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The Coronavirus Shutdown Is Devastating but Necessary for Broadway


Like many aspects of life under the novel coronavirus pandemic, the suspension of Broadway shows happened slowly, and then all at once. It was only on Tuesday morning—the days sure are long this week, aren’t they?—that the producer Scott Rudin announced discounted fifty-dollar tickets for his Broadway shows, including the sellout hits “The Book of Mormon” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “As long as New York City is open for business, its beating heart remains the Broadway stage,” Rudin said in a statement. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for everyone to see a show that they otherwise might not have had easy and affordable access to.”

Was this an “unprecedented opportunity” or a health hazard? The public was, by that point, aware of the risks of gathering in large crowds and of the concept of social distancing. I myself went to a Broadway musical on Monday night, when it seemed like an acceptable risk. The audience was packed. But, by Wednesday, the charade no longer felt sustainable. In Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee had announced a ban on gatherings of two hundred and fifty people or more in several counties. The N.B.A. season and New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade were cancelled, along with many live events around the world. That same day, Broadway producers announced a halt on fans gathering at the stage doors, but the show-must-go-on spirit prevailed, at least publicly. Then, in the afternoon, the Times reported that a part-time Broadway usher had tested positive for COVID-19, after having worked last week at two shows, the musical “Six” and Rudin’s own revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

The theatre owners announced that there would be deep cleanings and the possibility of ticket exchanges, but it wasn’t until Thursday that Deadline reported that the Broadway League, the organization for Broadway owners and producers, was holding an emergency meeting to discuss a possible shutdown. This came not long after Mayor Bill de Blasio had told CNN, “I don’t want to see Broadway go dark if we can avoid it,” and said that he hoped to “strike some kind of balance.” Hours later, the inevitable finally came, as Governor Andrew Cuomo announced restrictions on gatherings of five hundred people or more. (Broadway theatres, by definition, hold five hundred people or more.) Broadway shows were cancelled through April 12th, starting Thursday night, when “Six”—a pop-music take on the wives of Henry VIII—was set to open, at the Brooks Atkinson.

Why did it take so long for Broadway to adjust? The economic costs are devastating. Despite the perennial concerns that theatre—the “fabulous invalid”—is dying, Broadway has been booming. Last season, the total box-office was $1.8 billion, and attendance was up nine and a half per cent, with nearly fifteen million patrons. The closures will cost an untold tens of millions of dollars and put actors, stagehands, ushers, and many others out of a job. Kate Shindle, the president of the Actors’ Equity Association, put out a statement calling for government assistance to arts and entertainment workers, saying, “Equity members are dedicated professionals who earn their health care and pensions one week of work at a time.” But the health risk to those workers, performing in close quarters, is too great, as it is for audiences, who skew on the older side. (The average age of Broadway theatregoers is between forty and forty-five, though matinee crowds tend to be white-haired.)

The timing is particularly bad. Springtime is one of the busiest parts of the Broadway season, as a barrage of new shows open before the Tony deadline, in late April. Among the new shows whose openings have just been scuttled are the Tracy Letts drama “The Minutes,” a gender-swapped revival of “Company,” Martin McDonagh’s black comedy “Hangmen,” a new musical about Princess Diana, the Neil Simon comedy “Plaza Suite,” and a musical version of “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Several others were meant to open soon after April 12th, including the Lincoln Center Theatre musical “Flying Over Sunset,” a revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” and the baseball comedy “Take Me Out”—all of which will lose their preview periods.

Even if we assume that theatre is back on by mid-April, it’s unclear whether all these productions will survive. Rumors are already swirling that some shows are bowing out for good, but a Broadway publicist assured me on Thursday that “American Buffalo,” “Beetlejuice,” “The Minutes,” “Hangmen,” and the new musical “Sing Street” will resume the week of April 13th, “when the government indicates Broadway can re-open.” (It’s far from the world’s most pressing problem, but the Tony Awards schedule will need to be rethought.) Nothing of this magnitude has ever happened to the Broadway industry, apart from brief shutdowns for strikes and after 9/11. At the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout has proposed using livestreaming as an interim method for keeping the industry afloat. Off Broadway companies and regional theatres around the country are also cancelling performances, leaving the institutions that produce them and the artists and workers who put them onstage financially vulnerable.

There is hardly a profession, a country, or a facet of daily life that won’t be affected by the pandemic. But a ban on crowds cuts to the core of what gives theatre its identity. The Broadway shutdown may have come a few days later than it should have, but it’s the right move, if a painful one. In the eighties, the New York theatre scene weathered a different kind of health crisis, one that was prolonged and deadly and devastating, wiping out nearly a generation of artists and audiences. Of the many works of art that flowered from the AIDS epidemic, one of the most recent is Matthew Lopez’s multigenerational drama “The Inheritance,” about the disconnect between the gay men who lived through it and the younger ones for whom life under it is unimaginable. The show has been playing at the Barrymore Theatre since September, and its last performance was scheduled for this Sunday. But closing came three days early.


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