NEW YORK | A year ago, Max Kumangai was dazzling crowds with a jolt of live Broadway excitement. Now he’s doing it with his bread.
The triple threat from the musical “Jagged Little Pill” has leaned into a fourth skill as the pandemic marches on: baking and selling his own sourdough.
From his Manhattan apartment, Kumangai delivers $15 bread loaves or $8 focaccia slices from his Humpday Dough company on foot or via subway.
“I wanted to make connecting with people — at a time when it was difficult to connect — a part of the business,” he says. “It’s feeding me figuratively and literally.”
With TV and film sets slowly gearing back up a year after COVID-19 hit, Broadway theaters are still shuttered with no end in sight. That means people who make their living in live entertainment have had to be creative.
Out-of-work seamstresses are selling handmade jewelry and plush toys on Etsy, dancers are teaching classes online and actors are doing voiceover work, podcasts or selling video shout-outs on Cameo.
One stage manager launched Stagedoor Candle Company, a line of fragrance products inspired by Broadway musicals. There’s an eBay marketplace selling Broadway memorabilia to help artists put something in their pockets.
“This is a paycheck-to-paycheck profession. We are workers,” says Laura Benanti, a Tony winner. “It’s really deeply upsetting to me that there are so many people suffering, unable to feed themselves. They don’t have savings.”
According to a new report from the New York State Comptroller, employment for New York City workers in the arts, entertainment and recreation sectors fell 66% during the pandemic.
The drop — from 87,000 jobs in February 2020 to 34,100 jobs just three months later — marks the largest employment decline out of all sectors in the city’s economy. It has left Broadway workers, many who have lost health insurance, living on side gigs, stimulus checks and unemployment assistance.
Since March 2020, the national human services group The Actors Fund has distributed more than $18 million in emergency financial assistance to more than 15,000 people in the entertainment industry.
“I’ve had a lot of friends who just picked up and relocated and moved to different states because we’re staying in one of the most expensive states in the country,” says Jawan M. Jackson, a star of “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations.” He pivoted to putting out a single, filming a movie and got into commercials.
He wished government leaders would do more. “We kind of feel like we are just afterthoughts,” he said. “I just wish they would have been a little bit better during the shutdown for us because of the predicament that we’re in. But hopefully it’s going to change. We’ll see.”
Others are more blunt: “These artists need to be protected. They need to be supported. This is dire straits right now,” said Tom Kitt, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. “This is the lifeblood of this city.”
Theater work even without a pandemic is usually a piecemeal existence. Shows rarely run for years and workers live a nomadic existence, jumping to new works every few years. These days, they’re even more piecemeal since people who make live theater will clearly be the last back at work.
“You pick up things where you can. I know a lot of people that have taken on side gigs when they can. A lot of people have gone back to school,” said Derek Klena, a Tony-nominee. “You do what you can to get by.”
In 2019 according to the comptroller, the average salary among actors in the city was $65,756, with musicians and singers bringing in $43,966. Despite the pandemic, New York City remains the second-highest rental market in the United States, with one-bedroom median rent at $2,460 in March.
Musician Andrew Griffin had landed a great gig playing viola for “Ain’t Too Proud” when the pandemic shut down his steady gig. He has cobbled together a few live concerts, composed for a dance company and done some consulting work.
He’s seen people selling their instruments and their cars. One woman close to him has even sold her eggs. “It’s definitely been very challenging and very stressful in a lot of different ways,” he says.
And yet he refuses to let it stop him from making art. He recently teamed up with violinist Danielle Giulini for a video that puts the last year in perspective as they perform Handel-Halvorsen’s “Passacaglia.” He notes that what has held America together and safe during this lockdown year is art — Netflix, Spotify and all the streaming options. “That is the glue,” he says. “So where is the help?”
Some of Broadway’s leading men — including Jeremy Jordan, Max von Essen, Corey Cott and Adam Pascal — have turned to Cameo, which pays celebrities to make personalized videos for fans.
“I’ve clawed my way to paying those bills each month,” says Pascal, a Tony-nominee for “Rent” who has made his own rent this year teaching masterclasses and with concerts. “Pivoting in whatever way I’m able to pivot.”
Some of Broadway’s leading ladies — from Patti Murin, Cassie Levy, Kerry Butler, Lilli Cooper to Ashley Park — have been coaching, singing and answering questions virtually on Broadway Booker, which pivoted from hosting in-person events to online ones. A 30-minute private coaching session from a veteran can start at $75.
Tony Award-winning Jefferson Mays snagged a part in Hollywood alongside Denzel Washington for Joel Coen’s “Macbeth,” but he also found himself recording audio books in an “alcove in our house stuffed with pillows and sofa cushions.”
Broadway dancer Jen Frankel lost her job but quickly become an employer: She co-founded the virtual dance platform PassDoor, hiring suddenly out-of-work Broadway veterans to teach all skill levels or ages.
“We thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity for not only us to help the Broadway community, but also to help everybody by giving them a chance to dance with people that they never would have.”
The teachers — with extensive experience from such musicals as “Frozen,” “Tootsie,” “Kiss Me Kate” and “Anastasia” — get a base rate per class and a percentage of the gross if they reach a certain number of attendees.
“We wanted to create a model where we were offering something that was accessible to different income demographics and also for dancers who might be not working for an extended period of time,” Frankel said.
Bebe Neuwirth, a two-time Tony winner who also starred on “Cheers,” works with dancers on career transitions and worries about the losses to her art form from the pandemic.
“I know a lot of dancers are saying, ‘OK, I got to get a scholarship and go back to school and do something, because I can’t make it work,'” she says. “Who knows what those dancers might have done if they’d stayed?”
Neuwirth points to the devastation to dance and theater wrought by another pandemic — AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s. “Did theater suffer for it? Did dance suffer for it? Yes, it did,” she says. “We’ll never be able to quantify it but we do know that so many really interesting artists are gone.”
Kumangai, the Broadway bread maker, doesn’t want to give up his side-hustle when Broadway restarts. Baking is a passion and he hopes to continue doing it even with an eight-shows-a-week schedule. He credits making bread for giving him back a sense of joy.
He’s also been struck by the warm — virtual, of course — embrace from fellow Broadway workers, who are buying up whatever his apartment oven produces.
“This community is still alive and bubbling, just like my sourdough starter,” he says with a laugh. “We’re all here for each other.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits