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From Hamilton to Housebound: A Broadway Dancer Shares Her Experience During COVID-19

From Hamilton to Housebound: A Broadway Dancer Shares Her Experience During COVID-19

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Eliza Ohman was headed to opening night of SIX when Broadway theaters were ordered to close. We ask her, what now?

What became a normal workday for Eliza Ohman is something hard for most of us to imagine doing even once. As a professional dancer, she’s worked on the sets of Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. She’s danced in commercials and music videos, and performed in top Broadway shows, including the biggie: Hamilton.

So for Ohman, March 12 started as a fairly typical day on the job. That afternoon, she was preparing to leave her New York City apartment to have her makeup done. Then, she’d head to Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where she worked on SIX the Musical, the retelling of Henry the XIII’s six wives. She knew it’d be a busy evening — after all, it was opening night. The cast would perform for a packed house. There would be industry critics and producers, big-name celebrities, and press from every major publication.

“It’s a night that’s months in the making. It’s just a huge deal,” Ohman said.

But none of it happened.

Three hours before the show’s opening performance, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that gatherings of 500 or more were prohibited. It was the state’s first major response to the growing threat of the coronavirus.

Ohman, and the rest of the cast, received an email saying simply, “tonight’s performance has been postponed.”

Since that moment, Ohman — and the rest of Broadway — have received few answers. The Broadway League, which represents theater owners, said the 41 Broadway theaters would remain shuttered at least through June 7. But many in the industry believe it will be this fall before any show can go on.

More than two months after the theaters closed, we checked in with the 29-year-old dancer from her apartment, where she lives with her husband and cuddly pup, Brewer.

A|F: When did you set your sights on dance as a career?

Ohman:  I always dreamed of being a dancer and it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do it. It was a childhood dream, something I always loved, and no matter my skill level, I thought as long as I work hard and keep at it I can do this.

As a kid, I always loved movie musicals. And my parents put me in a dance class when I was 3, and I realized oh, there’s rules to dance…We would check Singing in the Rain out from the library and we would just renew it all the time because I loved to dance to it. The library finally gave us the copy. And, you know, I loved Ginger Rogers and Cyd Charisse as much as I loved third girl from the left. It really didn’t matter to me who it was, just the fact that there was dancing happening was what I loved about it. I didn’t even know you could study musical theater and make a career of it. I just knew I wanted to dance.

A|F: Did your parents think it was a realistic career goal?

My parents were amazing and supportive. My dad actually asked us each as kids to write down our life goal. And my brother wrote down I want to be a professional baseball player. I wrote down dancer, and my sister wrote down professional singer. And my brother did end up playing professional baseball, my sister did end up being a professional singer, and I did end up being a professional dancing. Yeah, we’re all entertainers. We have no practical skills to offer the world, but we’re fun at a party!

A|F: Throughout your career, was there one moment that you consider your big break?

Ohman: I would say each job was like a mile marker that taught me more. My first professional show was Radio City Christmas Spectacular, and it was my first season auditioning for a show so I couldn’t believe that I actually got it…I knew I had a lot of work to do, but I felt like I was a contender in some capacity.

Another big moment was when I started to pursue more musical theater. I had worked a lot commercially, like spots on the Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. And those are so fun. But I was curious, what else is available to me? So I was casted for Kiss Me, Kate, and it was a show with a lot of New York talent and Broadway vets…That was also a significant show because a lot of New York casting directors were coming down to Washington, DC, to see it.

So when I came back from that show, I started getting a lot of momentum. That was when I started consistently being called in and invited to audition for Broadway shows, rather than my agent pushing me forward. So that was a turning point for me professionally. I was getting opportunities to be in the room to prove myself, and getting in the room is half the battle.

All the sudden I was getting called in for An American in Paris, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That’s how I got called in for Hamilton. It made me feel like I was at least getting seen now. So that was exciting.

Eliza Ohman accepts a round of applause for her performance in Hamilton: An American Musical. [Photo courtesy of Eliza Ohman]

A|F: It’s been over two months since theaters closed. What do you see for the future of Broadway?

Ohman: It’s hard to say. I think the only information I have now that I didn’t have on March 12 is just how serious this virus is. They just made an announcement earlier this week that they’re now refunding ticket sales up through September 6. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that shows are coming back in September…I don’t think we’re really anywhere close to knowing how long it’s going to last or knowing how many shows will realistically be able to come back from this.

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A|F: What’s keeping you sane during these uncertain times?

Ohman: The whole situation just forces you to recognize the fact that we are totally participants in this life and there’s a lot we can’t control. And that’s true whether you work in art or science or law. The only thing we have control over is how we react to it.

This is all a good lesson in fiscal responsibility and of the importance of not extending yourself too far. It’s a reminder to live within your means, especially when you’re in an industry like the entertainment industry, where we’re all essentially freelancers…

Eliza Ohman rehearses at The St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre. [Courtesy of Eliza Ohman]

It’s just a different world. It’s been a really great opportunity for me to practice intentionality in a lot of different areas in my life. My relationships with my friends, with my family, my relationship with the Lord. I’m trying to really be intentional with what I’m consuming, whether it’s what I’m eating, or how I’m spending my time.

I really want to use this time to recharge my body and my spirit… I notice how much better I feel mentally, physically and emotionally even if I just do a 30-minute yoga practice. It all makes me appreciate what I do have right now…the luxury of good health. I feel there’s a responsibility to honor the gift that we’ve been given and the fact that we do have the full use of our bodies and full use of our minds. I really am working on choosing to be grateful for that gift.

Follow Eliza Ohman’s work at elizaohman.com, and her day-to-day shenanigans on Instagram and Twitter.

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