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Broadway had its mostly successful pandemic run disrupted over the last week.
Having caught public health experts and New York City’s live performance community off-guard, the latest wave of COVID-19 cases from the highly contagious omicron variant is causing concern in New York, home to the country’s largest theater district. But it’s also raising concerns elsewhere, including the U.K.’s West End and in California.
On Broadway alone, the week of Dec. 13 saw nine separate Broadway productions shutting down for single or even multiple performances. The city and state’s concurrent rise in cases was reflected on New York’s stages, which had spent months serving as a leader for safely navigating the pandemic.
After navigating a full reopening amid the delta variant with only a handful of COVID-related show cancellations — including Aladdin, Chicago and Chicken & Biscuits (also the season’s only permanent COVID-related closure thus far) — Broadway had seemingly done the impossible through November by proving live entertainment could safely carry on.
But now, as the industry gears up for Broadway’s first big holiday season in nearly two years, six musicals — including Hamilton, Aladdin and Dear Evan Hansen — have canceled performances through Christmas and the upcoming, anticipated play Skeleton Crew has delayed its official opening to Jan. 19. Meanwhile, Jagged Little Pill, the award-winning musical of Alanis Morissette rock songs, has closed its curtain for good.
Amid the rapidly changing situation for live theater, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin about why an industry-wide shut down is not imminent, why shows are taking varied approaches to canceling performances, how the League is helping to support Broadway’s holiday season safely and what lessons have been gleaned from delta in the fall as Broadway gears up for winter and spring.
How were the League and its members feeling heading into the holiday season, which is historically one of Broadway’s biggest earning times?
We were very optimistic about the holiday season. We went into December with 84 to 85 percent of the seats in all of our theaters occupied. The international travel ban had been lifted, and we’re beginning to hear a lot of languages being spoken in Times Square, which is always a good thing. Tourism is getting much stronger. There are 300,000-plus people in Times Square every day, which generally means good things for Broadway.
On Friday, the League debuted BWAYTODAY.COM to help ticket buyers quickly locate the regular and special holiday performance schedule. How long has this been in the works?
It had not been in the works previous to the omicron variant. We already had that same chart on our site, you just had to go to broadway.org and ask for performance times. But because there were so many false rumors that Broadway was shutting down, we got our folks together on Friday and made that all happen in one day. We’re very aggressive in our outreach of saying: we’re not closing. Yes, some shows are closing. One day we had five closings, and three of them turned out to be false positives. We did have more closings on Saturday — I think 11. But that still means we had 21 shows performing. We rarely have very many Monday night performances, but speaking to our holiday schedule, tonight there are 13.
To your note about not closing, there are no plans currently to shut down Broadway widely?
We have absolutely no plans to shut down. We are paying serious attention to the protocols. The other 20 to 30 shows continue to perform because we’re following the protocols that we set up, and it shows they’re working. People are tested before they get in with everybody else, and if their test is negative, then they get to go on. We had a couple of situations on Saturday that I’m aware of, one of them a performer’s appendix burst. It was not COVID, but it was a lead, and there wasn’t a backup for that day because the backup happened to be on holiday. Then there are those that are real cases, and that depends on what they’ve been doing and where they were before they can make a determination about coming to work. But our number one priority is safety and security and, if the show is opening, we believe that we have the correct information that says it is safe to open for the cast, the crew and the audience. If we don’t feel it’s safe, we don’t perform that day.
Omicron quickly became the dominant variant by Monday. From the epidemiologists working with Broadway, is there a clearer idea now about what was behind the jump in positive cases last week?
We don’t know. We had three epidemiologists — three of the top ones in the state and the country — at a meeting on Tuesday, I believe, of last week. That’s when we had our board meeting and annual meeting. We absolutely don’t know what happened other than we know that all cast and crew are vaccinated, and almost all of them have been boosted. We don’t know if family members or roommates exposed them. We don’t think it was the theater because they’re testing so often. Some shows are testing every day, and sometimes twice a day when there’s a matinee and evening performance. So we don’t really believe that it was coming from the cast performing together. But, again, we don’t know. As our dear friend Dr. [Anthony] Fauci has said numerous times over the last 18 to 20 months, this changes every day, every month, every week. You think it is one thing, and then there’s something new.
During last week’s string of shutdowns, shows took a range of approaches to canceling and rescheduling performances. Why might one show cancel through Christmas and another cancel before showtime but return the next day?
My educated guess is the newer shows maybe have understudies that aren’t as efficient in delivering the role as the lead is. Some of the older shows have more experienced understudies and more experienced swings. I know one show last week where the lead was out, the understudy was on vacation, the swings were covering other parts, and they just didn’t have enough people to stand in. Some shows have stronger protocols than others. They test twice a day instead of once a day — whatever they believe is the right thing for their show. And every show is completely different — from if they kiss and how much dancers and performers might spit to how many people are in a cast to how crowded backstage is. What I do know is that everybody understands it is in nobody’s best interest to cheat or to risk because nobody wants the industry shut down or their shows to shut down. It’s why we were able to go from August to last week with almost no shutdowns. Each show makes their determinations based on the facts they’re dealing with that day, then everybody follows the protocols we’ve agreed upon.
Update, Dec. 22: Following this interview’s publishing, St. Martin clarified comments about the role understudies have played in Broadway shows’ winter closing decisions, in a statement that has since been published to broadwayleague.com. “I sincerely apologize about my recent comments about understudies and swings. I clearly misunderstood and for that, I am truly sorry. After speaking with several understudies and swings this morning I realize how this mistake has hurt many people. There was never any intention of disrespect. I do not make theatre but am committed to its success and to acknowledging the immense work of those who bring it to life eight shows a week and 52 weeks a year.”
The League’s health and safety protocols got Broadway through several months of the delta variant with few shutdowns. In light of the past week, is it thinking about tightening its regularly reviewed mandates and protocols with omicron?
We have not talked about that beyond that we’re going to talk about it. I think all of the epidemiologists are studying omicron and trying to understand what needs to be done. Nobody knows omicron well enough yet to change any of the protocols other than to say exactly the things we’ve been saying all along. So I think we will be looking at it and, I guess, revisiting in early January when they’ll have had a good six weeks to study what’s going on and figure out if there are new things that we should be doing. Right now, we’re just being very careful and adhering to the protocols and erring on the side of safety and security.
The most significant update to the protocols has been the addition of a single-shot vaccine mandate for kids 5 to 11, with the removal of the PCR testing. How important is having vaccinated children for Broadway’s recovery going into the spring?
I think it’s been important all along. I think that we had the test requirements before the vaccine requirement said how serious we were about it. We did have some consumers who were not happy with that when we did it and still aren’t happy, but we’re going to keep everybody safe. And if we lose some loyal patrons, we will be very sorry, but we’re not going to risk anyone. When we set our protocols to open, we had no idea how theatergoers would respond to the required vaccine and mask mandate. There were people who were worried that it would kill their shows, but we were very happy that when we announced the vaccine mandate and the mask mandate together, ticket sales went through the roof because people wanted us to lead the way.
Is the League looking at new audience engagement and marketing measures in light of the child vaccination mandate, or is it business as usual for right now?
As far as the League is concerned, it’s business as usual. The shows that market to families, I’m sure, have significant plans. We do have kids night on Broadway, which we’re not doing this winter at this point. We also do Broadway Week, which we are doing this year, and quite often, ticket buyers who purchase the two for one will bring their child.
You mentioned box office numbers before. The League initially didn’t plan to release them and then switched to releasing cumulative numbers. Can you talk about why that switch was made?
We collect grosses, attendance, performances and all of that on a normal basis so that we can compare year-to-year and develop trends. We collect those for our benefit for [the League] members — information which the press has benefited from. There was nothing about this year that was going to be traditional, but we decided to share because, as a community, there were thoughts that we were not doing well even as many shows were 100 percent every night. So if you can present the fact that 85 percent of the seats are full for shows, you know that we’re doing well, which should mean to the theatergoer that we must be doing something right and keeping people safe. That’s where we are, but there are as many opinions on whether that should be done or not as there are people that belong to the Broadway League.
Looking ahead to the spring, what was the biggest success of the fall Broadway season and putting on shows during a pandemic? What was the biggest lesson?
The biggest success was getting this very disparate group of people and shows to act as a single community. To get our whole community to work together and agree upon the kind of protocol and the communication strategies was a heart-lifting, amazing lesson that we all have. That was a great success, which to me bodes well for the future when we may have a variant after omicron. We will work together to ensure the safety and security of everyone.
The lesson kind of goes back to what I just said. We had 44 task forces working on Broadway made up of over 300 members. Some met every day and still are. Many of their work is done or almost done. I think what we’ve learned from that is communicating almost to the point that it feels like you’re being a nuisance was critically important during this time. Over-communicating with people you think don’t even want the information is important because, in truth, everybody wants it. I think that will take us into the spring and all the way up to the Tony Awards.
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