As Broadway plans its return, 'Hamilton' will require vaccines backstage

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As Broadway plans its return, 'Hamilton' will require vaccines backstage
A person photographs a mural for THE Broadway musical "Hamilton," in New York on May 11, 2021. Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- As Broadway prepares for a fall reopening, “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller said he will mandate that all of his show’s employees, including the cast and the backstage crew, be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Seller is the first producer to make such a declaration publicly, and it is not clear whether any of Broadway’s many labor unions could or would challenge such an effort. Brandon Lorenz, a spokesman for the Actors’ Equity Association, said of a vaccination requirement, “That would be something we would find acceptable, as long as the employer complies with the law.”

Broadway’s cast and crew work in very close quarters in tight backstage spaces, and actors onstage are extensively exposed to one another’s exhalations because they are unmasked, speak and sing loudly in proximity, dance in partnered and group configurations, and in some shows kiss or fight.

Seller’s plan comes as many American colleges and universities say they will require students to be vaccinated, and employers are wrestling with whether to do the same.

Broadway producers, many of whom announced resumption plans over the last week, are still figuring out details, including what safety measures will be necessary come fall. But social distancing is not expected, and ticket prices, from early reports, are not going down.

Seller, who said he does not plan to require vaccination for patrons, disclosed his intentions in a joint interview with Thomas Schumacher, who as president of Disney Theatrical Productions is producer of “The Lion King,” and David Stone, lead producer of “Wicked,” in which the three discussed their decision to reopen their productions — all popular juggernauts — on the same night, Sept. 14.

Schumacher said he would wait for guidance from The Walt Disney Co. before determining safety protocols; Stone said he would make a decision in consultation with other producers.

The trio said they and others started talking a week or two after Broadway shut down, trading tips and comparing coping strategies. Those periodic check-ins continued for more than a year, slowly pivoting to reopening plans. Then Stone made a suggestion in a call with Seller and Schumacher: What if, instead of jockeying for position, their shows all opened on the same night?

“The three of us recognized that by joining together, the sheer announcement would get more play, and that’s good for everybody,” Schumacher said. Seller took the idea to his creative team, which, he said, “were so strongly in support of us holding hands and going together.”

So on Tuesday, “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked,” which are regularly among Broadway’s biggest box office draws, jointly announced that they would open on a single night — a date they chose in consultation with industry leaders and government officials and based on an assessment of when vaccination rates will be high enough, and infection rates low enough, to do so safely.

They are planning staggered curtains — 7 p.m. for “Wicked” (Glinda’s opening line: “It’s good to see me, isn’t it?”); 7:30 p.m. for “The Lion King” and 8 p.m. for “Hamilton” — to allow dignitaries and journalists to stop by them all.

“It made sense, and it frankly was a very effective way to communicate,” Schumacher said. “It said Broadway is coming back.”

Their plan became the focal point for Broadway’s reopening, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared Sept. 14 the date on which Broadway shows would start to return at 100% seating capacity.

But not everyone was ready to defer to the troika.

“The Phantom of the Opera,” with bragging rights as Broadway’s longest-running show, barged out of the gate with the first post-Cuomo reopening announcement, slated for October. “Chicago,” which touts itself as the longest-running American musical (“Phantom” originated in Britain), crashed the Big Three party, declaring it would open on the same night, but announcing it four days earlier.

“Come From Away” opted to seize some of the attention, buying a TV ad spot during the “Good Morning America” segment in which the bigger shows announced their plan. And at least one musical is still hoping to get a jump on “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked” by opening even earlier.

But there’s no question that the trio’s collective action drew national attention to Broadway’s planned return. As the delayed 2021-22 theater season starts to take shape, 23 shows have already announced performance plans, and more are expected soon.

The nine shows that have chosen to start performing in September are well-established brands confident that they can find an audience even at a time when tourism is expected to be soft. They include “Six,” which has a strong tail wind coming out of London; “American Utopia,” a return engagement for David Byrne’s sold-out dance concert; as well as “Come From Away,” “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” and another Disney production, “Aladdin.”

Riskier shows and those with more niche audiences are holding off a little longer. The nonprofits that present on Broadway are waiting at least until October to get started, as are many of the new commercial productions.

Even some big draws are opting to give consumers more time to get comfortable with the idea of gathering in indoor crowds: “Dear Evan Hansen,” for example, is waiting until to December to resume, and two big-budget new productions, a Michael Jackson biomusical called “MJ” and a starry revival of “The Music Man,” are aiming to open in February, although both are planning to start performances in December.

What do the first round of announcements tell us about post-pandemic Broadway?

Patrons will be required to wear face masks. Theaters will have upgraded HVAC systems with virus-trapping filters. Most ticketing will be digital. And theaters are reserving the right to impose a variety of safety protocols — in an explanatory note similar to that posted by other shows, “Ain’t Too Proud” says “protocols may include mask enforcement, increased cleaning and ventilation/filtration enhancements, vaccination or negative test verification, and more.”

Prices, at least so far, are similar to what they were prepandemic, although premium prices are somewhat lower. The priciest seat at “Hamilton,” for example, is now $549, down from $847 before the pandemic. But it will be far easier to cancel or exchange tickets.

Disney, in particular, has taken steps to make ticket-buying less onerous: The company said it would pay all Ticketmaster fees for performances through Aug. 7, 2022. (High service fees often irk consumers; a $99 ticket to “Tina,” for example, costs another $14.70 in fees.) Disney said it would also allow free ticket exchanges and refunds, and would offer package deals for those who buy seats at both “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”

How often will shows perform? The Broadway League and labor unions, concerned about the possibility of soft demand for some productions, have been discussing whether to allow shows to come back with fewer than eight performances a week, and prorated salaries.

The issue remains unresolved, but a few shows are now marketing a reduced schedule. “Chicago” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” for example, are offering tickets to just five shows many weeks; “Six” is listing mostly, um, six.

For the big shows, early sales have been strong, producers said. “Yesterday, we had hope,” Seller said. “Today we have confirmation.”

Among the early purchasers: Claire Grimble, 51, of Belmont, Massachusetts, who bought tickets to “Jagged Little Pill” as soon as that show, featuring the songs of Alanis Morissette, went back on sale. She said the cast album had helped her teenage daughter, who had seen the show in 2019, get through the pandemic.

“We booked tickets for the first weekend it is open,” she said. “We can’t wait.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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