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Broadway’s Return Is Triumphant, But Uncertainty Looms: “Humans Have to Be as Important as the Show”

Industry members talk New York's billion-dollar theater industry, how COVID changed the culture and why Broadway's return to "normal" may take years.

When Broadway returned this fall, it reopened to thunderous applause — and a rave.

Deejayed by none other than theater legend Andrew Lloyd Webber and held on the street and sidewalk in front of the Majestic Theatre, the flashing lights and reverberating beats that accompanied the Phantom of the Opera club remix during the show’s reopening night party made it impossible to miss that theater was finally back.

The electric energy fueling the return of Broadway’s longest-running show has since echoed throughout theaters across the Great White Way following the official curtain-raising on Sept. 14. A web of reopenings and debuts have functioned like a heartbeat, with an initial 12 shows in September, and now more than 30, pumping life back into the same city blocks that stood muted by the pandemic for over a year.

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When it was first announced on March 12, 2020, Broadway’s initial 30-day shutdown preceded the scheduled opening of over 15 shows and resulted in an estimated $100 million loss in box office revenue, according to The Wall Street Journal. That figure only grew for the industry — which had raked in $1.8 billion in tickets sales during the 2018-19 season — as the shuttering was ultimately extended a year and a half.

Six producer Kevin McCollum says new productions like his own, which was set to open the night Broadway shut down, were equally impacted.

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Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber deejays the re-opening night celebration for Phantom of the Opera on Oct. 22, 2021. Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

Written by Toby Marlow and director Lucy Moss, the punchy, reimagined narrative around King Henry VIII and his six wives raised about $5.5 million in addition to advance tickets sales of over $10 million, according to McCollum, spending “every single dollar to get to opening.” But when Broadway shut down, “we immediately had to return all the money.”

The financial impact of the shuttering stretched beyond theater productions, as Broadway is the center of what the Rent and Avenue Q producer calls “an economic and cultural octopus” of restaurants, hotels and more.

“​​It’s not just that we’re selling tickets to the show,” he explains. “Unlike sports, we don’t put food or parking in the business plan of the show. Cities typically own most of the parking lots, and then the restaurants thrive on live entertainment. We create destination activity.”

This is partly why the COVID-19 shutdown has been called an unprecedented industry closure unlike anything in recent memory, including worker strikes and the Sept. 11 attacks.

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Broadway’s Minskoff Theater, home to Disney’s The Lion King, sitting closed in March 2020. Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

“In terms of 9/11, it was, ‘We have to get back up or the terrorists win. It’s America and New York City, and nobody shuts us down,’” says David Caddick, longtime Webber collaborator and the Phantom of the Opera’s musical supervisor. “We were up by Thursday after tragedy on Tuesday.”

But when it came to COVID, “This virus didn’t happen in just one place. It lived every day,” McCollum says. “The only similarity with 9/11 is the tremendous loss of human life.”

The losses from COVID are something Phantom’s leading man, Ben Crawford, saw first hand. “We lost a dresser here at the show to COVID right at the beginning. Right after we had shut down,” he says, slightly choking up. “Then we lost an usher in the front of the house. And everyone’s heard Nick Cordero’s story.”

After a year and a half of so much uncertainty and tragedy, Broadway’s reopening amid the ongoing pandemic is seen as a major win for one of New York’s biggest businesses. Yet, many in the industry say that theater’s journey back to “normal” may actually take a few years — if what was once normal ever returns.

***

Broadway’s shutdown was the opposite of its long and heavily planned reopening. It came quickly and with little time to prepare.

At the Nederlander, the Sam Mendes-directed The Lehman Trilogy — which chronicles the 1800s rise and 2007 financial crisis fall of Lehman Brothers — was “given notice that by five o’clock the theaters were closed. All of them. That was it. Get on a plane, go home. End off,” says Neal Street Productions producer Caro Newling.

“It was an awful thing because we were all trying to get our heads around what COVID really meant,” Newling explains. “But there was nevertheless something at least reassuring about the clarity that this was happening across the board; it was mandated, and don’t mess around questioning it because you’ve got a few hours,” she adds.

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A sign posted outside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, home to Six, noting the 30-day shutdown that began March 12, 2020. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Crawford was at the Majestic Theatre, performing for what would unknowingly be both his last time in the role and in the last Broadway show for nearly two years.

“I have a TV in my dressing room, and I’ll usually have on whatever sports is going on. We were getting ready for March Madness and teams started dropping out,” he recalled. “A couple hours later, we get this announcement during the show that this will be our last show for four weeks. We need everyone to clear out of the theater by six o’clock.”

Flash forward to now, 19 months later, and Crawford is at a weeknight dress rehearsal, where the Phantom of the Opera’s perpetually masked man has found himself onstage, laughing.

It was over an “eye-roll-worthy” joke, he says; an “Oh, remember that?” moment recalling something that had happened before COVID-19 abruptly shut down one of New York City’s biggest industries. His laughter quickly pivoted into something else: humility.

“We’re just so grateful to be here,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You don’t have to say that, but you feel like you have to. There is a lot of gratitude to be able to have a job because there are so many people we know who just left the business because they had no choice.”

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John Riddle, Ben Crawford and Megan Picerno during the re-opening night curtain call for the Phantom of the Opera. Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

New York City was one of the first places in the U.S. hit hard by the coronavirus. With uncertainty over when work would return and a public health crisis raging around them, some Broadway workers made the decision to leave. Crawford — who ultimately made several trips in and out of the city — was among them. After flying to Arizona to be closer to his two kids, the actor started finding ways to himself busy until the call to return came.

He immediately purchased video equipment, he says, and in April and May worked on an extended play of about four songs before eventually striking up a beer blog on Instagram, something that nearly led to a brewery-based performance.

“I thought, ‘All of this will not only be good for me to stay relevant but to use my voice.’ I’d done a couple of things here and there, but it wasn’t like I was flexing the muscle every day,” he says. “I think it was like survival from so many perspectives — not only as a person, but your creative energies.”

That he might never return to Broadway constantly loomed in his mind, and as the shutdown stretched on, from a few months to over a year, Crawford and other members of Broadway’s vast workforce faced a myriad of mounting challenges, leading some to rethink their careers in live theater altogether.

***

For some of those who stuck it out, jobs awaited them following then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s May 2021 announcement that Broadway would officially reopen at 100 percent capacity. But with a Broadway slate running in September at about half the number of shows from the industry’s last full season, there were fewer crew jobs.

Crawford tells THR there’s also virtually no auditioning taking place right now. What auditions there are have gone remote and, due to a landmark reopening deal brokered by the Broadway League, are for roles largely available to performers willing to abide by a vaccine mandate.

For those for whom the wait continues, it’s not just a paycheck they’re hoping for, either. Part of Broadway’s workforce exodus was due to a loss of health care benefits.

Following the shutdown, the Broadway League orchestrated a short-term emergency relief agreement that covered reduced pay and a full month’s health insurance for union stage workers — though not contractors like playwrights — on qualifying for-profit Broadway shows. After that, groups like The Actors Fund, Actors’ Equity, the Dramatists Guild and IATSE continued to make public calls to secure funding for those out of work on Broadway and across the nation.

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The Mondays Dark Live Stream Telethon for The Actors Fund of Las Vegas at The Space on April 27, 2020, in Las Vegas. Denise Truscello/Getty Images

That meant wrangling support through private sources, like celebrity-backed fundraisers. Additionally, there was continuous government lobbying, such as the campaign led by the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds to renew COBRA subsidies, which covered 50 percent of members’ health care premiums and were expected to expire in July 2021, for industry members not working due to the pandemic. (New York is the only state that offers a COBRA subsidy for entertainment workers.)

While facing financial uncertainty of its own, the Fund continued to work as Affordable Care Act navigators during the shutdown to help individuals secure health insurance. And as Broadway’s official reopening approached, they launched a direct financial assistance program to support industry members coming back to the city.

“We need to help people when they hit that low point and they don’t have money for food or rent, and when they need to move back to where the work is because there’s nothing happening in their field where they’re at,” the Fund’s president, Joe Benincasa, tells THR.

Some productions even provided a few of these supports themselves early on in the shutdown. The Broadway Journal reported that Caroline, or ChangeDear Evan HansenHadestownGirl From the North Country; and Company — which received $8.85 million from its insurer, according to an email its lead producer sent to investors — were able to dip into their performance disruption insurance to help blunt their losses. Other productions eventually took their insurers to court in an attempt to get a payout. McCollum says the insurance he had in place helped Six cover its workers in the initial weeks of the shutdown.

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The cast of Six during reopening night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Oct. 3. Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

“We actually were able to pay everybody who works for the show and, through the Six limited partnership, keep their insurance in place, keep some staff on and help with housing issues and people getting home,” he said. “But it was hard.”

It will likely remain hard. Just weeks into Broadway’s reopening, Broadway League vice president Charlotte St. Martin estimated that its full workforce won’t be back again until the spring.

“Do I think five months from now we’ll have all 97,000 jobs back? No, but I bet we have 85,000 jobs,” she told THR in September. “We have to have time to build all the shows back. By the end of December, we’ll have 35 shows that will be open, with the spring bringing more as we get our international tourists.”

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Tourists and timing are key factors in the success of Broadway’s return, industry members tell THR, with the uncertainty of the lingering pandemic affecting everything, down to when a show opens. During the 2018-19 season, which saw an all-time high of 14.8 million admissions, the League reports that tourists accounted for 65 percent.

“The big question is, when will the international travelers come back to New York?” Benincasa tells THR. “We’re going to be counting, I think for the next few months, solely on domestic tourists.”

CNBC reported that Wicked, Hamilton and The Lion King — Broadway mainstays, ticket sales record-setters and three of the four shows that reopened Sept. 14 — fell short of selling out their opening weeks. All arrived amid depressed international tourism and ongoing concerns around the delta variant. (As of Nov. 8, the U.S. began welcoming back tourists from 33 nations it had barred from entering the country due to the pandemic.)

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A worker opens their window as tourists purchase tickets to Broadway shows at the TKTS booth in Times Square on Nov. 12. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Knowing that audience turnout might be smaller, at least in the beginning, productions have had to more carefully consider when they will reopen their doors.

“It’s like airplanes taking off again. You only have so many runways,” McCollum says. “The economics of Broadway are difficult, even with everybody cooperating. New York’s an expensive place to live, the real estate’s expensive, and putting on these shows is expensive. To restart a show, you want to do it in a responsible way, so the shows are rolling out when the shows are ready.”

The permanent closings of Frozen, Mean Girls, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hangmen and West Side Story — with Beetlejuice, once announced as closing, set to return on April 8 — loom over shows looking to survive Broadway’s current season, where anything can happen.

While musical Waitress broke the single-performance box office house record at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre during its reopening on Sept. 3, grossing $197,878, by Oct. 25, plays Is This a Room and Dana H. announced they were ending their runs early. Family comedy Chicken & Biscuits — an entry in Broadway’s historic number of Black-written productions — joined them on Nov. 11 as among the earliest to succumb to the challenges of producing a show during a pandemic.

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The cast of Chicken & Biscuits during the opening night curtain call at The Circle in the Square Theatre on Oct. 10, 2021. Bruce Glikas/WireImage

While Chicken & Biscuits producers pointed to a string of performance cancellations related to breakthrough COVID cases among the cast, producers for the other two shows simply cited low ticket sales as the reason for their early closure. These earnings were initially obscured at reopening, and to a large degree still are for individual shows, by the League’s decision to withhold releasing weekly box office figures, yet another shift caused by the pandemic.

When announced last summer, the League pointed to this season’s reduced slate of shows, as well as productions’ inconsistent performance schedules, as reasons why it wouldn’t release figures. To the League’s point, on Nov. 12, it released shifting performance schedules for the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, featuring alternate and evening performances, as well as special weekday matinees to appeal to the city’s holiday tourism crowd. (In 2019, the week ending on Dec. 29 saw Broadway gross more than $55 million in ticket sales, the highest in a six-month period, according to the League’s data.)

Yet, on Oct. 26, St. Martin announced the organization would start doing just that, but through weekly show composites versus individual show data. “Each week we are going to share a composite of the grosses, the capacity for the week, the grosses for the week, and the number of performances accomplished for the week,” St. Martin said in a statement. “We will also include a season to date number for each of these categories.”

Producers for Is This a Room and Dana H., which have since extended runs through Nov. 27 and Nov. 28, respectively, due to ticket sale increases, also pointed to another reason for their early closure: a lack of state funding.

***

Going into Broadway’s fall reopening, returning shows had one major leg up on new ones — the Save Our Stages Act. Tucked into a federal $900 billion stimulus package, it provides $15 billion in relief for independent venues that had to halt operations due to the pandemic. Doled out as Small Business Administration grants, these financial lifelines offer venue operators six months of financial support, including payroll, rent, utilities and maintenance.

Multiple industry members who spoke to THR credit the legislation as one of the most significant reasons their shows can go on in a business where survival has never been a guarantee but is now additionally complicated by an ever-shifting public health landscape.

When one show closes early, temporarily replaces a castmember who tested positive for COVID like Waitress, or, like Disney on Broadway’s Aladdin, becomes the season’s first — though not only production — to cancel performances due to COVID breakthrough cases, it’s not necessarily seen as an isolated scare. Everyone now collectively holds their breath, as if the success or failure of the entire industry’s return hinges on a single production’s outcome.

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The cast of Disney on Broadway’s Aladdin during reopening night curtain call on Sept. 28. Curtis Brown

“It felt like Aladdin did the right thing. Disney did the right thing. At a certain point, it’s diminishing returns to continue acting as if this is not something that needs to be taken seriously,” Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity, tells THR. “The other thing is that we have to be extra aware of the potential lasting impacts, even if it’s not long-haul COVID, but some significant symptoms on people who sing and dance for a living.”

She adds, “The thing that we don’t want to happen would be for Broadway to reopen, have a bunch of very public outbreaks and close down again.”

Multiple industry members tell THR that, financially, Broadway could likely withstand only a single major relaunch, so when they finally pulled back the curtain, they would have to make it count, avoiding major COVID-related shut downs as much as possible. For Phantom of the Opera, that meant opening a little later.

“It takes months of planning to be able to reopen. We can’t suddenly say we will reopen next week. So the decision [about when to reopen] had to be made several months in advance of September, when the country and especially the state was still dealing with the delta variant,” says Caddick. “Phantom could afford to wait a little, and see how other shows were dealing with it and make its own plans for its return.”

While some individual shows could afford to somewhat pandemic-proof the dates of their debuts, all of the productions opening are responsible for abiding by the same COVID protocols.

***

In the summer months that followed the fall reopening announcement, individual theaters and their respective productions publicized a range of patchwork approaches to COVID protocols and ticket refunds based on the state’s generalized health and safety guidance. Much of this became more unified in late July when the League announced a groundbreaking deal.

Crafted in concert with the industry’s other major institutions including Actor’s Equity, the agreement outlines a floor of safety protocols — from testing and vaccine mandates to masking and improved HVAC standards — that covered performers, crew, theater staff and audiences. Reviewed every several months based on current public health guidance, the deal most recently revised its vaccination requirement on Nov. 8 to include anyone 5 to 11 years old following the FDA’s recent emergency approval of the Pzifer Biotech vaccine for children.

The agreement was a byproduct of over a year of on-again-off-again discussions between major Broadway players, that began around 90 days into the pandemic when St. Martin launched more than 40 task forces comprised of the League’s 700-plus person membership.

Around half of those groups were related to the different union contracts, both for touring shows and Broadway, helping set guidelines for everyone from the ushers to the singers. The others focused on things like governmental affairs, which involved city, state and federal officials alongside producers, as well as marketing, digital and events. Since reopening, marketing efforts have included the recent revival of the 1977 “The Only Sure Way to Make It to Broadway” MTA campaign and a slew of discount ticket opportunities to lure audiences back.

All 41 Broadway venues, including dynasties The Shubert Organization, The Nederlander Organization and Jujamcyn Theaters, helped come up with what was needed on a facility-by-facility basis for buildings that were sometimes more than 100 years old.

“Each building has different ingress and regress, some have bigger lobbies and more open space,” St. Martin says. “Each theater had to do its own specific protocols. But the basics of masks, testing twice a week, as many contactless services as you can have, whether to give out the playbill — which initially we weren’t going to do when touch was a bigger issue — the theater owners led the way.”

***

Like the theaters, no single production is alike — from big to small ensembles, including child actors. So musicals and plays went out and hired their own epidemiologists, while the industry established the position of a COVID safety manager. These roles not only manage testing, masking and distancing protocols, but set guidance and make decisions regarding the health and safety of their performers and crew.

“A COVID safety manager is not just someone associated with the production that went and took a two-to-four-hour class, but somebody who actually has the authority to stop the rehearsal or stop the show,” Shindle says. “They are really focused on their duties — whether they are dealing with an understudy or the producer — and making sure that everybody understands the rules, and why they are in place.”

As The Lehman Trilogy, the season’s only transatlantic production, geared up for its Broadway return in early fall, it did so under a complicated web of pandemic-related travel bans and visa issues that became the production’s “biggest worry,” says Kash Bennett, managing director of the National Theatre. Those extra layers of governance, according to Newling, could have “stopped the production dead in its tracks.”

The act of operating on two continents across an ocean also lead the Lehman team to its decision to offer multiple rounds of testing on top of the twice-weekly tests mandated by the League deal, something Newling said was “going to be one of the biggest extra lines on the budget.”

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COVID Safety team and audience outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

“Because we’re moving people transatlantically we’re pre-testing them, testing them again for travel, testing them again the minute they step off the plane,” she says.

Additionally, the show mounted “double of everything,” including two full crews and set, with a second revolving box “sitting in the middle” of the London theater, to ensure its production remained as safe as possible. That comes along with a “no visitors” rule backstage, and efforts made by the theater to add Hepa filters in the dressing rooms.

“It’s no mean feat to have a rehearsal room in London with a British stage management team, who will then hand over to the U.S. team. But we didn’t want to fly the U.S. team into London, because we didn’t want to in any way put that team in any form of jeopardy.”

For McCollum, all of these protocols for the productions, venues and audiences are not only key to keeping Broadway open but embody the heart of what makes live theater great. “We have to honor that we are responsible to each other,” he tells THR. “Going to the theater coming out of a pandemic and doing it safely — being vaccinated — this is being part of something larger than yourself. Individual rights only work if society decides that every individual is valuable.”

The increased focus and efforts on keeping Broadway audiences and workers safe through COVID protocols has also led to one unexpected outcome: A shift in the conversation around defining workers’ health and safety in an industry driven by a “show must go on” mentality.

“It has been romanticized and internalized in our industry to the point where we often overlook that it can be toxic, that it can be weaponized,” Shindle says. “I think that if one lasting thing comes out of this, whether you’re talking about COVID safety, general health, injury or the kinds of emotional harm that can find their way into workplaces, it’s that the humans have to be as important as the show.”

***

The scope and detail of the League’s performance provisions, which have been re-upped in their entirety through Feb. 28, 2022, since first being deployed in September, have empowered Broadway to put health first while also giving it the freedom to once again do business, industry members say.

They’ve also led the way for all of New York City business, as well fellow theater communities domestic and abroad. “It was only after The Broadway League announced we will not be allowing anybody into our theaters who isn’t [fully] vaccinated and can prove as such that some of the London landlords began to say the same thing,” says Bennett.

The legality of the mandates and protocols that have helped reopen Broadway, particularly around the vaccine, still largely exist in “new grey areas” that may ultimately “be an issue for the courts,” says Jeffrey Citron, managing partner at Davidoff Hutcher and Citron, which represents restauranteurs, amusement parks, ticket brokers and more. Still, he’s confident they will “absolutely” encourage economic recovery for Broadway and New York City.

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Audience members cheer on Sept. 24, 2021, during first showing of Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Al Hirschfeld Theatre since the March 2020 shutdown. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

“There are always going to be people who are initially going to be scared, but I think it’s like anything else. Over a period of time, more and more people will feel relaxed about it, the numbers will come down, more people will be inoculated,” he says. “This isn’t gonna happen overnight, but the fact of the matter is, if you know something is safe, you’re more prone to do it.”

While people are eager to return to normal as quickly as possible, mounting anything on Broadway — even in the best of times — has always taken time. For that reason, as well as the ever-changing pandemic public health landscape, the reality that live theater’s ongoing return will not be measured in months but years is something that everyone has come to accept.

“The pandemic will be with the people in theater and entertainment generally for a long time,” Benincasa acknowledges.

In the meantime, it’s about protocols and persistence.

“It might take a couple of years, but we had 10 record-breaking years in a row,” St. Martin says. “We can survive and not be record-breaking.”