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Shows Shutdown: A Look at Broadway Closures of the 21st Century

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Shows Shutdown: A Look at Broadway Closures of the 21st Century

"I've seen the lights go out on Broadway," is the opening line of the song "Miami 2017," one of many hometown odes penned by New York's favorite son, the great Billy Joel.

Using a mid-1970s New York on the verge of bankruptcy as inspiration, Joel's lyrics paint a picture of total apocalypse in the city, celebrating his beloved hometown and its steadfast refusal to say die, using Broadway as its centerpiece.

The resiliency of New York City has been well-documented throughout history. Weathering financial crises, social breakdowns, national tragedies, strikes, and the weather itself, these trials have tested the city time and again. By extension, these challenges have also tested the toughness of Broadway, cementing its indefatigable spirit as it bounces back each time, still glowing, still crowing, still going strong.

Our current ordeal has ushered in an era of uncertainty as the world economy sits at a standstill, an unprecedented set of circumstances for many industries, Broadway included. Yet over the last century, Broadway has faced more trials than most and has proved its resiliency time and again.

A pandemic situation is admittedly a first for the theatre industry, as theaters remained open even as the flu pandemic of 1918 swept the nation. Despite potential for the venues to spread the disease to large numbers of people, the Department of Health noted that theaters could also be used as places to spread information to help prevent public hysteria. Aside from regular inspections and the barring of children under 12 from the venues, the show very much went on.

Outside of escaping the flu unscathed, Broadway has been brought to its knees by a number of occurrences beyond its control. From last summer's 24-hour midtown power outage that canceled performances of 20 shows west of Broadway to lengthy labor strikes in 1919, 1960, 1964 and 1975, the Great White Way has flailed but never faltered in the face of numerous crises that cost both the industry and the city millions of dollars.

Throughout the short beginning of 21st century alone, the lights have gone out on Broadway more than once and our community has always managed to find a way to flip the switch and illuminate the streets once more. As Billy went on to write, "They turned our power down and drove us underground, but we went right on with the show."

Hurricane Sandy - October 2012

Following the matinees on Sunday, October 28, New York City officials began the process of shutting down the subway system as Hurricane Sandy (later downgraded to Superstorm Sandy) began its descent on the metro area.

The shutdown resulted in the cancellation of Sunday evening performances as the lack of transportation prevented audiences from reaching the venues. The shutdown continued through Monday, posing less of a threat to the industry as many shows are dark on Mondays.

On Monday night, Sandy finally arrived in NYC bringing with it a level of unprecedented destruction compared with severe weather conditions New York had seen previously. As a result, shows remained closed through Tuesday evening. After NYC transit slowly began restoring service on Halloween, Wednesday, October 31, nearly all Broadway shows resumed evening performances despite difficult travel conditions. Transportation difficulties and mass traffic delays remained common as Broadway resumed its usual schedule on Thursday, November 1.

Despite the relatively short closure, the storm posed a significant challenge to the life and livelihoods of many Broadway shows. Refunds and exchanges were issued for canceled performances. Concessions on refunds and exchanges were also made as performances resumed when difficult post-Sandy travel conditions precluded many audience members from reaching the theaters.

In a statement Charlotte St. Martin, head of the Broadway League wrote, "As always, the safety and security of theatregoers and employees is everyone's primary concern, so for those who can't get in to the city as a result of the suspension of public transportation by government authorities or additional safety precautions that were implemented, they should contact their point of purchase for questions about exchange or refund policies."

Along with refunds and cancellations, many Broadway shows, including Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Performers, and Chaplin began offering special Sandy discounts to encourage audiences to return to the theatre. Cyrano de Bergerac and The Mystery of Edwin Drood offered $20 seats to individuals who showed their NYC transit Metrocards at box office.

First previews were delayed for both Pasek & Paul's A Christmas Story and Theresa Rebeck's Dead Accounts. The porn comedy The Performers and the musical Scandalous, who had contended with rocky financial foundations before Sandy, closed within weeks of the storm.

The financial loss of the relatively short shutdown was estimated at more than $6 million.

Stagehands Strike - November 2007

In fall of 2007 Broadway shut down for several weeks as members of Theatrical Protective Union Number One (Local One) of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees launched the first strike in its 121-year history.

In the summer of 2007, the collective bargaining agreement between Local One and The Broadway League expired. When contract negotiations began in the late summer, talks mainly focused on works rules regarding load-ins, overtime, wages, and performance and continuity calls, many of which producers sought to eliminate or alter, arguing that the terms were outdated and promoted the practice of 'featherbedding', a term for hiring more workers than are needed to perform a given job. Union leaders saw the proposals as producers chipping away at decades of hard won progress for its members.

Unproductive negotiations continued on and off through the early fall. during which time the board of Local One threatened a lockout if producers and theater owners did not comply with their terms. In October, Local One membership voted to authorize its executive board take any action deemed necessary, including but not limited to a strike, in order to reach a fair agreement.

As talks continued, once again ending in a stalemate, Jujamcyn and Shubert imposed some rules outlined in its final offer on the union, which they worked under for two weeks before talks resumed on November 8, once again ending with no progress made. On the evening of November 9, Local One President James Claffey, Jr. was directed by the union's international to begin a strike on Saturday, November 10, 2007 at 10:00 AM.

The first show to be affected by the strike was the holiday production of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical at the St. James Theatre. After reporting to work at normal time, stagehands walked out after one hour and formed picket lines outside. Due to a special schedule contract negotiated outside of the Local One conflict, The Grinch fell outside the union dispute, and pickets of the show resolved quickly.

Stagehands on other Broadway productions quickly followed suit, picketing in front of venues with mostly every other theatrical union joining the strike in solidarity with the stagehands. The strike halted business on not just shows but theatre-adjecent businesses, costing the city $2 million in tax revenue per day. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS also saw a dramatic drop in donations due to the strike, and launched "Team Raiser" to offset losses.

Unaffected off-Broadway shows and holiday entertainment like the Radio City Christmas Spectacular saw an upswing in sales and attendance due to the strike. Many shows in previews were forced to push opening nights due to the strike including August: Osage County, Is He Dead?, The Farnsworth Invention, The Seafarer, The Little Mermaid and The Homecoming.

Negotiations continued on and off through November, ultimately resulting in a 13-hour overnight bargaining session in to the morning of November 27. On November 28, 2007, at 10:30 pm, the two sides announced a settlement to end the strike, with shows resuming performances the evening of November 29.

One estimate placed losses by theater owners and producers at $34.8 million through Sunday, November 25 and the New York City comptroller's office said the city had lost another $40 million in revenue through November 28.

Broadway Musicians Strike - March 2003

In 2003, Broadway shuttered from Friday, March 7, 2003 to early Tuesday morning, March 11, 2003 due to a strike organized by the Associated Musicians of Greater New York and American Federation of Musicians Local 802.

The strike arose out of negotiations over the Local 802 collective bargaining agreement, when the League of American Theatres and Producers proposed a reduction of minimum orchestra size requirements from 24-26 players to as low as 7 members, with virtual musicians filling in the gaps.

in response, Local 802 developed the "Save Live Broadway" campaign to force their hand. A petition launched against the proposal gathered over 30,000 signatures and gained media attention. As negotiations continued, the unions instated an agreement deadline for 12:01 AM on March 7, 2003. When producers and unions failed to reach a fair settlement by that time, the strike began, despite threats from producers to replace all musicians with a virtual players if such action was taken.

Other Broadway unions such as Actors' Equity Association and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees joined the effort in solidarity with their union counterparts. As part of the strike, casts, crews, and musicians of shows picketed outside Broadway theaters and held a mock funeral for live music in Times Square. The strike shuttered all Broadway musicals, outside of Cabaret whose company worked under a different contract as the musical was staged at Studio 54.

With $7 million dollars lost per performance, the strike placed a great strain on New York's economy, also affecting the taxis, restaurants, and hotels that service theatregoers.

Negotiations were re-opened on the evening of March 10, 2003 after intervention from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Using a mediator, the mayor called a meeting at Gracie Manson, inviting Bill Moriarity, president of Local 802, and Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theaters and Producers (The Broadway League) to come to an agreement.

After all-night negotiations, both parties agreed on a 10-year period of reducing minimum orchestra size from 24-26 players to 18-19. The deal was reached on March 11, 2003, after which Broadway performances resumed their regular schedules.

Terrorist Attacks of 9/11 - September 2001

Another such shut down came in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, all New York shows, Broadway included, were shut down. The productions remained closed for the matinee and evening performances of Wednesday, September 12, but surprisingly resumed performances on Thursday, September 13, at the urging of City Hall.

New York City mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, strongly urged The Broadway League (then called the League of Broadway Theatres and Producers) to begin performances again as soon as possible. City officials felt it important to resume performances not only for the economic benefits Broadway provides, but the psychological effects having Broadway up and running would contribute.

Their urging was so insistent, in fact, that they'd hoped to have the shows re-open the day after the attacks. The re-opening was pushed to Thursday on the advice of industry leaders who knew that audiences simply would not return that quickly, not only due to fear but because the closure of the bridges and tunnels theatregoers and professionals alike need to reach midtown.

In the great tradition of of Broadway's familial spirit, as well as the indomitable fortitude of New Yorkers, Broadway performers, musicians, and stagehands all turned up for work that Thursday. Despite the gallantry exhibited by Broadway professionals, the question of whether audiences would return at all lingered in the minds of many in the industry.

The road back to normalcy was long for Broadway, as it was for everyone at that time. Skepticism of the safety of public gatherings, particularly those in New York, weighed heavily on audiences and professionals alike.

While many shows shuttered in the wake of the attacks, many pulled through. The opening night of Urinetown was pushed back from September 13th to the 20th. The show instead performed another preview that day for an audience mainly comprised of stranded airline attendants. To commemorate their would-be opening, the company cut and shared a cake with their audience that evening. Other musicals, like The Producers, closed their performances by singing Irving Berlin's 'God Bless America'.

Stage unions agreed to temporary monetary concessions which would prolong the lives of many shows. The company of the Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate donated 25% of their salaries to the box office, not only to keep the show running, but also to purchase tickets for first responders and other Ground Zero volunteers who took solace at the show as a break from the horrors of their unthinkable task.

Where shows generally compete with one another for audiences, the community banded together in a show of solidarity to bring people back to Broadway, and New York City, in general. This effort resulted in an iconic commercial featuring all the Broadway productions at the time singing, "New York, New York" by Kander and Ebb. As ad money was scarce, industry services and air time were donated to the tune of upwards of $30 million to produce the spot.

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From This Author Alexa Criscitiello