After a bleak winter in which the Omicron variant shrivelled Broadway’s lucrative holiday season, New York’s vaunted theater industry has bet on a big spring, nearly doubling the number of shows on offer as the pandemic-ravaged business thirsts for a revival.
Adding in all those plays and musicals – 16 new productions plus three returning from hiatus opening over a five-week period – would always remain a gamble, given that in this not-yet-post-pandemic era, no one knows if there are enough tourists and theatergoers to allow so many shows to go on.
And now the persistent persistence of the coronavirus is complicating matters even more. A rising number of cases in New York City, coinciding with the arrival of the virus’s BA. 2 sub-variant, has once again rocked Broadway, infecting some of its biggest stars, including Daniel Craig, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, and forcing four shows to temporarily cancel performances.
“What we thought we would go into this spring, which would always be busy and busy, has changed dramatically in the past week,” said Greg Nobile, the lead producer of a new farce, “POTUS”, which, while still in rehearsals , has had to adapt because four of the seven actresses tested positive for the corona virus. “Somehow it feels like, ‘This again?’ The answer is yes, but this time we have to ask the question: how do we really keep the show going and in what ways do we adapt to what is a new normal?’
Broadway’s big spring kicked off on a cold night in late March with the opening of a revival of “Plaza Suite,” a Neil Simon comedy starring Parker and Broderick, originally scheduled to begin performances on March 13, 2020. Broadway shut down due to the pandemic the day before that performance, and the Hudson Theater remained empty for two full years, with the married co-stars’ names on the marquee and set on stage, before returning to try again.
“Our hope is that this is not a moment, but that this is the way we will function now,” said Parker, in a pink satin gown with a beaded tulle overlay, opening night at the end of an 80-foot preshow. Red carpet. “We have restaurants waiting to reopen, we have hotel workers waiting to return, we have delis that have been affected, we have ushers willing to work front of house.”
The crowd that came to cheer her on, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon and Martin Short, were excited.
Finished with the gauntlet of camera crews lined up in a translucent tent, Broderick remarked how much he had enjoyed his return to the theater as a spectator and now as an artist. “We’re learning to live with the pandemic or endemic — whatever you want to call it now — so the stronger theater and everything New York gets, the more normal life is,” he said. “This is a part of the world that’s coming back.”
But eight days later he tested positive, and two days later she did too.
“Plaza Suite” has been closed since Thursday, as has “Paradise Square”, a new musical that was already struggling at the box office and can hardly afford the lost revenue. Craig’s show, a revival of “Macbeth”, canceled 10 days of previews. And “A Strange Loop,” a new Pulitzer Prize-winning musical based on its Off Broadway run, scrapped its first five days of previews. All cited positive coronavirus tests among company members as the reason; all hope to resume performances this week.
The latest virus-related cancellations were all on new shows; longer-running shows had more time to prepare for absences and could continue understudies. Notably, a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which opened last December, temporarily lost six of its principals to positive coronavirus tests in April, including the lead actress, Katrina Lenk, but the show went on. (The best-known performer, Patti LuPone, was not among those affected, possibly because she tested positive in late February and then missed 10 days.)
And the effects aren’t limited to Broadway: Off Broadway, shows like “Suffs” at the Public Theater and “At the Wedding” at the Lincoln Center Theater have also temporarily canceled performances.
The industry is undergoing a stress test of sorts as the annual number of Broadway openings, which tend to cluster just before the late April eligibility deadline for the Tony Awards, is even higher than usual as some productions have their start dates. postponed in hopes of avoiding the peak of the Omicron variant. This month has the highest number of Broadway openings in April in more than a decade.
Broadway is always a risky business, with far more shows failing than succeeding. Some producers recognize that having a plethora of new shows vying for attention and audience in the same fraught time isn’t ideal, but they tend to be optimists, and each seems to believe their show is the audience they’ve been waiting for. .
“You can play a little chicken-and-egg,” says Jordan Roth, the president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which runs five Broadway houses. “Do we have to wait until every tourist is in town? But why is every tourist in town when we wait? At some point we have to decide that we are going to live.”
This is actually Broadway’s second attempt at a rebound. The first started gradually last June, with the return of Bruce Springsteen’s wildly popular evening of song and storytelling. The first piece started with performances last August and in September, with a moment of hope and celebration, the greatest musicals returned.
Early box office returns and attendance were encouragingly robust. But then the Omicron variant arrived in New York, contributing to the premature closing of nine shows and crushing attendance at the worst possible time of year: Only 62 percent of Broadway seats were taken in the week ending January 9. .
Until the end of winter, there were only 19 shows in Broadway’s 41 theaters. With little competition, many of those that survived — mostly established hits or shows with famous titles — fared quite well. In the week ending March 20, 92 percent of the seats were occupied.
As the number of shows grows and untested titles join the hits, average attendance is declining, with 85 percent of seats occupied in the week ending April 3. A total of 224,053 people attended the 31 shows that ran that week, which is the highest number of ticket holders this year, but is significantly lower than the 315,320 who attended the 38 shows in the comparable week in 2019.
“The reopening of these shows is a real celebration of progress,” said Tom Harris, the president of the Times Square Alliance, marking this busy spring with an exhibit of 10-foot-tall Playbill monoliths erected on a pedestrian street in a theater district. . square. He noted that as Times Square got livelier, it’s still quieter than it used to be: About 255,000 people passed through the neighborhood on an average day in March, he said, down from about 365,000 daily visitors before the pandemic.
Until the pandemic, Broadway was thriving, with 14.8 million cardholders spending $1.8 billion at the box office during the 2018-19 season, the last full season before the coronavirus. But travelers to New York City, which accounted for two-thirds of Broadway audiences before the pandemic, have not returned in prepandemic numbers; the city’s tourism board expects 56.4 million visitors this year, up from 66.6 million in 2019.
That helps explain why Mayor Eric Adams celebrates Broadway at every opportunity — in recent weeks he appeared at the openings of “The Music Man” and “Paradise Square” and attended a student performance of “Hamilton.”
“Every time I can walk down a red carpet,” Adams said in an interview at the opening of “Plaza Suite,” “I know it will bring green currency to our city.”
With the city dropping vaccine mandates in restaurants and other public spaces, Broadway must decide whether they will do the same. Current security protocols, which require all cardholders to show proof of vaccination to enter theaters and remain masked inside except when eating or drinking, are in effect through April 30. Theater owners and operators had planned to announce by April 1 whether it would extend those rules, but they postponed that decision until April 15 as the number of cases increased.
At the same time, the new shows keep coming. So many are opening this month that “POTUS,” starring Julianne Hough and Vanessa Williams, ended up rehearsing at the Daryl Roth Theater, in Union Square, because the production couldn’t find a suitable space in the theater district.
On a recent Saturday, the cast gathered to work on scenes on a makeshift White House set. One of the stars, Rachel Dratch, was still out with the coronavirus, so her role was rehearsed by an understudy, Anita Abdinezhad, while another star, Julie White, was back for the first time since ending her solitary stint. White, who had been watching rehearsals via video while recuperating, was still coughing under a mask, but had her lines cold and she leaned in for the comedy.
When she arrived, she was visibly delighted to be back at work. She noted her relief when she finally saw negative results on her daily coronavirus test, saying, “It was so good to see that one line this morning.”