Broadway’s Rocky Road to Recovery

Theater owners are hopeful, and some producers are optimistically making plans for the 2021-2022 season. But who will fill the seats?

| 09 Feb 2021 | 12:47

Did you catch the references to “Hamilton” in Amanda Gorman’s remarkable poem at the Biden Inauguration? Her words about how America can heal were inspired by what she experienced at a Broadway show.

Movies and broadcasts are ways to tell stories; stage-to-film or virtual are others; live theater is something else. Over a lifetime of theater going and 13 years as critic, I experienced untold numbers of mystical, magical hours spent in communities of strangers, witnessing a one-time-only happening, and sharing a unique relationship with those on stage.

Much of theater isn’t great, but the hush as the lights dim, mirrors our expectation that something life-changing might happen. And New York’s Broadway promises an experience second to none.

President Joe Biden’s chief COVID medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said that he believes theaters could possibly reopen “some time in the late fall,” depending on the vaccination rollout, “if 70-85 per cent of the population has been vaccinated.” The 41 Broadway theaters can’t hope to open until then.

Most shows have suspended performances in New York and on the road until further notice. “Mean Girls” and “Frozen” won’t be returning to New York. “Moulin Rouge” plans to return, though the production was hit hard by the pandemic: At least 25 company members fell ill.

Theater owners are hopeful, as can be seen by the construction bridges enveloping many of the houses, some of them over 100 years old. And some producers are optimistically making plans for the 2021-2022 season. Productions include playwright Tracy Letts’ “The Minutes” and “Company” with Patti LuPone. The much anticipated revival of “The Music Man,” with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, has pushed its original 2020 opening to February 2022. Broadway is a national brand, and the North American tour of “Come From Away” has moved its Houston scheduled performances from May 2021 to the Spring of 2022.

But the unanswered question revolves around who will fill the seats. According to a report from the live event management organization Audience View, more than 70 percent of those surveyed said widespread vaccination and mask wearing were most important in making them feel comfortable enough to come back to indoor performances. Even the most enthusiastic theater-goer wants to feel safe.

Staggering Loss

Before 2020’s March shutdown, more people went to Broadway shows than to the ten professional Metro-area sports teams combined. Broadway League trade group president, Charlotte St. Martin, said she doesn’t expect the 65% of ticket buyers who were tourists would fully return until 2025. In the 2018-2019 season, Broadway generated $14.7 billion of the city’s economy. The Broadway League documents staggering loss since then. Some 96,000 local jobs are gone, including those connected to what we see on stage and backstage, as well as those working in the front of the house; and the restaurants, hotels, and others who depend on the business that is Broadway.

For all their inspirations and aspirations, creative artists are workers. At the height of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt New Deal realized that putting the creative community back to work was central to the country’s recovery. The Works Progress Administration specifically gave emergency relief to writers, actors, directors, and others in the creative arts.

Some in the arts world say most current elected officials simply don’t take the cultural sector seriously. New York Senator Chuck Schumer had to fight to get the #Save Our Stages provision included in the 2020 relief package, and the job-to-job arts workers aren’t its main beneficiaries. As the new senate majority leader, Schumer will have to convince the famously obstructionist Republican Mitch McConnell that the performing arts need a strong boost. In a 50-50 Senate, with Vice-President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, Schumer will need some Republicans to vote with him if he hopes for bipartisan legislation, and every Democrat if his party goes it alone.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo hasn’t yet shown much interest in Broadway. As one theater pro put it, “We’ve been taken for granted.” Cuomo’s much touted Arts Revival Plan doesn’t include the Great White Way, and his recent proposal for tax credits for theatrical productions in the city targets theater owners rather than the infrastructure of performing artists and others in the creative community.

When the governor finally says the lights can switch on, what actually happens? Broadway isn’t a monolith. It’s made up of independent producers, who raise funds from multiple sources, rent a theater, and then hire talented folks from some 14 different unions.

Logistical Challenges

The logistical challenges will be mind boggling. How do you start back from zero in ticket sales? What about good ventilation and effective air filters for the theaters? Even shows that were running solidly before the shutdown may need up to four months to get ready to reopen, with adjusted staging or choreography, and rehearsals that incorporate COVID protocols, including social distancing.

Legendary producer Emanuel (Manny) Azenberg emphasized that even before COVID-19, plays that might have run for several seasons years ago, were facing limited, short runs. Pros call this the Disney-fication of Broadway, where jukebox musicals and shows like “The Lion King” prevail, and where an occasional exception, like “Hamilton,” hits the jackpot.

Meanwhile, our notions of what constitutes performance are evolving. More than three-quarters of those surveyed recently said they’re enjoying the gutsy multiple streaming offerings. Film adaptations of “Hamilton” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are among Broadway shows considered by the American Film Institute, the NAACP Image Award, and the Golden Globes. “Come From Away” will be filmed this spring. “Diana,” about the Princess of Wales, will be filmed and aired on Netflix prior to a Broadway opening.

“The economics of Broadway have to change,” according to Azenberg, best remembered for producing Neil Simon’s hits over many years. Broadway isn’t economically viable with social distancing and diminished capacity. What’s needed, Azenberg insisted, is government funding and a national theater, something between the commercial and the not-for-profit worlds.

Azenberg stressed that “The various elements that make up Broadway, the producers, theater owners, and unions should follow governing rules and not function individually.” For example, they have a shared problem with tickets, he said. “No one knows now what to charge.”

Jujamcyn, operator of five Broadway theaters, announced a switch from Ticketmaster to SeatGeek. This newcomer to the Broadway ticket sales marketplace promises service that would extend to transportation, food and drink orders, and comparative pricing. But nobody knows when audiences would feel comfortable returning.

When the lights turn back on, there will be shows on those few blocks in the 40’s mostly west of Broadway, at Lincoln Center, and Off Broadway. And there will be touring productions. Eventually, people will come because they will be drawn to what only live performances can deliver.

The fact is certain. The when and the how are a mystery.

Some 96,000 local jobs are gone, including those connected to what we see on stage and backstage, as well as those working in the front of the house; and the restaurants, hotels, and others who depend on the business that is Broadway.