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As COVID-19 Restrictions Start to Ease, What Will It Take for Broadway Shows to Reopen?

Nobody – literally nobody – knows when or how Broadway will reopen.

But now, a year into a shutdown that began March 12, 2020, the road map to recovery has begun to take shape. The pace and scope of vaccinations continue to accelerate and expand. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, the $15 billion program formerly known as Save Our Stages, stands poised to support commercial and nonprofit producers alike. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced a program of special live events at indoor venues across New York City, including some Broadway houses. And theaters on the other side of the world, freshly reopened after a prolonged shutdown, offer glimpses of what theatergoing will look like in the era of pandemic management.

With the science evolving and the specifics of government support still pending, major questions remain. But it all seems to point toward the certain, if incremental, rehabilitation of an industry stuck in purgatory for more than a year.

“I’ve been quite a realist about all this, but this is probably the first time I’m feeling cautiously optimistic,” says Tali Pelman of Stage Entertainment, the international company that counted “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical” on Broadway as one of 18 productions it had running around the world when the virus struck.

The current best guesses have penciled in a restart date for sometime after Labor Day, more than 18 months after theaters went dark. It’s been a long wait for an industry whose shutdown has left most arts workers stranded without wages or health insurance for months on end, scrambling for unemployment benefits or grants from organizations like The Actors Fund. The halt also marks the extended stoppage of a national economic engine: Arts and cultural activity accounts for 4.5% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Anyone wondering what’s taking so long need only look at theater itself, an art form that relies on presence and shared spaces. Audiences sit elbow to elbow as performers sing, kiss, cry and engage in any number of other activities that now qualify as high-risk — not just once but multiple times a week. Cast and crew cram into backstage warrens, bathrooms are tight and crowds bottleneck in doorways during intermission. On Broadway, the aging physical spaces make full social distancing impossible even before factoring in a business model that can’t sustain a show that plays to less than two-thirds of capacity, and one that relies heavily on international travelers and group sales.

On top of all that, Broadway isn’t a single entity but a loose, idiosyncratic coalition of theaters, landlords and producers. Each production is essentially its own small business, vying for success in a market ripe with history, tradition and all the complications that come with them.

“Every Broadway show operates with 14 different unions and 16 contracts within those 14 unions, and the labor is divided between those who work for the producer and those whose payroll comes through the theater owners,” says Kevin McCollum, the producer (“Rent,” “Avenue Q”) who in spring 2020 had one show, “Six,” set to open the night Broadway shut down and another one, “Mrs. Doubtfire,” in previews. “And that’s just one of the ways that Broadway is a very complicated Rubik’s Cube that miraculously lines up eight times a week.”

How exactly the puzzle pieces of the theater industry fit into a broad program of government relief for arts and performance companies of all kinds is still being hammered out. That leaves many producers and organizations in a state of tentative optimism about how, and how much, the SVOG will help them.

“We are hopeful that we are going to get some relief, but none of us are counting those pennies until we actually see them,” says Sue Frost, one of the lead producers of “Come From Away,” the musical that was playing in five cities around the world, including New York, when the pandemic hit.

The negotiation and interpretation of SVOG regulations is ongoing, with the Small Business Assn. releasing the latest version of its FAQs about the program March 12. It’s the sixth version so far, and Jeff Daniel, the co-CEO of Broadway Across America and chair of The Broadway League’s government relations committee, says it could be the end of March, or later, before details are finalized.

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“Six,” starring Abby Mueller, Samantha Pauly, Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Brittney Mack and Anna Uzele as Henry VIII’s wives, was among the shows that had to cease performances due to the pandemic. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

In broad strokes, though, most Broadway players expect SVOG funds to benefit the shows that were up and running when the pandemic struck, qualifying for funds equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue (based on 2019 figures) and capped at $10 million for a single grant. Producers and theater owners are among those eligible to receive funds, but individual eligibility will vary based on the specifics of each entity. Disney Theatrical Prods., for instance, will not be eligible for a grant because Disney is a publicly traded company.

According to The Broadway League’s current understanding of the regulations, many of the eligible shows and organizations on Broadway and around the country stand poised to receive only one grant regardless of size or number of venues. In addition, each recipient must spend all grant money on specific expenses approved by the SBA or return it. Meanwhile, productions that hadn’t begun performances by early 2020 are more likely to benefit from the state’s proposed $25 million in tax credits for musical and theater productions in
New York City.

However the finalized eligibility shakes out, SVOG represents unprecedented funding and support for the arts from the U.S. government. It was secured in large part thanks to advocates, from The Broadway League to the nonprofit sector to grassroots movements like Be an Arts Hero, that emphasized not just the cultural import of live events but also the massive employment and economic impact. A Broadway League report pegs the theater industry’s overall economic impact to New York City at $14.7 billion during the 2018-19 season, supporting more than 95,000 jobs.

“Broadway and theater in general is in a very unique position to reopen both our economy and our culture,” says Daniel.

But the lights can’t go on all at once. Every production will need lead time ranging from weeks to months before it can resume performances, to allow for preparations both on the creative side — including rehearsals, tech work and costume construction and fittings, all of which will require new COVID safety protocols — and on the business side, as producers get tickets back on sale and ramp up marketing and advertising to ensure the show has an audience to play to. That all takes money, which might not be readily available to businesses that have been devoid of revenues for more than a year.

Daniel notes that productions will need support not only to reopen but also to weather the months afterward, as tourism finds its feet and audiences in general gradually feel safe enough to gather. On Broadway, shows expect to stagger their openings, depending on a production’s individual needs and in recognition of the fact that attendance — which hit a record 14.62 million in 2019 — will take time to recover.

For returning productions, the funds from SVOG will make up one component of a financial cushion that will also include the payouts of each show’s business interruption insurance policy, plus, for the lucky ones, whatever money they saved while they were running.

“I can’t imagine there’s any show where SVOG alone will do the trick,” says Vivek Tiwary, one of the lead producers of “Jagged Little Pill.” “It’ll be one part of a mix of things that will get us back and running.”

In addition to how Broadway returns, there is the question of how it will operate when it does. Sparked by the protests for racial justice over the summer, the nationwide movement for equity has reframed the way employers and workers alike think about the theater industry’s long-standing systems and structures.

Producer Brian Moreland, whose production of “Thoughts of a Colored Man” is set for a run at the Golden Theatre, anticipates an enduring change in which shows get the chance to play a Broadway house, and in the audiences that turn out for them. Following the lives of seven Black men in Brooklyn over the course of a single day, “Colored Man” had been on its way to New York before the pandemic but now seems to resonate even more strongly. “Coming out of this huge shift that has happened throughout America and all throughout theater, I’m really excited to have a title like ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’ to continue the conversation,” he says.

Throughout the past several months, existing organizations like the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and new ones like Black Theatre United have produced public-facing digital forums while engaging in behind-the-scenes advocacy to push for equity, diversity and inclusion in all areas of the industry.

For instance, BTU not only participated in census and voter registration campaigns during the run-up to the 2020 election but also has focused on mentorship and education in the theater itself, alongside ongoing discussions with business and creative leaders.

“We’re building the resources so we don’t ever again have to hear, ‘Oh, I don’t know where to find a Black lighting designer,’” says the actor Vanessa Williams, who is one of BTU’s founding members alongside other well-known Broadway regulars like Audra McDonald and Billy Porter.

Meanwhile, BAC has stepped up industry activities including an expanded version of its Theater of Change program, a new fellowship for activist artists, a scholarship that supports Black, Asian, Latino and Indigenous theater students and a developing workshop program called Reimagining Equitable Productions.

“It’s not about cancel culture,” says Zhailon Levingston, the director of industry initiatives at BAC. “It’s about deconstruction and then rebuilding toward a sustainable and accountable workplace that is there even after you leave.”

As Broadway moves toward reopening, racial equity and the lessons of the Time’s Up movement are as much subjects of discussion as virus protocols.

“Safety is a broad concept,” says Mary McColl, the executive director of Actors’ Equity Assn., which maintains a greenlight/redlight list of producers the union has approved for live production during the pandemic. “Yes, we have to talk about ventilation and COVID mitigation and hopefully some therapeutics, but safety also has to include a change in the entire work environment, so that we are looking at cases of harassment, bullying and intimidation.”

For now, the whole industry is doing all it can to ready itself while contending with fluctuating guidelines and an unclear timeline. It amounts to knowing for certain something will happen, but having no idea when or what it will look like.

Case in point: the Tony Awards. The two-week voting period for the truncated 2019-20 season wrapped March 15, but every single detail about the ceremony — date, location, broadcast component — is up in the air. The plan is to coordinate the timing with the reopening of Broadway to boost attention to the industry just as shows get back up and running. That means that the Tonys might not take place until the fall or even later, despite nominations being announced last October.

Although it’s impossible at this point to predict what Broadway’s new normal will look like, we can catch hints of what might lie ahead from the international musicals that have begun to reopen in Australia.

As “Frozen” geared up to begin performances in Sydney in December, the head of Disney Theatrical Prods., Thomas Schumacher, spent six weeks Down Under following a stringent two-week quarantine. “It was like living in the future,” he says, painting a picture of audiences and crew members in masks, touchless ticketing with contact-tracing QR codes, audience traffic controlled to minimize congestion and capacity capped at 85% to avoid chokepoints.

Of course, the U.S. and Australia differ in the specifics of government relief and COVID management, and none of the protocols in place for “Frozen” in Sydney has yet been set on Broadway. By the time the first productions reopen, the science will likely have shifted the safety parameters several times over.

“Yes, protocols will keep changing, and we’re going to be very thoughtful and careful about when we reopen, and how and where you enter a theater,” Schumacher says. “But we’re all going to be back in the theater again. This is going to happen.”