After 15 months of unemployment, Broadway theater staff return to the job

After 15 months of unemployment, the employees are back at work at the first Broadway theater playing a full-length show to reopen since the start of the pandemic.

Broadway is back — one show, at least. But that one show, "Springsteen on Broadway" doesn't just give theater-deprived patrons a place for live entertainment. It gives theater employees — the stagehands, security guards, box office personnel and more — a chance to have their careers back.  

It meant people like Chris Stasiuk, head treasurer at the St. James Theatre, could once again be fully employed. She is in charge of the finances — and that includes all ticketing. 

But the real reason she's in this line of work boils down to a three-word sentence: "We create joy," said Stasiuk as she sat in a VIP lounge off the staircase to the mezzanine in the 1920s-era theater. A guitar and harmonica soundcheck took place on the other side of the door.

But for 15 months that joy that she describes was nowhere to be found, at least not on Broadway. 

No one had a crystal ball and could predict when theaters would reopen. And because of that, Stasiuk said she briefly thought about a new career. But other jobs, she realized, weren't for her.

"None of them sounded like what we do," she said. "And so, selfishly, and after a conversation obviously with my family, I said, 'I'm going to stay unemployed until I can get my job back.'"

Kin Tam has been showing people to their seats in various Broadway theaters for what he called "too long to count." Full disclosure, he said it's been "about 10" years. He's an usher — and self-described "theater nut" — who first got into the business by volunteering, since it meant he could see shows for free.

In fact, he remembers being flabbergasted when they offered him a paid position.

"'I'm doing it for free, and you're going to pay me?'" he remembers thinking. "So that was how it all began."

But on March 12, 2020, he was told not to come in for his shift at Disney's "Frozen on Broadway" — the show that was playing at the St. James at the time. It was the day Broadway shutdown. But Tan said he never considered not returning.

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"I guess I'm just too attached to it," he said.

The good news for the staff at the theater came on June 10.

"We knew we were getting a new show," Stasiuk said. "We didn't know what it was." They were told it would open on June 26. 

"But we knew if it was opening Broadway, it had to be enormous," she said.

So enormous, in fact, he sometimes goes by simply The Boss.

It's two hours and 20 minutes of pure Bruce Springsteen — the experiences that shaped his life and influenced his music. The show itself actually first played the Great White Way in 2018, earning him a special Tony Award. It is just him. No band. His only backup on stage comes in the form of three instruments — a guitar, piano, and harmonica — and for a short moment his wife, singer Patty Scialfa.

But even though the show itself is not new, so much of logistics in this post-COVID world are — patrons and staff all must show proof of vaccination, tickets are now all digital, and masks are optional. 

But despite things being a little different this time around, Stasiuk said being back at work brought a mix of what you might expect: "Joy, elation," she said.

But there's also fear. Fear because other theaters are now looking to the St. James as a model for what works and what doesn't as Broadway bounces back. 

As for Tan, he was worried the pandemic may have made him a little rusty.

"And I asked myself, 'Have I lost my touch?'" he said. "But all it takes is one night, it comes right back to you."

And he said going from being cooped up at home to being actively engaged with customers "energizes him" and gives him "a sense of purpose."

"It makes me sleep better at night," Tan said.

St. James Theatre | 246 W. 44th St., New York, N.Y. 10036 | 212-840-0479