Broadway’s Bet: If We Build It, They Will Come

The theater world’s health will be crucial to bringing tourism back to NYC

| 15 May 2021 | 08:41

“Broadway is Back!” blared the TV announcement. But is it?

Before the pandemic shutdown over a year ago, “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” and “Wicked” boasted fat advances. Now there’s nothing in the kitty. Central to everything is marketing, to raise enthusiasm and momentum, and to build up the all important advance ticket sales.

Before COVID, tourism generated $46 billion to the city’s economy, and 65% of Broadway ticket buyers are tourists. While domestic and international travel is already picking up, it’s not expected to reach pre-COVID levels until 2025.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has earmarked $30 million of federal aid to NYC & Company, New York’s marketing organization. The planned promotional campaign will be seen on national television beginning in June. The candidates vying to replace de Blasio seem to recognize that tourists will be key to the city’s revival. But Broadway’s health will be crucial to bringing the travelers back.

In the wake of the recent shooting near Times Square, it’s no wonder safety has become a focus of attention. However, travelers come to New York for the city’s cultural vibrancy, not its streets, and Broadway is a specific tourist destination. Eight Democratic mayoral hopefuls addressed the restaurant sector’s desperate need on May 13, in the first of several televised debates before the June 22 primary. But forgotten in the discussion is that most restaurants spring up near cultural organizations, large and small. Eateries don’t thrive in a vacuum.

On the Democratic mayoral candidates’ websites, one mentions cultural institutions briefly and another lists arts and culture, far down on the list. However, what makes New York a global, world-class city has always been its cultural life, and Broadway is the national brand.

It was telling that arts and culture was an afterthought of the Democratic debate. Yet when the moderator asked where each of the candidates would go once restrictions were lifted, most of them answered “Broadway! A Broadway show.” A viewer couldn’t help noticing that those faces lit up for the only time during the entire two hours.

“Contactless Experience”

The Center for Disease Control updates guidelines periodically. The latest said those vaccinated need not wear masks in most indoor settings. New York State still requires masks. Many health experts are urging caution, balancing the CDC recommendations with recent data showing that thousands of COVID cases are identified every day across the country.

Most people on Manhattan streets still mask up. Many folks queried still won’t eat indoors and are not ready to sit inside a cramped theater, even when assured that Jujamcyn Theaters, for example, has upgraded its five auditorium ventilation systems with MERV 13 filters, and promises a “contactless experience” at the box office and the bathrooms.

The Shubert Organization notes that it will follow CDC and state guidelines, with protocols in its 17 Broadway theaters that “may include mask enforcement, ventilation/filtration enhancements, and vaccination verification.” The Nederlander Organization, which operates nine Broadway theaters, hasn’t yet made a public announcement, but is expected to follow suit.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said this month that Broadway could reopen at full capacity this fall. Getting a multi-million dollar musical up and running means assembling cast and crew, possibly auditioning performer replacements, and then scheduling rehearsals, all with pandemic protocols in place, which might include mandated vaccinations. There are modifications to contracts with actors, musicians, and stage hands, costume and scenery cleaning, and a host of other details that have to be worked out.

Broadway alone supports close to 97,000 local jobs, many of which won’t be coming back. During the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of people were laid off at the city’s cultural institutions, hotels, and stadiums. Upwards of 1,000 restaurants closed for good. Signs of reopening include the many hotels that have begun to accept reservations by early summer. As one hotel manager said, “You need the critical mass of attractions and places to stay.”

Resuming Performances

Megahits “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” and “Wicked” have jointly announced they’ll resume performances on September 14th. Other expected reopenings that month include “Chicago” (9/14), “Six” (9/17), “Come From Away” (9/21), and “Moulin Rouge” (9/24). In October, look for “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” (10/8), and “Jagged Little Pill” (10/21).

“Phantom of the Opera,” the longest running show in Broadway history, weighs in on October 22. Others in the pipeline include “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Dear Evan Hanson,” and “Company.” Some, like “Chicago,” have announced a reduced performance schedule to measure audience interest. The much anticipated Hugh Jackman starrer, the revival of “The Music Man,” will begin a very long preview period in December, and is already offering tickets for sale.

Plays planned include Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” and Keenan Scott II’s “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” but neither has said when it hopes to begin performances. The nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club, which operates both on and off Broadway, will begin performances of “Lackawanna Blues,” by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, on September 14. The

Roundabout Theatre Company will present a revival of Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change” beginning October 8, and Second Stage Theatre will offer Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Between Riverside and Crazy,” winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.

From early reports, ticket prices won’t be going down, but canceling or exchanging tickets will be easier. The great unknown is how potential audiences will process the looser restrictions, and how many bottoms will fill theater seats.

Many producers will be watching to see how the touring companies gearing up will fare. In Washington, DC, where the Kennedy Center has announced an ambitious schedule, season subscription sales have been encouraging.

The optimism from Broadway is inspiring and staggering. Shows will begin opening in the fall. No one knows how many will still be running in December.