On Monday, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that live performance venues in New York can reopen at full capacity beginning May 19 (so long as everyone has proof of vaccination or a recent negative test). Two days later, Cuomo announced that Broadway will officially reopen on Sept. 14 at full capacity, with tickets going on sale on May 6.
These surprise announcements are cause for celebration – and an important reminder of how much time, effort and money will be needed for most theaters to actually reopen.
Shows that were running at the time of the shutdown in March 2020 must assess whether they have the financial and artistic resources to reopen. A handful of shows confirmed long ago that they will not be returning, including the musicals “Frozen” and “Mean Girls,” Martin McDonagh’s macabre comedy “Hangmen” and a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Producers will need to get their cast and crew back together (or find replacements), coordinate with the unions representing theater artists and technicians over safety measures and any contractual changes, re-rehearse the show, stay aware of medical developments (after all, a surge could instantly derail everything), figure out how they can check the medical status of audience members and, last but not least, convince the ticket-buying general public that it is safe to return to the theater.
Word on the street is that a few long-running musical blockbusters will reopen in September, with other shows to follow in subsequent weeks and months on a rolling basis. While there is logic to the idea that long-running hits have the best resources available to reopen, whether they can attract an audience in the fall is questionable.
New Yorkers saw “Phantom” in the 1980s, “The Lion King” and “Chicago” in the 1990s, “Wicked” in the 2000s and “Hamilton” in the 2010s. More recently, these shows have relied heavily on tourists, who probably will not be back in large numbers by the fall.
Of course, local audiences may be open to reattending these shows simply for the thrill of experiencing live theater again – and plenty of New Yorkers are still itching to see “Hamilton” for the first, second or third time. But if Broadway is going to return with only a few shows at first, wouldn’t it make more sense to make it a diverse assortment, such as one long-running hit plus some newer productions?
One also hopes that nonprofit and commercial Off-Broadway theaters can reopen in advance of Broadway. As of right now, the only major show to look forward to this summer is a contemporary adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Shakespeare in the Park. Might City Center be able to bring back its summertime Off-Center series of historic Off-Broadway musicals in concert?
It might also make sense for at least one or two smaller Broadway shows to reopen over the summer, such as the six-woman concert musical “Six” (which was supposed to open the night when the shutdown went into effect) or the three-actor financial drama “The Lehman Trilogy.” They could serve as test runs for the return of bigger shows.
Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. A lot of serious challenges lie ahead. But after months of a never-ending intermission, a warning bell is starting to chime with an optimistic message: “Please return to your seats. The curtain is about to rise.”
Updated at 12:25 p.m.