Last spring, in the early days of Broadway’s Covid-19 pandemic shutdown, news reports and industry chatter referred to an eventual (and, it seemed, imminent) reopening as if a light switch would be flipped and the marquees of all 41 theaters would light up the Midtown night. Actors had left their dressing rooms full of the usual personal stuff — street clothes, photos, charms — as if they’d soon be back from a long holiday weekend.
The optimism was short lived, as the shutdown was extended time and again — April, June, September, January, June again. News got grim, and then more grim. The National Endowment for the Arts recently released figures indicating that while the overall unemployment rate has averaged 8.5 percent, the average among actors was 52 percent.
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But the arrival of two Covid-19 vaccines this fall has reignited at least some of that optimism, with Broadway insiders now expressing confidence that at least some productions will open in fall 2021. Think rollout rather than all-at-once resurrection.
So what will Broadway’s reopening look like? Who will take the stage? Who will sit in the seats? What needs to be done before that first light switch clicks, and what remnants and lessons will be left by the greatest disaster in Broadway history?
Deadline spoke with eight prominent Broadway insiders to get their takes on what happens after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives the green light to reopen, and after a vaccine makes public gatherings safe again. They spoke of plans being made, goals being set and daydream wishes for a living, thriving Broadway.
Ken Davenport is a Tony-winning producer with credits including Once on This Island, Groundhog Day, Spring Awakening and many more. He is the author of the recently released book Cast of Mentors: Short Sage Advice from 50 Broadway Superpowers.
Russell Granet is President & CEO of New 42, the nonprofit organization that has played a key role in the redevelopment of the Times Square-42nd Street theater district since 1990. Signature programs include the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street, which presents theatrical productions and educational programs for young people and families, and New 42 Studios, performances spaces and services that cultivate new ideas and artists.
Chris Harper is a Tony- and Olivier Award-winning producer and co-founder, with director Marianne Elliott, of Elliott & Harper Productions. Their production of the Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical Company, directed by Elliott, starring Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone, was in previews at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre when the shutdown happened.
Mara Isaacs is a Broadway and Off Broadway producer and founder of Octopus Theatricals. Current projects include the Tony-winning musical Hadestown.
Mary McColl is executive director of Actors’ Equity Association. She serves as a Vice President of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and as a Trustee for the Actors Fund.
Kevin McCollum is the Broadway producer of the musical Six, which was scheduled to open on the night of the Broadway shutdown, and Mrs. Doubtfire, which was in previews. He’s also developing the upcoming The Devil Wears Prada musical.
Brian Moreland is a Broadway producer with credits including Sea Wall/A Life, The Lifespan of a Fact, The Sound Inside and the upcoming Blue at the Apollo Theater and Thoughts of a Colored Man at a Shubert Organization theater. He is a member of the Broadway League’s Board of Governors and serves on the League’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
Charlotte St. Martin is President of the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry representing theater owners and operators, producers, presenters and general managers.
Ken Davenport: Does New York just turn its lights back on and all of sudden there are hundreds of thousands of people in Times Square? No. We rely on tourism and planes and people. I think the locals will come out first, and the locals that only went to the theater once a year might go twice or three times, like, “God, I’ve been taking New York City for granted.” Hopefully they’ll come enough to make up for the lack of tourists we may have in the first six months.
There could be some shows open this summer, and I think those shows will be some of the ones that you’d expect to lead. I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see a Disney show among the first. They led the revitalization of 42nd Street and of Broadway as a whole. I’d be surprised if they didn’t lead us into the new era as well.
Charlotte St. Martin: We all envisioned a grand opening night with all of the theaters full, or at least all of those that were going to be full would be full, and I envisioned having a lot of the healthcare workers and essential workers in our audiences as our guests, and the governor going to at least three or four shows and welcoming people. That was my dream for opening.
But the reality is, if Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo rolls us out like he rolled out restaurants, it could easily be we open five shows or three shows and wait two weeks and see if there are any incidents or any spikes. There are other logistical things that have come up, because we’ve never opened 35 shows or 30 shows at once, and many of the shows have the same director or the same choreographer or the same costume designer, and when you look at how long we will have been out, there’ll be a lot of new cast members.
Mary McColl: For commercial theater, I don’t think they will want to try to reopen if they can’t get to a certain capacity of tickets that they can sell. Those shows are expensive to put up, to get back up on their feet and to run on a weekly basis. The seating capacity is very important.
Kevin McCollum: I do think late summer 2021 is a possibility, then folding into the late fall, perhaps four to 10 shows at first, and then there will be some probably trying to hit the holiday business.
Mara Isaacs: I think the challenge is actually what happens at intermission. What do you do with the bathroom line? Is the bar open? Those are the kinds of things that will be harder to manage. So either we’ll have to restrict some of those intermission activities, or we have to wait until it’s OK for people to be on top of each other. I don’t know yet what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to return to quote-unquote normal. I’ve heard different numbers from public health authorities — 75%, then someone else told me 96%. So I don’t know. That’s where our national leadership is going to make a big difference, when we can get some consistent, reliable, fact-based, scientifically based information.
St. Martin: I’ve heard from the various productions, and some think that they can be ready in six to eight weeks, and others think it will take four months. So let’s say on April 1 Gov. Cuomo tells us we could open June 1. I think there would be a few shows that could open June 1, but if they don’t have the ticket sales, would they open? Probably not.
Once we’ve been given the nod, you’ll start to see the marketing campaigns. We are planning a big one for Broadway itself. And all of the shows will certainly have their own campaigns, the ones who can afford to open.
McCollum: The thing to watch is, are [shows] going to try to start too early? Anybody who’s recovering from an injury would love to get out and start jogging, but sometimes you have to walk a little bit, and we’re really in that place where we have to fold in, in a collaborative way as competitors.
McColl: Many of the established shows on Broadway are dependent on tourists, so will they be able to have enough sales just from this New York regional market? And how long will that regional market hold up for them? But I think it’s possible that established shows maybe have more money and might be able to get back up more quickly. … But that is a guess. I think all of it is a guess.
St. Martin: We do know that the international travelers, unless there’s some kind of miracle, will not be the first ones here, and if you take them away, you’re losing between 15% and 20% of our audience. We could get more domestic travelers that would normally be going to Italy in June or September but decide to come to New York or San Francisco or Chicago.
McCollum: Every Broadway show operates with 14 different unions and 16 union contracts, and every union, appropriately so, needs to weigh in for their members. When the mandates and mask-wearing went to the states rather than having a national plan, I was disheartened that this Rubik’s Cube of safety was going to be difficult to line up with any and all of the sides.
McColl: We have an existing contract for Broadway, so that part is done, but Equity will surely be involved in safety protocols for how members go back to work once shows are open. We do not have any interaction with producers about which shows will open and which shows won’t, but once it’s determined who is coming back and when, we certainly will have some say in how to mitigate what needs to be mitigated, depending on what the science says at that moment.
St. Martin: I can anticipate everybody wearing masks. I can anticipate different ingress and egress. I can anticipate a lot of contactless services and temperature checks. I think that it might not be unrealistic to have a certificate that says you had a Covid test and you’re Covid-free that day or that week. Certainly for cast and crew, we’ve envisioned the rapid testing.
Chris Harper: I think it’s going to look and feel like a very profound experience.
St. Martin: We hope to have some major, major events that would be televised, that would celebrate our opening and be broadcast all over the world. A lot of other smaller events and smaller activations from a marketing and event standpoint will tell the world we’re open. We’ve talked about having a parade with all the cast members walking into Times Square, and having a celebration there. I have a feeling it would be broadcast all over the world.
Davenport: I will say this, and I’ve been saying this to everybody because it’s how I feel in my gut: I think the world is going to f*cking party like they’ve never partied before when this thing is over. I think more people are going to want to go on vacation, going to want to go to dinner, going to want to get together with friends. Weddings are going to be bigger. Birthday parties are going to be bigger. Nightclubs are going to rage. There’s no coincidence that the Roaring ‘20s followed the 1918 flu epidemic.
Brian Moreland: I think about the day The Met [museum] reopened. The line was wrapped around the corner, and the tickets were gone within the first 20 minutes. I think Broadway is going to look like that. New Yorkers are going to do what New Yorkers have always done, and support New York. New Yorkers are going to be tourists in their own backyards.
McCollum: The way Broadway works is that you spend, let’s say, $4 million advertising your show, and you come to opening night with an advance of, let’s say $12 million. So not only did you spend that 4 million, you also just returned the 12 million. So you have to build your advance up again. Some shows will be able to be on sale for perhaps a few months and get their advances back up, while others who rely on a lot of groups might take longer — individuals will come back to theaters before large groups get coordinated.
Harper: In London, the whole swinging backwards and forwards has been really difficult. Out of the nine months that we’ve been experiencing this, [the day when reopened productions were shut down again] was, for me, the lowest day of all. To see all of my colleagues who have invested so much time and money and energy and passion into putting on shows and then some of them only [just reopened] and are closed again, it’s heartbreaking. A number of people involved in the shows had gotten jobs being Amazon drivers or shelf stackers in supermarkets to try and survive, and they gave up those jobs to go back and do theater.
St. Martin: Our whole governmental relief request relates to getting open and keeping open so that, for example, the actors who have to work a certain number of weeks to get healthcare can get it back and keep it.
McColl: We’re going to need [governmental] assistance. We’re going to need help for a while. I was going to say for a very long time, and I’m hoping that is a wrong statement, but we are going to need this assistance because the business model of Broadway is so dependent on tourism, and the city has determined that they don’t think tourism is going to get back to the place it was until 2025. If 10 shows quickly reopen, that still means the majority of the workers who have been out of work will stay out of work, and they are going to need assistance from the state, and the state needs the assistance from the federal government. There just isn’t any question about that.
McCollum: Six doesn’t have an intermission, so we won’t have to deal with intermission protocol like bathrooms. We’re rehabilitating the theater with all the protocol that is going to be needed backstage and front. The cast is not a huge cast, and there’s no couple-dancing, as it were. There’s not the lifting and flipping onstage that a lot of shows have. Our backstage is not too crowded, we have a really nice-sized theater, and we have a number of entrances. I think Six will be a very good model.
With [Mrs.] Doubtfire, well, here’s the thing: I think school has to open first. We are a family show. We are multigenerational. Six is targeting multi-generations as well, but people can come to Six in pairs and threes. People will come that way to Doubtfire, but they’re also going to come in groups and families. We had an $11 million advance that we had to return, with a lot of groups, and group business is going to take a little while to get back. I think we’re going to need to open after we get a couple of months of school under our belts. I believe Doubtfire will be later in the year, if not early into 2022.
Moreland: For Blue, the shutdown really just froze us in time, like one of those mummy’s tombs where everything is discovered intact. We were ready to begin rehearsals. We had all of our ducks in a row, and once we’re on the other side of the pandemic, we will resume. We still have Leslie Uggams and Lynn Whitfield and Brandon Micheal Hall, and Phylicia Rashad is still directing. Everyone’s just really standing by.
For Thoughts of a Colored Man, we were very, very fortunate to have started a dialogue with the Shubert Organization even prior to the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic, and things are aligning where we are going to Broadway when everything comes back. Next is for everyone to come together to really just hone the things that we loved about the play in at the out of town tryout in Syracuse and to correct some things we want to see on the Broadway side.
Isaacs: I feel like Hadestown is actually in a sweet spot, if there’s such a thing, to endure the pandemic. We were in a fortunate place in that we had opened, we’d been recognized, we’d had some success, and we’d built an audience and a fan base. Yet we hadn’t been running so long that there aren’t still a lot of people who have yet to see our show and who want to see our show. There are enough people in the Tri-State Area, who I think will be the first audiences back, who feel they need to see Hadestown.
Davenport: I’ve got four big things planned right now. I have Broadway Vacation, based on the Vacation franchise. I have Joy, which is based on the life of Joy Mangano, who was the subject of the Jennifer Lawrence movie Joy. I have Harmony, the Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman piece, and then I have The Life and Music of Neil Diamond.
On March 10, I looked around my office and said, “You know what, guys? It’s amazing — we’re going to have four musicals debut somewhere around the country in the next 18 months.” Well, obviously that’s changed. We were at the workshop phase for all them, just about to get to the point where the creative teams were putting them on their feet for the first time, and then they were all scheduled to go to out-of-town tryouts and regional tryouts. We will pick up where we left off.
Harper: We were really fortunate with Company. The show had been rehearsed, we had teched the show and, more importantly, we knew audiences were having the most amazing time. The business of the show was literally smash-hit business. It was the kind of journey a producer dreams about. And the set is still sitting there, gathering dust, waiting in the wings.
We will be back. I can say with that with absolute certainty. We were getting standing ovations during the show. But it will certainly take months, not weeks, to get back up. You need time to rebuild ticket sales, to market the show and get the whole machine working again. Broadway is an expensive business.
McColl: I have not heard from actors who have said they’re not coming back. I will say that I’m sure that, where and when an actor can find other work in the midst of this shutdown, they will. I know there are people who have relocated for the interim of the shutdown. They have sublet their apartments here in New York. But I have not heard people saying they’re not going to come back to a show that they have an existing contract with.
Isaacs: We have to be realistic that people need to sustain themselves. In the case of the Hadestown company, I’ve been really impressed at how creative our actors have been in finding other streams of income, like online teaching, online paid fan appearances. Reeve Carney has started manufacturing guitar effect boxes. The ingenuity of the people figuring out ways to survive is really impressive. But I don’t want to say that and then have people not worry about them. It is all incredibly precarious.
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Russell Granet: Thirty years ago, seven historic theaters on 42nd Street were closed, and they’re closed again today. But 30 years ago, there was a huge learning curve for people to feel safe coming to 42nd Street, just physical safety. Kids and families were nowhere to be seen. It took a few years, and it was the largest urban-redevelopment program of its time. The city still talks about it as the jewel in its crown because it has remained successful for the last 30 years.
Now, today and 30 years ago are not apples-to-apples. We don’t have the same blight that was on 42nd Street then. But what is interesting is that 30 years ago, what brought back Broadway and the theaters on 42nd Street were two things that New 42 invested in. The first was making sure the street was safe and family-friendly. And second, at the New Victory, we incubated new work with the Studio Building.
Well, today we’re continuing to incubate work at New 42 with our LabWorks program, which is a program that’s funded to support artists of color, primarily Black and indigenous people of color, who want to tell their stories for families and young audiences. So although we face different kinds of challenges today, the solution, in some ways, is very similar: making the street safe, getting kids and families back in theaters, and developing new work. Our goal is to apply the same remedy today that worked 30 years ago.
Davenport: I don’t think you’re going to see the bottom fall out of the full-price market, but the premium-pricing world has been disrupted in a major way because we’re just not going to have the demand right away.
And streaming is a thing. It will not go away. It will be another outlet for our distribution. I streamed a show in 2015 called Daddy Long Legs, and the response was through the roof. I knew then it was eventually going to become a thing. I’m kicking myself for not having every single one of my shows shot in a way that I could have streamed them during this pandemic because I would’ve been able to provide some backend revenue for all the artists that participated.
Granet: I think organizations that just put a Band-Aid on Covid with the idea that they would come back to business as usual are not going to fare as well as the organizations that took this opportunity to reconfigure their organization, their mission, their goals.
When New 42 shut down on March 13, we launched online content. I know it’s a saturated market out there now, but it wasn’t then. In a given year, we typically see about 150,000 people live, and that’s at about 98% [of capacity] because our tickets are subsidized. Selling tickets is not one of our challenges. In that first week of going online — content for kids and families, [with] theater and dance and music — we had about 25,000 participants. Nine months later, we’re now going to break about 700,000 participants. About 70% of the 700,000 are completely new to New 42.
We will always be a live-theater company, but our online content will continue too, because we’re reaching the world renewed, we’re reaching international communities, PBS and WNET are now broadcasting our work. In a year when everything shut down, we now have greater brand recognition and a much larger audience than we had before.
Moreland: There’s something that happens within the Black community, where children wear “Rest in Peace” T-shirts like it’s some sort of a catchphrase. It’s abnormal for a child to experience that much loss, but it’s not abnormal in communities of color, where that much loss is happening and there isn’t room to process the grief. Because of the pandemic, we’re sitting in our homes and not racing from job to job to job or running around with obligations. We’re watching television and we see this horrific murder happen in front of all of us. You couldn’t change the channel. You couldn’t say, “I’m gonna go buy a ticket to a show.” Everyone had to see it and actually process it and had the space to understand that this is wrong, that this cannot be.
I think of this shutdown, amidst this horrific pandemic and our racial and social uprising, as a much-needed and long-overdue reset. I am seeing changes to bylaws, to boards. I am seeing appointments of associate directors and artistic directors [of color] happening in nonprofit theaters. I’m seeing more candidates come in the door than ever. I am having conversations internally on multiple projects where the first question is, “What’s the makeup of the office?” That’s the first question! These are questions that never happened before. I am seeing it on the theater owners’ side. I saw the appointment of Pamela Newkirk to the board at the Shubert Organization, this wonderful African-American woman. And these are changes that are being born out of this moment because people want to do better, to be better. The Broadway League is appointing a director who’s going to look at and evaluate all of our programs and all the ways that we’re doing business and hiring people within the industry. We have seen new social groups being formed, and all these things are collaborating and growing us in the right direction. For change.