May 6: New York accelerates re-opening plans

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But when will Broadway be back? And which shows will return and when?

We move into the next phase of Britain’s emergence from lockdown on May 17, when socially distanced indoor activity can resume; and as I wrote here yesterday, requirements for any social distancing itself removed from June 21.

It turns out New York is moving even faster, with the state (and its neighbours, New Jersey and Connecticut), according to the New York Times on Monday, “lifting almost all their pandemic restrictions, paving the way for a return to fuller offices and restaurants, a more vibrant nightlife and a richer array of cultural and religious gatherings for the first time in a year”. This followed an announcement by Governor Andrew Cuomo (presumably relieved to be shifting the news from his own recent multiple scandals, from his personal alleged sexual behaviour to how he handled nursing homes during the pandemic).

And as usual, a different message had been given by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio only a few days earlier, who had promised not a May return by that the city would fully reopen on July 1, with the New York Times reporting him saying,

“This is going to be the summer of New York City. We’re all going to get to enjoy the city again, and people are going to flock here from all over the country to be a part of this amazing moment.”

The New York Times itself more realistically cautioned:

“Yet restoring the city to its earlier state, before it was stifled by the virus and scarred by profound losses, will pose a significant challenge.

Many of the city’s large employers have set their sights on a fall return, which will keep workers away from Manhattan’s business districts until then. The hospitality industry does not expect tourism, a key economic engine of the city, to return to prepandemic levels for years. …

The city’s devastated cultural sector has yet to bounce back. Mr. de Blasio hailed the impact a reopening would have on the theatre industry, but full-scale productions on Broadway — one of the city’s crown jewels and a key draw for tourists — will not return until September at the earliest, the Broadway League confirmed in a statement.”

Given the very high weekly running costs of shows on Broadway (pictured above, by Kieran Brown), an over-hasty return could have severe economic repercussions: if the shows return before the audience is back to go to them, whether it be office workers, tourists or other local residents, could mean them racking up costs without the box office returns to sustain them.

But the Broadway League — the national trade organisation that represents Broadway’s theatre owners and operators, producers and general managers — announced yesterday that ticket sales will now resume for productions. In a press statement, Charlotte St Martin, the League’s President, commented,

“We are thrilled that Governor Cuomo clearly recognizes the impact of Broadway’s return on the city and state’s economy and the complexity of restarting an entire industry that has been dormant for over a year. Nothing beats Broadway. The theatre owners, producers, and other League members will continue to work with the NY State Department of Health and the Governor to coordinate the industry’s return and the related health and safety protocols required to do so.  We remain cautiously optimistic about Broadway’s ability to resume performances this fall and are happy that fans can start buying tickets again.

Later yesterday, came the first announcement of a long-runner returning: in fact, Broadway’s longest-runner ever, namely the original production of The Phantom of the Opera, that will resume performances from October 22:

(Given the fact that the original London production has been stripped out of the Her Majesty’s Theatre and with its original orchestra nearly halved from 27 players to just 14, this will be the only original version of the show still playing, making it a must-see there).

Of course, I’m sure that the theatre world is anticipating a huge pent-up demand from people eager to return to being in a theatre again. In a story posted late yesterday in the New York Times, Sue Frost — lead producer of Come From Away — commented,

“I do think there’s going to be a real push to reach out to the tristate area, to day-trippers, and to locals. But does the pent-up demand explode and then go dormant? If we don’t put our toe in the water, we won’t know.”

The perpetually confident and ebullient Howard Panter — founder of ATG and now at joint CEO of his new fast-moving global endeavour Trafalgar Entertainment – told Variety earlier this week,

“We’ve never wavered in the notion that we will come back. We decided to do a lot of spade work now with the idea that it will pay dividends when it all returns. We want to get ahead of that day and be ready. As I always say, ‘You can’t turn on the taps if there isn’t water in the pipes.’ So what we’ve been doing is putting water in the pipes through this pandemic.”

That includes a new expansion plan that has seen it add Sydney’s Theatre Royal to its global theatrical portfolio, as well as purchasing HQ Theatres in the UK; while it is also working to ready product for those theatres, bringing back a new “bespoke” version of Jersey Boys to re-open its West End flagship theatre, the Trafalgar, and importing the most recent Broadway revival of Anything Goes to the Barbican.

But expecting life to return to pre-pandemic levels is surely unrealistic. Tourism has been hollowed out; at the time of writing this, we still don’t even know if British visitors will be allowed IN to America this summer. I’ve not been to New York in 18 months now — despite being a homeowner there.

And the New York Times reported on Sunday that remote working is killing Manhattan’s storefronts.

A big shift toward working from home is endangering hundreds of locally owned Manhattan storefronts that have been hanging on, waiting for life to return to the desolate streets of Midtown and the Financial District.

The fate of these stores, and by extension the country’s two largest business hubs, will hinge in large part on how long landlords will keep offering the rent breaks that have kept many retailers afloat.

….At risk is Manhattan’s unique retail culture — the jewelers, barber shops, event spaces and bars — that has long brought vibrancy and familiarity to the street-level canyons of its skyscraper-filled office districts.

In a story last month in my own ‘local’ neighbourhood magazine W42ST, it was reported that “a jaw-dropping 1,000 NYC restaurants have shuttered. And the magazine proceeded to itemise some 50 establishments in Hell’s Kitchen that have shut shop since the pandemic arrived, from gay bars to wine bars and restaurants (including two of my favourite Thai restaurants, Real Pam Thai and Room Service), delis and favourite diners (like the Morning Star diner on Sting’s favourite corner at 57th and 9th, or the Theatre Row Diner on w42nd Street), just a few blocks from my apartment (at 50th and 10th).

So, even if we ARE allowed to head to our other home this summer, what will be left of our neighbourhood when we get there?

Broadway, as I’ve already noted, is unlikely to kick back into action this side of September, and possibly a lot later. At least I can (if I do get to New York this summer), finally catch up with Perfect Crime, a thriller that has been running for the last 34 years (at eight different venues) — and all except four performances during all of those years have seen Catherine Russell also the general manager of the theatre complex it is now running at) playing the leading role; she is pictured above with fellow actor Patrick Ryan Sullivan. In a recent New York Times interview, after playing her 13,524th performance, she spoke of the play’s re-opening last month — the first Equity production to resume off-Broadway, to a significantly reduced audience — and how she initiated a lawsuit against the city and the state to make it happen.

“I felt really strongly that everything needed to be closed down and I was fine with that. But then things started reopening. Restaurants were open, gyms were open. Bowling alleys is what pushed me over the edge. I have nothing against bowling, but if you put your fingers in these holes and wear rented shoes, why can’t you go to the theater? It was nothing malicious, but theater fell through the cracks. The suit is still going on. We’re pushing for 50 percent capacity. I think we will prevail.”

The city’s Mayor Bill de Blasio had turned up for the re-opening, and she said, “I don’t know if he knows that I’m suing him. I’m grateful that he and [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo let us open. But I’d like to be more open.”

So would we all. But it’s too late for some places — and many shows, too. At the time of the shutdown on March 12, 2020, 31 productions were running, including 8 new shows in previews. Additionally, 8 productions were in rehearsals preparing to open in the spring.  But as the months of shutdown wore on, Broadway shows like Frozen and Mean Girls announced they wouldn’t be coming back; while others, like Hangmen (with British actors Dan Stevens, Mark Addy and Tracie Bennett amongst the company) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (featuring a trio of Brits Rupert Everett, Russell Tovey and Patsy Ferrin joined by the great Broadway actor Laurie Metcalfe), that were previewing when the theatre shutdown arrived, announced they would not be resuming.

The latter’s lead producing team — Robert Fox, Jean Doumanian, Elizabeth I. McCann and Craig Balsam — released a statement that declared, 

Because of the current health crisis which has created circumstances beyond our control, it is with deep regret that we are not able to resume performances of Hangmen. With no definite end in sight of the government’s closure and Broadway’s suspension, we have no alternative but to release the actors from their contracts and close the production.

Given our show’s budget and capitalization, we do not have the economic resources to be able to continue to pay the theatre owners, cast and crew through this still undefined closure period. Therefore, in the interests of all involved, we regretfully have no choice but to close the show. We are all extremely disappointed that we cannot give Martin McDonagh and our fabulous director, cast and team the celebrated opening they all deserve.”

15 other new productions were shut down March 12, before their planned opening nights: one of them, Six (a transfer from London), was actually shut down hours before its planned opening night that evening. The others include the new plays The Minutes, Birthday Candles and The Lehman Trilogy (a transfer from the National), and revivals of Plaza Suite, American Buffalo, How I Learned to Drive and Take Me Out. On the musicals, front, in addition to Six, there were two planned transfers from London — for Caroline, or Change and Company — and the new musicals Mrs. Doubtfire, Diana, Sing Street and Flying over Sunset.

Amongst those now rebooking for a return to Broadway is Diana, a new musical about the late Princess of Wales, which will resume performances on December 1. It was also filmed for showing on Netflix (from October 1); so I will now be able see it there before I see it on Broadway. While this could potentially increase demand for the theatre show, the opposite is also possible: having seen it on Netflix, will theatregoers be moved to spend up to $250 a seat to see it in the theatre?

And others amongst that line-up will also be facing unanticipated changes now before they return: Tracy Letts’s new play The Minutes was in previews with a cast that originally included Hollywood star Armie Hammer (see above), but as Variety reported last month, “In light of an LAPD investigation and sexual assault allegations — which Hammer strongly denies — the actor has departed the Broadway play The Minutes.”

In a statement, Hammer himself said, “I have loved every single second of working on The Minutes with the family I made from Steppenwolf. But right now I need to focus on myself and my health for the sake of my family. Consequently, I will not be returning to Broadway with the production.”

But even if Hammer won’t be in it, a new Letts play is always an event. I’ll be heading back just as soon as I’m allowed.

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