When Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” opened in Greece this year, it marked the country’s most ambitious theater production to date, with an all-star cast plucked from London’s West End and a local production company that had dreamed of one day staging the hit musical.
Following runs in Thessaloniki and Athens in January and February, however, all momentum collapsed when the show was called off March 10, three weeks ahead of schedule — marking one of Europe’s first major theater disruptions stemming from the continent’s paralyzing coronavirus outbreak.
West End star Ben Forster, who played “Phantom” in London’s long-running production, and in the Greek show, had boarded an Athens-bound flight from London, where he’d returned briefly for a BBC Radio concert at Royal Albert Hall.
“By the time I landed, I had 129 [text messages] on my phone and knew we’d been canceled,” said the Sunderland-born performer, a household name in the U.K. since winning a 2012 ITV competition looking for a new lead for a global tour of Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Two days later, on March 12, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shut down Broadway until April 13 — the first prolonged dark period for the New York theater district since an 18-day stagehand strike in 2007 and a 48-hour no-show period after 9/11. When the lights went off on Broadway, New York City had 95 confirmed coronavirus cases.
“That was quite shocking,” says Forster. “When Broadway did that, I thought, ‘This is the nail in the coffin for the West End.’” Except it wasn’t.
Instead, the doors to London’s dynamic theater district, which generated close to £800 million ($925 million) in revenues across 2019, stayed open another four days, with close to 50 productions running.
When they did eventually shutter between March 15-16 as London grappled with 407 coronavirus cases, it was of their own accord rather than by government decree, unlike the governments of other countries that took swift action with bans, helping to ease insurance headaches for businesses.
West End performer Nadim Naaman, who played “Raoul” in “Phantom” alongside Forster and produced Theatre Royal Haymarket’s “Broken Wings,” draws a stark comparison with Greece. “That country is known to have an unstable economy and chaotic environment, but they dealt with it very calmly and simply.”
The Greek “Phantom” production was told all theaters with a capacity of 1,000 seats or more would need to close, but those below could continue.
“There was a very clear process, and they kept reducing until the point everyone needed to [pack up],” Naaman said.
The U.K. government, however, took weeks to provide any guidance. And when it finally did on March 16, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised the public to “avoid” theaters and other social venues, putting the onus entirely on producers and managers to close shop.
“Our government has really let our industry down,” Naaman said. “If you’re being told it’s not essential to close and you know that every night you can remain open limits the damage to your livelihood, it’s a very human instinct to want to hang on for as long as possible.”
London’s West End, which was last shuttered for a few days in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, has been dark for over a week as the U.K. wrestles with a pandemic it can barely contain, with 6,650 cases and 335 deaths so far. The period is unprecedented, and the theater industry, which employs 290,000, is on its knees.
There have been countless relief funds and artistic initiatives, such as Lambert Jackson Productions’ ‘Leave a Light On,’ in which West End performers stream concerts straight from their homes. However, it may be inevitable that smaller, cash-strapped theaters close doors permanently while certain productions may be pulled for good.
What’s clear, however, is that those most affected and, to date, the least supported are freelancers and the self-employed who constitute 70% of the West End workforce and became unemployed virtually overnight.
While U.K. Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Friday unveiled a coronavirus job retention scheme in which government will pay up to 80% of people’s wages, up to £2,500 ($2,930) per month, such measures only protect retained workers and not freelancers, who can only access a Universal Credit allowance of £94 ($108) per week for a single person over 25.
“People are scared for themselves and their families,” said Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), London’s equivalent to the Broadway League, which has been lobbying the government and is locked in talks with entertainment unions Bectu and Equity for more protection.
“They’re also scared because they can’t see any income coming through in the next few months, and that’s the part we’re hoping the government will step up to the mark with,” Bird added.
Jordan Murphy, resident director of the Disney and Cameron Mackintosh-produced “Mary Poppins,” says the future is “uncertain” for everyone involved.
“It’s a huge show, and it’s really expensive,” he said. “We don’t necessarily know yet what’s happening financially, and nor do the producers. We were all paid [last] week, but what does it mean for upcoming weeks?”
Local theater producer Frazer Brown was among the first to bang the drum about a potential West End shutdown following the initial COVID-19 outbreak in China, but was “rebuffed” at every turn.
“I was calling the West End and no one batted an eye or was interested,” said Brown, who has put the brakes on two shows eyeing West End transfers, “Night of the Living Dead” and “Bruce’s Billions.”
“The English have a good habit of getting on with things, but this is not something you can get on with: it’s a silent killer,” he said.
Brown highlights that unlike Broadway, the West End — though stronger in admissions with 15.9 million in 2019 compared to Broadway’s 14.8 million — is “much more reliant” on ticket sales and government funding.
“These smaller venues live hand to mouth and rely on galas and ticket sales,” Brown said. “This is absolutely disastrous.”
At 16-year-old off-West End theater Menier Chocolate Factory, producer and co-founder David Babani describes an acute “fight for survival.”
“We are reliant on our audiences and we are doing everything we can to ensure survival, but thus far, the government measures and insurance don’t help us in any way,” he said, noting that most U.K. policies don’t cover communicable diseases, such as coronavirus or forced closure.
“We are being left to fend completely on our own with zero income and zero prospect of any income for the next few months,” says Babani, whose venue will lose upwards of £100,000 ($116,541) this week alone.
Similarly, Ben Todd, executive director of North London’s Arcola Theatre, which is uninsured, says the venue has lost about 85% of its income.
“How do I pay wages for six months? We need the government to step in,” he said.
Unlike Broadway, with its immense network of producers who rent theater spaces, the West End is effectively run by a small group of powerful producers, including Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh, Sonia Friedman and the ATG Group, who own and operate numerous theaters.
Mackintosh, whose Delfont Mackintosh Group owns eight venues, including the Gielgud, Noel Coward and Prince of Wales theaters, is understood to have offered interim payments for anyone working across current shows.
However, a week on, there remains significant ambiguity around wider payments as theater bosses, unions and SOLT continue discussions.
The industry now waits on tenterhooks for a government announcement around freelance measures, believed to be imminent. One promising development is an amendment to a coronavirus bill currently circulating the House of Commons calling for statutory self-employment pay that is 80% of a freelancer’s monthly net earnings, up to £2,917 ($3,411).
The expectation, says “Phantom” star Forster, is that decades of financial and cultural contributions by the West End — which brought in £133 million ($156 million) for the Treasury alone in 2019 — will be recognized in its hour of need.
“I can’t describe how much this shutdown will affect people,” said Forster, who, despite being one of the industry’s most recognizable stars, has also lost all short-term work.
“People train their whole lives to get these opportunities to perform in the West End,” he said. “It’s an emotional thing as well as a financial issue — and that’s very hard to compensate.”