Broadway has only shut down its theaters a few times in its nearly 200-year history: It went dark for 48 hours following 9/11, a few theaters shut down for 19 days during the stagehand strike of 2003, and for 25 days following a musicians strike that halted 12 productions. Its willingness to get up and put on a show is what makes Broadway such a beacon of hope in times of panic.
When it was announced on Wednesday that an usher had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the shows went on (after a deep clean). A line of excited fans wrapped around the block that evening for Six, the brand new pop musical about the ex-wives of Henry VIII, which already has a sizable youth fan base due to its popularity on social media. The empowering show feels more like a Pussycat Dolls concert than a typical musical, and audience members were on their feet singing along and crowded the stage door afterward although Broadway producers had announced a halt to that practice for the protection of the actors and audiences. It was was supposed to open the following day. Then came the announcement from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ordering a suspension of all gatherings of over 500 people beginning at 5 p.m. that night. Six never opened. It seemed the charade that it was “safe” to pile into cramped spaces together was over.
Last season, the total box-office was $1.8 billion, and attendance was up nearly 10 percent, with nearly 15 million patrons. This is also the busiest time of the year, with many new shows opening — including a gender-swapped revival of Company, Tracy Letts’ drama The Minutes, a new musical about Princess Diana, Plaza Suite starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick, and a musical version of Mrs. Doubtfire — before the Tony nomination deadline in late April. The full shutdown over COVID-19 fears ground the entire theater ecosystem, reliant on ticket sales to get paid, to a halt. With Broadway shows now cancelled through April 12th, thousands are anxious about what’s next.
“With no box office, there’s just no paychecks, that’s how it works,” explains Joe Iconis, the Broadway composer and writer behind the music and lyrics for Be More Chill.
While Iconis’ show ended its Broadway run last summer, it’s currently playing in London — though he says he expects a call about that temporarily closing any day, as other international productions start shutting down. A Chicago run of the show, which was set to begin rehearsals the weekend after the shutdown, was also postponed following the announcement. Closures around the country are piling up, with a long list of shows halting their national tours. According to the Broadway League, reported by the New York Times, the shutdown will put thousands of actors, composers, musicians, costumers, dancers, and stagehands out of work for at least a month. “The amount of people who are just in the building, who are employed to make a show happen, is an astronomical amount of people,” Iconis explains.
In some ways, it’s a wakeup call for anyone who might have thought pandemic fears were overblown, following increasingly stringent (and occasionally baffling) measures to stop the spread of the virus across the U.S. “My first thought when I found out that the theaters were closed — I mean, I was shocked,” says Kim Exum, who currently plays Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon, and is a single mother. “And then my second thought was, ‘Are they gonna pay us?’”
The shutdown could mean no health insurance for some, since theater actors receive coverage from Actors’ Equity, the national labor union that represents over 51,000 actors and stage managers. Members accrue health insurance depending on how many weeks they work, and a “look-back” determines whether they will be covered for half a year or a full year. With a month of no work at all, many of the actors Rolling Stone spoke to worried that some of their colleagues wouldn’t qualify for coverage.
As of writing, there was no announcement whether workers would still get paid or receive any assistance during the shutdown. When reached for comment, Actors’ Equity Association shared a statement from its president that said it would “use all of our options to advocate for all our members and is engaged at all levels to ensure members are protected and paid.” It also called on Congress and local government to “ensure that everyone who works in the arts and entertainment sector has access to paid leave, health care and unemployment benefits.” Other unions, like the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the musicians’ Local 802 have joined in calls for government assistance to theater workers.
Already, though, people are feeling the ripple effects of the shutdown. “Certain shows have closed and they will never open again,” Exum says. “Like The Inheritance: It was supposed to close this weekend, and they’ve played their last performance.”
She also expressed concern over the new shows set to open, like Six, which never opened and has been indefinitely postponed. “Things that have superstars in them are probably going to be fine, long-running shows are going to be fine. But new shows that have yet to even hit the market and make any money, will this close the show?” Exum asks. “Will they still be able to open? I don’t know.” (Rolling Stone reached out to representatives of several new shows for comment, but did not receive a response as of publication. Several actors were unable to speak on the record about the shutdown for fear of it affecting their shows or contracts.)
“So far, on social media I’ve just seen an outpouring of positivity and hope,” says Sarah Beth Pfeifer, who played Clarisse in last year’s The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, and has been auditioning for shows. “I’m sure that doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t privately worried about their finances and their current and future jobs.” Pfeifer said she suspected that auditions would stop occurring alongside the shutdown as more and more shows were thrown into uncertainty. Off-Broadway and regional theaters are also shutting their doors. It’s also unclear if jobs at restaurants and bars — the backup for so many in the entertainment industry — will continue since many places are also temporarily closing or offering limited services.
“The other thing that gets lost in discussions like this is that theater provides real emotional support to the people who do it and the people who receive it,” Iconis says. “And that’s not nothing, especially at a time when there’s so much going wrong in the world and the crisis that’s happening. It’s such an awful time for art to not be readily available to the people who need it.”
Those who spoke to Rolling Stone expressed the hope that their unions were advocating for them, but admitted they felt like they were in limbo while they waited for news. “It’s somewhat unique that our art form, the definition of it, requires bodies together in a room,” says Pfeifer. “So that would certainly spark a need for someone advocating for us.”
“Everybody needs money, of course, and everybody needs healthcare and housing, but there is just that need to create things and make things and share them with people,” Iconis explains. “And that’s really the thing that is wounded the most by this whole ordeal.”