Broadway bets big on a spring rebound. Will the virus cooperate?

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Broadway bets big on a spring rebound. Will the virus cooperate?
New York City Mayor Eric Adams outside the red carpet at the long-delayed opening of the Broadway revival of the Neil Simon play “Plaza Suite” at the Hudson Theater in New York, March 28, 2022. It will be the busiest April for Broadway openings in more than a decade, but some of its biggest stars have been sidelined by positive tests for the coronavirus. OK McCausland/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK, NY.- After a gloomy winter in which the omicron variant shriveled Broadway’s lucrative holiday season, New York’s vaunted theater industry has been betting on a big spring, nearly doubling the number of shows on offer as the pandemic-battered business thirsts for a rebound.

Adding all those plays and musicals — 16 new productions plus three returning from hiatuses are opening over a five-week stretch — was always going to be a gamble, since no one knows, in this not-yet-post-pandemic era, whether there are enough tourists and theatergoing locals to sustain that many shows.

And now the stubborn persistence of the coronavirus is complicating matters even further. A rising number of cases in New York City, coinciding with the arrival of the virus’s BA. 2 subvariant, has once again rocked Broadway, infecting some of its biggest stars, including Daniel Craig, Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, and forcing four shows to temporarily cancel performances.

“What we thought we were entering into this spring, which was always going to be busy and crowded, over the last week has changed dramatically,” said Greg Nobile, lead producer of a new farce, “POTUS,” which, while still in rehearsals, has had to adapt as four of its seven actresses tested positive for the coronavirus. “Somehow it feels like, ‘This again?’ The answer is yes, but this time, we need to ask the question, how do we truly keep the show on, and what are the ways we are adjusting to what is a new normal?”

Broadway’s big spring began on a cold night in late March with the opening of a revival of “Plaza Suite,” a Neil Simon comedy starring Parker and Broderick that was initially scheduled to start performances March 13, 2020. Broadway shut down for the pandemic the day before that performance, and the Hudson Theater remained vacant, with the married co-stars’ names on the marquee and the set on the stage, for two full years before they returned to try again.

“Our hope is that this isn’t a moment, but rather this is the way we will function now,” Parker, in a pink satin gown with a beaded tulle overlay, said opening night at the end of an 80-foot-long preshow red carpet. “We have restaurants waiting to reopen still; we have hotel employees waiting to come back; we have delis that have been hit; we have ushers who are wanting to work the front of the house.”

The crowd that came out to cheer her on, which included Mikhail Baryshnikov, Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon and Martin Short, was buoyant.

Broderick, finished with the gauntlet of camera crews arrayed inside a translucent tent, remarked how much he had enjoyed returning to the theater as an audience member and now as a performer. “We’re learning to live with the pandemic or endemic — whatever you want to call it now — so the stronger theater and everything New York gets, the more normal life is,” he said. “This is part of the world coming back.”

But eight days later, he tested positive, and two days later, so did she.

“Plaza Suite” has been closed since Thursday, as has “Paradise Square,” a new musical which was already struggling at the box office and can ill afford the lost revenue. Craig’s show, a revival of “Macbeth,” canceled 10 days of previews. And “A Strange Loop,” a new musical which won the Pulitzer Prize based on its off-Broadway run, scrapped its first five days of previews. All cited positive coronavirus tests among company members as the reason; all hope to resume performances this week.

The latest virus-related cancellations were all at new shows; shows that have been running longer had more time to prepare for cast absences and have been able to soldier on with understudies. Most notably, a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” that opened in December temporarily lost six of its principals to positive coronavirus tests in April, including its lead actress, Katrina Lenk, but the show went on. (Its best known performer, Patti LuPone, was not among those stricken, possibly because she had tested positive in late February and missed 10 days then.)

And the effects are not limited to Broadway: Off-Broadway, shows including “Suffs,” at the Public Theater, and “At the Wedding,” at Lincoln Center Theater, have also temporarily canceled performances.

The industry is undergoing a stress test of sorts, as the annual crush of Broadway openings, which tend to cluster just before an end-of-April deadline to qualify for the Tony Awards, is even bigger than usual because some productions postponed their start dates in the hopes of avoiding the peak of the omicron variant. This month features the highest number of Broadway openings in any April for more than a decade.

Broadway is always a risky business, in which far more shows fail than succeed. Some producers acknowledge that having a glut of new shows vying for attention and audience at the same fraught time is less than ideal, but they tend to be optimists, and each seems to believe that theirs is the show audiences have been waiting for.

“You can play a bit of chicken-and-egg,” said Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which runs five Broadway houses. “Should we wait until every tourist is in town? But why is every tourist going to be in town if we wait? At some point we have to decide that we’re going to live.”

This is actually Broadway’s second attempt at a rebound. The first began gradually in June, with the return engagement of Bruce Springsteen’s wildly popular evening of songs and storytelling. The first play began performances in August, and in September, with a moment of hope and celebration, the biggest musicals returned.

Early box office grosses and attendance were encouragingly robust. But then the omicron variant arrived in New York, contributing to the premature closing of nine shows and crushing attendance at the worst possible time of year: Only 62% of Broadway’s seats were occupied during the week ending Jan. 9.

Through late winter, there were only 19 shows running in Broadway’s 41 theaters. With little competition, many of those left standing — mostly established hits or shows with famous titles — did quite well. By the week ending March 20, 92% of seats were occupied.

Now, as the number of shows grows, and untested titles join the hits, average attendance is slipping, with 85% of seats filled during the week ending April 3. Overall, 224,053 people were at the 31 shows running that week, which is the highest number of ticket holders this year but is substantially lower than the 315,320 who attended the 38 shows running during the comparable week in 2019.

“The reopening of these shows is a real celebration of moving forward,” said Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance, which is marking this busy spring with a display of 10-foot-tall Playbill monoliths erected on a theater district pedestrian plaza. He noted that while Times Square was growing livelier, it is still quieter than it used to be: In March there were about 255,000 people passing through the neighborhood on an average day, he said, down from about 365,000 daily visitors before the pandemic.

Until the pandemic, Broadway was booming, with 14.8 million ticket holders spending $1.8 billion at the box office during the 2018-19 season, which was the last full season before the coronavirus. But travelers to New York City, who before the pandemic accounted for two-thirds of the Broadway audience, have not returned in pre-pandemic numbers; the city’s tourism agency is projecting 56.4 million visitors this year, down from 66.6 million in 2019.

That helps explain why Mayor Eric Adams has been celebrating Broadway at every opportunity — showing up at the openings of “The Music Man” and “Paradise Square” and attending a student performance of “Hamilton” in recent weeks.

“Every time I can walk a red carpet,” Adams said in an interview at the “Plaza Suite” opening, “I know it’s going to bring green currency to our city.”

Now, as the city has dropped vaccine mandates at restaurants and other public spaces, Broadway must decide whether to do the same. Its current safety protocols, which require that all ticket holders show proof of vaccination to enter theaters and remain masked while inside, except when eating or drinking, are in place through April 30. Theater owners and operators had planned to announce by April 1 whether they would extend those rules, but they postponed that decision until April 15 as case counts rose.

At the same time, the new shows keep coming.

So many are opening this month that “POTUS,” whose stars include Julianne Hough and Vanessa Williams, wound up rehearsing at the Daryl Roth Theater, in Union Square, because the production could not find suitable space in the theater district.

On a recent Saturday, the cast gathered to work on scenes on a makeshift White House set. One of the stars, Rachel Dratch, was still out with the coronavirus, so her part was rehearsed by an understudy, Anita Abdinezhad, while another star, Julie White, was back for the first time since finishing her isolation period. White, who had kept an eye on rehearsals via video while recuperating, was still coughing beneath a mask but had her lines down cold, and she leaned in to the comedy.

As she arrived, she was visibly delighted to be back at work. She noted her relief at finally seeing negative results on her daily coronavirus test, saying, “It was so good to see that single line this morning.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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