Disney's 'Frozen' Will Not Reopen on Broadway

The St. James Theater closed during the coronavirus pandemic on April 08, 2020 - Getty - H 2020
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The cast was notified Thursday afternoon that the musical will not be returning to New York's St. James Theatre due to "the industry-wide shutdown and resulting economic fallout."

Let it go.

In the most dramatic sign to date that even the deepest pockets on Broadway will struggle to recover from the extended COVID-19 shutdown that began March 12, Disney Theatrical Productions confirmed Thursday that its opulent stage adaptation of Frozen will not be returning to New York's St. James Theatre when the sector reopens.

"In the summer of 2013 when Frozen began its road to Broadway two things were unimaginable: that we'd soon have five productions worldwide, and a global pandemic would so alter the world economy that running three Disney shows on Broadway would become untenable," Thomas Schumacher, president and producer of Disney Theatrical Productions, said in a statement. "The extraordinary contributions of Broadway's original company plus those who have joined more recently cannot be overstated. Frozen, like all shows, is wholly dependent on those who create and perform them but this was an uncommonly close and talented group and they'll be missed."

The stage musical was directed by Michael Grandage and choreographed by Rob Ashford; it features a book by the original film's screenwriter and co-director Jennifer Lee and music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.

"Finally, I have to acknowledge our incredible audiences," added Schumacher. "Night after night, the fans showed us how much they loved this show and we look forward to seeing them at Frozen around the world."

Capitalized at around $35 million, the show opened in March 2018 to mixed reviews, but came out of the gate doing strong business thanks to the global popularity of the animated source material, making it the highest-grossing musical to open in the 2017-18 season. However, Frozen was never quite the hot-ticket stage blockbuster that many in the industry had anticipated.

Initial receipts were in the $1 million-$2 million range per week, even higher during holiday periods. But while the show's daily sales spiked by 24 percent last November as the movie sequel hit screens worldwide, they had leveled off again to around the $1 million mark in the weeks prior to the shutdown early this year. Cumulative grosses to date for the musical in New York stand at $155.2 million, with admissions at 1.36 million.

A hefty tally like that would be enough to keep many productions open, not to mention the constant sight of young girls in Anna or Elsa drag flocking along West 44th Street around showtimes. But the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic stoppage are causing even major industry players like Disney to rethink the viability of reopening shows with high weekly running costs at a time when audience demand is likely to be as low as one-fifth of what it was before the lights went out in March. 

Observers are bracing for a domino effect of other productions — both established and incoming — following Disney's lead as the troubled sector scrambles to imagine prospects for economic recovery with no clear answers in sight for the immediate future of commercial theatergoing. A number of industry surveys recently have indicated that most theatergoers intend to wait at least a few months before re-entering crowded live-entertainment venues. That could leave many Broadway houses sitting vacant for extended periods for the first time in decades.

"Today's news should be an an all hands on deck moment for Governor Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio and Congress," said Actors' Equity executive director Mary McColl in a statement responding to Disney's announcement. "The arts and entertainment sector drives the economy of New York, just like it does in cities and towns across the country. Decisions made in the days and weeks ahead will shape the future of the arts sector for years to come. Public officials at all levels must think much more boldly abut supporting the arts or our entire economy will be slower to recover."

"Unfortunately, nothing the government has done has helped our members that produce shows and theater owners who have to keep these historic monuments open and successful," Charlotte St. Martin, president of trade organization The Broadway League, said in a statement. "We certainly would love to see an extension of the employment benefits for our workers and ideally support for healthcare beyond when they will be covered through whatever their contract says. But for the producers, we need tax credits, we need opportunity for loans at low interest or no interest, because Broadway is a very risky business. We anticipate anywhere from six months to two years of losses. So we are reaching out to government officials, hoping that in their next round of relief that somewhere we will be included."

Earlier this week, the Broadway League issued a statement extending the closure of the 41 theaters in its New York network through Sept. 6, a full three months beyond the last scheduled extension to June 7. However, the League made it clear that a future date for the industry's return remains in flux. Most pundits are speculating that Broadway will not be open again for business until early 2021.

Announcements also were made this week that two high-profile productions — the revival of Neil Simon's Plaza Suite starring Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, and MJ, the Michael Jackson bio-musical — have pushed their start dates to March 2021, respectively from spring and summer this year. Other shows are expected to follow, which bolsters the theory that Broadway could end up remaining dark for an entire year.

Given that bleak scenario, Disney clearly made the decision to prioritize its top-earning Broadway hits, The Lion King and Aladdin, which have been running for 22 and six years, respectively. Having three high-cost musicals playing simultaneously on Broadway can be a challenge for producers even in flush times, and in the current climate, pulling the plug on the weakest of them to support the other two makes financial sense.

Disney rarely confirms profitability on its shows, though given the company's heavy marketing spend and Frozen's elevated budget, it seems likely that the show has not recouped its investment on Broadway. But the division has a history of moving into profit with national and international touring productions, even of its Broadway disappointments like Tarzan. Shows from Disney Theatrical Productions are not subsidized by the corporate parent company and must be financially self-sustaining, like those of any commercial producer.

Dismantling the Frozen mothership at this time also allows for strategic cost savings on scenic and costume elements, which can be repurposed on four satellite productions that were already in the pipeline when the shutdown occurred. Those remain on track to open in London; Hamburg, Germany; Tokyo; and Australia, with dates staggered through the end of 2021. Disney confirmed that the show's North American tour will resume at some point, though firm dates are not yet in place.

With its two-year Broadway run now complete as of March 11, Frozen played 26 previews and 825 regular performances at the St. James.