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Broadway Blues: Theater Reopening May Still Be Over a Year Away

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Broadway shows were the pinnacle of live entertainment, pulling in travelers from across the world to see their magic, and they were money-makers. In the 2018-19 season the theaters brought 14.7 billion dollars into New York City’s economy. Because of the theaters’ prominence, Broadway getting shut down is hardly ever heard of. In the last century, the longest the theaters were closed was during a strike in 1975 for 25 days. But the current shutdown broke all the records. The newest theater reopening date has been slated for May 30, 2021, more than a year from the start of the pandemic, and even that date seems arbitrary. 

There is hope. Theaters in other locations have opened successfully. Back in June, The Actors Equity Association, the labor union representing the world of theatrical live entertainment, allowed the reopening of two theaters. Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, opened a one-person show, “Harry Clarke.” Seating was reduced from 500 to 163, and there was only one costume and no backstage crew. Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, MA also opened an outdoor musical with a cast of 10. However, Broadway theatrical productions are anything but small and they have no possible way of changing their venues to being outside. Reopening will be challenging.

Charlie Williams is a performer and a choreographer who was working with the Frozen production prior to the shutdown. He pointed out that one reason that it will be so difficult to reopen is because Broadway’s theaters are located in historic buildings that are comparatively tiny. Most Broadway theaters were opened almost a century ago. The median year that they opened was 1925. Williams said that the original plays at the theaters were two-men shows, not the full productions like Wicked or Frozen. The theaters were just not built to accommodate the musical theater shows that are being put on these days.

Charlie Williams - Frozen No theater reopening
Charlie Williams

“You really couldn’t find a better way to get a lot of people infected with the virus than to stick them into a Broadway show, truly. Just the industry itself… is packing the audience into it. If you’ve ever seen a Broadway show, you’re shoulder to shoulder sitting in those tiny seats. It’s the smallest.”

Williams commented, “Literally the foundations of the building itself make it almost impossible to socially distance. And then on top of it, the singing and the acting aspect of being close and yelling at each other and emotional with each other — you can’t dumb that down for social distancing. You can’t put a big plate of glass between the audience and the performers. The whole point of theater is to connect physically, emotionally, virally. I think it’s just impossible.”

Musical shows require singing and shouting, which is problematic. Much of the scientific views the coronavirus as airborne as evidenced by the 239 scientists who published a letter in Oxford Academic appealing to the medical community to recognize its aerosol nature. Being airborne, the virus can remain suspended in the air on tiny respiratory droplets, which would be infectious in rooms without proper ventilation. Singing appears to make this worse. In September, an article in Aerosol Science and Technology detailed the results of a study that showed how singing significantly increased the number of respiratory droplets over just talking. Loud singing was even worse than normal singing in terms of the number of respiratory droplets.

Musicals with large numbers of people in cramped areas have the potential to become Covid superspreader events, particularly if in poorly ventilated areas. Superspreader events have occurred before in connection with singing. In Skagit County, WA, following a 2.5 hour choir practice with 61 members, it is estimated that between 53 and 87% of the choir members became infected with the virus. Two died.

Theater Reopening: microphone on stage

Broadway theaters would need to be refurbished with large and probably costly ventilation systems to counter this threat.

The backstage would also have to be changed. Matt Neff worked in the wardrobe and costume departments in 17 different Broadway shows since 2016. He explained that following Covid guidelines would be next to impossible with the present system. Shows are very expensive and complex. He guessed that a show like Hamilton cost fifteen million dollars of investment to open the show, and that would not be including the running cost. 

“Over time, as shows are getting more and more expensive to run and the shows themselves are becoming more cinematic in terms of scene changes and how many scenes there are and how many people there are and the visual video effects, the complexity the audiences are seeing are even more complex backstage because the backstage areas have not increased in size. So you have pieces flying in and moving around to accommodate all the things that are happening. And you have crew members like hugging walls as the pieces fly by. The amount of choreography happening backstage is even more complex than the stuff you’ve seen with the dancing.”

Narrow hallways, large crews, and fast and complex set changes are not conducive to social distancing. Mask use will also be problematic. Mask booths could be set up as actors leave the stage. However, as Neff explained, it’s already complex in the backstage with people running around. There already is no room. He didn’t know how a mask booth would happen. He also predicted that if actors were asked to put on and take off masks every time they left the stage, they might follow guidelines at first. But over time the inconvenience of the guidelines would wear down on them, and there would be less compliance. 

Disinfecting the backstage will also be an issue. Theaters only appear to be clean, according to Neff. With the production schedules so packed, productions are moving in and out all the time. Theaters don’t have time to clean up their spaces and scrub the walls as it is. There are also only a few stairwells in and out of backstage, and everyone going in and out touches the railings. Neff alikened Broadway to a petri dish. If one person gets sick backstage, everyone gets sick. 

“Some theaters on Broadway are disgusting…. If you’re an audience member and you walk in through the front of the house, it looks gorgeous and the chandelier is sparkly and like this and that. But behind a proscenium wall, the backstage world is foul.”

Broadway would have to implement protocols to get around the social distancing issues and they would also need to disinfect everything if they were to reopen. In another industry that relies on the performers, the film industry, productions have gotten around the social distancing problem by creating production bubbles where staff are trusted to not mingle with the outside world. For Broadway, though, this would be difficult. Neff explained that when he was working as a swing dresser, he was working on eight different shows. He knew 16 people’s tracks (the path a backstage worker takes from the start to the finish of the show) and he worked in three different Broadway theaters. There were so many trajectories that he could have infected countless others.

In the past, theaters built in contingencies for when the crew and cast all got sick. Neff said that many positions had understudies due to that particular reason. He described his experience while working at Neil Simon Theatre for the Cats production. They had one dressing room for females with no windows in it. “Literally, as soon as one person got sick, they all got sick. Then the crew gets sick, and that’s just like the comment, the flu season on Broadway is crazy. Go see a Broadway show and see how many actors are understudies or standbys are on. And you think these people are lazy. No, everybody’s sick…. I was an assistant supervisor for The Donna Summer Musical, and part of my job description is if we can’t find someone to cover a dresser who’s sick, I fill in as an emergency.”

However, with the present Covid situation, contingencies like having understudies and swing dressers as an alternative for creating meaningful precautionary measures against Covid-19 would be unethical considering how dangerous the virus is. And the theater community takes the virus seriously. Nick Cordero’s recent and tragic death at the young age of 41 years old still casts a dark shadow in the theater community’s memory.

To successfully follow Covid prevention guidelines, Broadway shows would have to be less complex and smaller with far fewer actors and crew. Sets would need to be changed less frequently so adequate disinfection could follow. The orchestra pit would also need to be removed and the music might have to be replaced with prerecorded music. 

Neff offers his predictions. “I think what you’re going to see is bigger shows are going to be not as prevalent over the next few years. You’re going to see a lot of Kristin Chenoweth on Broadway with two background singers and a band on stage or Elaine Stritch’s kind of a career solo show, or you’ll see the Odd Couple come back. You’re going to see a lot of shows that have small amounts of performers.”

But even with less extravagant Broadway shows, audiences would have to be distanced apart. It could mean half or more of the seats would be off limits. Charlie Williams thinks it won’t make financial sense. 

“You can’t sell half a house and do the same shows. You can’t. Everything on Broadway is an equation, a money equation down to the cent. You can’t say, oh, we’ll just sell half the house and everybody will sit three seats apart. It doesn’t add up to make money… And it’s also not fun. The whole point is to be in a big crowd of people and laughing together. You don’t want to hear one guy laughing on the balcony while you’re sitting in the orchestra alone. It’s a communal experience, and it sounds like communal experiences right now are what we should not be doing.”

Broadway Charlie Williams
Charlie Williams

The numbers suggest that Williams is right. Even on a good year, Broadway is at times operating with a profit margin that is a net loss. However, waiting to reopen fully puts Broadway in a precarious position. The industry cntinues to pushe back reopening dates. In April of 2020, Broadway said they might open in June. When May came around, their reopening date changed to Labor Day. Then in June, they said January of 2021. Now, they are saying May 2021. Without an effective vaccine, it could be years before the dazzling and extravagant Broadway shows that we know and love return. However, as the months pass, Broadway continues to lose money. If the pandemic continues for a long time, the question comes, will Broadway try smaller productions to help make up for their losses? 

It may be more than a year before we have an answer to whether we will see Broadway theater reopening.

What to know what actors are up to since Broadway closed, read this story about a Broadway performor who was chasing his dream but found his family.