Broadway Shows Are Ready for a Recovery, But the Start Date Could be Well After the Patient is Already Dead and the Industry Collapsed


As the COVID-19 Pandemic Broadway shutdown drags on in NYC, the Mayor is still months away from moving through Governor Cuomo’s reopening phases. Pundits have made wide ranging predictions for the future of Broadway, but the question now seems to be whether there will anything left once this disaster abates.

It is true that Broadway has been stuck in the dark ages for many years and this is even more evident now in the way it is responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The threat of infection keeps 40 Broadway theatres shuttered for the near future and the industry does little to change. Broadway theatre owners and show producers cannot wait for the pandemic to be over, but they plan to continue to deliver the same product they always have. Like the proverbial Ostrich, they have failed to change the product and delivery of this storied art form to match the modern day challenges that the industry now finds itself in. Their tired plan is a recipe for its own ultimate demise, as without innovation, no business can survive. Broadway theatre may end up being a cautionary tale in the footnotes of creative arts history, but some people are still fighting for it, even though it is so far on the ropes.

Weekly Losses on Broadway Estimated at $70 Million+

Charlotte St. Martin, the President of The Broadway League, often talks about weekly Broadway losses being about $35 million. While this is true on paper, that number is only the financial loss of face-value tickets for Broadway show producers. It does not take into account all the ancillary Broadway ticket transactions. It is estimated that another $40 million per week of revenue is sold through ticket brokers and the secondary market ticket resellers. This brings the true number for Broadway ticket revenue to $75 million dollars. Then there is the ancillary revenue that Broadway brings to New York City to consider. Broadway drives traffic at NYC hotels, restaurants, shopping and attractions and the revenue numbers for all that are quite considerable. Broadway is often referred to as the ‘beating heart of the city’ and without that, the other ancillary industries just fail. Without Broadway, Midtown Manhattan becomes a ghost town and it now seems that there is no reason to visit it. Any tourists that go there now are shocked as it's only inhabitants are NYC's homeless population.

Broadway Theatre Opening Dates Have Been Unreliable

The wishful thinking of Broadway Theatre owners that are under some vague assumption that September 7, 2020 will see the restart of Broadway theatre, may soon be having a rude wake-up call. Charlotte St. Martin, who runs The Broadway League, which is a secretive and plotting industry group that represents theatre owners and producers and cares little for anyone else, has suddenly changed her tune. Rather than playing the usual single note of her positive and unruffled outlook, St Martin now tells any journalist that will listen, that she predicts a slow recovery for Broadway beginning in January 2021. She even gives credence to the idea that Broadway could be closed for a full year, with a reopening on March 12, 2021. This is not much different from the most negative pundits who predict Spring 2021 for the grand reopening, which by then will see a massive loss of artists, producers, theatres and audience. The industry may never fully recover from this scenario, if it even survives. With only one in four shows breaking even financially in a good year, the whole Broadway model is now under a great deal of scrutiny. Broadway theatre may have just become a relic to the bygone days, only now be replaced by on-demand video and other paltry entertainment delivery mechanisms. The life support may be finally switched off when theatre owners and show producers are all long-since bankrupt and the government remains powerless to act because its focus is on the health and well being of its citizens, and not protecting the arts.

Broadway and Times Square Empty
Broadway and Times Square empty during Coronavirus shutdown in NYC

What Are The Challenges For The Return of Broadway Theatre?

Broadway finds itself using the same financial paradigm it always has and is trying to foist this outdated business model upon a modern problem, with spectacularly poor results. The present financial models that Broadway uses cannot support a return to the world that it left behind, but the industry is so mired in tradition and protocol, that it has still failed to innovate a new model that does work in this post-COVID landscape. A big part of the problem is the Shubert Organization, that is both the biggest and the oldest landlord on Broadway and probably the least qualified to help it move into the future. With its dated ideas, aging leadership and outdated website, the organization has floundered in these COVID-19 times. The Shubert Organization has failed to be a good custodian of Broadway theatre as live performance now faces its own ultimate demise and this organization could have made a difference.

At the logistical level, Broadway theatre cannot create the kind of social distancing required for cast, crew and audience to be safe in the tiny theatres that have provided success in the past. Given the cramped conditions, there would need to be a nine seat empty block for just one person to attend a Broadway show. Families or groups could sit together, surrounded by empty seats, but loading and unloading of the theatre would be cumbersome and fraught with risk. Making face masks mandatory could help, but is still not a game changer. The actors would have to be quarantined together and be regularly tested and the industry is just not up to this challenge.

The Actors Equity Association (AEA) has posted a new set of requirements that Broadway shows will need to achieve before any actors will grace the stage of a Broadway theatre, which while reasonable, does not help the cause of actually getting Broadway back to work. It also does not help that Broadway representatives failed to get the whole medium moved to a better phase in Governor Cuomo’s plan than the current position it has, which is fourth and the very last to reopen.

The 2020 Winter holidays and New Year in New York City threaten to be a depressing scene that may see the unheralded death of Broadway theatre as we know it, but fans hope for a phoenix to rise out of the ashes, and it does not even have to be golden.