COVID-19 has shaken theater fans and shuttered all New York City's venues, including Broadway, which grossed $1.8 billion last season and attracted a record 15 million people. How Broadway — one the city's jewels — will reopen is still not clear.
Will every other seat be kept empty? Will there be thermometer checks? Mandatory masks? Bar service? Deep cleanings between shows? More ushers? More exits? No shows until a vaccine? Producers and labor groups are discussing various options, but one thing Actors’ Equity Association stresses is the Broadway community has one chance to get it right.
“We have to be really, really careful about how we start to come back," said Mary McColl, executive director of the association, which represents more than 51,000 actors and stage managers. "If we step wrong and we do something too quickly when we haven't figured out all of the ramifications, and it goes badly and people become sick because of it, that is going to set the whole industry back a long time.”
Broadway theaters abruptly closed on March 12, knocking out all shows — including 16 that were still scheduled to open — and postponing indefinitely the Tony Award schedule. Producers, citing health and city authorities, have extended the shutdown through at least June 7.
The financial demands of Broadway shows don’t favor keeping seats purposefully empty. The average operating costs for a play are about $300,000 per week, while weekly costs run $590,000 for musicals. Conventional wisdom is that many shows can break even while taking in 50% of their potential grosses — as long as they have full-price tickets and some premium customers.
But insiders say tickets will need to be deeply discounted to attract wary customers when Broadway reopens, and that means theaters will need to be full. In that scenario, some theatermakers will be taking home less than before.
“I cannot imagine Broadway theaters functioning at less than capacity unless all costs are reduced,” said veteran producer Robyn Goodman, who this season was to bring a reimagined “ Company ” to Broadway. “That could be a monumental task but the only way to reopen.”
The shows with the best shot of survival will probably have to be both popular and offer attractive sale prices. Broadway will also have to depend more on New Yorkers, since tourism accounted for 65% of sales during the 2018–2019 season and the number of city visitors will likely dip.
Already some creators are adapting and innovating. Playwright Richard Nelson has written a six-person play designed to be livestreamed. Others have turned to putting new works on podcasts, benefit concerts or offering a song cycle online.
The shutdown frustrated composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's plans to mount a musical remake of “Cinderella” in London's West End. He and his cast were ready for rehearsals when they were stopped by force majeure, the legal term for unforeseeable circumstances.
Now he's thinking of returning to a business tactic he used at the start of his career when he couldn't get backing for a stage version of “Jesus Christ Superstar”: Release a cast album first. “Not because I really want to go that way round, but because force majeure kind of makes one have to do that,” he said. “It’s not something I’ve done for a very long time, but it may well be that that’s the direction we’d have to go.”
Actors’ Equity Association is rethinking almost every direction: How can more space be added to dressing rooms? Which costume fabrics resist the virus better? How many people need to touch a prop in a 10-minute period and how can that prop be cleaned? They've hired David Michaels, who ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama, to advise.
“I think if all of us — the whole theater community, producers, labor unions, artists, public health professionals — put our heads together, we can figure out a way in the mid-term to have live performance happen,” McColl said. “And in the long term, how to figure out how to bring it back to close to what it was before."
Broadway could learn some tips from the feisty, experimental downtown theater company The Wooster Group. If city authorities demand social distancing at its 110-seat performance space, the nonprofit will comply — just increase the number of daily performances.
“We are small and flexible,” said associate director Kate Valk, who is already at work on an audiovisual work tacking the pandemic. “I feel for the theatrical artists who depend on a commercial production. The bigger the machine, the harder it is to reinvent.”
Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts offers another model — it's reducing its 520-seat main theater to one-third, increasing the distance between rows and seats and deep cleaning the theater after every show. Audiences will be required to wear masks. Additional entrances and exits are also being built, and there will be no intermissions for performances.
Some creators see an opportunity for change. One of the most outspoken is Theresa Rebeck, an award-winning playwright and creator of the Broadway TV series “Smash.” Rebeck hopes the shutdown can correct inequities like some producers taking too big a piece of the box office. “You end up with audiences paying very high ticket prices and actors and artists getting paid very little,” Rebeck said.
“There are many, many people living right at the edge of disaster, and this is really going to destroy a lot of lives and careers and there’s no way to pretend that that’s not happening right now,” Rebeck said.
Right now, perhaps one-man and one-woman shows will be deemed smarter than shows with large casts. Perhaps outdoor shows will be more attractive than cramming people into a conventional theater. “I think that for a while, theater might look like it did before all of the technology that we’ve accomplished over the last centuries,” said McColl. “I think it’s going to be stripped down to storytelling.”