The cast after giving their final bows at dress rehearsal for Moulin Rouge! on Sept. 23, 2021.
Photographs by Jackie Molloy for TIME | Text by Stephanie Zacharek
Updated: September 27, 2021 10:24 AM EDT | Originally published: September 25, 2021 7:00 AM EDT

For the spectator, Broadway is magic, not work: Every show, whether it’s a drama or a musical, is a feat of illusion, designed to allow an audience to slip into another world for a few hours. But the creation of any illusion involves labor, and that’s especially true on Broadway. Every performance of every show is in some way touched by thousands of hands. A live show involves so many makers, night after night—not just actors and dancers and stage managers, but also an army of musicians, electricians, laundry and wardrobe people, and others—that it may be the ultimate act of making.

Ensemble members doing the can-can during the Moulin Rouge! The Musical run-through in the studio on Sept. 12, 2021.
Natalie Mendoza, who plays the role of Satine, runs through the show at the studio on Sept. 12, 2021, before heading to the theater for tech week.
On show nights the band leaves notes wishing the cast and crew luck. These notes have been there since the show opened, and the collection only continues to grow.

By the time Broadway shut down, in mid-March 2020, many performers and behind-the-scenes workers had already contracted COVID-19, some requiring hospitalization. But no one knew how long the shutdown would last, and at the beginning, no one imagined the closure would stretch through the rest of the year, let alone well into 2021. Many Broadway workers left New York out of necessity: no shows meant no work, making life in one of the most expensive cities in the world untenable.

Ensemble member Bahiyah Hibah stretches on stage during rehearsal for Moulin Rouge! on Sept. 21, 2021 in New York, N.Y.

Which makes Broadway’s return this fall especially joyful for the performers, managers and craftspeople of all stripes who struggled through that uncertain limbo. The reopening of shows big and small—among them lavish musicals like the 2021 Tony for Best Musical winner Moulin Rouge!, featured in the behind-the-scenes photos here—is great news for loyal theatergoers, and for New Yorkers especially. In the depths of pandemic uncertainty, the dimmed marquees and darkened doorways of our most beautiful theaters made Times Square the most depressing stretch of our city, rather than the most vibrant. Now that the lights—and with them, the makers—have returned, life has returned, too.

Actor Robyn Hurder, who plays Nini, stretches in her dressing room before a rehearsal on Sept. 21, 2021. Hurder is one of the cast members who battled COVID-19.
Actor Aaron Tveit brushes his teeth in his dressing room before rehearsal on on Sept. 24, 2021. Tveit was the only actor nominated for a 2020 Tony in the category of Best Leading Actor in a Musical for his role as Christian. When asked how he feels about re-opening, Tveit responds by simply saying: “This is performance number 263.”
Hairdresser Akilah Abrams prepares a wig in the hair room on Sept. 21, 2021. Moulin Rouge! is her Broadway debut.

Even in the midst of this jubilant homecoming, caution is warranted, because theater people work in especially close quarters with one another. Dancers stretch and rehearse while masked. Wig and makeup people—anyone who needs to touch performers as part of their job—must take extra care. Even with vaccinations, testing is still a must. Present and future variants hang like a question mark over the industry.

Actor Jeigh Madjus, who plays 'Babydoll,' doing his makeup in the dressing room backstage before rehearsal on on Sept. 21, 2021. Madjus says that sometimes his makeup can take up to two hours to complete.

But if anyone can prevail, it’s show people. Behind-the-scenes Broadway workers are like trapeze artists in a way, swinging from job to job as one show closes and others open, keeping one another apprised of upcoming opportunities. These gigs may seem glamorous, but they’re not for the faint of heart. The hours are stressful, and often involve challenging physical work: Dressers, for instance, must pull off a grueling ballet that involves kneeling, standing and running around all night, sometimes rushing up and down endless flights of stairs in an evening. Workers who come in direct contact with performers need an even temperament and a long fuse, always at the ready to soothe diva behavior. These jobs are harder than they look, but many of those who hold them can’t imagine doing anything else. No wonder these people look out for one another.

And no wonder, as these pictures show, they’re so happy to be back.

Actor Danny Burstein during rehearsal on Sept. 21, 2021. Burstein won a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his role of Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!
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