Until a vaccine is discovered, will it be safe for performers, musicians, and stagehands to share tight spaces? Can performers practice “social distancing” on stage? Can anyone stage a musical without key characters falling in love and kissing, and such? That’s central to the human experience. When Jonathan Larson wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent,” he envisioned some 200 points in the play where characters would touch; he knew those moments of contact were just as essential as his words and music to communicating his message of love and acceptance.
Can audience members stay six feet apart from one another while seated in a theater or concert hall–or even while waiting on line to use a cramped restroom at intermission? Is a theater that’s half-empty or two-thirds empty economically viable?
Is a shared experience even the same, in terms of emotional impact, if we are not all packed together? Audience members at a powerful theatrical event or concert or festival will often feel a sense of bonding. I think that’s part of the attraction—whether we’re talking about gathering together to experience theater, a rock concert, or even a religious service. And some studies suggest that heartbeats of audience members can begin to synchronize, with pulses speeding up and slowing down in unison. We like to gather together for such experiences. And that’s always been part of man’s heritage.
Watching a play—even in a very good play—in a theater that’s half-empty is dis-spiriting. Have you ever been in a theater where audience members are all spread apart, due to low ticket sales? And then a house manager or someone invites everyone to move down, so that everyone is now in one group And people feel relieved—not just because they’re closer to the stage but because they feel like they’re part of a group–and that “herd instinct,” that desire to cluster, is part of our genetic makeup.
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People speak of having a vaccine for Covid-19 in a year or18 months. And they say that will solve everything. Well, that would certainly be nice.
But one important fact is–we’ve never developed a vaccine that quickly. Some vaccines have taken 20 years to develop. (There are many illnesses, of course, for which we’ve not yet developed any vaccine or any cure.) I don’t know of any vaccine that’s ever been developed and brought to market in the U.S. in less than four or five years. And if/when we do develop a vaccine for Covid-19, we don’t know how effective it will be. (Huge numbers of people still get the Flu each year–and many die from the Flu each year–despite our having vaccines.) Nor do we know how this Coronavirus may mutate–limiting the efficacy of any vaccines–in coming years.
We do not know how long it may take for us to collectively develop a “herd immunity” to give us protection from Covid-19. We do not even have sufficient data as to how many people are infected at present. Or how many have been infected and recovered. Nor do we even know for sure, yet, how much immunity one might acquire—or how long it might last–from having been infected with Covid-19. The recent reports from South Korea of people who had apparently recovered from Covid-19 but are now testing positive for the virus a second time underscore the need for further research.
I would love to believe that theater (and dance and concerts, and the like) will soon get “back to normal.” I want that to happen, as much as anyone. But, let’s look at the realities.
Will people–especially people who are older or have pre-existing health issues (and many theatergoers are older and have such heath issues)–be willing to gather in packed theaters or concert halls, not knowing which fellow audience member or usher might be carrying a potentially lethal infection? My own doctor advises against being in such crowds, so long as this virus is around, regardless of what government officials might say. And every day, I seem to learn of another friend, colleague or acquaintance in the entertainment world—an actor, a singer, a musician, an agent — who has taken ill or died, due to Covid-19. (I could do a whole separate column, about such people.) So long as no effective vaccine or treatment for this virus exists, we are all vulnerable. Our main goal right now must be to simply survive this virus.
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No one loves the performing arts more than I do. I’ve always tried to see as much as I can in New York. I’ve long enjoyed reviewing music and theater as a professional reviewer. I’ve long enjoyed writing and directing shows, and producing plays, and I’ve had the pleasure of running a huge theater festival with 25 productions going at once. I love all of these things. I’ve happily driven hundreds of miles to see plays, musicals, ballet shows, and jazz concerts in Boston or the Berkshires, or Washington, DC.
I’ve seen memorable performances in colleges, and even in high schools. Long before playwright Mindi Lilah Dickstein was writing for Broadway, and long before Chase Brock was choreographing for Broadway, I savored their good work at a college theater, in nearby Montclair, NJ, that I could walk to from my home. You can find good theater everywhere. I enjoyed one production of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” that I saw performed by teens Oscar Williams and Emily Friedrichsen, up in Vermont, almost as much as the original production I saw in New York.
The last theatrical production I saw before everything abruptly shut down was a production of “Chicago” at nearby Rutherford (NJ) High School. I sat in a packed auditorium, along with hundreds of other adults, watching the kids on stage who’d rehearsed for months under guidance from teachers who’d helped direct, choreograph, conduct, etc. The orchestra mixed students and adults. I’ve seen “Chicago” on Broadway at least 10 times. These kids may not have been ready for Broadway yet, but I enjoyed their dedicated work enough to write the show’s composer, John Kander, about it.
But all of these live performances—whether professional or amateur—are risky to stage right now, and are risky to attend.
Schools everywhere mount plays and musicals. But when am I going to see another? Would it even be fair to ask a teacher to direct such a production right now? Would parents come? (For that matter, we can’t even assume that colleges will be open for business-as-usual this fall. Some colleges—such as Cal State Fullerton and Boston University—have already announced that as of now, they are planning to only offer online course this fall.)
I’ve written 17 plays that are published and available for licensing by schools, colleges, community theaters. I’ve seen plays of mine done at schools and at senior-citizens centers. But no one, anywhere, is mounting a play right now. One of my publishers is even offering to waive all licensing fees (the royalties paid to the creators of the plays) for anyone willing to schedule a production right now; I’ve never seen anything like that that happen before. But right now all theater in America—amateur and professional—is simply on hold. For how long, no one knows.
I want to see all theaters and concert halls–whether in NYC or in distant locales–filled once again, and roaring with life. But I’m not sure I see how the risks–to performers, stagehands, ushers, and audience members alike–will be significantly lower in a couple of months, or in six months, or even in a year or two.
I’d like to be wrong about this. I want to cheer on friends on Broadway, and in Boston, and in Princeton, and in East Haddam, CT…. But how will the risk of infection with a virus for which we have no cure be removed in six months? Or in a year? Will audience members, performers, stagehands, and ushers be wearing protective face masks? The Spanish Flu of 1918 lasted about three years before finally burning itself out. (And I’m not saying Covid-19 is the same thing—just seeing if history can offer any possible clues.)
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Theater is big business, of course. Not just in NYC, but “on the road,” in touring productions that travel throughout the U.S. and Canada, and internationally. But mounting a tour is only practical if you can fill houses in city after city. Right now, all of the national touring productions have ceased. Some of them will never come back, regardless of what the President might say at some point about America being “open for business” once again.
Some of the productions that were scheduled to open this Spring on Broadway will be postponed. But others will simply never be seen; producers will decide to cut their losses and cancel. It’s understandable. There’s just too much uncertainty. And things change from one day to the next. Paper Mill Playhouse was supposed to be presenting “Sister Act” this Spring. At first they announced they would be postponing the production, due to Covid-19. Now they have announced they have cancelled it atogether—losing a a couple of million dollars in the process.
A long-running show is sustained, in large part, by word-of-mouth. People tell their friends how much they’ve enjoyed seeing a particular show, and that prompts more ticket sales. But Broadway shows trying to reopen, after being on hiatus for many months, will need to spend a lot of extra money—maybe $500,000 or a million—just to reintroduce themselves to potential ticket-buyers, and get them excited about seeing a show that no one’s thought about or talked about for a long time. A few blockbusters like “Hamilton” will be safe. But plenty of other shows that might just barely cover costs in a typical week will be in jeopardy.
And who will have the money to buy all of the tickets needed to make productions economically viable? I think that when Broadway (and Off Broadway, and so on) does come back, everyone involved in creating and presenting such shows will have to make concessions, in the hopes that shows can have lower operating costs.
At this time of year, all—or nearly all—of Broadway’s 41 theaters might normally be occupied. (I love it when every theater is filled and shows are waiting for a theater to become available so they can open in New York; and producers are wishing out loud that there were more big Broadway theaters.) However, when Broadway finally re-opens, I’m guessing we might see half of the 41 theaters filled.
Some of the longest-running shows—which until recently seemed indestructible—will have to close because there won’t be enough of the foreign tourists they’ve relied upon. It doesn’t take much of a change in attendance—a small reduction in tourist trade can do it—to tip a production from being profitable to unprofitable. And for a good while, there won’t be as many tourists flying in from Europe or Japan, or other parts of the US, to the city known as being the center of the Coronavirus crisis. (It took several years for tourist trade to come back after 9/11. And this will almost surely be worse.)
If a slump in box-office revenues is too deep or too prolonged, there’s a risk that some theaters could be permanently lost. And no one is building theaters like the grand theaters of New York anymore.
The Great Depression hit Broadway profoundly. Investors had less money, so fewer shows got produced. Ticket-buyers had less money, which meant fewer playing-weeks for shows overall. And as a result, a number of fine Broadway theaters wound up getting torn down or permanently converted to other uses. There wasn’t enough business to keep them open. The economy, of course, eventually got better. But those great theaters were gone forever.
A sluggish economy left many theaters vacant in the late 1980s. And one of the most gorgeous of all Broadway theaters—the Mark Hellinger Theater (where I saw “My Fair Lady” in its original Broadway run and fell in love with theater for life)—was purchased by a church, which owns it today. Broadway was significantly diminished by that loss. It was a prime house. But times were rough, and no shows were seeking to rent that huge, glorious theater. So we lost it. Something like that could happen again.
If funds are tight, we might see Broadway producers mounting more “intimate shows”—shows with smaller casts, smaller orchestras, and lower running-costs. And that will ultimately affect theater nationwide. Shows go from Broadway to national tours, regional productions, community theater productions, and so on.
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And a lot more than the theater will be affected. Clubs that add glitter to urban nightlife will have a hard time. And concert artists and touring bands.
Just before the virus shut everything down, I caught the Count Basie Orchestra—still the greatest jazz orchestra out there—at one of New York’s top clubs, Birdland. The Basie Band has been in operation (except for some brief pauses) since 1935. That’s 85 years. But since the virus emerged, the band hasn’t been working. That band—and other touring bands—can only exist if there are sizable clubs and concert halls, filled with fans, in one city after another. And the whole ecosystem needed to sustain that band—and other touring bands—is vulnerable right now.
I have no doubt, there will always be live theater. And live performances generally. In time, we’ll come out of this. The late Carol Channing—who devoted her life to the theater—used to tell me that there will always be theater because it gives people something they really crave but can’t get from a film or TV: a human connection. That’s why Channing liked to give curtain speeches after performances—talking directly to the audience as herself, not a character in a play—and that’s why, for decade after decade, she’d sign every requested autograph at the stage door. She was trying to give people what she knew they hungered for—a sense of connection.
I have no doubt that–if we take the long view—theater will survive. And live performances in general. We have a need to gather together and partake of such experiences. But for the foreseeable future, we’re in for some very challenging times.
April 25, 2020