Broadway’s breakthrough COVID cases creating long-term consequences

16_1225_The Company of JAGGED LITTLE PILL 2021 (c) Matthew Murphy
The company of “Jagged Little Pill.”
Photo: Matthew Murphy

This is turning out to be a not-so-jolly holiday for Broadway and the New York performing arts community.

Following a relatively smooth post-shutdown reopening process over the past few months, theaters began descending into meltdown mode this past weekend as one third of the shows on Broadway were forced to cancel performances due to breakthrough COVID-19 cases, making it literally impossible for the show to go on. And over at Radio City Music Hall, where health and safety measures were less stringent than those on Broadway, all of the remaining performances of “The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes” were canceled. 

Broadway shows that have gone on hiatus for this week (which is generally considered to be one of the most profitable and well-attended times of the year) include “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Aladdin,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Hadestown,” “Hamilton,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” “The Lion King,” Six,” and “MJ.”A new website, BwayToday.com, has been set up to provide daily updates on which shows are still up and running.

The situation is already creating long-term consequences. The Alanis Morissette musical “Jagged Little Pill,” which canceled performances over the weekend, announced on Monday night that it would not reopen at all. “In light of the extreme uncertainty ahead of us this winter, and forced to choose between continuing performances and protecting our company, we’ve made the difficult decision to close our doors,” the producers said in a statement. 

Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League (the trade organization representing Broadway producers and theater owners), told the website Broadway News that another industrywide shutdown is not currently being considered.  

Earlier in the fall, cancellations of performances were rare and isolated. Even if someone tested positive and had to quarantine, a show was still able to go on so long as there were understudies or replacements. However, shows are now reaching a breaking point in which so many people are testing positive that backup coverage is no longer available. 

Broadway performers and workers (who all must be fully vaccinated) undergo multiple COVID tests each week. On social media, many have argued that the current wave of cancellations displays the strength of the theater industry’s health and safety measures. For instance, actor Tally Sessions tweeted that the cancellations are “happening because our industry is testing regularly to keep everyone safe.” 

At the Off-Broadway revue “Cheek to Cheek, which canceled performances over the weekend after an actor tested positive. performers receive three PCR tests and several rapid antigen tests every week. “We are carefully following all the protocols that have been put forth by Actors’ Equity and the other unions,” Evans Haile, executive director of the York Theatre Company, said. “It is a frustrating time, but everyone is thankfully working together to make sure we find the best path forward in a safe way.” 

Looking ahead, it may no longer be enough for audience members to show proof of full vaccination and wear face masks. The Public Theater will now require audience members to also show proof of a negative PCR test taken 72 hours prior to the performance or a negative rapid antigen test from the date of the performance. Also, beginning Jan. 17, the Metropolitan Opera will require that audience members provide proof of having received a booster shot. 

But in the midst of the gloom, there are reasons to be optimistic that better times lie ahead. On Monday, the first preview performance of the highly-anticipated Broadway revival of “The Music Man” with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster went forward at the Winter Garden Theatre. It was also announced that the new musical “A Strange Loop,” which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, will transfer to Broadway in the spring. 

Theater professionals and fans alike can only hope that this is just a temporary setback and that Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the rest of the industry will soon be up and running again at full speed and strength.