariani realized how much he missed the theater and how much he thrives on the thrill and challenge of live performance. Although he is a Tony-nominated actor, he is best known as a playwright, and his writing career is flourishing with the continued success of his ever-sweet “Almost, Maine.” But Cariani now more fully understands how much he depends on the night-to-night drama of putting it on the line.

John Cariani returned to rehearsals for “Caroline, or Change.” He is shown here with his stage wife, Rose, played by Caissie Levy. The show opens later this month. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

“I realized I really like doing plays. Doing TV and doing movies is great, and I love it when I do it, but I liken doing plays to being on a sports team or being an athlete,” Cariani, a Massachusetts-born Red Sox fan, said in a phone call from New York. “Everybody in the room, we like to get up and go do it every night. We all like the risk, and we all like the reward. That is a particular personality. … Some people run marathons, some people play basketball. I do plays.”

TRIUMPHANT RETURN

Broadway’s reopening started slowly, beginning in June when Bruce Springsteen revived his concert-show for a few nights, but it swung wide open with a fully-vaxxed, all-masked bang in mid-September when the mega-musicals “The Lion King,” Wicked” and “Hamilton” threw open the doors, lit the stages and turned up the energy – with health-and-safety protocols in place and teams of protocol police to ensure everyone followed them.

For the actors involved, it’s been a cathartic and emotional return that feels like a celebration and relief, tinged with caution. There have been breakthrough cases among performers, who are required to be vaccinated and are tested regularly. “Aladdin” shut down one day after it opened, though it has returned.

After already having lost much more than a job, these actors know it could go away anytime.“The audiences seem to know that too, said Doherty, who grew up in the theater community of Schoolhouse Arts in Standish, where her parents were active.

“The houses have been electric,” she said. “Our show is running a little longer than normal because of the applause. Our show ran a whole lot longer on opening night because of the applause. You could sense it from the audience, they are glad to be back. They have been denied something they love as well.”

Meg Doherty, who grew up in Steep Falls, has returned to Broadway in “Wicked.” Courtesy of Meg Doherty.

Doherty made her debut in “Wicked” as a member of the ensemble in late winter 2020 and was able to complete a few weeks of performances before COVID-19 forced the shutdown. She was disappointed – and angry.

“I didn’t have time for my life to be on hold. I had worked hard and waited a long time. I needed my life to keep going,” she said. But she also knew that “Wicked” would return, and when it did, she had a contract to perform.

Returning for rehearsals was emotional and overwhelming, she said, “because performing is such a core part of who I am and has been a huge part of my life for my entire life.” Like Cariani, she had a better sense of just how important it was when she rejoined her peers to begin remounting the musical. “I didn’t realize how much I had been missing it until I had it back in my life again,” she said.

During the early days of the pandemic, Doherty and her then-fiancé hunkered down in their apartment in Queens. They stocked up on food and hoped the crisis would pass, but it didn’t and things got scary quickly. The scenes on TV of refrigerated trucks serving as makeshift morgues reflected their neighborhood. They had nowhere to go in New York, nowhere to hide.

“In those early days, nobody was wearing masks and people were on top of each other. It was impossible to social distance,” she said.

So, they escaped to her hometown of Steep Falls, her husband’s first extended trip to her soul place. They stayed five months, and married in Maine in August 2020 in a down-sized affair at Portland Head Light. Doherty was glad to be home and thrilled to be married, but could only laugh at her fate. Her dream had finally come true. All those years of acting and singing in Maine and New York had paid off with a role in a premier Broadway show, and then it disappeared because of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

“Part of my personality was to laugh at it, because that seems about right. I had a friend who sent a text message, ‘I am really sorry, but this is on-brand for you.’ But I felt very secure knowing that whenever this was over I was coming back for a job,” she said. ” ‘Wicked’ is stable. We knew, no matter what, we were coming back. That helped keep my sanity.”

STAYING BUSY

Cariani, 52, also spent long periods in Maine, at his husband’s family lake house outside Millinocket. “It was nice to have a normal life for a second,” he said. “We spent more time there than we ever have.”

But work beckoned, as it always does. Cariani stays busy, on stage and off. “Almost, Maine,” which premiered as a play at Portland Stage in 2004 and which Cariani rewrote as a novel in 2020, was optioned as a musical during the pandemic, and he has been hired to write the book, or script, in collaboration with a composer. The project is draped in secrecy at the moment.

“I can’t say, but I am working with an iconic composer who read the play and thought it would make a great musical,” he said. It’s also moving toward becoming a TV show, thanks to the energy and interest of an actor who was in “Almost, Maine” and who works as a showrunner in Hollywood. “How cool is that?” Cariani said. “That is super-nascent, but I just had a meeting on the phone about it.”

During the pandemic, he also followed the advice of his manger and scheduled Zoom conversations with high school theater departments across the country who are producing or otherwise associated with “Almost, Maine,” which has been among the most-produced plays by U.S. high school theater departments for many years. “I hung out with kids for an hour, and I did it just about every day. I went to school via Zoom, talked about ‘Almost, Maine’ and answered questions. I had to get up early,” he said.

His message to kids is patience, perseverance and discipline. “This is something I worked on when I was young, and I am getting to enjoy the benefits of now in my 50s,” he said of “Almost, Maine,” which he began writing when he was 28. “I want to tell kids, ‘Work and you never know when it will pay off. But you have to do the work. Just work.’ ”

He is going back to work, going back on stage to do the acting work that he fell in love with at home in Presque Isle.

“Caroline, or Change” is a sung-through musical, set in Louisiana in 1963, that blends blues, gospel and traditional Jewish melodies. The story is about the Gellman family and their African-American maid, Caroline. Cariani plays Stuart Gellman, the father. Nearly the entire cast is back from the production that shut down just before going into previews back in March 2020. The principal exceptions are some of the young boys cast in the original revival who grew too old by the time “Caroline, or Change” returned, including the play’s primary character, Cariani’s on-stage son, Noah, who is 8 in the play and played by boys who are slightly older. “That was heartbreaking,” Cariani said.

Coming back, he feels safe, or as safe as can be expected. He gets tested regularly and is required to wear a high-protection mask during most rehearsals. “We sing around the piano with them on, we sometimes do a scene with them on,” he said during the early rehearsal process. “We often will do scenes without them on, but we are reminded to put them back on when we are off.”

He figures his biggest risk – of COVID-19 or of any other potential calamity – is coming and going to and from the theater from his home.

Robyn Hurder has to get “bendy” in “Moulin Rouge: The Musical,” despite wearing a tight corset the entire show. Photo by Matthew Murphy

NEW PERSPECTIVE

Hurder has played the role of Nini for four years, and “Moulin Rouge: The Musical” is her sixth Broadway show. Nini is a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, a nightclub, and Hurder spends the entire show in a tight corset dancing with her legs high in the air. When she got called back to work in August, rehearsals were six days a week, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. After being off for 18 months, she wasn’t sure if her body would respond.

“It was not the easiest transition. To this day, it is still not an easy transition,” she said. Since age 6, Hurder had never gone that long without dancing or performing. She stayed active during the pandemic – hiking, biking and doing other cardio activities – but that’s not the same as the night-to-night grind of dancing in a corset. “I have to be pretty bendy in the show. That kind of structure on my body takes physical movement to the next level,” she said. “I am hanging on, but it’s been a shock to my system.”

She had moments in 2020 when the idea of not returning to Broadway felt appealing. She and her husband, the actor Clyde Alves, live a quiet life an hour north of New York City in Woodbury, New York. They have an 8-year-old son, and Hurder, 39, very much enjoyed being a full-time mom when Broadway was not active.

Hurder began dancing at age 6 at the Scarborough Dance Center and moved to Maine State Ballet at 11. “That is where I formed my work ethic as a dancer,” she said. She found her love of singing under the direction of longtime Portland theater director and University of Southern Maine music professor Ed Reichert, who cast her as Mary Magdalene in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Portland Players when she was 18. “He gave me the taste of what it was like to be a star, to get on stage and belt. That is when I gave up ballet and said, ‘I need to pursue this.’ ”

She enrolled in college for “a hot second” and bolted for New York. “I got sick of people telling me how to do it, so I just did it. I got five of the first six jobs I auditioned for,” she said.

Hurder’s first job was singing on a cruise ship. As her career grew and opportunities on Broadway came her way, starting with “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in 2005, she never looked back – until the pandemic stopped everything and gave her a reason to re-evaluate. “The day we got shut down, I came home to my family and said, ‘I am yours.’ I was burnt out. My body was in so much pain from the grind. I was looking forward to the break,” she said.

But what she thought might be a month-long break quickly became a personal and professional crisis. She and nearly the entire company of “Moulin Rouge” got sick from COVID-19, and when the first extension of the shutdown of Broadway was announced, Hurder broke down emotionally. She was conflicted between the idea of losing her identity as a performer and her desire to more present as a mother and wife. Then her mother-in-law died from cancer, and the death in July 2020 of Broadway actor Nick Cordero from COVID-19 sent her reeling. She began to ask, is it worth it?

“My perspective totally changed. My husband and I were discussing possibly having another child, and I have never been more present in my life, and I loved it. I was not in pain from the show. I could breathe easily because my ribs were not bruised form the corset. We went for hikes, we went for bike rides.”

When she choreographed a local middle school production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” she wondered again, “Is this an option? Do I want to go back?”

And then, last October, she received her first Tony nomination, for best performance by a featured actress as Nini in “Moulin Rouge,” the role she had perfected over four years and spent a lifetime growing into. And she realized, “Well, of course I am going back.”

When the Tonys were finally staged a few weeks ago, Hurder didn’t win, but “Moulin Rouge” won for best musical and many other awards. “It was the best date-night of all date-nights with my husband,” she said. “Our show did so well, and I was literally living my dream. I have this nomination attached to my name for the rest of my life. This is what I created from four years of working this character.”

WHILE IT’S HOT

Hurder’s schedule is exhausting. On show days, she wakes up early with her son, helps him pick out clothes for school, makes him breakfast and sends him off on his day. By the time he gets home from school in the afternoon, she has left for work, so that one hour in the morning is their only time together while she is working on a show. She rests until early afternoon, keeping her body horizontal. “I am literally laying flat to rest my body, even if I am not sleeping. I am icing or taking a bath, and generally not doing anything physical until I get up and make dinner for my family at 2, and then I leave at 3:45 for a 7 p.m. show.”

Without traffic, her commute is an hour. She parks, walks to the theater, where she gets tested for COVID-19 every Tuesday and Friday, goes through warm-ups, makeup and wigs, and does the show. By 10 p.m., she is out the door, walking back to her car and driving north to Woodbury.

“I get home around 11:30 or midnight, and the next day I do it again,” she said. “It’s tough, but this is what I signed up for. I am not just a performer, but I am most importantly a mother, and I am going to do whatever I can to make sure my son sees me every day.”

She and her husband trade jobs, so both are not working at the same time. With a Tony nomination, Hurder may be weighing multiple options when her contract with “Moulin Rouge” is up in April. “Then we will throw it to the universe. Whatever happens, happens. If I want to extend, I will extend. If Clyde lands another job, I will pass the reins over to him. So we’ll see.”

To anyone who asks, Cariani advises people to get tickets to Broadway right away. Who knows what the future holds?

“Get it while the getting is possible, I guess,” he said with the wisdom of middle age and the relative security of a diverse career.

Doherty’s parents, Deb Doherty and Tom Scannell, made the trek to New York when their daughter re-opened “Wicked” in September. They celebrated her second Broadway debut, in a sense. This time, they brought their grandkids to see their first Broadway shows, “Wicked” and “The Lion King.”

It was magical, they said, just like Broadway is supposed to be.


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