Another Op’nin, Another Show: What Will It Take for Broadway to Reopen?

Broadway has been dark since mid-March. New York has entered Phase 2 of its four-part reopening plan, and Broadway, along with other entertainment venues, is slated to reopen at the tail end of the plan. Recently it has been reported that the sun will not come out again for Broadway until 2021. Specific productions that were slated to open in the fall of 2020, such as the highly anticipated revival of The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, have recently moved their openings to the spring of 2021.   

Broadway faces a lot of challenges to reopening that are not present for many other industries. While other entertainment and hospitality venues, such as restaurants and movie theaters, may be able to see profits by cutting the number of attendees in order to maintain social distancing by patrons, Broadway just doesn’t have the room in its tight budgets to allow for that. Average initial production costs to mount a Broadway play in recent years run $2 to 5 million, while Broadway musicals range between $10 to 16 million. Beyond opening, to operate the shows each week, a Broadway play costs around $300,000 on average, with a musical coming closer to $750,000. Even under normal circumstances, less than 40 percent of Broadway shows recoup their initial investments and turn a profit. With Covid in the mix, you’d need to add extensive cleaning of the theater and costumes, potentially along with payment for time it takes staff to check audience members’ temperatures and confirm they are complying with any mask-wearing requirements, which could also increase the operating costs. Broadway shows are built for maximum capacity and limited comfort, both for audiences and backstage employees, so social distancing would be a significant challenge. While some have suggested removing seats or limiting the number of attendees at a given performance, the need for profit means this is likely a nonstarter.

All of this also begs the question: Who would come? Where roughly 65 percent of Broadway shows are attended by tourists, it remains to be seen whether tourists will come to town once the theaters are ready to provide. For those locals that frequently see shows, the New York Times recently reported that in a survey of 796 New York State voters, only 39 percent would be “likely” or “somewhat likely” to see a show if Broadway reopened in early September, while 57 percent would be willing to come back to Broadway by the end of 2020 if theaters took all of the necessary precautions.

Amid ongoing Covid-19 concerns, who would come to the theater if it reopened?

And then there is the issue of how to enforce social distancing and other safety practices for the actors, musicians and crew. When West Side Story finally reopens at the Broadway Theater, will everyone be wearing masks during the “Dance at the Gym”? Group dance numbers make it especially challenging to enforce any social distancing for performers without massive changes to the choreography. Add the heavy breathing that goes along with dancing, combined with singing—which significantly increases the release of aerosol droplets that could contain Covid-19—and you have even greater concerns for transmission.

If Broadway, before it went dark, was not about to open a robust season of new works and continue showing its longer-running smash hits, it might be able to “start over”—instituting one-person shows, which would bring the costs down and perhaps allow for smaller, spaced-out audiences; picking shows without intermissions, which would further help enforce social distancing; or potentially utilizing outdoor spaces instead of Broadway houses. Alternatively, theaters could try to avoid contamination by turning up the ventilation and conforming into mazes in haunted-house fashion where, similar to the style popularized by shows like Sleep No More in smaller theaters some years ago, vignettes are viewed as masked patrons six feet apart quickly wander through the “moving” performance. These may be options if Broadway wishes to resume sooner or insert temporary options, or if the virus dangers continue for a lengthier time period than currently predicted.

Other options for theater productions include upping the utilization and popularization of streaming and other video-based platforms like Broadway HD, but I will elaborate on that in later blog posts. 

Despite the dreary outlook, the Broadway community is evaluating and planning protocols that could enable its return sooner than later. And there is some precedent for Broadway-scale productions being able to come back safely and even flourish. As recently reported on by the New York Times, a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera in South Korea has been running since March and is slated to continue into August with the strictest of prevention protocols. Yes, Christine and Raoul still kiss, but audiences are sprayed with a light disinfectant, thermal sensors take their temperatures, and they must complete questionnaires about symptoms at the show. The production has also committed to notifying all audience members of any known exposures potentially arising from the performance they attended. Although no seats have been blocked off, the first row was removed and there are strict rules and protocols for the performers and crew that require extensive costume cleaning, avoiding nonessential physical contact, and that masks be worn by all except some musicians and actors when they are getting made up or going on stage.

Over 8000 audience members who saw the Seoul production were notified via text after some cast members came down with the virus, but after all 76 members of the touring company were quarantined for 15 days, the show went back on. Since the production picked back up on April 23, ticket sales have been at 70 to 85 percent. Perhaps Broadway can mimic that production’s success and return sooner than expected.