(Judith Miller’s article appeared in City Journal, 2/22.)
Live theater has been devastated by the pandemic, and its return remains uncertain.
No industry in New York City has been hit as hard by Covid-19 as theater, and no industry is said to be as vital to the city’s recovery. But the much-heralded, long-awaited reopening of Broadway remains largely aspirational. When the pandemic shuttered New York’s theaters on March 12, 2020, performing-arts professionals hoped for a summer revival. As the virus spread, prospects for a reopening in the fall gave way to hope for non-virtual theater by January 2021, and then for summer 2021. Last October, the Broadway League predicted that New York theaters would finally reopen in fall 2021. In January, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, made the target date vaguer by telling performing-arts professionals at a virtual conference that he thought that theaters could safely reopen “sometime in the fall of 2021,” with patrons still wearing masks and social distancing, “if everything goes right.”
But things have not gone right. The vaccine rollout has been thus far slow and problem-plagued, and more contagious Covid strains that may require vaccine boosters have emerged. Fauci’s goal of herd immunity, defined most recently as requiring 75–85 percent of the population to be either immunized or recovered from the disease, seems increasingly elusive.
For live theater in New York, this has meant even greater uncertainty in an already anxious, financially fraught time. “No one knows what lies ahead,” says Robert Marx, director of the New York–based Samuels Foundation, which supports quality work in the performing arts. “We’re in totally unknown territory when theaters and other performing arts venues will have had no earned income for over a year and a high percentage of staff will have been furloughed.”
Since March 12, 2020, according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, 52 percent of actors have been unemployed, among the highest rates of any sector. An industry estimated to sustain roughly 97,000 jobs in its 2018–19 season and contribute an annual $14.8 billion to the city’s coffers has never been so challenged.
Few want to predict, for instance, how many of Broadway’s 31 shows that were running, and eight that were in preview, will reopen—or when. So far, four shows have fallen victim to the pandemic, among them Mean Girls, a hit that, since its opening in 2018, had not only recouped its $17 million capitalization costs but also grossed $124 million in more than 834 performances, its producers said.
Many of the 40-plus Broadway theaters deemed so vital to New York’s recovery may have difficulty financing the sweeping changes that will be required to reopen—including replacing air-filtration systems, reconfiguring seating, modifying lobbies and access to restrooms, and other changes that safety protocols may demand and that will likely be needed to lure back virus-wary patrons. Some of the oldest, least financially secure, theaters may not be able to reopen, given the devastating plunge in their revenues, which totaled some $1.8 billion from audiences of 15 million the year before Covid-19, the Broadway League reports, but tumbled to some $300 million in ticket sales before theaters closed last year. Even pre-pandemic, Broadway theaters had to sell most of the seats in their small spaces to make ends meet.
“On Broadway, we won’t be able to pay our bills with social distancing,” warned Barry Weissler, who, with his wife, Fran, is among the most successful producers on the Great White Way. “The changes required for 100-year-old Broadway theaters will cost millions and millions.” Some of the wealthier organizations—the Shubert, for instance, which owns 17 Broadway theaters and made millions staging popular musicals like A Chorus Line, Bye Bye Birdie, and Monty Python’s Spamalot—can afford to make the changes, but many others cannot. “So if you’re counting on Broadway to help revive the city, don’t,” Weissler said. “It will be the last to reopen.”
Some nonprofit theaters may turn out to be relatively better positioned to reopen than their commercial counterparts. Many occupy newer venues, are relatively less dependent on ticket sales, and can raise money from foundations, private donors, and the government. A coalition of select nonprofit venues spent the winter lobbying Albany for permission to sell tickets to events featuring limited live audiences. With their flexible designs, high ceilings, and open floor plans, theaters like the Park Avenue Armory, which can seat 1,500, and the Shed, which opened last year in the new Hudson Yards complex on Manhattan’s West Side and can hold 2,300, argued that they could offer live performances safely. Unlike traditional Broadway theaters—with their cramped orchestra pits and small backstages, lobbies, and restrooms—these newer venues more closely resemble the bowling alleys, gyms, churches, casinos, and museums that have been permitted to reopen, provided that patrons wear masks and maintain social distance.
When Broadway and other performance venues do reopen, ticket prices, which were steadily rising before the pandemic, could fall, at least temporarily, to lure theatergoers back into closed, even renovated, spaces. But that, too, is likely to jeopardize the commercial viability of some theaters. And given the reduction in seats available for sale, even higher prices might not compensate theater owners.