As theater innovates worldwide, Broadway’s lights will stay off

Broadway will stay dark until at least May 2021.
Broadway will stay dark until at least May 2021.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Segar
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In mid-March, New York City, like much of the US and world, went quiet because of the impending threat of Covid-19. Among the most notable closures was Broadway, the constellation of venues and companies that put on plays and musicals almost every night of the week. The date for Broadway’s reopening has been pushed back repeatedly, first from April to December, and as of today (Oct. 9) until May 2021.

“With nearly 97,000 workers who rely on Broadway for their livelihood and an annual economic impact of $14.8 billion to the city, our membership is committed to re-opening as soon as conditions permit us to do so,” Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, said in a statement. “We are working tirelessly with multiple partners on sustaining the industry once we raise our curtains again.”

It’s unfortunate for Broadway (and its fans) that many of the conditions for traditional shows happen to be those through which Covid-19 is most easily transmitted. Indoor spaces present a high risk, especially if those spaces are packed with people, as would be required for Broadway’s notoriously tight margins. Singing and talking, particularly when done loudly, are risky activities, as researchers learned from the Washington choir practice that became a Covid-19 superspreader event.

For these reasons, other storied performing arts institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera have also chosen to stay shuttered.

And yet, theater companies all over the world have found innovative ways to perform for audiences. A Miami theater troupe is taking its autumn performances to the city’s vacant storefronts. Others are performing via Zoom, or outside, or for audiences of one. In the UK, performers have strict distancing protocols and are regularly tested, as is becoming common in the film industry. Other types of musical events, such as rock concerts, have been held for audiences sequestered in their individual cars. The New York Philharmonic is bringing music to its audiences by putting performers on a truck. Broadway’s golden child itself, Hamilton, saw the premiere date for its cinematic release sped up by more than a year to meet audiences stuck at home.

Is Broadway—whose productions grossed $1.83 billion last year—considering experimenting with or expanding upon these kinds of creative approaches? A spokesperson for Broadway League, the industry’s national trade association, responded to Quartz’s request for comment with links alluding to the complexity of the logistics involved, the inability to socially distance as other theaters have done in Europe, and the difficulty in cutting streaming deals.

In a statement, Mary McColl, the executive director for Actors’ Equity Association, the union for Broadway performers and stage managers, called Broadway League’s decision “difficult but responsible” because it “put the safety and health of their workers and audience first.” She also noted that her organization had been pushing for federal guidance around arts reopening since March, which to date has not been issued.

Whether theaters truly reopen in May 2021, and what that reopening could look like, is still anyone’s guess, as St. Martin told the New York Times. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, without a vaccine, Broadway’s lights could be off for the foreseeable future.