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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. February 22, 2021
New York City Reborn
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 slow and 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 increasingly 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.

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.

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)

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.”

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)

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