Now is the winter of Broadway's discontent

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Now is the winter of Broadway's discontent
An audience at the Belascoe theater before a performance of “Girl From the North Country” in New York, Jan. 13, 2022. Curtains are rising again on Broadway after the Omicron surge caused widespread cancellations, but attendance has fallen steeply. An Rong Xu/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK, NY.- The reopening of Broadway last summer, after the longest shutdown in history, provided a jolt of energy to a city ready for a rebound: Bruce Springsteen and block parties, eager audiences and enthusiastic actors.

But the omicron variant of the coronavirus that has barreled into the city, sending case counts soaring, is now battering Broadway, leaving the industry facing an unexpected and enormous setback on its road back from the pandemic.

In December, so many theater workers tested positive for the coronavirus that, on some nights, half of all shows were canceled — in a few troublesome instances after audiences were already in their seats.

Now, producers have figured out how to keep shows running, thanks mainly to a small army of replacement workers filling in for infected colleagues. Heroic stories abound: When the two girls who alternate as the young lioness Nala in “The Lion King” were both out one night, a 10-year-old boy who usually plays the cub Simba went on in the role, saving the performance.

But there’s a new problem: Audiences are vanishing.

During the week that ended Jan. 9, just 62% of seats were occupied. That’s the lowest that attendance has been since a week in 2003 when musicians went on strike, and it’s a precipitous drop from the January before the pandemic, when 94% of seats were filled during the first week after the holidays.

The casualty list is growing. Over the past month, nine shows have decided to close their doors, at least temporarily. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a huge hit before the pandemic, announced last week that it would close until June; on Sunday, “Ain’t Too Proud,” a successful jukebox musical about the Temptations, closed for good.

Box-office grosses are falling off a cliff. The all-important Christmas and New Year’s weeks, which producers count on each year to fatten their coffers in anticipation of the lean weeks that follow, generated just $40 million this season, down from $99 million before the pandemic. Requests for ticket refunds are now so high that on some days some shows have negative wraps, meaning they are giving back more money than they are taking in.

“This is the worst I have ever experienced,” said Jack Viertel, a longtime executive at Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates five Broadway houses.

Over the long run, industry leaders say, there is every reason to remain bullish about Broadway. Until the pandemic, the industry had been enjoying a sustained boom, fueled by a rebound in the popularity of musicals and by New York’s gargantuan growth as a tourist destination. And this downturn might not last long: There is some evidence that the omicron surge may be peaking, at least in some parts of the country, including New York.

But before it eases, the slump will cost investors tens of millions of dollars and will push theater workers back into unemployment, as dwindling attendance forces productions without abundant reserves to close. And the distress is not just financial: Artists spend years developing shows before they get to Broadway, so a premature closing is a crushing blow.

“It’s harrowing, and there will be a lot of damage done,” Viertel said. “Some shows will be put out of business permanently, and this will be career ending for some individuals.”

Dominique Morisseau, a playwright who wrote the book for “Ain’t Too Proud” and whose new play, “Skeleton Crew,” is now in previews after two virus-related delays, called this moment “extremely painful.” “My play is about plants shutting down during the auto industry collapse, and factory workers wondering every day, ‘Is it shutting down?’” she said. “Now that’s how we’re coming to work.”

The Broadway League, which represents producers, has asked labor unions to consider pay cuts to help shows survive this rough patch. At one point, in a step previously reported by The Daily Beast, the league asked workers to accept half-pay when COVID-19 forced performance cancellations; there have also been discussions about offering lower pay for scaled-back performance calendars.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep as many shows open as possible,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, citing safety protocols and marketing efforts as well as labor discussions.

The talks stalled as unions sought more financial information.

“It’s fair to say that all the unions recognize that shows remaining open is important — that represents jobs for actors and stage managers and everyone else who makes a living in the live theater,” said Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity. But Shindle noted that Broadway shows had received tens of millions of dollars in federal aid last year and that the industry is no longer even disclosing weekly box-office grosses for individual shows, as it did before the pandemic. “Pretty universally, the unions’ response has been that if you want us to make financial concessions, we need financial transparency,” she said.

Meanwhile, shows are collapsing. There are always closings in January, a soft time of year for Broadway, but this season, a crush of announcements started in December, usually one of the most lucrative months. The musicals “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Diana,” “Flying Over Sunset,” “Jagged Little Pill” and “Waitress,” as well as the play “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” all decided to close earlier than planned after omicron hit. And three other shows — “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Girl From the North Country” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” — said they would close for a few months and then attempt to reopen.

“If it means that shows get to come back, hooray,” said Jenn Gambatese, lead actress in “Mrs. Doubtfire.” “The alternative was: Run another week and buh-bye.”

More and more theaters are now dark. By next Sunday, there will be only 19 shows running in the 41 Broadway theaters. Cast and crew from shuttered productions are trying to figure out whether they even worked enough weeks to qualify for unemployment; those who do will get less assistance than they did earlier in the pandemic, because the maximum weekly benefit in New York is now $504, down from $1,104 when the federal government was offering a supplement.

The surviving shows seem to have figured out how to avert the cancellations that bedeviled the industry last month.

One reason: So many workers have already tested positive, and are now back at work (and, notably, no performers are known to have been hospitalized during this latest round). More important: Productions have trained and hired additional replacement workers, including for crew members.

Playbills are regularly stuffed with cast-change inserts. One night, Keenan Scott II, playwright of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” kept his show afloat by going on to replace an actor who tested positive. “Come From Away” saved a performance by deploying eight swings, including alumni and a touring performer who had never worked on Broadway. At “Wicked,” a longtime understudy who had left Broadway to become a software engineer in Chicago returned and performed as Elphaba.

And then there was “The Lion King,” where the young Simba went on as young Nala (uncostumed, and after a preshow explanation to the audience).

“I didn’t want the show to close,” explained the child actor, who performs as Corey J. “I was nervous at first, but then the person who plays Shenzi winked at me, and I wasn’t nervous anymore.”

In the wings between scenes, cast members cheered him on, and at the end of the show, the cast gave him the honor of the show’s final bow.

Producers say they are confident Broadway will regain strength, although they can’t be sure exactly when.

“Let’s face it — producing on Broadway in the best of times is a ridiculous proposition, and the amount of risk involved doesn’t make sense for any sane person,” said Mara Isaacs, a lead producer of “Hadestown.” “But the dreamers will continue to dream. Yes, it’s going to be harder for a little while, but I do believe we will recover.”

One major challenge producers face now is shoring up consumer confidence. Follow the social media account of any Broadway show and you’re likely to see a simple message: Broadway is open. Worried about safety? All patrons are vaccinated and masked, and many theaters have stopped selling food and drinks so masks can stay up.

The most popular shows are still packed, but not quite as tough to get into as they were: Last week, there were seats available even at the industry’s most in-demand shows, including “Hamilton,” “The Music Man” and “Six.” (Premium seats at “Hamilton” were selling for $299, compared with $847 before the pandemic.)

This has become a good time for bargain hunters. Tickets to shows such as David Byrne’s “American Utopia” and the best musical Tony winner “Moulin Rouge!,” both of which were routinely sold out before the pandemic, are now discounted at the TKTS booth in Times Square. And the city’s annual Broadway Week, which starts Tuesday and offers 2-for-1 tickets for most Broadway shows, this year will last 27 days — the longest in the program’s history.

“I would never be able to afford a normal Broadway ticket, but now it seems super affordable to someone like me,” said Amy Grimm, a 45-year-old administrative assistant from Brooklyn, who this month has seen “Girl From the North Country” and “Six.” She said she enjoyed the former, but she added, “There was hardly anyone in the audience, and it was sad to see.” “Six,” she said, felt more normal. “I hooted and hollered through my mask,” she said, “and it was fine.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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