BWW Exclusive: Bringing Back Broadway, Part 1- Waking the City That Never Sleeps

Over the next few weeks, BWW is giving you an insider look at the reopening process as Broadway gears up for its big return!

By: Jul. 28, 2021
BWW Exclusive: Bringing Back Broadway, Part 1- Waking the City That Never Sleeps

Over the next few weeks, BWW is giving you an insider look at the reopening process as Broadway gears up for its big return!

This week we chat with Broadway League President, Charlotte St. Martin, and more about the reopening process from the administrative end, Covid-19 safety, the intersection of Broadway and the NYC economy and tourism sector, and why bringing back Broadway isn't as simple as "curtain up, light the lights."

At a press conference last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made the very accurate proclamation that, "New York City is not New York without Broadway."

Long-regarded as the beating heart of the city that never sleeps, the Broadway industry is one of the most vital aspects of New York life. For theatre fans and tourists alike, Broadway is heralded as the world's capital of the arts, with much of its audience making the sojourn from out of town (and country) to take in a real-life Broadway show. For performers who harbor aspirations of a life on the stage, Broadway has been long regarded as the apex of their craft, with Broadway babies descending upon the city from all over, walking off their tired feet, pounding 42nd Street, to be in a show. Even the most Times Square-averse New Yorkers have been known to brave the midtown throngs to take in a matinee.

In a most divisive time in our history, there is one thing we can all agree on: the undeniable pull of a great, big Broadway show.

Outside of its more fantastical merits, the Broadway industry is a crucial component of the New York City economy. In 2019 alone, Broadway's 41 theaters drew in 14.7 million people who spent $1.8 billion on tickets and employed 93,500 souls to the tune of $7.4 billion in wages.

Beyond the stage doors, the revenue Broadway generates far exceeds its direct consumer base and workforce. In the 2018- 2019 season, its spoils for the city extended to an astounding $14.7 billion in economic activity and 96,900 jobs supported in direct and indirect spending bolstered by Broadway-generated tourism.

Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, told The New York Times, "There is not going to be a strong recovery for New York City without the performing arts' leading the way. People gravitate here because of the city's cultural life."

With the city's lifeblood and the health of Broadway so closely intertwined, the effort to reopen following the extended Covid-19 shutdown has left officials with an incredibly complex conundrum: the city needs Broadway up and running in order to revive tourism and Broadway needs tourist dollars in order return. A tangled web such as this requires a high level of organization and collaboration between the entities that make Broadway and New York City run.

Kickstarting the effort is NYC & Company, the city's tourism board, which recently launched the $30 million dollar "It's time for New York City" campaign to entice reluctant tourists from around the world back to the city.

The first initiative in this campaign is a television spot highlighting famous NYC destinations, and attractions, including iconic landmarks like Washington Square Park, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty and visitor favorites like New York-style pizza, the Central Park Zoo, Chinatown, and the Staten Island Ferry. The spot highlights New York City's role as a nexus of arts, entertainment, sports, culture, business and culinary offerings, spotlighting numerous must-see NYC attractions, while Broadway gears up to make its return.

The tourism initiative, as well as the city's robust vaccine rates, are already beginning to show dividends. Since January, the city has seen increased upswing in visitors to sites like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Natural History and increased ridership on subways and ferries, as well as noted upticks in foot traffic in Times Square, dining revenue, hotel occupancy and room rates.

Despite these encouraging statistics, much of the long-term success of the city's revival is still riding on the return of Broadway. Dan Nadeau, the area general manager for Marriott in New York, recently told The New York Times, "Everything tells me that the reopening of Broadway is going to be a shot in the arm to New York that's really going to help."

The Broadway industry is working closely with the city in order to restore its tourism sector, with numerous dedicated task forces prepping for a major marketing push to bring travelers back to Broadway and New York City at large.

Charlotte St. Martin, President of the Broadway League, let us in on the process, "I've been on the city steering committee from day one. There's also a Governor's steering committee. Our governmental affairs people are working with the state office on a number of very exciting opportunities. I'm on the executive committee of NYC & Company and actively engaged in all of the things we're doing, including the $30 million marketing campaign. We're [the Broadway League] going to be doing a major marketing campaign which we'll coordinate that with the city and our members across the country. As you know, 60 to 70%, theater audiences come from outside the tri-state area. So we've always worked with our members across the country to promote what's going on in New York."

She explains, "There are nine marketing task forces, including the creative team that will be putting together our commercials and film, the digital team working on our social media presence and advertising, our PR and communications task forces, an events task force, and partnership task forces. There are a lot of people working to bring us back. We've also engaged the majority of the marketers of Broadway and their shows in our effort. So, I don't think that there is a stone left unturned in what we will do with the partners across the city and the state."

Though many of the city's other popular attractions have been able to resume operations with relative ease, employing Covid-safe protocols like limited capacity, social distancing, robust sanitization and air filtration, the road back to the Broadway stage is rockier than most. Many aspects of the theatrical experience present far greater challenges in front of and behind the footlights.

The first, and perhaps most complex of the challenges facing Broadway's return is the negotiation of protocols and other provisions to ensure the safety of those involved in the day to day operations of a production. In order to accomplish this, the Broadway League has been in constant conversation with the unions, leagues, and guilds representing the interests of theatrical professionals across the spectrum.

St. Martin explains, "There are forty-four task forces altogether to get Broadway back up and running, including twenty for labor issues, one for each union, and five for theatre protocols on the road. So it is complex, but we've got a lot of knowledgeable people working hard."

Though concrete details of Covid safety procedures for staff and audiences remain in short supply, this much sought after guidance seems to be on the horizon as we creep closer and closer to Broadway's reopening.

St. Martin shared some details of the reopening process and the finalization of protocols and safety measures with us earlier this month.

She tells us, "We've made a lot of progress. We're pretty much in lockstep with the city and the state now. We're in the lane of finalizing with all the unions and what each one requires, A director has different access than an actor who has different access than the orchestra. So, we have a number of people working on each of the union's needs and we're making real progress. We're very close with three or four of the big unions, and when those are finalized, the rest will fall into line."

Last month, Actors Equity and the League set forth their guidelines for the protection of actors and stage managers on touring productions. Stipulations include the appointment of production Covid-19 safety managers, free, weekly Covid-19 testing, and extensive contact parameters including a zero-contact policy between actors and audience members (including stage door activity). Team members who physically interact with actors (hair and makeup departments, dressers, etc.) will wear masks, face shields, and gloves when interacting with cast members. Such staff are also compelled to change gloves between interactions with different actors.

As to whether or not these tour protocols provide any clues as to what staff and audiences can expect in Broadway houses, St. Martin explained, "There will be some similarities and there will be differences. It's one thing to come to the same place every day and another to get on a bus or a plane and stay in different hotel rooms and go into different cities. The model for the road actually felt harder than New York City, because you have some states where you're not allowed to mandate masks and others where you have to mandate masks, et cetera, et cetera. One of the silver linings that has come out of this past year is our members are truly working together. Everybody from every market is sharing information and sharing how they're handling it with their officials in their cities and states."

She continued, "We have seventeen union contracts in effect with fourteen unions and each has to be handled with care and concern. So it's a very intricate puzzle. I feel very good about where we are and I think the reason we haven't had more blow up between the community and the unions is because we've been partners from the beginning. We don't want anybody unsafe any more than they do. We don't want anybody to get sick anymore than they do. Every time we get very close, then you get new information or the science changes and you back up and start over. We're all trying to figure these things out together."

The main, and perhaps most pressing issue, facing Broadway's return is the matter of vaccine mandates, an issue that is causing widespread protestation in industries the world over.

Regarding vaccine requirements for actors, other employees and contractors, Ethan Krasnoo, an entertainment attorney with Reavis Page Jump LLP noted, "The producer of Hamilton announced that all actors and employees of his Broadway shows will be required to be vaccinated. Given the nature of the work being performed and risks associated with actors' activities on stage (e.g., dancing, singing, potentially kissing, and their close proximity), barring union pushbacks, I expect this to set the standard for most other Broadway shows, and that is acceptable as long as the employers avoid violating discrimination laws."

Legally, producers reserve the right to mandate vaccines for company members and audiences, with necessary exceptions made for those opting out due to "disability" or "a sincerely held religious belief." But with potentially porous definitions for either accommodation, as well as the potential for producers to bump up against discrimination and endangerment lawsuits, the question of what a "reasonable accommodation" might look like remains unclear.

We spoke to Ethan about the legal aspects of this tricky, and potentially hazardous, conundrum.

He explains, "There's no ruling yet on whether a reasonable accommodation would be. I think to allow a lead actor in the show to wear a mask during the performance would be an unreasonable accommodation. The most typical reasonable accommodation at your job or my job would be to work from home, but obviously that's not practical for 95% of the people working in the theatre. So, the good news for the producers is that there may not be a reasonable accommodation, frankly, and I think it's very likely that there won't be for most of the actors and musicians. But even if there is a reasonable accommodation available it can't cause undue hardship."

The issue of audience vaccine mandates seems to be already rearing its head on Broadway and beyond. Bruce Springsteen's current Broadway engagement, which initially required proof of only FDA-approved vaccines in order to attend, drew anti-vaccination advocates to its opening night to protest the policy.

Similar protests have cropped up at other venues including the Foo Fighters' recent reopening concert at Madison Square Garden. Protests against vaccine passport proposals are also taking place around the globe, with demonstrations popping up in France, Italy, and Australia.

Jujamcyn, owners of Springsteen's Broadway home, the St. James Theatre, recently introduced legally necessary exceptions for those audience members with a disability and/or sincerely held religious belief. For such individuals proof of a negative COVID-19 antigen test taken within 6 hours of the performance start time, or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of the performance start time, are necessary in order to attend.

Though no concrete plans for Broadway audience protocols have been set forth at this time, Jujamcyn's currently seems to be the safest and most equitable approach, according to Mr. Krasnoo.

He explains, "A policy like that seems more accommodating, rather than requiring just full vaccination and not having any alternative accommodation. If you allow individuals to provide proof that they've tested negative in the last 72 or 24 hours, somebody with a disability or sincerely held religious belief can still attend without the vaccine. So, it gives more options for complying with the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and building in the accommodations, in my view."

**UPDATE** Since the publication of this article, The Broadway League and Actors Equity have set forth Covid-19 safety guidelines and vaccine mandates for production staff and audiences.

Read more about staff guidelines here and audience guidelines here.

Sadly, the reckless politicization of vaccines has caused widespread distrust among many Americans. As it stands, only half of all U.S. residents are currently inoculated against the virus. With the rise of the highly-contagious Delta variant and instances of breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals, all of the hard won progress being made behind the scenes could be subject to change once more.

Recent statistical models have suggested that another surge in U.S. Covid-19 cases and deaths could be on the horizon if vaccination rates don't increase.

This week, the Center for Disease Control overturned its May guidance, and is once more suggesting masks indoors for vaccinated individuals in parts of the country. While vaccines remain effective against the virus and its most recent variant, The New York Times is reporting that new scientific findings show that even vaccinated people could become infected and/or carry the variant in great amounts, making a strong case for mandatory masking inside theaters and other indoor venues.

The variant has already become cause for cancellation on London's West End where several shows have been forced to scrap performances due to positive Covid tests among company members and close contact with infected individuals.

Despite all of the uncertainty surrounding the potential hazards of reopening, Broadway's return remains on track for the moment. Industry leaders, however, remain cautious, keeping details surrounding its return close to the vest to ensure a successful and lasting reopening.

"On a fundamental level, our health is at stake," Tony-winning composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, told the Times, "You get this wrong, and we open too soon, and then we re-spike and we close again - that's almost unthinkable."

Another potentially hazardous factor facing Broadway and every other arts institution in town is the competition for the attention of thinner and more reluctant audiences.

"Next year may prove to be our most financially challenging," Bernie Telsey, an artistic director of MCC Theater, says of the issue, "In many ways, it's like a start-up now - it's not just turning the lights on. Everything is a little uncertain. It's like starting all over again."

Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theater Company explained, "There's going to be a lot of competition for a smaller audience at the beginning, and that's scary."

With NYC tourism staring down a four-year recovery period to return to pre-pandemic levels, some shows are planning a reduced show schedule and scaled back productions upon their return.

Charlotte St. Martin says of the increased caution surrounding Broadway's reopening, "Unlike the West End, we haven't done the quick start, start, stop, start, stop, start, stop, which is still going on, because we can't afford to. If we had started back up and had to close in two weeks, half of the shows probably wouldn't be able to come back again because it costs so much to gear up and to shut down. So, that's one of the reasons why we said from day one, we can't socially distance. We also have to be assured safety and security for the cast, crew, and the audience."

At the time of our conversation St. Martin expressed a positive outlook as to the state of advanced ticket sales on Broadway.

"There is real optimism. I understand ticket sales are going very well. We certainly would have expected initial sales to be strong because there's a lot of pent up demand, but I understand that they're continuing to go well, and we're still three months away. I'm sure there are some shows that are doing better than others, as always, and I'm sure there'll be some shows that don't get sales because there's not enough business. One positive to the shows not all opening on the same day or the same week is that it gives people time to market their shows and build up ticket sales."

The League and the American Theatre Wing are also planning to present the long-delayed 2020 Tony Awards and a fall special on CBS in an effort to boost ticket sales for returning productions.

Though many of the details surrounding reopening remain unclear, one thing is for certain as opening night creeps closer: the palpable excitement of pros and audiences alike. When asked about her predictions for the big return, Charlotte borrowed a quote from the great Brian Stokes Mitchell.

"He said, if you're in the theater the first week we're all back, be prepared for overtime and to be there much later than usual, because the standing ovations are going to last for a long time. And I honestly believe it will be magical to be in the room when shows begin to open."

Check back with BroadwayWorld later this month for Part 2 as we head behind the scenes to chat with pros from the shows as they prepare to bring Broadway back to life.


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