After a shaky December, when as many as half of Broadway's shows were shut down because of breakthrough COVID cases, things are on a more even keel; there were no canceled performances on Broadway last week. But the winter doldrums have hit – with temperatures and tourism plummeting, fewer people are seeing shows. The most recent box office figures show roughly two-thirds of seats filled, many at a heavy discount. Several musicals and plays closed for good, because of COVID — presumably the omicron variant — including Jagged Little Pill, Waitress and Ain't Too Proud. And, in a new trend, three shows have closed for now, in the hopes of returning in the spring.
There were very few people at the half-price TKTS booth in Times Square last Tuesday night, and many of the 21 shows still playing on Broadway were offering discounts. Roger Wilson from Sweden was looking for bargains. "I understand the industry is really struggling," he said. "On the other hand, it's easier for someone like me to get last-minute tickets."
Wilson scored a pair of tickets to the Tony Award-winning musical Moulin Rouge, which prior to the pandemic, was a sold out hit. That show – like all Broadway shows – requires all audience members to show proof of vaccination and remain masked in the theater. Broadway companies are all vaccinated, as well, and unless onstage, wear masks. The casts, orchestras and crews are frequently tested, which is how breakthrough infections were detected in December.
"Omicron literally took us out in the span of a week," says Brian Moreland, producer of the play Thoughts of a Colored Man. At one point, so few actors were available that the playwright, Keenan Scott II, had to go onstage with script in hand. But when more people got infected, Moreland made the painful decision to close the show. "We were not going to be able to sustain a 10-day closure," he explains. "It wasn't financially possible to be without performances for 10 days."
There is no insurance to cover COVID-related closures, so producers are on the hook. They also pay for COVID safety managers to keep tabs on the companies' health, the costs for rapid PCR testing, and wages for part-time personnel who check the vaccination status of audience members.
The omicron variant is blamed for the latest closings
At the new musical, Mrs. Doubtfire, omicron spread like wildfire. "I have said that Doubtfire as a show was the canary in the Corona mine shaft," says Jenn Gambatese, who plays the leading role of Miranda.
Within a week of opening in December, so many people in the cast and crew were infected that producer Kevin McCollum shut down the show for 11 days, at a loss of about $3 million. The show reopened but struggled to find audiences – particularly because it's geared toward families and tourists and sometimes children didn't fulfill the vaccine requirements. "We had to turn some families away who had traveled to see Mrs. Doubtfire, and they don't get angry at the theater or the virus," says McCollum. "They get angry at the show."
So, McCollum says: "I had to close the show. What I did differently is I told everybody I know I'm not under contract with you, but I'm going to do everything I can to reopen the show." He hopes to reopen in mid-March when families normally travel to New York for spring break. But in the meantime, the 115 people employed on the production have been laid off.
Actress Jenn Gambatese says the feelings in the company run the gamut. "There are many Broadway veterans in both the cast and the crew," she says, who can see the big picture, even though they're disappointed with the setback. She adds, "I've been in this business too long. I think it's going to work in March, but we don't know."
Everyone is making decisions in a new environment
Within a few days, the producers of To Kill a Mockingbird and Girl from the North Country made similar announcements of temporary closure. "If one show does something, it's unique. If two or three shows do something, it's maybe catching on and could become a trend," says Kate Shindle, president of the union Actors' Equity. "Officially, those shows are closed and we hope that they reopen," she says. "We also hope that they bring people back at the contractual terms that they had at the time the show shut down. And we're really disappointed that there's nothing in writing that will guarantee that, which is something that we've been asking for."
Because Broadway has never dealt with this particular kind of crisis before, there are not a lot of contractual mechanisms between the producers and 14 unions, says Kevin McCollum: "Speaking for myself and for Mrs. Doubtfire, I wish I had more tools in the arsenal that could have kept everybody under contract for a cost that had some reasonableness."
In fact, at one point McCollum got on a Zoom with the unions to see if there was a way to pay company members half their normal salary if a show had to go on a short hiatus because of breakthrough cases. It was summarily rejected. Equity president Kate Shindle says the theater unions couldn't accept the proposal without "corresponding financial transparency," she explains. "If you need our people to stay home because they are working in close contact without masks and you want to pay them half their salary when those working conditions lead to that outcome, then please provide us the appropriate financial information that demonstrates your need. So, it wasn't a wholesale rejection of the concept. It was an ask for what I think is pretty appropriate and reasonable information."
And, since Broadway reopened for business, the individual box office grosses that the Broadway League, a trade organization of producers and theater owners, normally publish have been replaced by more general statistics – what the cumulative weekly gross for all the shows playing is, and the percentage of seats filled. A hit show, like Hamilton or The Music Man, might be completely sold out at full price, while others might be playing to smaller houses, at a deep discount. But it's hard to tell the financial situation of individual shows.
Looking to the future
While actress Jenn Gambatese waits for Mrs. Doubtfire to reopen, or not, she's been in touch with a lot of Broadway performers who say the things that usually point to future productions are slow. "There's just not that many auditions yet, because, you know, everybody's kind of waiting to see," Gambatese explains. "There's readings and maybe a workshop here and there. But in an industry that is already challenging to be a working actor now, it's like even more so."
Group sales ticket representative Scott Mallalieu keeps his eyes on the future, too. While he acknowledges that business has been slow, and many of Broadway's theaters sit empty, he's feeling hopeful for the spring, as omicron seems to be on the wane. "I still get calls from people that say, "I hear Broadway's canceled again," he says, "and I'm like, 'Well, not really. And actually, now's a great time to book tickets for April and May, because shows have availability.' " Which means you might even be able to get tickets to Hamilton.