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How Broadway’s delayed reopening affects classical musicians like her

Violinist Melissa Tong recording music at home.
Violinist Melissa Tong recording music at home.
(Melissa Tong)

Violinist Melissa Tong landed her dream job playing a Broadway musical when the pandemic became the ultimate showstopper. She’s one of 11 classical musicians from both coasts sharing their stories of struggle, survival and hope.

Melissa Tong has a signed poster of Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen in her living room. It’s a keepsake from her college days at USC where she studied violin performance and played in the school orchestra when he guest conducted. She was an L.A. Phil groupie, attending a concert at least once a week, and she worked for the Hollywood Bowl for several summers, chauffeuring stars like BD Wong, Alan Cumming, Tito Puente and Maceo Parker.

After graduation Tong moved to New York City and began the arduous process of carving out a career for herself as a freelance classical violinist. At first, she took every gig that came her way. She played with orchestras all over the city’s boroughs, and she toured with pop stars including Sara Bareilles . She existed on a steady stream of 1099 tax forms — the de facto diet of an independent contractor.

Violinist Melissa Tong landed her dream job playing a Broadway musical. Then the pandemic became the ultimate showstopper. She’s one of 11 classical musicians from both coasts who share their stories of struggle, survival and hope.

Then, two years ago, while at dinner with her partner, she got a call that changed her life: She was hired for a Broadway orchestra gig on the new jukebox musical, “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations.” She started crying at the table.

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Violinist Melissa Tong's cat Chloe steals a scene while Tong makes a remote appearance on "PBS NewsHour."
Violinist Melissa Tong’s cat Chloe steals the scene while Tong makes a remote appearance on “PBS NewsHour” as a member of the orchestra for the Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations.”
(Melissa Tong)

“It was the first time I was going to have financial security in my life,” Tong recalls. “In addition to being my very first predictable weekly paycheck on a W2, it was an absolute dream job.” (A Broadway pit musician can bring in between $1,000 and $2,000 per week minimum, plus extra if they are playing more than one instrument or make an appearance onstage.)

Tong lived in that near-perfect narrative for a year before the COVID-19 pandemic added an unwelcome plot twist in the form of shuttered theaters and shattered dreams.

Her memory of the days leading up to the March 12 Broadway shutdown are still vivid. Attendance numbers were beginning to dip, and on March 3, during the show’s finale, when the orchestra appears on stage, Tong remembers looking up at an eerily empty balcony and seeing an audience member in a mask.

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This time has confirmed that I’m a musician to the core. I want — and need — to play music.”

Melissa Tong, violin

“Everything went into surreal mode for a minute, and I just had this queasy feeling,” Tong says.

The orchestra kept in touch after the shutdown, and the show’s producers met with each department separately over the summer. The question inevitably came up: If this continues until 2021, how long can you hang in there?

Tong was already operating a teaching studio. Because she was on tour often, her students were used to learning online, and she was able to quickly pivot to teaching. She also did a few recording projects from home. At first, she couldn’t collect unemployment because of her teaching gig but eventually she became eligible for aid.

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Between teaching and unemployment, she managed to stay afloat. She feels fortunate that the show has continued to provide health insurance for its members during the downtime. Without it, she would be facing more trouble.

She has good days and bad days.

“At first my type-A classical musician, Manhattan personality kicked in,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to memorize the entire canon of Johann Sebastian Bach and exercise two hours a day.’”

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That didn’t happen, but she did do yoga teacher training, which she had long wanted to do. She also began offering free classes for essential workers.

Broadway is officially shut down through May, and Tong says she hasn’t yet heard any news on a way forward. She is watching nervously. In January, “Mean Girls” announced it would close for good. Tong hopes that “Ain’t Too Proud” can hang in there just a bit longer.

“This time has confirmed that I’m a musician to the core,” says Tong. “I want — and need — to play music.”

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