Facing a widening coronavirus pandemic and new limitations on large gatherings, the industry said it was suspending all plays and musicals for 32 days, effective immediately, writes Michael Paulson.
The adage is synonymous with Broadway itself: The show must go on.
And for decades, through wars and recessions and all forms of darkness, Broadway, the heart of America’s theatre industry and an economic lifeblood for many artists, has kept its curtains up and its footlights on.
But Thursday, facing a widening coronavirus pandemic and new limitations on large gatherings, the industry said it was suspending all plays and musicals for 32 days, effective immediately.
“The idea that our venerable, majestic houses are dark, and that there will be no lights on Broadway — I’m romanticising, but that’s the heartbeat of the city, and to think that they’ve been forced into darkness is shocking,” said Patti LuPone, a beloved Broadway titan who has won two Tony Awards and has been performing in previews for a revival of “Company.” “I’m shocked that they took this tack, but also grateful they did, just to keep us healthy.”
The shutdown — longer than those prompted in recent decades by strikes and snowstorms and even the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — will inevitably cost tens of millions of dollars for investors and artists and associated businesses and will likely trigger the collapse of some plays and musicals that will be unable to survive the delays and losses.
The move came as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted new restrictions to try to stop the spread of the virus, which in the city has infected nearly 100 people, a number expected to grow.
City and state officials banned most gatherings of more than 500 people and required smaller venues to cut their capacity by half; they also limited nursing home visits. De Blasio declared a state of emergency, empowering him to take measures like implementing a curfew or limiting traffic should conditions worsen.
Public schools, however, were remaining open. The governor noted many children’s resistance to the virus, while the mayor expressed worry about the disruptions that school closings would create.
Broadway — central to, and symbolic of, New York — is not only the pinnacle of the American theatre world but is also big business: Last season the industry grossed $1.8 billion and drew 14.8 million patrons.
“The full effects of this on the industry can’t possibly be known yet, but our priority has to be the well-being of audiences and our Broadway families,” said Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions (“The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Frozen”) and chairman of the Broadway League, the industry trade group.
The shuttering of theatres, which the Broadway League said would continue through April 12, followed a flood of cultural closings around the country and around the world.
Earlier Thursday, several of New York’s largest and most prestigious cultural institutions — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic — announced that they would temporarily shut down. At the same time, Live Nation Entertainment and AEG Presents, the corporate giants that dominate the concert industry, suspended all North American tour engagements.
In Asia and Europe, many performance spaces had already closed; in the United States, venues from the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle to the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles to the Kennedy Center in Washington scrapped shows.
The theatre industry had been hoping to avoid mass closings, taking steps to reduce the risk of infection by adding hand sanitizer dispensers, more frequently cleaning seats, barring backstage visits and stage door interactions and even soda refills in used cups.
But Broadway has a lot of risk factors — many of its shows attract an older audience, and older people seem to be particularly susceptible to the coronavirus; it depends heavily on tourism, which is plunging as a result of the pandemic; and its theatres, lovely as they are, pack patrons into tight quarters, making the now-recommended social distancing essentially impossible.
As public health officials increasingly warned about the riskiness of large gatherings, and after a part-time usher was diagnosed with the virus, the drumbeat for closing grew louder.
Actors’ Equity Association, a labour union representing 51,000 performers and stage managers around the country, was becoming more and more concerned.
“There’s no such thing as social distancing for actors — our jobs sometimes require that we go to work and kiss our colleagues eight times a week,” said actress Kate Shindle, who is the president of Equity. “Although nobody wanted to close the theaters, at the same time people were starting to be scared to work, and with good reason.”
The industry wanted either Cuomo or de Blasio to order a closing because of a widespread understanding that the shows’ insurance policies would provide coverage only if a closing were government-mandated.
And Thursday afternoon, Cuomo obliged, ordering an end to all gatherings of more than 500 people. That encompassed all 41 Broadway theaters — by definition, Broadway theaters must have more than 500 seats, and most have more than 1,000.
Cuomo said the Broadway restriction would go into effect at 5 p.m. Thursday, forcing a temporary end to the runs of all 31 plays and musicals currently in progress, from crowd favorites like “Hamilton” and “The Lion King” to new musicals like “Six,” which had been scheduled to open Thursday night. Signs went up at many theaters with information about refunds (often automatic for those who bought with credit cards from official theater sites) and exchanges.
De Blasio, speaking at his own briefing, said the restriction was necessary but difficult. “That’s really, really painful for the many, many people who work in that field, let alone so many New Yorkers and people all over the country who really look forward to these events, these concerts, these sports events, and it’s really going to be kind of a hole in our lives, and it’s painful,” he said. “It’s not something we would ever want to do, but it’s something we have to do.”
Broadway theaters did not close for the 1918 flu pandemic. But in more recent years they have shut down for labor disruptions, storms, and, on Sept. 11, terrorist attacks. Most of the closings were short (Broadway, urged to reopen by city officials, was back in business two days after the 2001 attacks), but many theaters were shut for 19 days by a stagehands’ strike in 2007 and 25 days for a musicians’ strike in 1975.
The cancellations will invariably be disappointing for tourists and locals who rely on Broadway for inspiration, entertainment and artistry. On Thursday afternoon, two visitors from Brazil, Mariana Marinho and Barbara Anderaos, popped into the Broadhurst Theater to ask about tickets for “Jagged Little Pill,” the musical built around Alanis Morissette’s songs. Marinho, 36, had loved Morissette’s music since she was a teenager, and the friends had over a week left to explore New York culture.
As they inquired about seating and ticket prices, a box office employee broke the news to them: No Broadway shows until April 12.
“I have never seen a Broadway show, so I thought maybe this was my chance,” Marinho said. “I guess not.”
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