A Day in the Life: This Is What It's Like to Return to the Broadway Stage During COVID

Chicago's Arian Keddell (a.k.a. murderess Mona) invites E! News down to a little spot where the gin is cold, but the piano's hot and shares why their first performance back was "unbelievable."

By Sarah Grossbart Sep 23, 2021 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Renee Elise Goldsberry & Sara Bareilles: From Broadway to "Girls5eva"

Some people have jobs so cool we'd actually enjoy attending their marathon Zoom meetings. Even the ones that could totally have been an email. 

Not to say we don't cherish our all-important responsibility of bringing you every last piece of need-to-know information about the casts of Bridgerton and The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, but we don't have our own glam squad or a Rolodex filled with famous names, now do we? 

But the impossibly cool people we'll be profiling in E! News' latest series totally do. Plus access to things like private drivers, designer garb and the type of professional titles we'd drop with wild abandon at parties, dinner dates or while chatting with the barista at Starbucks. Welcome to A Day in the Life...

Chicago star Arian Keddell had it coming. A night like Broadway's post-COVID re-opening, that is. The Elmira, N.Y.-bred triple threat spent some 10 years auditioning for her dream production only to finally land the part of Murderess' Row inmate Mona in October 2019—five months before the quickly spreading coronavirus would dim the lights in NYC's famed theater district for a year-and-a-half.

Stars on Stage: Broadway & Beyond

"The show passed through my hometown when I was 14," Arian recalls to E! News. "And being able to, as this young ballerina, go, 'Wait a minute, is this something I can do? Like, I want this,' and to have it and then have it be gone and now have it returned, it reminds you of how fragile life is. But it also reminds you of how amazing life is. We never know when the blessings are going to come."

So when she and the close-knit cast of Broadway's longest-running American musical (marking its 25th anniversary this November!) were finally able to take the stage Tuesday, Sept. 14, it was, in a word, "unbelievable," she raves. Waiting for the curtain to rise, "It was just this sea of applause. And it was like, there are people out there who are just as thrilled, just as excited, who maybe don't understand necessarily what we've been through, but they are so wanting us to succeed."

Still basking in that opening night glow hours later ("I have chills even just thinking about it," she admits), the performer walks E! News through each step of her day and...all...that...jazz. 

9 a.m. (EST): Let's call this the Cinderella experience. A naturally early riser, "I'm usually up sometime between the 6 and 7 o'clock hour," says Arian. "I used to joke with my friends that the Disney birds fly around my bed and take the blankets off of me and I'm like, 'Good morning! Hello everyone.'"

But with her mind still buzzing from the previous night's dress rehearsal filled with friends, family and show alum, "I made a point of staying in bed a little longer," she says. "I did a meditation just to really check in where I was versus where everything else was that I felt from Monday night, which was a beautiful experience, but at the same time was just a lot to process."

Still, with two Havanese pups to take care of (Mona and 9-week-old Frida), "My girl was looking at me and saying, 'Ma, we need to get up. I have to go potty,'" she shares. "I'm like, 'OK, we're up. Let's go.'"

10 a.m. Pups placated, she sips "unimaginable amounts" of tea and gets in the day's first bit of movement. After months of watching Netflix, "I've really been doing a lot of cross-training," Arian says of swapping her normal ballet classes for barre and HIIT workouts, "in order to just figure out how to almost exhaust my muscles in a different way so that they were ready for a two-show day."

Then it's on to errands. High on her priority list: Dealing with all the boxes from her recent move to New Jersey after riding out the heart of the pandemic upstate. Boyfriend Jeremy Drake looks at the stacks "basically going, 'Girl, unpack those boxes,'" she jokes. "And I'm like, 'No, I don't have time. I have rehearsal.'"

2 p.m. Speaking of which...

Assistant choreographer (and Chicago alum) Gregory Butler has been putting the cast through their paces after the extended layoff and today's premiere day is no different. Noting the pandemic was "the longest I have not danced in 30 years," getting back into the groove was wild, says Arian.

"It just was one of those things where you go, oh, I'm in a studio. And I'm with people in a studio. And I'm in a process where I'm attached to reinvigorating, refreshing, coming back to a show that I've done so many times but we're kind of piecing together different elements of it in order to give it a nice shiny coat."

6 p.m. After a quick dinner break ("I'm a protein and veggie girl," she notes. "I will eat some chicken thighs and some spinach and I'm a happy girl"), she's back at New York City's Ambassador Theatre a full hour-and-a-half before the official call. 

"I love a little more silence throughout the whole process, so I try to get there earlier than most because I like to have that moment of just, like, zen," she explains. "I'm in the space. I am feeling the feels. I am centering myself."

She uses that time to put on her make-up (for a stretch, she admits, "I was having a glitter moment," but she's since walked away from the pink sparkles), then the headwrap that protects her curls from getting snagged in her beaded costume. Finally, she gets in "as much of a ballet warmup as I possibly can," she says. "I will not go on stage unless I've done some pliés and tendus." (As the weather gets frostier, she'll really lean into the idea of a warming up, layering on her beloved knee-high thermal booties and wrapping an electric blanket around her waist: "I look like a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.") 

By the time the rest of the cast starts trickling in to begin their own movement and vocal exercises ("Everybody's giving their everything") she's keyed in. "And then whatever everyone else is doing, I'm like, 'Absolutely. Have your moment. Do what you need to do to be ready to get on that stage and shine.'"

7:45 p.m. Break a leg? Unlikely thanks to her other pre-performance must. Costume on, Arian rushes to the stage to do an additional round of battements. "I kick my face four times," she says, and then she "always, always, always, always" practices the left split she performs during Billy Flynn's big number, "All I Care About." 

8 p.m. Places, people! "Getting ready to come on the stage for overture," recalls Arian, "we're giggling and kind of grabbing each other's hands, like, 'Hey, let's go. Let's do this. We're ready, we're ready, we're ready.'" 

Hitting the final notes of "All That Jazz," near the top of the show, they hold their poses as the crowd leaps to their feet, "It was a collective relief and gratitude," she describes. "I don't even have words for it." 

10:45 p.m. Following "an incredible curtain call" complete with their entire crew of swings, "the heart and soul of our show," says Arian of the actors who fill in when others have to miss performances, and heaps of rose petals, they all raise a glass to the months of uncertainty and the many, many rehearsals it took before they could give 'em the old razzle dazzle. 

Usually at the end of the show, she says, "We're like, 'OK, have a good night,' and we go home to our families. We're not like, 'Let's hang out for drinks at some random place.'" (Plus, even with twice weekly COVID tests, they made a promise to each other to be super mindful about outside activities during the ongoing pandemic.) So the simple champagne toast "was a good moment." 

3 a.m. Though Arian decompresses on the ride back to Jersey with the help of her fellow passengers—two castmates who live nearby—and a little Luther Vandross on their favorite radio station, The Breeze ("We're just signing our '80s life away"), she still blows past her usual midnight bedtime. 

She and Jeremy "end up staying up later," she admits, "but it was just all of the electrifying feelings." Finally getting cast in her favorite show after nine auditions and a seven-year break from performing due to burn out "and then having the pandemic occur, and then come back, I would not change this right now," the dance instructor, choreographer and coach insists. "I'm totally fine with the way that things happened. It's one of those things that reminds me it's all good. By the time all is said and done, it's all good."