Will Broadway recover from the coronavirus pandemic?

Broadway coronavirus
Photo via Randy Lemoine/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Hamilton, the Broadway phenomenon that has captivated theater audiences for the past five years, began streaming on Disney+ on July 3. That’s the good news for Broadway fans. But the recent announcement by the Broadway League that live performances in New York City will be suspended for all of 2020 due to COVID-19 has to be disappointing and leads to the question: When will Broadway reopen?

Broadway shut its doors on March 12, as noted by NPR. Although the Broadway League set Jan. 3, 2021 as a date for processing refunds, Broadway News reports that it is “not intended as a return date.” Instead, productions will return “over a series of rolling dates in early 2021,” and by September 2020, some were wondering if shows would have to be put off until autumn of 2021. Now, it’s been announced that Broadway will be dark until at least May 31, 2021.

Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the administration’s coronavirus response, told the New York Times in September that people might not feel safe going to the theater without a mask until the middle or end of 2021. “If we get a really good vaccine and just about everybody gets vaccinated, you’ll have a degree of immunity in the general community that I think you can walk into a theater without a mask and feel like it’s comfortable that you’re not going to be at risk.”

Thomas Schumacher, chairman of the board of the Broadway League, said in a press release that theater doors needed to be closed for now because Broadway was meant to be a collective experience. 

“The Broadway experience can be deeply personal, but it is also, crucially, communal,” Schumacher said. “The alchemy of 1,000 strangers bonding into a single audience fueling each performer on stage and behind the scenes will be possible again when Broadway theatres can safely host full houses.” 

The organization said it is working with city and state officials and health experts on a plan to restart the industry. Some of the logistics and safety precautions the league is still planning include screening and testing, cleaning and sanitizing, wayfinding inside theatres, and establishing backstage protocols. 

Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, said it was also working closely with theatre unions to identify what measures are needed to ensure safety for the actors and audiences. 

“We are focused on identifying and implementing necessary measures that will enable us to resume performances safely for Broadway audiences and employees,” St. Martin said. “We are determined to bring back the people who rely on this industry for their livelihood and to welcome back all those who love this vital part of New York City as soon as it is safe to do so.”

The Actor’s Equity Association said in its own press release that the Broadway League’s decision was responsible and has been mirrored by theatre communities around the U.S. 

In June, the Actor’s Equity Association released core principles it believes theatre companies need to support safe and healthy productions. The principles include: 

The epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area, and contact tracing. 

Individuals who may be infectious can be readily identified and isolated, with frequent, regular, and accurate testing with speedy results. 

The way we audition, rehearse, perform, and stage manage may need to change and the venues we work in may need to undergo changes in order to reduce the risk.  

Efforts to control COVID-19 exposure must be collaborative, involving Equity members, employers, the union, and all others involved in the production of theatre. There must be collective buy-in and ongoing evaluation and improvement of health and safety practices. 

In its latest release, the Actor’s Equity Association said the closure of Broadway until next year shows that the industry needs more federal support. The Equity specifically mentioned that the HEROES Act doesn’t do enough to support actors and theatre companies, because it doesn’t include funding for arts programs.  

In the theatre industry, Broadway alone employs close to 97,000 people, according to NPR, and attracts plenty of tourism dollars. Many of those workers are at risk of losing health insurance provided by unions. Broadway News reports that members typically earn health insurance coverage based on the number of weeks they work. Currently, the unions have requested the federal government to provide a 100% subsidy for health insurance coverage under COBRA. Meanwhile, The Actors Fund reportedly has given more than $14 million to 12,000 Broadway workers in need.

In late August, with a Broadway re-opening nowhere in sight, the owner of five theaters sued two of its insurance companies for denying claims during the pandemic, according to the New York Times. The owner, Jujamcyn Theaters, runs shows such as Hadestown, The Book of Mormon, and Frozen.

James Corden, the late-night TV talk-show host who starred in West End shows in London, said he hopes streaming services follow the lead of Netflix, which recently gave $675,000 to a fund set up for stage workers in the U.K. “I do think it would be great if the companies that are in one respect benefiting from COVID—if you look at price shares [of] streamers and all those things—I think some acknowledgement of the volume of arts and artists that have come from that environment, I think it would be really in their best interests to try and support theater in that way, the Amazons and the Apples,” Corden said, via Variety.

But St. Martin is worried about the wagers when Broadway reopens, because theaters probably won’t be full. As she said, via Backstage, ““Everyone would be taking [pay] cuts. Does that mean the person making scale’s pay would be cut dramatically? Maybe not, but there are a lot of people that aren’t paid scale, and nobody wants to talk about that. But do we not want to reopen? Whether we have a social-distancing policy or not, we’re going to have a smaller audience for a while; the laws of supply and demand would tell you that. To socially distance [in the theater], everybody loses some form of income—everybody.”

NPR reported that Broadway makes a considerable contribution to New York City’s economy. It brings in “more people than all of New York and New Jersey’s 10 professional sports teams combined,” and it contributed $14.7 billion to the city’s economy last season. Schumacher remains positive that Broadway will be back and better than ever once the pandemic is over. 

“The safety of our cast, crew, orchestra, and audience is our highest priority, and we look forward to returning to our stages only when it’s safe to do so,” he said. “One thing is for sure, when we return, we will be stronger and more needed than ever.” 

Meanwhile, actors and producers are still trying to find ways to create art. On Aug. 12, it was reported that the cast of Diana will reconvene in an empty theater to film the show so that it can shown on Netflix in 2021. The show was in previews in March before the pandemic shut down the theater world. Its official live theater premiere is now scheduled for May 25, 2021. Meanwhile, most of the original cast of Hamilton reunited in mid-October to fundraise for presidential candidate Joe Biden.

On Sept. 6, dozens of Broadway stars came together to honor the memory of Tony-nominated actor Nick Cordero, who died in July from coronavirus complications. On Oct. 6, Cordero’s wife, Amanda Kloots, said Donald Trump’s declaration that the American people should not be afraid of COVID-19 was like “a dagger in the heart.”

Meanwhile, SNL will return to the airwaves on Oct. 3 with a studio audience, perhaps giving hope to Broadway that at least some live shows in New York can continue forward during the pandemic.

Sources: NPR, Broadway League, Actors Equity Association, Broadway News

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