More than a year after COVID-19 graced the States, there is finally some hope in the air as more and more adults receive their vaccines and we slowly work toward herd immunity. With increased vaccinations comes increased possibilities for future reopenings as governors everywhere are starting to let their residents know about the possibilities for summer and fall.
One especially exciting announcement for theater nerds and non-theater nerds alike came from New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s Twitter feed on May 5 — one year, two months and seven days after Broadway closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic — “NEW: Broadway shows will be ready to open September 14 at 100% capacity. Tickets go on sale starting tomorrow. Broadway is major part of our state’s identity and economy, and we are thrilled that the curtains will rise again.”
New York City theater tickets for the fall and winter shows are already on sale. Longtime favorites — “Hamilton,” “Chicago” and “The Lion King” — will re-debut at the earliest possible date on Sept. 14. Other shows will follow suit, with “Wicked” debuting on Sept. 16, “The Phantom of the Opera” on Oct. 22 and “Dear Evan Hansen” on Dec. 11, to name a few fan favorites.
A Mixed Response
Despite all the excitement around Broadway’s reopening, Twitter responses to Cuomo’s tweet were mixed. Some are excited to get back in their red velvet theater seats to watch the curtains rise, while others are uncertain if the date set for Broadway’s reopening is premature.
Lois Patterson (@loisrp), a developer at Google and a theater and music lover, is one of the hundreds that fall into this latter group. They responded to Cuomo’s tweet with: “I am not revisiting New York, and definitely not seeing a Broadway show, until community transmission is effectively zero.”
Gregg Rubin (@ears2you), an aspiring actor, is also a part of this latter group but suggests an alternative: “Would it not be wise to sell half capacity until we see how it all goes this summer and then release the other tickets? Just trying to stay ahead of the curve.”
This mixed response begs the question: What will Broadway theaters look like post-pandemic?
Will audiences reach full capacity?
As the New York Times article “Broadway Is Reopening. But Not Until September” noted, producers and theater owners “are trying to imagine when large numbers of people are likely to feel comfortable traveling to Times Square, funneling through cramped lobbies and walking down narrow aisles to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers.”
These times are unprecedented; Victoria Bailey, the executive director of TDF (Theatre Development Fund), comically noted: “We’ve never done this before. The last time the theater industry opened from a pandemic, Shakespeare was still writing new plays.”
Undeniably, it will take a while to gauge exactly how to reopen, what health and sanitary efforts will be needed and what criteria will apply to theatergoers. Similarly, every individual will need to decide when they feel ready to get back into the new normal of post-pandemic life.
Likely, New York theaters’ rebound from the pandemic will be a slow-going, gradual process. Even if theaters don’t sell out in the beginning, hopefully by next year, ticket sales will reach pre-pandemic heights.
Will theater companies struggle to earn back all the funds they lost during the pandemic?
Theater, like Cuomo mentioned, is a beloved Big Apple institution, as New York City residents and drama enthusiasts from all 50 states flock to places like the Times Square Theater for musical entertainment. Not only is Broadway a symbol of New York City, it also provides an integral source of income for musical writers, producers, directors, actors and actresses, and the state alike.
As the New York Times article also pointed out, most Broadway shows “lose money even in the best of times, so producers say there is no way they can afford to reopen with social distancing, given the industry’s high labor and real estate costs.” This perhaps hints at why Gregg Rubin’s tweeted suggestion is economically unfeasible for New York City theaters.
Broadway is looking to jump right back into a new, post-pandemic normal where they can earn back some of the funds that they lost during their year of closure. As Tom Hulce, the lead producer of the musical “Ain’t Too Proud” asserted: “We basically are starting from zero advance, as most shows are, and now we need time to reach out and build back up.”
In 2019, Broadway’s 41 theaters drew an impressive 14.6 million audience members whose ticket sales totaled $1.8 billion. Given the closures of 2020-2021, it’s safe to assume that Broadway lost around $2 billion during these past 14 months.
Without a doubt, then, reopening is going to be a challenge — especially considering the current economic decline. As the New York Times article noted, one of the starkest challenges that theater now faces is the “dearth of tourists, who made up roughly two-thirds of the Broadway audience before the pandemic struck.”
It’s hard to imagine interstate travel returning to normal in a mere four months, and consequently, Broadway ticket sales are going to have to primarily rely on their own New York residents. Will New Yorkers step up to the challenge to help give back to one of their most dominant industries and help re-fund the theater arts?
Only time will tell what the future of Broadway will look like post-pandemic. Undeniably, people will have to band together to help struggling industries and businesses in their respective hometowns that have lost an incredible amount of money during a long year of quarantine. Additionally, reopening in every industry will entail a “new normal,” distinct from pre-pandemic life.
And once the world begins to slowly open up like a budding rose, we too can flock to New York City to watch some of the best actors and actresses in the world flaunt their talent and passion in front of a rapt audience after more than a year of silence.