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Broadway’s Dark Year

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Broadway’s Dark Year

Live theater has been devastated by the pandemic, and its return remains uncertain. New York City: Reborn 2021
New York City Reborn
Covid-19
Arts and Culture

No industry in New York City has been hit as hard by Covid-19 as theater, and no industry is said to be as vital to the city’s recovery. But the much-heralded, long-awaited reopening of Broadway remains largely aspirational. When the pandemic shuttered New York’s theaters on March 12, 2020, performing-arts professionals hoped for a summer revival. As the virus spread, prospects for a reopening in the fall gave way to hope for non-virtual theater by January 2021, and then for summer 2021. Last October, the Broadway League predicted that New York theaters would finally reopen in fall 2021. In January, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, made the target date vaguer by telling performing-arts professionals at a virtual conference that he thought that theaters could safely reopen “sometime in the fall of 2021,” with patrons still wearing masks and social distancing, “if everything goes right.”

But things have not gone right. The vaccine rollout has been thus far problem-plagued, and more contagious Covid strains that may require vaccine boosters have emerged. Fauci’s goal of herd immunity, defined most recently as requiring 75–85 percent of the population to be either immunized or recovered from the disease, seems elusive.

For live theater in New York, this has meant even greater uncertainty in an already anxious, financially fraught time. “No one knows what lies ahead,” says Robert Marx, director of the New York–based Samuels Foundation, which supports quality work in the performing arts. “We’re in totally unknown territory when theaters and other performing arts venues will have had no earned income for over a year and a high percentage of staff will have been furloughed.”

Since March 12, 2020, according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, 52 percent of actors have been unemployed, among the highest rates of any sector. An industry estimated to sustain roughly 97,000 jobs in its 2018–19 season and contribute an annual $14.8 billion to the city’s coffers has never been so challenged.

Few want to predict, for instance, how many of Broadway’s 31 shows that were running, and eight that were in preview, will reopen—or when. So far, four shows have fallen victim to the pandemic, among them Mean Girls, a hit that, since its opening in 2018, had not only recouped its $17 million capitalization costs but also grossed $124 million in more than 834 performances, its producers said.

Many of the 40-plus Broadway theaters deemed so vital to New York’s recovery may have difficulty financing the sweeping changes that will be required to reopen—including replacing air-filtration systems, reconfiguring seating, modifying lobbies and access to restrooms, and other changes that safety protocols may demand and that will likely be needed to lure back virus-wary patrons. Some of the oldest, least financially secure, theaters may not be able to reopen, given the devastating plunge in their revenues, which totaled some $1.8 billion from audiences of 15 million the year before Covid-19, the Broadway League reports, but tumbled to some $300 million in ticket sales before theaters closed last year. Even pre-pandemic, Broadway theaters had to sell most of the seats in their small spaces to make ends meet.

“On Broadway, we won’t be able to pay our bills with social distancing,” warned Barry Weissler, who, with his wife, Fran, is among the most successful producers on the Great White Way. “The changes required for 100-year-old Broadway theaters will cost millions and millions.” Some of the wealthier organizations—the Shubert, for instance, which owns 17 Broadway theaters and made millions staging popular musicals like A Chorus Line, Bye Bye Birdie, and Monty Python’s Spamalot—can afford to make the changes, but many others cannot. “So if you’re counting on Broadway to help revive the city, don’t,” Weissler said. “It will be the last to reopen.”

Some nonprofit theaters may turn out to be relatively better positioned to reopen than their commercial counterparts. Many occupy newer venues, are relatively less dependent on ticket sales, and can raise money from foundations, private donors, and the government. A coalition of select nonprofit venues spent the winter lobbying Albany for permission to sell tickets to events featuring limited live audiences. With their flexible designs, high ceilings, and open floor plans, theaters like the Park Avenue Armory, which can seat 1,500, and the Shed, which opened last year in the new Hudson Yards complex on Manhattan’s West Side and can hold 2,300, argued that they could offer live performances safely. Unlike traditional Broadway theaters—with their cramped orchestra pits and small backstages, lobbies, and restrooms—these newer venues more closely resemble the bowling alleys, gyms, churches, casinos, and museums that have been permitted to reopen, provided that patrons wear masks and maintain social distance.

New York performing institutions, like the Mark Morris Dance Group, rely heavily on national tours, which have also been shut down. (GERAINT LEWIS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

When Broadway and other performance venues do reopen, ticket prices, which were steadily rising before the pandemic, could fall, at least temporarily, to lure theatergoers back into closed, even renovated, spaces. But that, too, is likely to jeopardize the commercial viability of some theaters. And given the reduction in seats available for sale, even higher prices might not compensate theater owners.

Another blow to New York theater has been the collapse of tourism. An increasingly vital source of revenue for some performing artists, touring may be even slower to recover than in-person performances on Broadway. The highly regarded Mark Morris Dance Group, which has its own 150-seat theater in Brooklyn but also routinely performs at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, usually tours six months a year around the world. “How do you tour if you must quarantine upon arrival and return?” said Nancy Umanoff, the company’s president and executive director. “Or meet different local requirements? Or afford the airfare, which might become very expensive when there are fewer flights?” The added cost of future touring, she predicts, is likely to refocus creative energy on “local” production: “working in your own city.” Even then, she warns, attracting audiences could prove challenging. “The intimacy of theater that we have always worked so hard to create now makes people afraid,” she says.

Some of that fear is likely to linger even after patrons are vaccinated. Umanoff worries that it may take a few years for people to feel comfortable again indoors—but no one really knows. “There is no precedent for this. There is no business model.” If a silver lining exists for companies like Mark Morris, it’s the growth of the fan base, thanks to online programming. Some 4,400 people from the U.S. and abroad signed up in May 2020 for an event featuring dances on video. “So now we have nearly 10,000 names on our mailing list,” Umanoff said, “including over 2,000 new donors.” But the prospect of new subscribers can’t compensate for a lost year of live performances: some $1.8 million in revenue vanished in March 2020 when performances were suddenly canceled. Jobs, too, were lost. The company’s payroll of 226 in February 2020 shrank, at its lowest point, to just 59; it has slowly recovered and is now up to 122.

Last fall, Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents about 51,000 stage actors and managers in the performing arts, said that more than 1,100 actors and managers had lost work on Broadway during the pandemic. During the quarter ending in September 2020, when the nation’s unemployment rate averaged 8.5 percent, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that 52 percent of actors, 55 percent of dancers, and 27 percent of musicians had no work—among the highest rates of any sector in the city.

Without government aid, many theaters and performing groups would find it hard to survive. A Paycheck Protection Program loan of $1.139 million helped Mark Morris, for instance, meet its projected budget for the year of $9.7 million, which has now shrunk to $6.9 million. Similarly, Washington’s CARES Act grants were lifesavers for theater. In December, Congress approved a $15 billion Save Our Stages Act in stimulus aid for performance venues and cultural institutions, but that program extends only through mid-March 2021. State and city funding, too, has filled some gaps.

Still, it’s hard to overestimate the impact of the disappearance of tourism for the performing arts and for the city’s economy. According to the Broadway League, only 35 percent of Broadway ticket buyers in 2019 were from the New York metropolitan area. Some 65 percent were tourists, 46 percent of them from the U.S. and 19 percent from foreign countries. Some 2.8 million patrons in 2019 were foreign—the highest number in history. New York attracted a record 66.6 million tourists in 2019 and had expected to attract some 69 million in 2020; but according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism promotion agency, it wound up drawing fewer than 23 million visitors in 2020, about a third of 2019’s figures. The city will be lucky to attract a third of 2019’s total this year.

The pandemic’s creative disruption has been as dramatic as its financial impact. André Bishop, the award-winning artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater since 1992 and producing artistic director since 2013, said that he had to close two plays—Flying over Sunset and LCT’s first original opera based on a play, Intimate Apparel—before they even opened. “I sense that audiences are desperate to return,” he said. “But they want to return safely.”

Despite its huge cost, the pandemic has spawned reinvention and cultural creativity. “We’re all trying to find ways to continue telling stories,” said Moisés Kaufman, cofounder of the New York–based Tectonic Theater Project and author of such plays as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project. Having cofounded Miami New Drama with Michel Hausmann in Florida, he recently directed a short play that he wrote about greed, one of seven ten-minute plays by seven playwrights about the seven deadly sins. Each play was staged by actors in storefronts lining Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road before an audience sitting on spatially distanced chairs in the middle of the street. “We’re all Zooming and doing readings,” he said. “But we’re also trying to continue live performances wherever we can safely do so—in parks in New York, in drive-in theaters, in castle gardens in Europe.”

Innovation and flexibility have been key to survival. This year, for instance, Barry Weissler, who, in a normal year, would have at least two shows on Broadway and an average of ten on tour, has had only two shows in production—both overseas. The American hit Pippen was selling out in Australia when the government closed theaters for two weeks. “The play came back,” he said, “but the audience didn’t.” Now, he is producing a version of his hit show Waitress in Tokyo, in Japanese, for a 2,000-seat theater. “It’s a very sexual play, and kissing is essential, but it’s not permitted under Japanese safety protocols,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how to use body language to give the same impression of passion.”

Richard Nelson—whose critically acclaimed play cycle The Apple Family Plays, about a fictional family in Rhinebeck, New York, has been seen on PBS—sensed that writing and staging a new, pandemic-themed Apple Family play for Zoom would be different from staging it at his traditional venue, New York’s Public Theater. “At the Public, every play was a meal. The Apple characters sat around the dining table and talked,” he said. “In this play, Zoom is a participant in their conversation. The characters were Zooming with each other. And the pandemic is at the heart of the story we’re telling.”

Free for All

The Spanish flu reached New Orleans in 1918. It eventually wiped out 1 percent of the city’s population. Louis Armstrong was then a 17-year-old trumpeter, trying to make a living playing clubs and riverboats. When gigs dried up, he put down his horn and took odd jobs and volunteered in overcrowded hospitals. Somehow, he never got sick.

Armstrong left New Orleans, winding up in New York, which would go on to become a mecca of American jazz. But as Ted Gioia has chronicled, many musicians had already made the move to New York before the flu hit. Though the virus forced the few remaining New Orleans jazz clubs to shut down, racism in the South had already led many African-Americans—who then formed almost the entirety of the jazz scene—to leave the city for better opportunities. When they left, they brought the music with them—first to Chicago, and then to New York and California.

Now another virus has forced every New York jazz club to shut its doors—and jazz is a genre built on spontaneous creation. At live shows, the piano talks to the sax, and the sax talks back, as though each musician has a different-color brush and the band is painting the canvas in real time. Live shows are also how musicians pay their bills. As Veronica Leahy, a talented young saxophonist studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, told me: “Unless you’re getting a check from a university, you’re freelancing. Either you play consistently, or you starve.”

Since March 2020, there haven’t been any gigs to play in New York, and several clubs, including the Jazz Standard, have closed their doors permanently. Many of those that remain open depend heavily on out-of-town visitors. Even as the lockdown eases, it will be a long while before New York tourism flourishes.

I asked Leahy how she has been spending her time, without performance. “At the beginning of quarantine, I did a lot of recording projects, but there doesn’t seem to be software that allows you to play in real time with no latency,” she said. “So I started taking some production classes at Berklee and began working on other types of music that are less dependent on that real-time interaction.” Arlo Sims, a jazz guitarist at Berklee, offered a similar story: “I told myself I’m going to practice so much with this time off. But honestly, I’ve ended up not being as interested in performance. I haven’t had a gig in months, so I’ve been playing a lot more indie music. Producing, sampling, making my own stuff and putting it online.”

If their stories are any indication, then Covid-19 might accelerate a trend that was already under way. One of the strongest elements of the much-reported jazz revival is that it has taken the genre in new digital directions. Listeners under 30 make up 40 percent of jazz listeners on Spotify, and the audience has grown every year since 2016. But the rising stars of this revival—artists like Makaya McCraven, Ashley Henry, Esperanza Spalding, Fabiano do Nascimento, and Kamasi Washington—have built their careers by fusing jazz with everything from Brazilian and Latin pop to House and R&B. Beyond the jazz world, the artists who have brought jazz rhythms to a mainstream audience—Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar, for example—are embedded in the world of hip-hop and rap. In Leahy’s words: “Jazz is increasingly becoming a flavor that artists are using in other kinds of music.” Though that brings new people to jazz, it also tempts artists to forgo its traditional live form, especially with the Internet. What does this mean for the future of New York’s live jazz scene?

“I’ve talked to some of the owners, and these places are really struggling,” Leahy told me. “I mean, jazz clubs were already always on the edge.” At least before vaccination is widespread, he continues, “there’s simply no way to host a show safely. Jazz bars are small for a reason—if you were going to follow social distancing, you’d have, like, ten people inside. There’s talk of doing outdoor concerts, but that won’t be a replacement. You need that tight space for the magic to happen.”

Bands have begun playing in empty spaces and streaming the gigs online. Venues such as Smalls, the Village Vanguard, and the Jazz Gallery are hosting bands and charging an online audience a fee. But any money being paid seems more like a short-term donation than a long-term solution. YouTube makes it easy to watch jazz for free, but a screened showing is no substitute for the real thing. Audiences don’t go to clubs just to discover new talent. They go because they want to see the drummer’s sweat, feel the vibrations on the floor, and watch the audience around them. They’re not just spectators. They’re part of the show.

But none of this has changed the reality that every jazz artist worth his salt still wants to make it in Manhattan. Brian Richburg, Jr., a young drummer from New Orleans, told me that he traveled from Boston to New York just to play an online show. As Leahy put it: “For jazz musicians, jamming is like talking. Imagine being fluent in a language, and then someone suddenly tells you that you can’t speak that language to anyone for six months.” Many of her friends have responded by picking up other instruments.

“We’ve all gone on these individual journeys. I’ve been listening to more music than I’ve ever done in my life. I feel like I’ve grown artistically. There’s no doubt that the music will be different when we all come out the other side.”

The first time Leahy played with friends since the lockdown began was August 28. “It was very spread out,” she told me. “We were wearing masks. I was in a booth. It didn’t feel like a concert, but it was really exciting. Playing with people again made me realize how much I miss it.”

Perhaps audiences will miss it, too. Perhaps people will want nothing more than to reencounter that intimate sense of connection that live jazz provides. If New York’s clubs get the support that they need to ride out this grim period, jazz in the city will survive. When live music does come back, young musicians will be leading the way.

—Sahil Handa

Not all professionals have used the pandemic to such creative advantage. Theater professionals are particularly worried about the fate of smaller companies that feature new playwrights and new work. While companies like Page 73—which supports early-career playwrights—do not own theaters or have the burden of associated fixed costs, they struggled even before the pandemic to raise enough money to operate. Covid-19 forced her company to rethink its priorities, said Amanda Feldman, the managing director. Despite having originated Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, which won a Pulitzer for drama in 2020, the company decided not to risk production in 2021—its most expensive undertaking—and instead doubled the number of play-development opportunities from 15 to more than 30. By postponing production, Page 73 has been able to increase the funds that it gives playwrights from $30,000 a year to over $80,000 on its $870,000 budget, which has fallen to $540,000. “The entire theater ecosystem is hurting, and we didn’t want the newest and most vulnerable of the community to give up before they have a chance to shine in a New York production,” Feldman said.

Some theater buffs dismiss the prevailing gloom shared by so many professionals. American theater, they note, has always reinvented itself after disaster. The Great Depression led to the emergence of socially conscious, often government-funded, theater and what is now considered a golden age of playwriting. After World War II, the growth of regional theaters made art more responsive to local concerns and less obsessed with profit. After 9/11, Broadway also closed, only to return stronger and more profitable than ever. But the September 11 shutdown lasted three days—not a year and a half.

“Live theater will return to New York in some form,” says Robert Marx. “Because it must. It always has. But precisely when and in what form—that’s hard to say.”

Top Photo: More than three dozen Broadway shows were shut down in March 2020. (CINDY ORD/GETTY IMAGES)

New York City: Reborn 2021

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