New York City can't rebound without Broadway. And Broadway's road back is uncertain.
For months now, Thomas Schumacher's dining room table has been taken over by a master list of every Broadway show that's seeking to reopen or schedule an opening night — from the established "The Lion King" to the new "Diana: A True Musical Story." Since the pandemic-related shutdowns, the Disney Theatrical Group president and his colleagues have been working through various scenarios to get New York theater back on its feet.
But a half-year into an ongoing human tragedy and economic calamity that has drained the cultural lifeblood of the city, neither Schumacher — who is also chairman of the Broadway League trade group — nor anyone else knows for sure when the nation's premier performing arts district will start up again. The earliest estimates for some of New York's concert halls and theaters to resume are spring 2021; a few new productions, such as "The Music Man" with Hugh Jackman and "Plaza Suite" with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, have announced early spring beginnings on Broadway. Even so, those involved in the planning say privately that it could be autumn 2021 before venues reopen.
Repeatedly, as science and government grapple with understanding COVID-19's patterns and devastating impacts, arts leaders here — as elsewhere — have had to build and rebuild safety plans for both arts workers and audiences. At the city's pace-setting institutions — the 41 theaters of Broadway, the campus of Lincoln Center, the dance and music and other performance spaces of downtown and the outer boroughs — dates for reopening have been set and then pushed back, as the logistical questions evolve and multiply.
The task has proved far more daunting than anyone could have imagined, amounting to a struggle of wrenchingly complex proportions with no reliable end in sight. And at this point, though, Broadway — the ultimate land of make-believe — is holding on to a hope that early 2021 is still feasible. "I am believing that this spring we will be back because we have to commit to it," Schumacher said. "We have to come back. And we have to gird our loins."
Still, he and his colleagues are wrestling with monumental challenges: How do 10 or 20 or possibly even 30 productions — all essentially starting from zero in ticket sales — manage to reanimate Broadway all at once? How is the industry's limited rehearsal space assigned? How staggered do the reopenings have to be? Should shows that were struggling before be gently encouraged to throw in the towel?
Broadway alone accounts for more tickets sold each year than for all of the metropolitan area's professional sports teams, and the industry pumps on the order of $13 billion annually into the city economy. It seems fair to say, then, that until the return to health of the performing arts, the city cannot really be said to be back.
The problems for theaters and concert halls — ventilation systems in need of updating, cramped quarters for artists and other workers in backstage areas, a lack of specific federal guidance about what safety measures are required, and a host of other issues — are bedeviling the path back for the purveyors of some of the world's premier venues and attractions. Some of Broadway's theaters, such as the Belasco and Lyceum, date back to just after the turn of the 20th century, with narrow passageways and dressing rooms, sometimes shared, that are more like closets. An actor's quick costume change in a tiny nook backstage can require two or even three assistants, all breathing in the same few cubic feet of oxygen.
Such is the degree of difficulty that while the city's flagship art museums are already reopening, with state- and city-approved controls on capacity and mandates for masks, theaters have no firm restart date.
The timetable hinges on advances in detection and prevention of the novel coronavirus, via development of rapid testing and vaccines. These are crucial in the commercial domain of Broadway, where social distancing is an untenable remedy for multimillion-dollar productions that require their 1,000- to 2,000-seat spaces to be filled to near-capacity to be profitable. Museum directors like Adam Weinberg of the Whitney Museum of American Art say they have been able to demonstrate that their air-filtration systems and crowd-control procedures are adequate. Performance venues have not.
As Scott Rudin, producer of now-dormant Broadway hits such as "The Book of Mormon" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," explains, the other variables that must be taken into account are mind-boggling. "How many shows come back and at what level of attendance?" he said in a Zoom interview. "What will labor do? What will [theater] owners do? What does working from home mean for the nightlife of New York? What happens to hotels, restaurants, tourism? How many people leave the city and don't come back?"
Tallying the financial losses to a bedrock sector of the New York economy is itself a gargantuan task: In the six months since the historic shutdown began — a closure without parallel in American life — the jobs of thousands of performers, directors, designers, stagehands, ushers, box-office workers, administrators, publicists and more have been cast into limbo. The aid doled out by the federal Paycheck Protection Plan and unemployment benefits helped arts staffers hold on, but now, stories abound of performers and other creative-economy workers leaving the city.
The financial losses are staggering, and mounting: Consider that for the period in 2019 of the second week in March to Sept. 1 — the length of the shutdown so far — Broadway alone took in $853 million in ticket sales.
"In my neighborhood, I'm watching three people move away a day," said Warren Adams, a choreographer who, with actor T. Oliver Reid, created the Black Theatre Coalition to help bring more people of color into the industry.
Reid added: "I have friends, couples, who are both in the business — people with Tony nominations — their work stopped and they have no money coming in. How are we looking at this as a culture, as an industry?"
Marcy Richardson is hanging on, but only barely, and she's both angry and illustrative of how the pandemic has upended artists' lives. A classically trained opera singer who lives in Brooklyn, she honed a second specialty as an acrobat and has worked steadily for years in variety shows and high-end burlesque, with avant-garde troupes such as Bushwick's Company XIV and event producers including Susanne Bartsch. Now, as the $75,000 she made last year as a singing aerialist goes to zero, Richardson, 40, doesn't understand why government aid has not been solidified to help sustain backbone-of-the-city steady earners like herself.
"We are small, locally owned businesses that are trying to make art a business," she said. "I've never felt less valued and so disrespected as an artist. I want to know, 'Do you not care if we disappear into thin air?' "
At this point, federal aid for the arts sector exists on paper only: Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Tex., introduced the "Save Our Stages" bill this summer, seeking $10 billion in relief aid for live venues. But its chances in the short term are not good.
"It felt more realistic in June than in August of an election year," said Narric Rome, vice president of government affairs and arts education for Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group. "There are definitely not too many members of Congress who want to talk about that right now."
Richardson's plea resonates with another issue outlined by Henry Timms, president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which runs 30 indoor and outdoor facilities on a 16-acre campus housing the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center Theater and nine other organizations: how this turbulent time affects not only the bottom line, but also the psychology of a city that prides itself on its cosmopolitanism.
"We frame this conversation in terms of economic recovery," Timms said in an interview. "But actually the biggest question is about social recovery. The arts in general have a critical place in terms of recovering from the pandemic, and the really interesting challenge for the arts — when we are seeing some of the worst of ourselves — is that the arts represents the best of ourselves. The job of the arts is to be part of that human recovery."
Culture is one of New York's most invigorating lures: In 2019, leisure travel, of which the arts is a huge component, accounted for 53 million visitors to the city. Privately, Broadway insiders report they have had to explain to New York state officials, eager for Times Square to come alive again, that even with new protocols in place, revival is a months-long endeavor, requiring facilities upgrades, marketing campaigns and a coordinated strategy for unveiling new shows and reintroducing long-running hits.
Stories that may interest you
Q&A with Nile Rodgers: Sinatra, disco and how a trip to the bathroom led to the Diana Ross song 'I'm Coming Out'
Every Friday and many Tuesday afternoons, national arts reporter Geoff Edgers hosts The Washington Post's first Instagram Live show from his barn in Massachusetts. He has interviewed, among others, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, comedian Tiffany Haddish and actress Jamie Lee...
Dean Koontz is out with his 78th book called “Elsewhere,” about a father and his young daughter who get the ability to time hop to parallel universes
A young man is missing, but no one seems too concerned other than the man's little brother Trey, and no body turns up, and chances are that the guy probably just left town.
What did Chick Corea learn from the time he spent playing in the bands of Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and other jazz giants? Everything. "I've had the best teachers, haven't I?" said Corea, who in January won the 23rd Grammy Award of his illustrious career. He credits his...
All of our stories about the coronavirus are being provided free of charge as a service to the public. You can find all of our stories here.
You can support local journalism by subscribing to The Day.