Broadway will remain closed at least until June, and probably longer

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Broadway will remain closed at least until June, and probably longer
The Helen Hayes Theater closed during the coronavirus pandemic on April 08, 2020 in New York City. The Broadway League announced today that theaters will remain closed until June 7, effectively ending the 2019-2020 season. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images/AFP.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Broadway will remain closed for at least another two months, industry leaders said Wednesday, as they formally acknowledged what has been widely known: that their initial target of reopening in mid-April has become impossible because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Broadway League, a trade association representing producers and theater owners, said the 41 Broadway houses would remain shuttered at least through June 7. But industry leaders widely expect the theaters to remain closed longer — many say that a best-case scenario is reopening following the July 4 weekend and that it is possible that the industry will not reopen until after Labor Day.

“We’re hopeful that the restrictions will be lifted by June 7,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. “If they’re not, we will continue to monitor government restrictions and will advise ticket holders as soon as we know what those restrictions are.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, asked at a news conference in Albany about the Broadway announcement, said it was too early to determine when large gatherings could resume. “I wouldn’t use what Broadway thinks as a barometer of anything, unless they’re in the public health business,” he said.

He added, “Before you go to Broadway theaters, people are going to say, ‘When can I go back to work? When can I go back to school? When are the other essential services going to open?’ Before they go to a play, there’s going to be a lot of other questions that they’re going to ask, and that’s going to be a function of numbers.”

The pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of people around the world and has battered the global economy is also wreaking havoc with the theater industry. Broadway is not only an important center for the art form but is also big business: The industry drew 14.8 million patrons last season and grossed $1.8 billion.

The entire industry — like so many others — is on pause, at the cost of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars.

Spring and summer programming has already been canceled in other sectors of the performing arts world — all five Edinburgh festivals, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival, and New York nonprofits including Lincoln Center Theater and the Roundabout Theater Company. In Britain, London’s West End theaters have canceled all performances through May 31, and in Canada, Toronto’s Mirvish Theaters have closed until June 30 “at the very earliest.”

Broadway has been loathe to officially announce a far-off reopening date for several reasons: Ticket sellers are reluctant to refund more tickets than they need to, sooner than they need to; each closing extension requires another consideration of whether and how to compensate or provide health benefits for unemployed workers at a time when there is no box office revenue; and getting ahead of government mandates might endanger insurance coverage. (Theater producers and 14 labor unions are now negotiating a possible extension of health benefits for workers affected by the ongoing suspension of performances.)

But theater presenters also expect that their stages will recover more slowly than some other parts of the economy because live performance usually involves large numbers of people getting together in confined spaces, which could be viewed as a public health risk, and theater tends to draw an older audience, which is a population particularly vulnerable to this coronavirus.

Broadway has even more challenges than other parts of the theater world: It is heavily dependent on tourism, and it is not clear when visitors from around the country and around the world will again be excited about visiting New York. And the high production costs of Broadway shows mean high ticket costs, which could be an obstacle during a recession or depression.

The League said that people who had already bought tickets for Broadway shows through June 7 should soon receive an email about refunds or exchanges; if such an email is not received by Sunday, the League advises ticket holders to contact the organization or company that sold them the tickets.

The uncertain Broadway schedule has impeded the Tony Awards, which honor Broadway plays and musicals. The ceremony, originally scheduled for June 7, has been postponed indefinitely.

A few options being discussed in the industry: The Tonys could extend the eligibility deadline, which had been April 23, for shows to compete in this year’s awards, and hold a ceremony later in the year. But the longer Broadway remains closed, the less practical that seems because of the amount of time it takes to preview and open a show and then allow the approximately 850 Tony voters, who live all over the country, time to see it.

One alternative: Honor an abbreviated 2019-20 season, considering only those shows that opened before the March 12 shutdown. That would exclude 16 shows that had been scheduled to open between that date and the April 23 deadline.

Another option: The Broadway League and the American Theater Wing, which jointly produce the awards, could consolidate the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons and let any shows that opened over a two-year period compete for honors at an awards ceremony next year.

In any case, awards organizers are hoping CBS will agree to air a broadcast, coordinated with the reopening of Broadway, that would celebrate theater as a way of reminding viewers of the joys of the art form.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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