Editors’ Note: With acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.
The week before Broadway shut down on March 12, Jagged Little Pill star Elizabeth Stanley missed a performance, the first time she’d had to call in sick during the show’s run. The actress, whose Broadway career has included roles in Million Dollar Quartet, On the Town, Cry-Baby and Company, still isn’t sure that what she had was the coronavirus – symptoms, as we know now, vary, and tests still aren’t exactly easy to get – but the body pains and intense headache seem, in retrospect, a warning of things to come for the industry.
“I remember people sort of making jokes like, ‘Oh, I bet you have it,’” recalls Stanley, who plays the opioid-addicted Mary Jane Healy in the Alanis Morissette/Diablo Cody/Glen Ballard musical. “But it was very much like a joke at the time, because we didn’t have all the information…”
The actress is fine now, or, as she says, as fine as can be expected during these strange days. She’s happily ensconced at the Maryland home of her fiancé’s parents, resting her voice when needed, using it when called for: Stanley performed a knock-out rendition of “The Miller’s Son” from A Little Night Music during Sunday’s Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration, a performance that prompted Lin-Manuel Miranda to tweet “YES Elizabeth Stanley! This song has three quadruple lutzes, holy sh*t” (to which Lea Salonga responded, “Plus a couple of quad axels”).
Deadline recently spoke to Stanley to get her take, as an actress and star of one of Broadway’s biggest hits of the now-interrupted season, on the COVID-19 shutdown and its impact and reverberations both professionally and personally: Mapping out the future, as Stanley, who is planning a September wedding, knows, is next to impossible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
DEADLINE: Tell me what your day is like now. How are you doing?
ELIZABETH STANLEY: I feel like I’m doing as well as could be expected. Today I feel pretty good. Some days I feel a little more sad. It’s the roller coaster we’re all on.
My fiancé and I were able to escape the city, but I feel a little bit like a traitor when I see such a hardiness in the New Yorkers that are sticking it out. But my fiancé’s family has a house in Maryland so we’re able to spread out a little bit, which we are really grateful for. He and I had just moved in together, so we’re still finding our bearings in terms of living together.
DEADLINE: I’ve been asking performers how they are staying in fighting shape for when Broadway returns, whenever that is. Are you doing vocal exercises or anything along those lines?
STANLEY: To be really truthful, for the first few weeks I was just tired. I think we all were, and some people in our cast had tested positive. So at first I just didn’t do anything. Now I find myself singing a bit each day. I haven’t been diligently sitting down at my keyboard, but kind of allowing myself to continue to take a break a little bit. It doesn’t look like we’ll be getting back to things until probably September at the earliest, so I’m not feeling too guilty about pressing pause for a second and letting my voice just rest.
DEADLINE: I guess I should have asked you at the beginning. Have you been sick? Have you had any symptoms?
STANLEY: Yeah. I have not had an official test, so I don’t know for sure, but the week before Broadway shut down, I called out of the show for the first time. And at that time, I remember people sort of making jokes like, Oh, I bet you have it. But it was very much like a joke at the time, because we didn’t have all the information about all the symptoms and I didn’t have the cough and I didn’t have the fever. Now, looking back, we know more. I would not be surprised if that’s what I had. I was just extremely exhausted and had an unbearable sinus headache and the body aches and things like that. So I’m guessing I had it, but who knows?
DEADLINE: When do you think you will feel comfortable going back into a theater to perform?
STANLEY: Just in terms of my own personal well-being, I think if we knew that once you’ve had it you’re immune, along with the ability to have a test to see for sure if I did have it, that would make me feel safe. But I think we’ll also need that same precaution for other people because it’s not gonna be fun to perform if we’re worried about the audience getting sick. I just don’t know. It’s so hard because it doesn’t seem like we have all the information we need yet. I think there are going to be lots of precautions that will eventually enable us to feel a little safer, and obviously having a vaccine would help greatly, but I think that’s a long way off still.
My fiancé and I are supposed to get married in September, so we’ve been having all these same conversations personally. When you’re the one responsible for calling people together, which the theater producers essentially are, it’s hard. It’s really hard to make those decisions and to trust that people will take care of themselves and not come if they don’t feel like it’s good for them.
DEADLINE: Are you forging ahead with the wedding?
STANLEY: We’re still getting married, is the bottom line, which is good. The cohabitation has not made us decide we don’t like each other anymore [laughs]. Our wedding venue is being really understanding and accommodating, which is nice… I know they’re not able to just say, “Never mind, we’ll refund you all your money, don’t worry about it”…but they’re able to offer us a different date if we want to postpone and have it some time in 2021. They’ll work with us on that. But we’re not quite ready to make that call yet. We’re trying to not make a hasty decision. Of course, as with so many people, there’s a little bit of a sadness or mourning and the disappointment that the plans you had for the next few months of life are being thwarted. We’re trying to separate our feelings from the facts that everybody has to deal with.
DEADLINE: You’re sort of a microcosm of what the entire industry is going through – you can’t make a decision on how to go forward until you know more about how to go forward…Are you staying in touch with the rest of the cast?
STANLEY: We do stay in touch, it’s nice. We have a group text thread, which varies from everyone’s shared woes about how difficult and confusing it is filing for unemployment to a lot of “I Miss You”s. And lately it’s been “Hey, I know so and so who’s organizing a fundraising campaign to help doctors and nurses that are really struggling to even find time for meals, maybe together as a cast we can join in on that.” It’s nice to feel like we’re connecting in all the different ways that I think a lot of people are connecting in this time, finding a shared community. And our producers have set up Friday night Zoom happy hours just for people to tune in and stop by if they want, and ask questions. And there have been a couple press things, for lack of a better word, like putting together a cast video of everyone singing “Thank You.” So it’s been kind of fun, even though we’re not actually together, it feels like we’re still making something together.
DEADLINE: Jagged Little Pill has so many newcomers and young actors in its cast, I’m wondering if you’ve noticed a difference in their reactions to everything that’s happened as compared with the actors who might have more experience? Who has been hit hardest by the shutdown, and who is taking it most in stride? Or is there a difference?
STANLEY: I know that leading up to the shutdown I felt like the old “Come on, guys, calm down” voice. Because I think – and now I feel kind of naive – but I think a lot of younger people were really sort of up in arms that Broadway did not shut down sooner. And I was kind of like, I agree that would be safer, but it’s not a really easy thing to shut down the entire industry of Broadway. That’s a lot of people’s jobs and a lot of people’s security. The domino effect of that is really big. I certainly wouldn’t have had the same perspective when I was 23.
I will say that I think I feel a certain disappointment or sadness because I’ve been in this industry a long time and I know this particular role and this particular show are a really exciting moment. I’ve been in the business long enough to understand that this is a precious moment, even before all of this started happening, and now to feel like this is really changing the landscape and who knows what Broadway will be when we return…Hopefully, it’ll be great and full of surprises that none of us saw coming – in a good way. But I do feel a little sadness that this really special, precious time that we were really celebrating has been put on pause, at the least.
I’m sure if I were younger I’d still feel sad but I’d know I have my whole career ahead of me. Maybe I would feel a little bit more like, “It’s going to be ok,” the way that I felt after 9/11, which happened right before I moved to the city. I remember people saying, “You’re not going to move there now!” And I was like, “Oh, I’m definitely moving there. It’s my dream. It’s what I’ve been working toward for the past four years in school. I can’t wait to get there.”
DEADLINE: As an actor, how does this interruption impact your career planning? I don’t know when you were planning to leave the show, or even if you were planning to leave the show when your current contract is up, but you had to have been thinking ahead. What do you do now?
STANLEY: It’s a great question and I wish I had a really intelligent answer to give you. I guess what I can say is, I don’t know. A part of the agreement that the Broadway League reached with the union was that for every week we have off from the shutdown, our current contract will be extended a week beyond its original end date. So originally I was supposed to be done in December, and now it’ll be who knows when. A lot later than that. And it does make it very difficult to plan. Like, for me, with getting married and the conversation of having children and all of those things, it had been like, “We’ll revisit all these conversations in December when I know if I’m going to stay with the show.”
But I kind of feel like I just have to make peace that this time is just a weird pause, a standstill. You can say it’s lost time, but I think that’s a pretty negative way of looking at it. It could totally be a gift of time also, with everything just extended later than we were originally thinking. So if I can just shift my mind to thinking, “OK, everything is going to be six months or maybe a year later than the original plan was,” I think that’s the best way to try to wrap my mind around it.
I will say that I’ve been connecting with other artists during this time, which has been kind of fun. It feels like every artist is finding a way to ask, How do I adjust in this new time? A friend of mine who is a photographer has been taking portraits of people through her computer screen, which is kind of cool. Another friend, Mark Addison Smith, is a visual artist and usually the way he works is to eavesdrop on the subway or wherever he is and pick up parts of people’s conversations, and then he makes them into a piece of visual art. He’s been doing it every day for a decade, and when he does an exhibit, he pieces together the different conversations to show how humankind is really having one big conversation. But I spoke to him and he said, “This [pandemic] has created a big challenge: At first I was just eavesdropping on my husband but then thought, Well, this is not going to work.” So now he’s been connecting with people, who then connect him with other people, on Zoom conversations, to talk to this artist-stranger-friend. It’s cool, and it made me feel very inspired. So I’ve been questioning myself about what else I can be doing. How can I twist to this and find something new and exciting out of this time?