Lights Out: Live Entertainment Business Struggles to Find a Way Forward Amid Pandemic

Live Entertainment Struggles to Find a
Max-O-Matic for Variety

It had been a grueling few months for John Benjamin Hickey.

Not only had he wrapped up a long run playing a pivotal supporting role in Matthew Lopez’s two-part AIDS epic “The Inheritance,” but Hickey was also making his Broadway directing debut with “Plaza Suite,” a romantic comedy starring real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker. The Neil Simon revival had finished a smash tryout in Boston and was shaping up to be one of the season’s hottest tickets when it opened in April. As he juggled his work, Hickey started feeling sick.

“I felt awful, but I thought it was just the stress of getting through that final dress rehearsal,” he says.

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Photo: Spencer Lowell

Opening night never came. With the coronavirus spreading across the country and cases rising exponentially in New York, Broadway dimmed its lights and lurched into an indefinite shutdown. Hickey left the Hudson Theatre, where “Plaza Suite” was in previews, and soon visited his doctor’s office, where he was tested for COVID-19. Like hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, he had the virus. What followed were days of fevers, chills, labored breathing, a loss of taste and smell and a litany of other symptoms that have become the well-known harbingers of a disease that has capsized American civic and cultural life.

From restaurants to retail, film production to professional sports, the U.S. is in the process of reopening for business. But one sector of the economy is destined to be among the last to welcome back customers. Forms of live entertainment, such as theater and concerts, that depend on attracting large gatherings in contained spaces will mostly remain on hiatus until 2021. It’s not clear when they will be able to return, barring a medical breakthrough.

That has many who make their living on the Great White Way calling for government support to help a devastated community survive what is sure to be a period of protracted limbo. But there’s skepticism that assistance will be forthcoming. President Trump doesn’t strike them as a theater aficionado and the Senate is controlled by Republicans, who wouldn’t love the optics of throwing a financial lifeline to one of the most left-leaning parts of the very liberal arts sector. Local help isn’t likely to be coming, either: Both New York state and New York City face massive budget deficits brought on by the coronavirus.

“The chances that Broadway gets a bailout are slim to none,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of the national trade association The Broadway League.

Given those bleak prospects, Broadway power brokers believe their best and only option may be to devise a way to reopen safely, even if there’s no vaccine yet. Plans are in place to test casts and crews before every show, to implement contactless ticketing, to outfit HVAC systems with better filters and to have orchestra members play offstage or at a social distance from each other. Producers are also discussing mounting more one-person shows and looking at productions that have run times of less than two hours, so audiences won’t be exposed to one another for as long.

One thing that’s not being considered, however, is playing to houses that are a quarter to half full. Plays cost roughly $300,000 a week to run, and musicals typically cost just under $600,000 to operate weekly. Turning a profit would be impossible without filling seats. That’s an even harder proposition given that tickets may have to be discounted initially to lure audiences back.

“We won’t be doing social distancing, at least not on purpose,” says St. Martin.

Broadway took in a record $1.8 billion in 2019 and supported an estimated 96,900 jobs. Concert industry trade Pollstar’s 2019 Top 100 global tours grossed $5.55 billion in ticket sales alone. As the historic Broadway shutdown stretches into its fifth month, anyone who had plans to work in theater this year has had to confront the harsh reality that the pandemic has wiped out job prospects through at least early 2021.

“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to perform unless real progress is made in how we fight this thing,” says Hickey. “What does that mean? There either has to be a vaccine or people have to feel safe going back into a crowded room and sitting elbow-to-elbow. People aren’t going to see plays if they feel like they’re taking their life into their hands.”

“People aren’t going to see plays if they feel like they’re taking their life into their hands.”
John Benjamin Hickey

That’s left the thousands of people Broadway employs to design costumes, take tickets, choreograph dance numbers and perform eight shows a week suddenly forced to seek alternate work in a terrible job market.

“The abruptness of the damage is so hard,” says Caesar Samayoa, a cast member of the musical “Come From Away.” “People work all their lives to get to Broadway, and then something like this happens and everything stops. You’re left trying to figure out how to make it a year with zero income. No one can make it that long.”

There’s an emotional toll as well.

“The theater is my second home,” says Kenny Nunez, house manager of the Longacre Theater. “It’s weird not taking the train every day and pushing through all the people in Times Square. It’s sad not to witness the look of awe in an audience member who is about to go to their first show. To have that taken away is devastating.”

Along with most businesses that involve mass gatherings, the live music industry — the financial engine of the music business, which Pollstar had projected would generate $12.2 billion in box office this year — was flattened by the pandemic in a matter of days. All major concert tours and festivals have been scrubbed or postponed indefinitely; layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts have hit every major live entertainment company; the SXSW conference, a vital showcase for new talent and the primary gathering point for industry professionals, was canceled outright. Pollstar has since estimated the concert industry could lose as much as $9 billion in 2020 alone — and that figure doesn’t include the losses of income by musicians, technicians, dancers and others in its sprawling supply chain.

While streaming is often cited as the savior of the music business — which lost half its value in the early aughts as CD sales plummeted due to illegal downloading — it was actually the concert industry that brought it back to health, spawning multiple nine-figure-grossing tours each year for the past decade. The relationship is a symbiotic one: People rarely pay to see acts they don’t know, and streaming drastically reduced the cost and effort of discovering music. Thus, artists came to accept that the small amount most musicians earn from recorded music is a fair exchange for drawing audiences to the place they really make their living: concerts, where fans not only buy tickets but merchandise. That model is on life support because of COVID-19.

Singer-songwriter Brian Fallon — former frontman of the Gaslight Anthem — is an independent solo artist who was set to launch a 10-week tour of North America and Europe and drop a new album the week the coronavirus took hold in the U.S.

“The first date of the tour was in Delaware on March 11,” he says. “During rehearsals, we kept hearing about places getting shut down — and on the morning of the first show, we were told, ‘You’re doing this one show and then everybody goes home.’ We had a one-day tour!”

Fallon runs every aspect of his business, so he was responsible not only for paying his band and crew but also for the vinyl and CDs manufactured to sell on tour. He estimates that he’s out at least $20,000 and possibly as much as $80,000 due to the postponement — but his band and crew were in an even more precarious situation. “They were depending on the tour” for income, he says, so he thought of a way to help by making money quickly. “I’d seen that some artists were writing out song lyrics and selling them, so I did 140 of them and asked for $200 each, and they sold out in an hour. I got everyone to waive their fees — my manager, lawyer, even the merchandise company that sent them out — and gave all the money to my band and crew.”

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Koury Angelo

The situation is dire for smaller venues, which currently have little revenue but substantial overheard: rent, utilities, insurance and the salaries of the employees they haven’t laid off or furloughed. Spaces that aren’t affiliated with large companies like Live Nation and AEG are experiencing the downside of independence. Although some have found creative solutions — Brooklyn metal mecca Saint Vitus created a Kickstarter program that raised six figures; Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry has managed to make a business out of livestreamed performances with no live audience — most are struggling.

Graham Williams of Margin Walker Presents, which promotes shows at multiple spots across Texas, says venues have been able to generate a small amount of income from sponsored livestreamed concerts, T-shirts or “show bonds” (discounted vouchers for future concerts), but “none of them come close to what you make on live shows.”

He outlines the steep road to recovery independent venues are facing: “Most of the acts we book are on tour, and that takes months of advance planning and promotion; local acts will only take you so far.”

Audrey Fix Schaefer, who handles PR for several Washington, D.C.-area venues as well as the recently formed National Independent Venue Assn., estimates that without government assistance, some 90% of independent venues will not survive the pandemic.

The one remedy, Williams and Schaefer agree, is government assistance; Schaefer has been able to play a key role in that, as she is D.C.-based and has connections with lobbyists. Ultimately, NIVA selected the giant firm Akin Gump to be its advocate, because it understood the mission.

“This isn’t just about art and keeping a nightclub going — independent venues are economic drivers for their communities,” Schaefer says. “For every dollar spent on a ticket, there’s $12 of economic activity generated for restaurants and parking lots and other businesses.”

The support their efforts have seen so far from the public has been enthusiastic. “From our website — saveourstages.com — people sent 600,000 emails to their legislators, and every single member of Congress has had a constituent reach out,” she says. “The lobbyists said they had never seen anything like it.” That government funding “would allow us to hold on until the reopening, and we will be major economic drivers of renewal.”

“This isn’t just about art and keeping a nightclub going — independent venues are economic drivers for their communities.”
Audrey Fix Schaefer

However, a combination of desperation, impatience and (many believe) stupidity has led some artists, agents and venues to schedule concerts anyway. A mid-May performance in Arkansas by country singer Travis McCready was held with the venue at 20% capacity and mandatory face masks and social distancing; that event seems like a paragon of responsibility compared with two country concerts held in late June — possibly inspired by President Trump’s flagrantly non-socially distanced rallies — that threw caution, and plenty else, to the wind. A Chase Rice show in rural Tennessee and a Chris Janson concert in Idaho featured close-packed audiences of 1,000 to 2,000 and little to no social distancing. The Tennessee venue offered a detailed explanation — essentially saying that it held the show according to state guidelines, with reduced capacity and many signs calling for social distancing, but, well, when the lights went down, it had no effective way to enforce those recommendations. The venue canceled its next show and said it was reconceiving its procedure for future concerts.

Those events met with blowback not only from thousands of online commenters but from many in the concert industry, who say that such recklessness will only make reopening more difficult. “It’s not our timeline — it’s the virus’ timeline — and we have to be patient,” says Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, an entertainment and sports facilities company he co-founded with Irving Azoff. “The virus is going to slow us down, if not stop us, for some period, but until we get it under control, we’re just not going to be in business.”

In the best-case scenario, Leiweke sees concerts returning in early to mid-2021 — “depending on all of the knuckleheads walking around without masks,” he says. “What people don’t seem to understand is that when they have a social event without masks or social distancing, they’re stopping us from getting back to normal.”

In the U.K., theaters have been dark since March 16, dealing a crippling blow that has paralyzed the industry, with several regional theaters going into bankruptcy and some venues enacting layoffs. While theaters were technically allowed to reopen on July 4, albeit without live shows performed to audiences, newly reduced one-meter (a bit more than 3 feet) social distancing requirements still limit most to operating at 30%-40% capacity.

“We need social distancing to go [away]. We need confidence by audiences to come back to a public space, and we need to build an audience back up,” says Julian Bird, chief executive of West End trade organization the Society of London Theatre. “Things like international tourism are nonexistent at the moment, so if you’re looking at the West End, we have an issue with audiences as well as social distancing. There’s a whole range of things that need to come together before a major show will take the risk of reopening.”

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Max-O-Matic for Variety

According to a recent report commissioned by the Creative Industries Federation, the coronavirus is projected to cost the theater sector around $3.8 billion (£3 billion) in revenue, with up to 70% of jobs lost. Research by UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre, which acts on behalf of 230 London-based producers, theater owners and managers, indicates that around 70% of theaters will run out of money by the end of 2020. Although the government delivered a $1.9 billion relief package for the arts in early July, the sector still waits for clear guidance on reopening dates, without which theaters can’t budget for the months ahead.

As warnings that venues could be closed until 2021 quietly become reality, tolerance for the government’s belated response to the arts industries is wearing thin.

“We can’t hang on much longer,” says Philip Bernays, chief executive of the historic Theatre Royal in Newcastle Upon Tyne in northern England.

Even with more safety measures, performers and creatives are concerned that returning to work could be too risky. Backstages are cramped. Dressing rooms are usually shared. Costumes have to be fitted, requiring designers to be close to the people they’re dressing. Depending on the show, actors sing, kiss and fight on a nightly basis — activities that are hard to manage six feet apart.

“My innate way of creating dances is to have a lot of intertwined bodies navigate space and bob and weave together,” says Sonya Tayeh, choreographer of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” “That might not be possible right now.”

Tired of indecision, some in the theater world have taken matters into their own hands. Andrew Lloyd Webber unveiled an ambitious plan last month to reopen one of his own venues — his biggest, the 2,300-seat London Palladium — without social distancing in place.

Instead, the “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” composer has installed about $300,000 worth of safety measures, including thermal sensors, self-cleaning door handles and disinfectant-loaded archways, all of which have been modeled on a Korean production of “Phantom” that has been running, largely uninterrupted, throughout the pandemic.

“We’ve got to [take] the lead ourselves,” says Lloyd Webber. “There has to be a voice that says, ‘Look, we as theater people have a duty to try and see whether we can suggest ways of getting our theaters open,’ rather than sitting around on our hands and saying, ‘Oh God, can we have some more money from the government? Why don’t you print more money for us?’”

Jon Morgan, director of Theatres Trust, warns that smaller venues lack the same resources. “Lloyd Webber is throwing everything at it, all of which could be helpful … but if I’m running a 200-seat theater, I won’t be able to afford heat sensors,” he says.

“The institutions that house these shows could benefit from self-examination. If we didn’t have the pandemic, I’m not sure we’d take that look.”
Kenny Leon

While theaters have been closed, performers have come up with novel ways to stay in touch. They have weekly Zoom calls to go over scenes or to socialize. In the case of the Broadway production of “Company,” a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical that was forced to stop performances before ever having an opening night, what started as a way to rehearse evolved into informal hangs.

“At the very beginning, we were running lines, and I backed away from it because I thought it wasn’t healthy,” says Patti LuPone. “We’re not even close to returning to the stage, so we’ve turned them into cocktail parties and birthday parties and bingo games.”

There’s also a growing sense among veterans that when Broadway does return, it will need to change the types of shows it champions. The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests that have erupted around the world have put pressure on the theater business to do more than pay lip service to issues of diversity. Director Kenny Leon was ending a Broadway run of “A Soldier’s Play,” a searing indictment of racism in the military, when the coronavirus struck. He believes the business will be fundamentally different when it welcomes back audiences.

“We can do better in terms of the stories that we present,” says Leon. “We can do better in terms of tackling the lack of diversity in our crews backstage and our casts onstage. The institutions that house these shows could benefit from self-examination. If we didn’t have the pandemic, I’m not sure we’d take that look.”

André De Shields, the Tony Award winning star of “Hadestown,” has been appearing on Broadway since 1973. He calls himself “radically optimistic” that a new theater industry will re-emerge from these plague times, one fueled by activism and a commitment to a more equitable future.

“This pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to consider what we have done to this point and to consider what we do hereafter,” he says. “We have the privilege of deciding what kind of new Earth we’re going to create.”

When De Shields first found himself out of work and grappling with the changes wrought by COVID-19, a song by the Supremes kept coming back to him. He came to see it as a philosophical touchstone.

“Stop in the name of love before you break my heart,” De Shields sings, his voice rising with emotion, before falling into a lower register, for the final part of the refrain. “Think it over.”

Broadway, the financial engine of the theater industry, has never been shut down for such a prolonged period of time. Even in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, “The Main Stem” only stayed closed for 48 hours. Matthew Lopez, the playwright behind “The Inheritance,” a drama that looks at the devastating effect of an earlier epidemic and the ways in which AIDS left an indelible mark on New York, believes that there is a Phoenix-like quality to the five boroughs. Once again, New York City and by extension Broadway, is at the epicenter of an international heath crisis, and once again it will find a way to endure, Lopez predicts.

“New York City has burned many times before,” he says. “That’s one of the taxes we pay as residents of New York City — we often find ourselves at the center of a global tragedy. But New York will rebuild and recover and redefine itself. It’s a city of survivors.”

After getting his diagnosis, Hickey retreated to a house in the Hamptons to recover. As he got better, he started having conversations with Broderick and Parker about fine-tuning “Plaza Suite” so that the show that returns to Broadway will be even better than the one that found its run abruptly curtailed.

It’s been hard, he admits, to live with the nagging anxiety of not knowing when, if or how theaters will reopen. He reflects on the careers that have been disrupted and the friends who have had the disease, some of whom suffered far worse cases than he did. But Hickey has also allowed himself to daydream. That’s when he thinks about what it will be like to stand on stage or watch from the wings as the lights on Broadway flicker back on — to look out as theaters that have been vacant for months fill with crowds shuffling in to take their seats — and to hold his breath for that moment when the curtain finally lifts.

“It’s going to be incredible,” he says. “To celebrate all those actors and crew members who lost livelihoods but found a way to endure. I know we’ll come back bigger and better than before. Just please God, let us come back.”