‘It Hurts Your Soul’: How Broadway Is Dealing With Closures From Coronavirus

Ramin Setoodeh

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The Inheritance,” a sprawling two-part Broadway epic about a group of gay men in New York, was supposed to close on March 15. But it never made it to its final performance. Four days before its last scheduled show, on March 12, the curtain came down unexpectedly, as all Broadway productions shut for four weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in packed theaters across Times Square.

It was a jarring conclusion for a play, inspired by E.M. Forster’s “Howards End,” that deals with the ghosts of another pandemic — the HIV crisis. In its final days on Broadway, “The Inheritance,” which launched in 2018 in London’s West End to rapturous reviews and shelves of awards, continued to attract high-profile attendees. Former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten sat through all seven hours on a Sunday marathon performance. Hillary Clinton (who is mentioned prominently in the play) attended the first part of the “The Inheritance” with her staff — receiving a standing ovation at intermission — with plans to return a few days later for the second half. That never happened, because the doors of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre shuttered prematurely.

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“I would have loved to say goodbye, but it’s OK,” said Samuel H. Levine, one of the lead actors in the show. “It feels very emotionally raw to not get that last performance. That’s speaking from a place of great privilege of having been able to do an entire run. I know there are people in our community who only performed one show or were just starting a run, which is a different pain I don’t know.”

Broadway going dark for a month (and potentially longer) is unprecedented, a closure that’s much longer than the few days that shows shut after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But as the coronavirus has swept through America, Broadway has been one of the many businesses — along with movie theaters, sporting events, bars and restaurants — that had to close their doors.

The original mandate, implemented by city officials working with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, called for Broadway to close until April 12. But, as producers and directors wait for another official announcement, insiders acknowledge that it won’t be possible for the 31 musicals and plays currently on the Great White Way to resume that quickly. Health experts warn that quarantine efforts could last through the summer months, as more than 10,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the United States, a number that is expected to steeply climb.

The effect for all of the entertainment industry, which is dealing with production closures in both TV and movies, has been staggering. But on Broadway, where actors draw energy from a live audience, it feels even more personal.

“This moment is hard for everyone, but it’s particularly hard for theater people,” said Christopher Ashley, the director of “Diana,” a musical about the Princess of Wales that was in previews. “If you spend your life trying to bring people together live, this idea of social distancing really hurts your soul. I think everyone understands it has to happen, but it hurts.”

No decisions have been made yet on the 74th annual Tony Awards, scheduled for June 7. But insiders say that the ceremony will likely need to be postponed, as many spring shows haven’t opened yet and voters will need time to catch up on them. Beyond that, Broadway will face a devastating economic toll, one that analysts say could cost anywhere from $250 to $500 million — depending on when officials allow for public gatherings again.

For now, there are bills to pay. The Broadway League, the industry’s trade group of producers and theater owners, is negotiating with 14 unions to find a one-size-fits-all solution for temporarily compensating actors, musicians, stage hands, engineers, ushers, press agents, company managers and more as shows stay dark. “We are working on a master agreement,” Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin said. “The unions and leagues are working hard to make that happen.”

In the week since Broadway has closed, most actors haven’t been been getting paid.

“I wonder about the long-term effects on myself and the industry,” said John Krause, who was set to take over the role of Orpheus in “Hadestown.” “My company has been encouraged to apply for unemployment benefits while our union, Actor’s Equity Association, works with our producers to see what can be done about compensation and benefits. We are all in unchartered waters.”

The new realities facing Broadway, much like every other industry that has been crippled by the coronavirus, have created a fog of confusion. Several producers are in the midst of negotiating with theater owners for discounts on rent on venues that will remain deserted. It’s possible that some shows with slower sales will close in the interim. And productions with more high-profile casts – such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick in “Plaza Suite” and a new revival of “Take Me Out” starring Jesse Williams and Jesse Tyler Ferguson — are now juggling the schedules of its stars, to see just how far they can be pushed back.

“As actors, unemployment is not totally unfamiliar,” said Elizabeth Stanley, who plays the matriarch in “Jagged Little Pill,” the hit musical based on songs from Alanis Morissette. “I’ve been settling back into what is that rhythm. My fiancé and I have been working on a number of puzzles and we’ve been organizing. We’re going to be here for a while.”

The shutdowns have also have affected theaters in downtown New York. “It’s been really crazy, as one could expect,” said Patrick Willingham, the executive director of the Public Theater, which had two productions, “The Vagrant Trilogy” and “The Visitor,” set to begin previews in March. “The thing I know about theater folk is that we all grew up as theater kids. We’re used to be in a room together, rehearsing together. Switching my team [which includes 250 office employees] to working remotely has been a monumental undertaking.”

Looking ahead, Willingham is hopeful that the company’s annual Shakespeare in the Park will not be interrupted this summer. But quarantine efforts could present some challenges for rehearsals, which are supposed to begin in April. “The good news is, I think we have real flexibility in terms of our summer schedule with off-weeks,” he said.

Back at “The Inheritance,” playwright Matthew Lopez recalled being in the audience on the last Wednesday before his show ended. Because there was a matinee that day, both parts of the show were performed in one long stretch.

“The atmosphere on the street was really apprehensive,” Lopez said. “You could feel it in the city. Inside the theater, there was love and gratitude. We were talking about it afterwards, and in some ways, were we allowed to make it until Sunday, the final performance would have been for us.”

There was something that felt right about leaving the show without knowing they were leaving it. “It was a really gorgeous last show, in part because we didn’t realize it was our last show,” he said.

Jazz Tangcay contributed to this story.

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