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In the longest scheduled extension to date of the blackout of Broadway theaters prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, trade organization the Broadway League announced Tuesday that the 41 top-tier New York theaters that went dark March 12 will remain that way at least through Sept. 6.
That’s a full three months beyond the last extension, which bumped back the original April 12 end date for the closure to June 7. However, few pundits are expecting to see theaters open for business Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day, which falls on a Monday when most Broadway theaters remain dark. The situation seems likely to be reevaluated as that date approaches, with producers and theater owners adopting a wait-and-see policy in accordance with state guidelines and other safety and economic considerations.
“No one wants to get too far ahead of the governor on this,” said one prominent producer who spoke off the record.
“While all Broadway shows would love to resume performances as soon as possible, we need to ensure the health and well-being of everyone who comes to the theater — behind the curtain and in front of it — before shows can return,” Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin said Tuesday in a statement. “The Broadway League’s membership is working in cooperation with the theatrical unions, government officials and health experts to determine the safest ways to restart our industry. Throughout this challenging time, we have been in close communication with Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo’s office and are grateful for his support and leadership as we work together to bring back this vital part of New York City’s economy — and spirit.”
The League’s decision follows last week’s announcement from the Society of London Theatres, extending the shutdown of live entertainment venues in the British capital through June 28. Like Broadway, that date appears to be a marker rather than a set plan for reopening. West End theaters have been canceling performances on a rolling basis, which seems certain to continue through the summer.
Broadway was the first sector in New York to impose a blanket suspension of operations on March 12, and most insiders expect it to be one of the last to come back.
In a sign that producers are approaching reopening with the utmost caution, the Broadway revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, starring Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, announced Tuesday that it will be pushed back by a full year, with the limited engagement now scheduled for March 19-July 18, 2021, at the Hudson Theatre. Directed by Tony-winning actor John Benjamin Hickey, the comedy was originally scheduled to begin previews March 13, the day after the Broadway shutdown, and was one of the fastest-selling productions of the spring.
“We remain deeply committed to bringing Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite to New York as promised and cannot wait to help welcome audiences back to our beloved Broadway,” said Broderick and Parker in a statement. “Until then, everybody please stay safe.”
While some have floated the idea of theaters reopening with socially distanced seating plans, few if any producers think that model would work given Broadway’s exorbitant running costs. The more likely scenario involves temperature checks for theatergoers along with compulsory masks and gloves, no intermissions and deep-disinfectant cleaning of auditoriums between performances. But many questions remain, including how to provide adequate protection for actors in productions that don’t allow for social distancing.
The famous William Goldman quote about the film industry seems especially applicable to post-pandemic Broadway: “Nobody knows anything.” But the smart money seems to point to an early-2021 reopening, with anecdotal estimates ranging from January through March.
In what could turn out to be a harbinger of things to come for many of the country’s stages, Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, one of America’s largest and most respected nonprofits, last week took the bold step of announcing that operations will resume with a compressed mini-season of just three productions running March-August 2021. That represents a massive reduction from the originally scheduled 11 shows, with a budget slashed from $31 million to $12.6 million. Those drastic measures make necessary allowances for the time required to build and rehearse productions, underscoring the complicated logistics for the theater sector of emerging from lockdown.
A Shugoll Research industry survey this month indicated that only 41 percent of New York theatergoers say they are likely to return when theaters resume activity, while almost 1 in 5 people, or 17 percent, say they are very unlikely. More than half those polled, or 58 percent, said they will wait at least a few months before attending a show.
When theaters went dark, the 2019-20 season was just a little beyond the midway point, with another 16 productions scheduled to open before the April 23 cutoff for 2020 Tony Awards consideration. An announcement was made March 25 that due to the coronavirus shutdown, the Tonys would be postponed to a later date to be set once Broadway resumes activity.
Two Broadway shows that had begun previews when the lights went out — Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen and a revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — have already announced they will not reopen after the suspension ends. Other shows from nonprofit producers that were about to begin performances have been pushed back to next season, including Roundabout’s Birthday Candles and Caroline, or Change; Lincoln Center Theater’s Flying Over Sunset; and Manhattan Theatre Club’s How I Learned to Drive.
With Plaza Suite also now postponed, that still leaves nine incoming productions in limbo, some of which had minimal advance sales and muted buzz at the time of the shutdown, even less so now. How many of those will forge ahead with opening plans remains to be seen. Uncertainty also hangs over established shows that had started to see a slight decline in business after the initial boom period — Mean Girls, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and even Disney’s Frozen among them.
Many are quietly wondering about the wisdom of coming back to half-empty houses even for long-running behemoths like The Phantom of the Opera, which relies heavily on tourism for the majority of its traffic. Even the most optimistic estimates don’t anticipate the return of tourists to New York in sizable numbers before summer 2021 at the earliest.
If most of Broadway’s 41 houses do reopen, the likelihood of swift financial casualties and prompt closings could mean many prime venues will sit vacant for the first time since the slump of the 1980s and early ’90s. The steady growth since then, which propelled Broadway to a record $1.8 billion in grosses last season with attendance of 15 million, now inevitably seems headed for a major reset. Some industryites are asking whether this will mean renegotiating ticketing price scales, landlord percentages and union rates to bring down the prohibitive costs that put Broadway off limits to many entertainment consumers.
Losses to the sector are difficult to calculate, especially with no certainty about a reopening date, but 2019 box office grosses for mid-March through Labor Day totaled $915 million. Industry analysts generally estimate that factoring in the losses to theater-district businesses fed by the Broadway economy — hotels, restaurants, bars, parking garages, taxis and car services — means multiplying total ticket sales by three. That would peg the overall financial blow for the six-month period at a staggering $2.7 billion. At any rate, the impact on one of New York City’s principal economic drivers and job pipelines will be devastating, with the fallout sure to be felt for years to come.
As for the Tony Awards, there are two principal schools of thought about which way to go.
Some are lobbying to put a cap on the partial season and present awards for the shows that opened before March 12. This, however, would handicap recent openings like West Side Story and Girl From the North Country given that not all of the Tony Nominating Committee will have seen them and certainly not the majority of voters. Shows that opened early in the season, on the other hand, like Moulin Rouge! and the limited-engagement, Tom Hiddleston-led revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, would have an advantage.
The alternate plan is to combine the truncated partial 2019-20 season with any shows that open between the resumption of Broadway operations and the late-April cutoff for 2021 Tony consideration, presenting the double awards at a ceremony in June next year. That option also has clear disadvantages for some, however, given that voters have notoriously short memories and shows like Betrayal or The Inheritance that have long closed will be ancient history by then.
Whichever route the Tonys choose to go, there are sure to be disgruntled players. But even a partial ceremony of outstanding Broadway artistry right now could serve as a much-needed morale booster to a sector facing unprecedented challenges.
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