IT was January, 2020, and David Harris had a spring in his step and the world at his feet.
The musical theatre star from Rutherford, who divides his time between Sydney and New York, was in the Big Apple and planning to renovate his apartment at Chelsea on the west side of Manhattan, a handy 10-minute ride from Broadway.
He had roles lined up on Broadway and back home in Australia and was hoping to sneak in a holiday, too.
Then COVID-19 reared its ugly head and forced the city that never sleeps to lock down. Harris was smack bang in the middle of the chaos.
He spoke to Weekender from a Sydney hotel where he and his partner were waiting out the mandatory two-week quarantine for returning travellers.
"I'm doing OK. There's just a whole lot of nothing right now," he says. "Actually it's not nothing. Quarantine is a good chance to clean out your email inbox, sort out files on your computer, do those things that you usually leave for a rainy day."
Harris is a seasoned performer. He was awarded a Green Room Award for Best Actor as well as Helpmann and Sydney Theatre Award nominations for his portrayal of Emmett Forrest in Legally Blonde.
He also has the Theatre People's Award for Best Actor to his name for his portrayal of The Baker in Victorian Opera's 2014 production Into The Woods andgained critical acclaim for his portrayal of Chris in Cameron Mackintosh's production of Miss Saigon,which earned him Helpmann and Sydney Theatre Award nominations.
He also received a Connecticut Critics Circle Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance of Dan in Next To Normal and was nominated for a Helpmann Award for his role as Tick in Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical.
Last year he was supposed to star in Chess The Musical alongside vocal powerhouse Silvie Paladino at Newcastle's Civic Theatre. It was a huge production, with a 32-piece orchestra and 200-strong choir, but it too was postponed due to COVID.
Instead, he spent 2020 in New York, largely confined to his apartment.
"It was a crazy year; a fascinating year to have lived through, a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Harris says.
"To see New York City streets with nobody on them and no action at all. It hasn't happened before and hopefully will never happen again.
"For years we had planned to renovate our apartment and we finally got everything in order and started renovating in January. Some friends offered their spare room out at Queens for the few weeks that we renovated and then we got stuck.
"The renovations were put on hold, the city closed down, the work dried up, all the prospects of work dried up."
During the toughest lockdown period only medical offices, pharmacies and grocery stores remained open, he says.
"You didn't want to go outside because you knew how rife [the virus] was. There was a stage there where we were losing 800 people a day in New York State. If you did go outside there were lines to get into the grocery store, six-feet apart, and you wanted to get in and get out as quickly as possible."
Harris first became aware of the seriousness of the situation when Broadway shut down.
"I remember grabbing some lunch on Fifth Avenue and then read that the Governor had closed Broadway down for a month. And then line-ups at the grocery store started to build up, going all the way around the block.
"At first you're like 'Is this a bit of overkill?'. It was so new. It was the end of February and the world hadn't really gone through it yet.
"There was a lot of new information and most people didn't really know yet what virus we were dealing with, how it went from person to person. Was it in the air? Was it all by touch?
"There were a lot of unknowns and I was like, 'Well, I'll just keep sanitising my hands'. Then wearing a face mask became just like grabbing your keys and wallet before going out. You'd grab your mask as well. It became second nature."
Harris is full of praise for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's leadership during the darkest days of the pandemic.
"He was a saving grace, really, because he followed the science, for starters," he says.
"Cuomo held daily briefings, which we were glued to. Other states didn't have the leadership that New York had - I can't imagine the devastation and loss of life if that leadership hadn't been there."
Personally and professionally, though, the pandemic took its toll on Harris. He feels fortunate to have escaped infection but he admits to having had "some dark days".
"Chess couldn't happen, then there were a lot of other shows planned that were postponed or cancelled, and I got offered a really great contract back in the States that was supposed to start in October and that has all been shelved for the moment," he explains.
"Not being able to exercise as I usually did was, for me, one of the main psychologically challenging things because I didn't want to venture outside, and there is only so much you can do inside.
"I enjoy going to the gym and doing a workout was like a ritual.
"And then there was not having any other outlets, like singing or performing - all the avenues and outlets that make me happy were taken away, as they were for so many.
"I had to go through some dark mental days and weeks there. It's been a bit of a rollercoaster."
Harris, though, is thrilled to be back in Australia, having missed friends and family.
"I'm so glad that Australia acted quickly and strongly and is now in this amazing position, which is one of the best in the world," he says.
"The good thing about the Australian theatre industry, unlike West End or Broadway - which will take a lot of time to get up and running again - is that it is not as heavily dependent on tourism.
"The local communities have always bought the tickets and attended the shows. We're not reliant on people flying in.
"Also, as the industry has adapted due to COVID, it will be interesting to see how it will all work looking ahead. What is held onto and what goes back to so-called normal, or what the mix of those two will be now? Because it will be a new normal, there has to be."
Harris will be in Australia "for a number of months" and is excited about opportunities he says he "can't discuss just yet". Chess The Musical has four dates at Civic Theatre, for starters.
"There's a lot happening in the industry here - Moulin Rouge, Frozen, Hamilton - it's a rebirth of sorts," he says.
"It's like a bushfire has gone through and now you have green shoots and new life coming, and I really hope that the audiences are supportive and go out and see the product.
"They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and let's hope it's that way for theatre too, where audiences have been starved of seeing live performances so they go and lap it all up now that it can happen again."
Chess The Musical comes to Civic Theatre Newcastle on February 26 (8pm), February 27 (2pm and 8pm), and February 28 (3pm). Tickets are on sale now.
IN THE NEWS: