Inside the Brutal Economics of Broadways Omicron Shutdowns

“It just turned into triage.”

That’s how Anne Quart describes the past few weeks on Broadway. As senior VP of production and co-producer at Disney Theatrical, Quart saw first-hand the chaotic spate of disruptions, cancellations and closings prompted by the surging omicron variant, not just in New York but around the world, during the crucial holiday period.

“You wake up in the morning, and you brace yourself as each company’s daily test results start to come in,” says Quart, who has day-to-day oversight of Disney’s global portfolio of 24 productions. “For about a week there, it felt like a tsunami.”

So did the onslaught of unsettling news that came out of Broadway during what is usually the industry’s most profitable time of year. With omicron ripping through the Broadway community, the majority of the approximately 30 shows running — everything from Disney’s “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” to “Hamilton” to “Six” — announced cancellations of one or more performances. The industry’s newest buzz magnet, “The Music Man,” went dark for more than a week when both leads, including headliner Hugh Jackman, tested positive. Five productions (“Jagged Little Pill,” “Ain’t Too Proud,” “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” “Flying Over Sunset” and “Waitress”) announced early closure. “Mrs. Doubtfire” called a nine-week hiatus, and the fan event BroadwayCon pushed its dates from February to July.

For Broadway, it was a perfect storm. Omicron’s extreme contagiousness wreaked havoc among productions that were already relying more than usual on understudies, swing performers and last-minute replacements to keep shows running without interruption. Every canceled performance meant lost revenue, weakening the foundations of vulnerable shows and heightening uncertainty. Simultaneously, productions that received funds from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant had reached the time when that money began to run out.

Meanwhile, airline disruptions threw off holiday tourism as omicron made some consumers more hesitant to travel or to share space with an audience of 1,000 strangers. Beyond the holidays, January and February are always a struggle at the Broadway box office, even in the best of times.

All those factors led to difficult decisions. The play “Thoughts of a Colored Man” had announced new cast members and planned to run through March 20 — at one point calling on playwright Keenan Scott II to jump into the show, book in hand — before unavoidable COVID cancellations upended things.

“Just a week prior to everything happening, our advance sales had just hit $1.2 million. We were doing really well,” says producer Brian Moreland. “We weren’t in danger. And then this variant came in.”
On Dec. 23, producers announced that “Thoughts,” which had just paused performances the night before, had played its final show. “When we opened, we knew that we couldn’t sustain a COVID closure,” Moreland explains. “Going down for 10 days, you’re basically taking it from your reserve. As a brand-new play, we just weren’t able to make it happen.”

Under current contracts, productions pay the running costs for a show whether the show goes on or not. That was a major reason that the producers of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which canceled 11 performances between Dec. 12 and Dec. 21, banged out a hiatus deal that will close the show Jan. 10, effectively pausing the payment on the majority of its $725,000 weekly running costs (including cast and crew salaries) until the show reopens at the same theater March 15.

Producer Kevin McCollum estimates that during omicron, COVID testing costs went from $18,000 per week to almost $60,000 at one point, pegging the hiatus losses for “Doubtfire” at about $500,000 for nine weeks, versus an estimated $3.5 million loss if the show had tried to run during that period.

“Our contracts are built so that you either open or close, but there’s no grace for a challenge to gather,” he says. “The pandemic is the definition of a challenge to gather, and in those conditions, we as producers need a catastrophe clause to hibernate.” (A recent proposal by The Broadway League to reduce salaries to half for COVID- canceled performances has so far been rejected by unions.)

Meanwhile, McCollum’s other Broadway show, “Six” — with a much smaller cast, a single set and significantly lower running costs — is, like many other productions, forging ahead in tumultuous times with the help of understudies, standbys and anyone else they can call to avoid canceling a performance.

At Disney, Quart is no stranger to enlisting alumni who played a part 10 years ago or flying a company member from one production to another or figuring out how to tell the story of “The Lion King” without one of the hyenas. But during the omicron surge, she says, “you can get to a point where there’s enough cases in one cast that even if I can do a show, I still think we need to give everybody a pause.”

Post-holidays, Broadway has begun to steady itself, and most guess things will stabilize further, with omicron receding as quickly as it has in other areas of the world. The industry is still bracing for a hangover period that could last up to a couple of months — but hopes for the spring are high.

Inasmuch as anyone can bank on anything in unpredictable times. “I think the one thing we’ve all learned,” Quart says, “is we just take it one day at a time.”

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