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Broadway colleagues remember costume dresser who died of COVID-19

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey. It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. Tonight Broadway's longest-running show, "The Phantom Of The Opera," opens again for the first time since the pandemic started. But one longtime member of the crew will not be there when the curtain is raised - Jennifer Arnold, who died of COVID shortly after the production shut down in March of 2020. She had worked in the wardrobe department for more than 30 years as a costume dresser. Janet Saia and Kelly Jeanne Grant are performers for the show and came to StoryCorps to recall their friend.

KELLY JEANNE GRANT: People talk about someone who is at home in their own skin. That was Jen. Unique doesn't even begin to describe (laughter) this incredible woman.

JANET SAIA: A spark.

GRANT: When things go wrong backstage, she always had a real sense of irony and spunk and spice, and she would always make you see the funny even when you felt like it was falling apart.

Jen was famous for these matchboxes that she made.

SAIA: She would give them as gifts for people. They had a little tiny picture framed in glitter. When my father passed away, she gave me one that had a picture of him. And it's just meaningful to be able to light a candle with the matches from the matchbox to remember him.

GRANT: Jen had always struggled with respiratory issues.

SAIA: Yeah.

GRANT: And so when COVID first became a thing, I remember her with fear in her voice as they shut us down. There were announcements frantically between each scene, and we were all called to the stage. And the last time I saw her was that meeting. And then she was gone.

You know, traditionally Broadway honors a passing of cast and crew members.

SAIA: We dim the lights, the marquee lights in the front of the theater, and we all go outside and stand in silence and think about the person and what they mean to us.

GRANT: When Jen passed, that wasn't possible, so we organized this online memorial. And it was huge, from cast and crew members to the carpenters and everyone strangely had chosen to bring her matchboxes with the personalized little details that she had given to each one of us.

SAIA: We lit candles.

GRANT: And at some point, someone said, now everybody turn off your lights for her.

SAIA: You know, she loved being a part of the theater world. So I think lighting her matches and remembering her brings her back to the theater, where she loved to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATALYA PLAYS PIANO'S "WISHING YOU WERE SOMEHOW HERE AGAIN")

INSKEEP: Janet Saia and Kelly Jeanne Grant on their colleague Jennifer Arnold, a costume dresser for "The Phantom Of The Opera," which returns to Broadway tonight. Their recording will be archived in the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATALYA PLAYS PIANO'S "WISHING YOU WERE SOMEHOW HERE AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.