How Can Broadway Recover From This Pandemic?

Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock

Even in the best of times, theater is the most fragile of the popular arts. Television has been entreating Americans to stay at home since the late 1940s, and thanks to streaming, almost its entire archive is at your fingertips for you to binge away your quarantine. Movies will continue to come to us even if we can’t come to them. You can listen to music, and books have brought comfort to people holing up for whatever reason for centuries. And as I write this, art is hanging in the city’s museums, waiting, neither patiently nor impatiently, to be gazed at when the doors open again. But theater requires us sitting in the seats in order to be complete. It’s an unequal love affair: We want theater, but theater needs us. And in this pandemic, it is simply gone. It’s a vastly expensive creative, financial, and marketing ecosystem at the literal center of Manhattan that ultimately depends on ticket-buyers from all over the world to keep it going. After this crisis, how long will that take for them to return?

For Broadway, the middle of March was a particularly disastrous time for a disaster to strike. And by “Broadway,” I mean two different ecosystems: a roster of moneymaking mainstays (many of which depend on foreign tourists to fill their seats) that have been around for so many years that they seem to have been painted on the canvas of Times Square forever, and the newcomers, many of which have aspirations to become fixtures too (or at least repay their investors).

To love theater is to live perpetually with the knowledge that you have just missed, or are just about to miss, something amazing. Its ephemerality is part of the sorrow and joy that give those of us who care about it such an emotional attachment. It comes, it goes, and to appreciate it, you have to be there. But there’s a special poignancy in the uncertain fate of shows that never even got the chance to be there. For the newcomers, March 12 — the day the theaters closed down — was meant to be the end of the two-month business slump that always starts after the holidays and the beginning of the traditional six-week scramble for rave reviews, Tony nominations, and, for a fortunate few every year, financial success. By the end of April, 16 new plays, new musicals, and revivals — enough to fill almost half of Broadway’s 41 active theaters — were to open in order to be eligible for the now-postponed Tonys. Six, a concert-style musical about the wives of Henry VIII that has been aiming for Broadway for three years, was just a few hours away from its opening night when the edict came down. Caroline, or Change, the 2003 musical that my husband, Tony Kushner, wrote with Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) was one day away from its first preview.

Some of those productions — Caroline; Flying Over Sunset; a new musical featuring Cary Grant doing LSD by James Lapine, Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), and Michael Korie (Grey Gardens), Birthday Candles, which was to star Debra Messing and be the Broadway debut of its author, Noah Haidle; and a revival of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive — have been rescheduled for next season. (It’s not a coincidence that all four shows hail from nonprofit theaters, as does the planned revival of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, which could get a second chance as well.) But already, two shows — Hangmen, the latest work by four-time Best Play Tony nominee Martin McDonagh, and Joe Mantello’s starry revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Laurie Metcalf and Rupert Everett — have been canceled outright, and they are unlikely to be the last.

On the other side of this crisis (whatever that will mean), will we get to see director Marianne Elliott’s gender-flipped rethinking of Company, which had been scheduled to open on March 22, Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday? Or Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker in the first revival of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite since its 1968 premiere? Or Tracy Letts’s new play, The Minutes, which was just three days from opening? The fates of all of those shows — and others ranging from a costly musical version of Mrs. Doubtfire to a revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo with Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne — remain uncertain.

And so, in a very real sense, does the fate of Broadway — the other Broadway, the one that’s defined not by new plays and musicals that come and go or, if they’re very lucky, come and don’t go, but by the seemingly permanent parts of the mid-Manhattan landscape. They’re much of the reason that Broadway generated more than $1.8 billion in revenue and filled 14.7 million seats last season. They’re the shows your cousin who almost never makes it to New York wants to see and won’t be talked out of even if you say, “Oh, but there’s this great thing from Sweden at BAM right now.” Pedestrians who walk down West 49th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue have been passing under the Chicago logo on the Ambassador Theatre’s marquee since it moved there in 2003. That was the same year Wicked opened at the Gershwin; it has been nourishing a nation of aspiring teenage Elphabas (and their gay BFFs, the Fiyeros) ever since, its black-green-and-white poster identifiable in a nanosecond. The Lion King has played the Minskoff since 2006; when the stop-performing order came down, Aladdin was a week shy of its six-year mark at the New Amsterdam. And the Majestic Theatre on 44th Street has been home to The Phantom of the Opera since Ed Koch was mayor — that’s 13,370 performances over 32 years. For some working stage actors, these shows provide that rarest of gifts: employment that is measurable not in weeks or months, but in years. And for their sizable backstage crews, that work can last for decades. According to the Broadway League, Broadway shows, theaters, and productions are responsible for as many as 87,000 jobs — from musicians to set-builders.

It’s that Broadway — the “I♥️NY” part of the industry — that could be in even greater jeopardy than the new work that distinguishes each season from the previous one. While the impact of the loss of all those new shows, and with it the economic menace to a community of artists who rarely get to work year-round and have to count on good weeks to pull them through bad months, cannot be overstated, those who have had long-term employment in the Broadway community are just as threatened.

Here’s why: It’s long been a commonplace among producers and theater-owners that with rare exceptions, even a hit Broadway show uses up most of its first-wave audience — namely, avid or regular theatergoers from New York City, the tristate area, and to a lesser extent the northeast corridor — within six to nine months. After that, national tourism has to start carrying the load; you really can’t have a multiyear run without an original cast album, talk-show exposure, and buzz that inspires fan tributes and amateur YouTube videos, and gets teens around the country to ask their parents for tickets — a model that, for example, Dear Evan Hansen has deployed very effectively.

But even that audience can play out in three years or so. After that? Shows with youth appeal can count on a constantly renewable audience and keep going indefinitely, but others must rely on visitors from abroad. On many nights, you could search the orchestra rows at an average performance of Phantom or Chicago without finding a New Yorker, or possibly even an American. Foreign tourism is essential to the longevity of almost every Broadway musical — and while, at this point, it would be wildly premature to guess what “after this” looks like, it probably doesn’t look like “before this.” What happens to Broadway in a New York City whose name is currently synonymous with “hot spot” and “epicenter”? The city will bounce back — but all the way back? Enough so that vacationers feel comfortable planning their trip around two or three evenings spent in theaters alongside 1,500 other people? There’s no applicable analogy here — not 9/11, and certainly not movie theaters, which are (a) much smaller, and (b) filled with a younger and, anecdotally, more heedless demographic. Broadway theater is expensive and its audience is older, more plugged into the news, and possibly more cautious. If they feel in no hurry to return, what happens?

No producer I interviewed wanted to speak on the record, but speculation among them is that, while local business and national tourism are likely to bounce back, foreign tourism is going to be, in the words of one, a disaster. That could portend particular trouble for Phantom and Chicago, although given their long histories, most imagine that the shows will at least reopen for a final run of performances and a proper farewell. The profit that a long-running show makes can be immense — The Book of Mormon has grossed an astonishing $660 million on Broadway alone since it opened in 2011, and Wicked’s 17-year take in New York is approaching $1.4 billion — but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an immense rainy-day nest egg. Profits, after all, get distributed to investors on a regular basis, and while long-running shows can keep a large cash reserve on hand in order to weather seasonal down cycles much better than new shows can, all Broadway shows ultimately rise or fall the same way — by grossing more at the box office every week than their operating costs.

Moreover, some high-budget shows can take a very long time to recoup their initial costs and turn a profit — Mean Girls just went into the black in January after 22 months, and despite selling out almost every one of its 783 performances so far, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child still isn’t there. If those mid-range shows, not to mention newer aspirants like Jagged Little Pill or Girl From the North Country, start to wobble, the post-pandemic version of Broadway could look leaner than it has since the early 1990s.

“There is going to be a reset,” says one veteran producer. “Are we going to see multiple theaters empty for entire seasons for the first time in decades?” It’s possible. Aside from fears of the virus, the effect of the economic collapse on Broadway will resonate through through the 2020-21 season, and perhaps beyond. In a protracted recession, finding investors who have taken a beating in the stock market to capitalize new shows — especially musicals, which can now routinely cost upward of $15 or $20 million to mount — is going to be far more challenging than it once was. (Plays, which are much cheaper but represent less than 20 percent of total ticket revenues, may start to look like a better investment.) “And,” says another producer, “nobody is expecting that we can come back at the same level of average ticket price [well over $100 for many shows]. Figuring out what audiences will be willing to pay, and whether shows can survive at that price, will be a big part of the calculus of rebuilding.” (Privately, I’ve heard those in charge discuss everything from slashing prices dramatically in order to encourage full houses to actively discouraging full houses by selling only one-third of seats; my takeaway is simply that theater people are as baffled as the rest of us by what might come next.) And that’s even leaving aside the question of what kind of show people will want to leave their homes to see. Will forget-your-troubles musicals weather these new conditions better than serious plays? Will shows with stars who appeal to younger audiences have a better shot than those aimed at veteran theatergoers? It’s impossible to guess at a moment when the prospect of any show playing to any audience in any theater lies far in the distance.

Broadway is a big business, but a small world. Just three companies — the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, and Jujamcyn Theaters — own and operate all but ten Broadway houses (of the rest, six are owned by nonprofits like the Roundabout and Manhattan Theater Club). And the list of creative producers — showmakers who can plan, package, and deliver a success to Broadway — is tiny. Scott Rudin, who produced Mormon as well as the recent hit revival of Hello, Dolly! and To Kill a Mockingbird, often brings four or five new shows to Broadway each season (only about 35 shows open overall), many in partnership with Barry Diller. This season alone, Rudin invested in The Inheritance and took the lead on West Side Story, Virginia Woolf, and the now-on-hold transfer of The Lehman Trilogy, which played at the Park Avenue Armory last year. There are not a dozen Scott Rudins; there are not even two. Many of Broadway’s other producers are either offshoots of film companies like Disney or high rollers who do it for love of the medium and love of the game rather than for a high percentage of wins; they are the 50 or 60 people you see storm the stage when the Best Musical Tony winner is announced. It’s not an endless list of names, and if the people on it get spooked by their diminishing fortunes, Broadway could easily go from too big to fail to too big to bet on.

On April 8, the Broadway League effectively ended the 2019-20 season with its announcement that theaters would not reopen until at least June 7. So bringing Broadway back to life, when that day comes — and in doing so, rescuing one of the city’s most important employers as well as tens of thousands of people whose professions are often overlooked in relief packages — will not be easy; it will no doubt require a combination of government aid, civic effort, charity, corporate underwriting, and billionaire largesse. But beyond that, Broadway will need to prove that what it’s most famous for — the love of its community and the will to make sure that the show goes on — is more than just a slogan. It is going to take an unprecedented act of collective will. If people believe, they are — as one old musical demands of them — going to have to show up and clap their hands.

How Can Broadway Recover From This Pandemic?