Broadway shows rarely close in previews nowadays. Aficionados speak of Bobbi Boland, starring Farrah Fawcett, which ran for seven performances in 2003 before the producers shut it down, presumably over the realisation that the play’s prospects were poor.
Last week, in the wake of Covid-19 and the elimination of public gatherings, implementation of social distancing and ‘shelter in place’ directives, two Broadway shows closed in previews.
The reason was not one of quality, but rather the hard calculus of the health crisis running up against the already challenging economics of producing plays. As a result, the transfer of Hangmen from London’s Royal Court and the Atlantic Theater Company and the production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with Laurie Metcalf and Rupert Everett, will have played for 13 and nine previews in total respectively.
Seen by just a small group of early audiences – and unseen by the critics – these shows are destined to be spoken of in the hushed awe deployed by the privileged few (and the playbills could be quite valuable one day in the memorabilia market).
No doubt every commercial production is gaming out the possible scenarios of when or if they will return. An agreement among the Broadway unions has allowed for the continuance of compensation for a couple of weeks, but only the most successful shows that have maintained a significant financial reserve will be able to sustain that support of artists, crew, and staff.
When and how those shows will restart is anyone’s guess, given that all of New York State is closed by order of the governor, save for essential businesses. International tourism is reeling. That the city is now considered the world’s epicentre of infection is undeniably troubling.
The original end of the Broadway shutdown, April 13, now seems all but impossible, given that current estimates suggest infections in New York will peak in May. If that proves accurate, it will still take time for appreciable risk to subside. And without a firm date, productions will be reassessing, week by week, what it will take for them to return, both in terms of time and finances.
Because every level of the entertainment industry is now in stasis, presumably everyone involved will be available once again when some sense of normalcy resumes. However, it may require shows that were running to incur additional marketing expenses, and perhaps even a period of rehearsal to get back up to speed.
Shows in preview may, having expended their pre-performance budget, have to explore priority loans to get them into a run; and shows in rehearsal and even those on track for summer and fall openings could require additional capitalisation.
All of this will be taking place in a battered economy with investments having fallen precipitously – which is also bound to minimise audience demand, as disposable income may take a very long time to recover.
Shows that had already begun to fade may decide to call it quits at some point soon, especially if their investments were recouped, even if just barely. The beleaguered Beetlejuice, which has already served notice to vacate its home in June, will find its efforts at a new home further stymied – unless a rash of other closings leaves theatres empty and available for a show that is, compared with many others, ready to go on. New shows for the summer and fall may be delayed to ensure that the country has ridden out the storm more fully.
Presumably some shows, the true stalwarts, will be back. The powerhouse Hamilton seems a lock, if there is such a thing right now, as does the perennially popular The Lion King, and newer hits such as Hadestown and Ain’t Too Proud are likely to make it back.
The deep emotional pull of Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away should find audiences once again in need of the catharses they offer. Even after more than a decade since it began, surely patrons will want to laugh together once again at The Book of Mormon. The lack of mention of other shows here is in no way doubt, but simply the avoidance of a laundry list.
In the wake of 9/11, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani urged people to get back to Broadway as an act of defiance against outside attackers; some were cautious fearing that Times Square might be a target. In the aftermath of Covid-19 – and it will end – people will need to lose their caution about being with one another again, arm to arm in narrow seats, breathing the same air. But that will come.
It may dent Broadway’s incredible upward momentum in recent years, but Broadway has weathered world wars and previous health emergencies. The lights will light again, as they must in every industry, not just entertainment. And if the landscape has changed, then the business and the shows will change with it.