"Most shows don't even break even until they get to 75% [capacity] and some shows have to get all the way to 90% to start making money," explains Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin. "A socially distanced option just doesn't work." St. Martin is quick to add, albeit with the exhaustion of someone who has repeated the same messaging for months, that a full-capacity house will not come at the expense of safety and health guidelines: "I've done well over 200 interviews saying we won't open unless the cast, crew and audience are completely safe."
"Right now we know we'll be opening with masks but we don't know the rest of it just yet --- we're still listening to the science, what the state protocols are and what the CDC requires of us," says Moreland, who notes the Broadway League has been working in close coordination with the state to ensure each Broadway theater is receiving the most up-to-date information as soon as it comes in.
As producers and the Actors' Equity Association work in tandem to bring back shows safely, discussions are underway as to what requirements for backstage workers will look like. Guidelines from the union call for regular testing and the presence of a dedicated COVID-19 safety officer onsite at all times for every 20 people in the company; they've also provided productions with guidelines for fully vaccinated backstage workplaces and non-fully vaccinated workplaces. Brandon Lorenz, national director of communications and public policy for the Actors' Equity Association, tells Billboard the union is "not requiring" fully vaccinated workspaces, but if an employer does so "in compliance with the law," that situation would be "acceptable" to the union (conceivably, someone could cite medical or religious reasons and refuse the vaccine while still aiming to return to work). Right now, at least one major blockbuster, Hamilton, is requiring all backstage workers receive a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to the job, per The New York Times.
Regardless, expect all productions – whether fully vaccinated or not – to involve masks. The Actors' Equity Association's guidelines specify masks should be worn backstage and in front of house, "except for the actors when rehearsing and/or performing."
While producers can push for fully vaccinated cast and crew, the audience is another matter entirely. "We anticipate masks [for the audience] will be required not only for the opening but for some time," St. Martin says. Speaking to temperature checks and contact tracing, Moreland freely offers that no decisions have been made yet about either -- but vaccine passports for Broadway are seen as a non-starter given what the Broadway League sees as a lack of adequate technology.
"Our audiences are between 60-70% tourists from outside the Tri-state area, so to have a universal passport that would accept and be reliable for all cities, states, countries, is not something we believe is available yet," St. Martin explains. "For our audiences, a passport doesn't make sense until something like that is available."
One Broadway producer who spoke to Billboard on background doesn't expect it will be a Herculean effort to get stir-crazy New Yorkers back into seats -- if anything, he thinks some ravenous theatergoers would be willing to pay extra for premium experiences.
By his reckoning, the biggest hurdle facing Broadway as it reopens is sustaining audiences in the face of an uncertain outlook for New York City tourism. With people outside the Tri-state area accounting for two-thirds of Broadway audiences at a minimum, Broadway's immediate future – at least after the initial reopening rush and holiday boom – will depend on how quickly tourists return to the city. NYC pulled in more than 66 million tourists in 2019, a number that understandably dropped to 22 million in 2020. NYC & Company, the city's official tourism/marketing agency, predicts 38 million visitors this year, but notes that "the international market will take longer to catch up," especially as restrictions on international travel continue.
Tickets sales for reliable blockbusters such as Wicked, The Lion King and Hamilton – all reopening in September, part of an anticipated 12-13 shows returning that month – appear solid based on a perusal of Ticketmaster.com; for evenings that aren't already sold out, it seems that the theaters aren't having trouble unloading the more expensive seats closer to the stage. When it comes to official Broadway productions in various markets across America, subscription sales are "stronger than they were before the pandemic" in many markets, according to St. Martin.
Concessions such as snacks, alcoholic drinks or even bottled water -- certainly an important part of any business where profit margins can be thin -- are another open question for the time being, though St. Martin says to expect "a lot of contact-less services."
Naturally, some shows are considering a proactive role in goosing sales. Moreland, who is one of the producers of Keenan Scott II's Thoughts of a Colored Man, set to open at the Golden Theatre before the end of 2021, plans "discounted tickets to get people there and a great deal of incentives across the board," noting there's a "David and Goliath" element of opening a new play on Broadway post-pandemic as opposed to bringing back a beloved, blockbuster property.
Moreland, who sits on the Broadway League's Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and is co-chair of the Multicultural Task Force, also notes that when Broadway returns, pandemic safety precautions won't be the only things that have changed. "The murder of George Floyd… changed the molecular structure of Broadway and our community," he says. After months of "intense Zoom conversations" with Black Theatre United and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Moreland says behind-the-scenes industry players are invested in "a full overhaul of how we actually think about hiring people… so we will be able to fill more offices with more BIPOC people." In additional to increased transparency in the hiring process, Moreland says they are working on ways to make the casting process and rehearsals "feel safe" not only in terms of physical well-being but mental health. "We can't fix every single problem by the time our curtains rise on September 14, but we can make sure we have a level reset in our minds and our daily practices," he says.
As for the moment those curtains actually go up on Sept. 14, it's a tantalizing eventuality that finds even the most seasoned pro unleashing their inner theater nerd. "The thought of it makes me have to pinch myself that it's really coming up," St. Martin admits. "Anybody in the theater in our opening month will be able to feel the energy in the room palpably. I think the room will vibrate with energy. People are so ready to come back."
"The hardest part [of the last year] has been not to have a place to process," says Moreland. "I go to the theater for work, but I also go to the theater for pleasure, and I'm really looking forward to being able to sit down and see it again and breathe again. When you have a chance to support a theater, do it."