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When the Lights Go Off on Broadway

Lights Go Off
By martin.frenette

No financial crash, no vocal disease silencing every working actor, and no amount of water flooding the city allow Broadway theatres to cease activities on their own. These houses won’t be covered by insurance if they do so without a government sanction. Such reality is why several members of the Broadway community repeatedly pleaded with New York’s governor and the Broadway league to shut down the Big White Way, given the situation that our world has been immersed in since the beginning of 2020.

By banning all gatherings of 500 people or more on March 12th, Governor Cuomo officially shut down Broadway since a minimum of 500 seats is required to qualify as a Broadway theatre.

Performances for minimum audiences with spectators seated in different rows and at two meters from each other had been envisioned prior to this announcement, but such a scenario did not take performers and ushers into consideration. The first group has constant physical contact with each other and technicians while the latter handles tickets and closely interacts with audience members. The current ban goes on until April 12th, when the situation will be re-assessed.

Many ideas have been thrown out there to support these theatres and this unprecedented amount of people finding themselves without income. Ticket holders for canceled performances were suggested to donate their tickets’ prices to the show or venue instead of asking for a refund. Some have encouraged people to purchase vouchers for the day that lights would hit the stage again. Finally, another scenario in which the “big players” help the “new kids” has also been brought up.

Some shows have reached the point of simply going from one performance to another without worrying about recuperating their initial investment. Unlike lesser-known productions, musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, or The Lion King have been in a “making profits phase” for many years. NYC-based casting director Andrew Femenella pointed out that Broadway’s current top seven shows, from Hamilton to Chicago and everything in between, earned a total of 8.2 million in the first week of March alone. This fact brought him to suggest the creation of an emergency fund for performers, technicians, and other people affected by the shutdown. Even if half of that amount is usually spent on salaries and these productions’ technical costs, even the smallest percentage of those revenues would be a tremendous help at this time. These high-grossing productions would still have a common income of four million dollars in the end.

There are the performers who live and plan their finances from one contract to another with a now-empty calendar. There are technicians, ushers, and other theatre employees who don’t know how they’ll pay rent and feed their loved ones. Some of them have worked on those big selling shows, supported them and bought tickets to attend their initial run just so they could keep on running. This idea that those who made it to the top could now help those who contributed to their ascension and might be why they’ll remain at the top sums up rather well what performing arts should be about: community.

Lights go off

Given how much an award or even a few nominations can do for a show, just marketing-wise, all these new productions are now facing a dilemma. Sixteen of them had planned to open on Broadway by April 23rd, this year’s Tony Awards’ submission deadline, and have already spent important amounts on publicity for premieres that have already been canceled or postponed. Is the money loss ensuing from the shutdown too important that opening whenever the ban gets lifted is now in jeopardy

Every day and every representation counts when it comes to making your investment back. Will it be possible for these shows to do so without March’s performance weeks? Or April’s?

The “stop clause” that allows theatres to close a show that isn’t performing well enough for two straight weeks, financially speaking, might make companies think twice before moving in with sets and costumes.

Finally, since arts and entertainment are often seen as “icing on the cake” or some form of an unnecessary splurge, is the industry ready for a slow return or are we looking at a dramatic financial situation that could only be fixed if people all rush to the box office the second that doors re-open? Will these troubled times make this need of being inspired and entertained constantly grow within everyone so that shows will appear like a badly needed breath of fresh air or something more than “icing on the cake?” Until answers and remedies are found, let’s take advantage of those live streaming on the web, plays being broadcast on the radio, grab a book, and enjoy your favorite show’s soundtrack in your headphones!

Also by Martin Frenette:

An Artist’s Body is its Beating Heart

Advice for Performers: Read Your Contract!

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