I had planned to spend my spring break watching as many Broadway shows as I could, and I never thought the then-downplayed threat of COVID-19 would change that. Before 2020, the longest time that Broadway closed was in 1919. It wasn’t due to their pandemic, but because of worker strikes that went on for a month. Now we are over 200 days past March 12, when statewide measures shut down Broadway theaters and gatherings of over 500 people. They still have not been lifted.
So what has The Great White Way done to adapt? Attempts to replicate the same live experience online to maintain income for 97,000 Broadway workers—and to appease theater audiences—have resulted in virtual gatherings. The most notable example is the release of the live taping of “Hamilton” on Disney+, which on its first weekend resulted in over 500,000 mobile downloads of the app and many more online downloads. Fans who did not have the resources to see these shows in person were elated. Broadway has also begun to host different online performances and fundraisers that have raised millions of dollars for workers’ compensations, and the increase in online presence has introduced fans to shows they may not have heard of. Since April, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s program “The Show Must Go On” has released a live taping of a musical for 48 hours for free, with donations going to theater employees affected by the pandemic.
This has unfortunately not been enough for some productions. Shows such as “Frozen,” “Beetlejuice” and “Hangmen” will remain closed for good. Recently, John Gore Productions laid off a hundred workers. Refunds had to be issued by productions nationwide, and actors’ attempts to perform live streams have faced the challenge of copyright claims and legalities.
As of now, Broadway will remain suspended until January 3, 2021. However, experts have said that even reducing theater capacities by half will not generate enough income for shows to survive. In anticipation of this, Broadway has taken the initiative to innovate. Over the summer, director Michael Arden presented an outdoor moving live performance called “American Dream Society,” an invite-only experience where audience members were asked to drive along a certain path, with each stop showcasing a different scene of the play. Most recently, the upcoming show “Diana: A New Musical” announced their premiere on Netflix ahead of its intended May 2021 Broadway debut, which is extremely uncommon for a new production.
In Korea, the production of “The Phantom of the Opera” has been able to continue throughout the entire pandemic, mainly through the rigorous testing protocols of their government and the strict safety measures put in place for all theatregoers, such as head-to-toe disinfectant upon entry and a mandated contact-tracing app. However, Korea’s ability to implement these measures is perhaps rooted in their government’s decision to aggravate their testing and tracking instead of immediately closing down all institutions. It is food for thought to consider how Broadway could be functioning now if the United States had taken the same measures back in March. While it is a “coulda-shoulda-woulda” line of thinking, seeing an industry that has provided countless memories, joy and relief to millions suffer pulls at the strings of empathy and grief for its fans.
Nonetheless, the community is strong, and the audience is perseverant. It may be painful to think of what the future of Broadway will look like, especially since Broadway regularly contributes $15 billion to the local economy, but we cannot discount the hope and strength that pulses through the community. We can see that bringing back Broadway may be difficult, but it is not impossible. There will always be the drive to deliver theater content to audiences, and if this pandemic has shown us anything, it is the impact theater has beyond the stage. To quote a comment I saw online, “It is worth the wait, and we will wait.”
Art by Jessica Tasmin