Sam Gold wanted the show to go on and that meant — at least for one night during the previews of the director’s long-awaited Macbeth run — he would himself have to literally go on, book in hand.
Ahead of the play’s April 14 preview, Gold stepped in for actor Michael Patrick Thornton in the role of Scottish nobleman Lennox, after the actor had a breakthrough case of COVID-19.
“One of the things in the forefront of my mind was a wonderful understudy, Peter Smith, who I just think is a genius and was on for Malcolm,” Gold told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Broadway show’s opening night. “If I couldn’t get the show on that night, people wouldn’t get to see them, and I wanted them to get to go on. If I stepped in, I would make sure they had their night.”
Thorton was among the members of the cast who praised Gold’s leadership — not just in that moment, but throughout the entire effort to mount the show during an unprecedented season, which has seen the show’s leading man, Daniel Craig, dealing with a COVID breakthrough case.
“I think it says there’s no better captain for the moment right now of trying to do this massive show on Broadway than Sam Gold,” the actor, who is also the co-founder of Chicago The Gift Theatre, told THR at the Macbeth carpet. “The captain goes down with the ship and fights to the last second, and he did. I’m sure it was terrifying, but he got out there, and 1,000 people could experience our play.”
For star Grantham Coleman, who had Gold as a professor, it was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“I’ve always had this way of looking up at him, and getting to work with him so far — it’s been amazing,” he recalled. “But that night it was like, ‘Oh, wait, you’re gonna be in here with us? This is how much you care about the show.’”
For Ronald Emile, an understudy, Gold’s approach has gone far in terms of his level of preparedness. “I think we’re more important and more relevant and more necessary than ever in the history of Broadway, to be honest. And it’s been incredible to have Sam as the director in this. I feel like I don’t have to obsess over the work as much because Sam has streamlined the process so much for us as actors. It kind of just comes together, and it’s unlike other directors I’ve worked with before.”
“We’ve hired more people to make sure the cast is covered, the understudies are covered. There are covers for the covers, and everybody gets rehearsal time,” Phillip James Brannon told THR about the show and the approach to ensuring performances can continue. “Because we are in a pandemic, a lot of the [understudies] have gotten to go on, so it just feels like they’re different amazing actors.”
The Macbeth director’s stage turn was notable, but he’s far from the only unconventional replacement on Broadway this season. Beyond each and every swing and understudy who has made a last-minute save after COVID breakouts have rendered chunks of a leading cast unable to perform, shows have turned to creative team, former cast members and even family in their last-ditch efforts.
Thoughts of a Colored Man playwright Keenan Scott II was among the first to step in, replacing a cast member out with COVID during his show’s fall run. Former Wicked understudy Carla Stickler came out of Broadway retirement, traveling from Seattle to New York, to play Elphaba. And Girl From the North Country recently saw the husband of star Mare Winningham, ER and Top Gun actor Anthony Edwards, take the stage to avoid a performance cancellation.
Understudy Jared Canfield called the “communal effort” beautiful, and one that’s in subtle ways reflected within the show’s themes. “It’s ambition, but it’s also met with humility. You say, ‘Hey, I can go do this. I can take care of that for you tonight or whenever you need it,’” he said. “This show has been very ambitious, but also persistent to get to this point, which is really cool to celebrate.”
Craig also said that collective persistence and teamwork is “inspiring.”
“We’ve had understudies going on. One night we had Sam Gold going on with a book. I mean, the adage is the show must go on,” he said. “And that I’ve seen across the board. I went to see my friend Sam Rockwell in American Buffalo the other night and they had a wonderful understudy on. It’s just the way it is now and audiences are knowledgeable and understanding and they get it.”
For the actor, who calls New York his home, going on for audiences now is particularly personal. “A city is defined by its culture,” he told THR. “Its culture is what makes it and that’s what draws millions and millions and millions of people here every year to come and experience it. And if in some small way we can help it revive that culture and a cultural heart, then that’s why I’m here.”
The pandemic has forced truly creative solutions in live theater as shows work to keep themselves and the industry alive. It’s the kind of persistence that’s evident in the Barbara Broccoli-produced Shakespeare story itself, certainly among its power-seeking and eventually guilt-ridden leading characters Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, played by Craig and Ruth Negga.
But as it does for its leading duo on stage, persistence can be a complicated concept, especially when there are human stakes on the line, as there constantly are amid pandemic theater.
“I think there’s a huge reckoning happening in our industry about those trade-offs between the primacy of the show and the health of our artists and the health of our audience. It’s a bit of a unicycle on a high wire act, so we’re kind of figuring out as we go along,” Thorton said. “One remarkable thing is to see the status and the treatment and the respect for our understudies skyrocket. They are part of the process and at the same level as the cast that I’ve ever seen before in the room. I hope that is one thing we learned from the pandemic: This is an all-hands-on-deck effort. There’s no first and second-class tiers.”
That equalizing mentality has also been applied beyond the stage, through the production’s own student ticket initiative, which offers 2,022 fully-funded tickets to the Tony-nominated play to high school and college students that have historically been underrepresented on Broadway and in Broadway audiences, including those from BIPOC communities, first-generation college students and people with disabilities.
It’s the kind of access Tony-nominated Lady Macbeth actress Negga — whose relationship to the theater when she was young, she said, was “like breathing” thanks to her mother — appreciates both from a personal and an artistic perspective.
“In Ireland, theater and art, it’s not class-based. It’s in the water, it’s in the blood — it’s in the everyday. It’s in the parochial, you know?,” she recalled. “And when I was at The National [Theatre] in London and [Nicholas] Hytner introduced the 10-pound tickets, that was revolutionary, but things like that are actually necessary. For me, it’s the least elite art form and yet, it’s been out of reach of so many people. It just doesn’t make sense to me, so this [program] makes sense.”
Craig shared a similar sentiment about his own experience growing up in Liverpool near the local Everyman Theatre, which had a ticket initiative that provided audiences a chance to see a play for a pound.
“I also grew up in a country that had subsidized theater, which is a whole different ballgame, but it meant that access was available for everybody,” he said. “I feel like, without that, Broadway won’t exist for very much longer. We need a new audience. We need to get people in here,” he added. “I want as many people to see this show as possible, and those that don’t normally get the chance, they’ll get a chance to come see it.”