Broadway to Go Dark, NYC Venues Shutter Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

The Broadway Theater advertises West Side Story on February 7, 2020 in New York City - H 2020

New York Gov. Cuomo announced a mandate of no gatherings of 500 or more people as of Friday at 5 p.m., with the new guideline going into effect one day earlier for the Great White Way.

New York City continues to see events and large gatherings paused amid the coronavirus pandemic, as Broadway and some of the city's biggest venues prepare to temporarily close their doors.

The news of closures began to roll in Thursday as the city was developing density reduction guidelines. On Thursday afternoon, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo shared new guidelines during a press conference, announcing a mandate of no gatherings of 500 people or more going into effect Friday at 5 p.m. local time. Exempt from that rule are schools, hospitals, mass transit and nursing homes.

For Broadway shows, however, the rule goes into effect 5 p.m. on Thursday, with trade organization the Broadway League announcing that all performances will be suspended through April 12.

In order to qualify as official Broadway theaters, auditoriums must have a minimum 500 seats. Those 41 houses range from the Hayes Theatre, the smallest, with 597 seats, through the Gershwin, with 1,933. The monthlong shutdown will cause lost revenues conservatively estimated at $100 million, not to mention the logistical challenges of such a mass volume of refunds and exchanges. The related loss of income to theater-district restaurants, hotels and other facilities will push that figure significantly higher in what is expected to be a staggering economic blow to the city. Cuomo described the potential financial impact as "incalculable."

For gatherings under 500, which covers all of the city's vast network of off-Broadway theaters, seating capacity will be cut in half. However, many major off-Broadway companies, like Signature Theatre, The Public Theater, Playwrights Horizons and Atlantic Theater Company, are responding with extreme caution, suspending all performances in the coming weeks even in spaces that comply with the new occupancy guidelines.

"Most of the people who contract the virus will self-resolve or be treated at home," Cuomo stressed during his address. 

The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall have canceled all events through March 31. The Met has also suspended all rehearsals.

"In response to the public health emergency and in consultation with the office of the Mayor, effective immediately, all Met performances and rehearsals will be canceled through March 31," reads a statement. "We are announcing this closure at the same time as other cultural institutions, including the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art will temporarily close its three locations — The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer and The Met Cloisters — starting Friday in support of the city's effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. 

"The Met's priority is to protect and support our staff, volunteer, and visitors, and we have been taking several proactive precautionary measures, including discouraging travel to affected areas, implementing rigorous cleaning routines, and staying in close communication with New York City health officials and the Centers for Disease Control," said Daniel H. Weiss, president and CEO of the museum, in a statement. "While we don't have any confirmed cases connected to the museum, we believe that we must do all that we can to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our community, which at this time calls for us to minimize gatherings while maintaining the cleanest environment possible. We look forward to soon announcing when we'll be able to welcome our staff and visitors back to the museum."

All of the performing arts institutions on the Lincoln Center campus will suspend public performances and screenings for the month of March. The Juilliard School, located at Lincoln Center, will postpone all performances until March 29. The decision coincides with the school’s decision to move to remote learning across all divisions; more than 90 events will be affected, including many student recitals. Film at Lincoln Center will be closing the Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center effective 5 p.m. on Thursday. The Museum of Modern Art will close through March 30.

The New York Public library is closing through March. The 92nd Street Y has suspended all performances, talks and concerts until March 22. All Smithsonian museums in the city, as well as in Washington D.C., are temporarily closing to the public starting Saturday. Also in the capital, all performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts have been canceled through March 31.

The Upright Citizens Brigade Theaters have canceled performances at all venues on both coasts indefinitely. The New-York Historical Society will close until the end of March. And New York City Center, which seats 2,750 in its historic main auditorium, has dropped all performances of its upcoming dance and theater productions.

Mayor Bill de Blasio had told CNN on Thursday that new rules were imminent, but that they were trying to avoid a shutdown of the Great White Way. "I don't want to see Broadway go dark if we can avoid it," de Blasio had said. "I want to see if we can strike some kind of balance."

Cuomo announced a state of emergency last week as the coronavirus — now considered a pandemic — continues to spread across the state and the globe. On Thursday afternoon, De Blasio announced a state of emergency for the city, warning, "It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better." As of Thursday afternoon, the city had 95 confirmed COVID-19 cases with more than 320 cases statewide, De Blasio predicted the city could be at 1,000 cases by next week and said the crisis could last six months or longer.

During his Thursday press conference, De Blasio mentioned that major venues like Madison Square Garden and Radio City in Manhattan, and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center will also close their doors. "All of our largest venues will now no longer have gatherings until such time in this crisis as it's acceptable to do so. I unfortunately suspect that will be a number of months. So places like Barclays, Madison Square Garden, Radio City will obviously not be operating," he said.

The confirmed cases in New York City include a Broadway usher who worked at theaters housing the shows Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Six. Both those productions were in previews at the time, with Six scheduled for an official opening on Thursday, which has now been canceled. Producers have requested that critics, most of whom saw the show at press performances in recent days, hold their reviews until performances resume.

There are 31 shows currently in production on Broadway. Producer Scott Rudin had reduced ticket prices to $50 each for all five of his shows, including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with some other productions following suit.

As recently as Monday, producers remained confident that a shutdown could be avoided, but as the pandemic accelerated this week, that drastic safety measure became inevitable. Particularly given the large number of older Broadway patrons, in the age range most vulnerable to the virus, many insiders had begun asking why the decision to close the theaters was taking so long. The Broadway industry reportedly had been waiting for the decision to be taken out of its hands, since insurance policies are understood to provide coverage only in the event of a shutdown ordered by the government.

"Our top priority has been and will continue to be the health and well-being of Broadway theatergoers and the thousands of people who work in the theater industry every day, including actors, musicians, stagehands, ushers and many other dedicated professionals," said Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin in a statement on Thursday.

In addition to Six, other shows scheduled to open in the next few weeks that will now be pushed back include Martin McDonagh's Hangmen, Tracy Letts' The Minutes, the Virginia Woolf revival, Stephen Sondheim musical revival Company, new musicals Mrs. Doubtfire and Diana, and the epic drama The Lehman Trilogy.

With opening dates to be rescheduled for those productions, other incoming shows set to open later in April and due to begin previews in the next few weeks also will be impacted, even if operations resume on April 13 as per the League announcement.

Those include the plays American Buffalo, with Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss; Birthday Candles, with Debra Messing; Take Me Out, with Jesse Tyler Ferguson; Plaza Suite, with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker; How I Learned to Drive, with Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse; and the musicals Flying Over SunsetCaroline, or Change; and Sing Street

All that reshuffling casts a cloud over this year's Tony Awards, given that it will be almost impossible to pin down new opening dates in time for the eligibility cutoff date of April 23. The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to the Tony Awards administration for comment as to whether that date or even the awards themselves on June 7 could end up being pushed back and will update this story when a response is available.

If the Broadway shutdown lasts the full month as expected, it will be the longest disruption to the Great White Way in modern history. In 1975, 12 musicals were shut down for 25 days due to a musicians strike, and the 2007 stagehands strike caused a shutdown for 19 days. These stoppages had minimal impact on shows doing strong business, but they did force struggling productions or shows that were still finding their footing to close early. 

The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened on a Tuesday in 2001, so shows were canceled that evening, as were both matinee and evening performances the next day. But they were back up and running by Thursday and while business initially was slow to resume, a popular campaign to encourage New Yorkers to get out and help reanimate the city in the wake of the tragedy had a positive effect. More recently, most of Broadway went dark for the three-day period during and immediately after 2012's Hurricane Sandy.

Given the outlook for the current shutdown, a handful of shows underperforming at the box office and not bolstered by solid advance sales appear likely to fold before operations resume.

Thursday's coronavirus-related announcements also brought considerable upheaval to the off-Broadway sector. 

Among the major off-Broadway companies, Signature Theatre, has canceled all performances of its productions through March 22, including Cambodian Rock Band and The Hot Wing King, with refunds being issued automatically to ticket holders. New York Theater Workshop also has suspended its productions of Endings and Sanctuary City, both on hold for 31 days.

Another off-Broadway mainstay, The Public Theater, canceled all productions and programs through April 12, including the recently opened Coal Country and upcoming premiere of The Visitor, a musical starring David Hyde Pierce, adapted from the 2007 indie film.

Hinting at possible contingency plans should the shutdown in live performances stretch on, The Public posted a statement to its audiences that digital alternatives are being explored: "As we all navigate this situation together, we're reminded that the heartbeat of our community is shared moments of creating or experiencing theater together. While nothing can fully replace those in-person connections and conversations that live theater and gathering sparks, we're working diligently and creatively to develop digital artistic experiences and content to remain connected with you."

The Vineyard Theatre, which is running Lucas Hnath's well-reviewed play Dana H., has canceled all performances March 13-31 and will resume April 1-12 at 50 percent capacity, in compliance with the mandate issued by Cuomo. The production also will extend through April 19. Dance drama Beyond Babel announced a hiatus to its engagement at The Gym at Judson, which seats 150 people, with shows for March 13 through April 6 to be rescheduled in May.

Soho Rep's New York premiere of Wolf Play, scheduled for March 17-April 19, has been pushed back to begin performances April 12. Eastside venue 59E59 Theaters, which reports that productions on all three of its stages were booked at near capacity for the month of March, also has suspended programming through April 1. All productions at HERE Arts Center will be suspended and offices closed through March 31. And the producers of both Jersey Boys and the play Drift, running at New World Stages, have canceled all performances through April 12.

Ars Nova likewise has shut down performances of its commissioned world premiere Oratorio for Living Things for 30 days and closed the company's offices for the same period. While refunds are available, some nonprofit theater companies like Ars Nova, HERE and Bedlam, which has scrapped its upcoming production of The Crucible, are encouraging patrons to donate the cost of their tickets to help support artists and staff.

Some shows, like First Love at The Sheen Center, are cutting their losses by closing early, in the case of the Turgenev-inspired musical, a week-and-a-half ahead of schedule. Atlantic Theater Company also has canceled all remaining performances of the play Anatomy of a Suicide, with Carla Gugino, and She Persisted, The Musical, based on the book by Chelsea Clinton. And Playwrights Horizons has dropped all remaining performances of the musical Unknown Soldier, just days after it opened, while also postponing Selling Kabul, which was slated to begin March 27, to a later date.

Among big-name productions affected by the shutdown, London import Lungs, which will mark the U.S. stage debuts of former The Crown co-stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith, has been postponed from its scheduled start date of March 25 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. New dates have not been announced. All live programming at the popular cultural hub is suspended through March 29, while film screenings will continue at 50 percent capacity.

Renowned dance theater company Noche Flamenca's Antígona, which was scheduled to run at La MaMa March 19 through April 5, has also been postponed in response to President Trump's travel ban from European countries, which he announced during his Oval office address on Wednesday night. The ban "makes it impossible for company members to come from Spain to New York right now. The organizations are rescheduling the performances for sometime in the next few months and will announce the new dates as soon as possible," reads a statement.

Acknowledging the brutal blow these cancellations and suspensions will represent to the already fragile ecosystem of off-Broadway and regional theater, the Dramatists Guild, the national trade association of playwrights, composers, lyricists and librettists, released the following statement on Thursday:

"We urge theaters of every size, in any locale where cases have been reported, to take Broadway's lead and consider postponement of their current and upcoming productions, until such time as medical experts have determined performances to be safe again. While we feel it is necessary to curtail gatherings of hundreds of people in enclosed spaces at this dangerous moment, we are mindful of the great financial hardship that such shutdowns will have for those who make their living in the theater, including many Guild members. So, while we are calling for the industry to protect itself and its audiences, we also expect and demand a governmental response that provides sufficient public assistance in proportion to the damage wrought."