Broadway was slow to accept the inevitable. As the coronavirus began to entrench itself in New York, theater executives, waving that old show-must-go-on flag, thought they could tough it out. On March 10, they said they would scrub down their theaters after every performance. They told actors to stop mingling with audience members at the stage door. Then a Broadway usher got sick. So, too, did several cast members of Moulin Rouge!
On March 12, Governor Andrew Cuomo prohibited gatherings of 500 people or more, a mandate that allowed producers to file insurance claims. Even then, the Broadway League, the industry’s trade organization, sought to minimize the damage, announcing the shutdown would last for just a month.
That night, a bunch of top producers and theater owners gathered at the second-floor bar at Sardi’s to commiserate. One of them had a cough. Within a few days, several others came down with the virus. “We were so blinkered until then,” one says. “Now I have no fucking idea what is going to happen.”
A Show for All Seasons
Broadway, which last year grossed nearly $2 billion, is facing an existential crisis. It was reluctant to acknowledge that because, over its 130-year history, it has weathered many storms. It survived the Great Depression. It survived competition from movies, television, and rock music. It survived the deterioration of its neighborhood, Times Square, in the 1970s. And it survived September 11. Two days after the attack on the World Trade Center, when, for all anybody knew, Times Square might be the next target, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane led more than 1,500 in “God Bless America” at the end of The Producers.
But it turns out that a virus no one had ever heard of five months ago is already more of a threat than Osama bin Laden was.
“After 9/11, people wanted to be together,” says Jed Bernstein, who ran the Broadway League from 1995 until 2006. “It became a patriotic act to see a show, to support New York. Now people don’t want to be together. In fact, they can’t be together.”
It turns out that a virus no one had ever heard of is already more of a threat than Osama bin Laden was.
Times Square is empty, and so are the tills of Broadway’s 41 theaters. As they take in that emptiness, the people who run Broadway say they might not be able to reopen until 2021. If that’s the case, the pandemic will sort out their shows into three categories.
First are the ones that can’t come back. They were struggling to begin with, and they won’t have the resources to hold on. I fear for Bob Dylan’s Girl from the North Country, a beautiful show from the Public Theater, whose ambitions to be on Broadway were not matched by its ticket sales.
Second are the stalwarts—Wicked, Hamilton, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King, and Chicago. They have made hundreds of millions of dollars and will come back. “The day Hamilton reopens, it will be sold out, because seats will be available,” says Bernstein.
Third—and this is the category that terrifies theater people—are the shows that will reopen, and then close because the audience isn’t there. Andrew Lloyd Webber has vowed to reopen The Phantom of the Opera, and he certainly has the resources to do it. But the show is in its 32nd year and survives on tourists from around the world. When will they come back to New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic?
New York’s nonprofit theaters face uncertainty as well. “We have taken an enormous economic hit,” says André Bishop, the head of Lincoln Center Theater. “I’m not talking $100,000. I mean millions.” But he still plans to reopen in the fall with Intimate Apparel, an opera, and James Lapine’s musical Flying over Sunset. All that could change, he admits, but he’s confident that, sooner or later, Lincoln Center Theater will open its doors. “We have an endowment, and we are very lean,” he says. “And we’ve worked too damn hard not to come back.”
For Everything to Stay the Same …
If Broadway is to survive, its economics must change. Premium prices—$850 for Hamilton—are a thing of the past. Premiums began with The Producers, which in 2001 started charging nearly $500 for seats in a couple of rows in the orchestra. Since then, premium pricing has gobbled up many more seats—Broadway’s hooked on premiums. Recoupment schedules are based on them. Premiums justify union pay raises that keep labor peace. In a post-pandemic Broadway, contracts must be renegotiated. If safe distancing in a theater means people sit four seats apart, stagehands can’t command today’s salaries. Chorus kids will have to work for less. And big stars won’t be able to carve out hefty percentages of the box-office gross.
What will also change is the relationship between producers and Broadway’s big three landlords: the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn Theaters. Broadway has been their gold mine for 20 years. Their theaters are (or were) filled with shows that have been running for hundreds, and, in some cases, thousands, of performances. When one of their theaters came on the market, they looked for a winning tenant. But if they were wrong, it didn’t matter. Five other shows were clamoring for that theater.
That will change. When Broadway comes back, there will be empty theaters—and an empty theater is a colossal drain.
Premium prices—$850 for Hamilton—are a thing of the past.
Theater owners “are going to have to become our partners,” a top producer says. “They’re going to have to share the risk in a way they have not been asked to in a long, long time. If they don’t, they will have empty theaters for a long, long time.”
Broadway’s future is troubled. But in a business where everybody thinks his next show is going to be a smash, optimism endures. Much of it comes from performers. And so Hugh Jackman, hunkered down in his New York apartment, rehearses his dances in The Music Man, still scheduled to open in the fall. The cast of Company, which was due to open on March 22 (Stephen Sondheim’s 90th brithday), goes through the show every Thursday on Zoom, with Patti LuPone singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” as if she were filling the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. And Brian Stokes Mitchell, who survived the virus, was singing “The Impossible Dream” out of his window every night to honor first responders until the police, concerned that too many people were congregating to hear him, politely asked him to stop.
The performers are ready to come back as long as they feel safe. Some shows will come back. The question is: When will the audience come back?
Michael Riedel is the host of Len Berman and Michael Riedel in the Morning on 710 WOR. He was once a newspaperman, but those days are gone