We were all optimistic when news of Broadway’s reopening first came out in May, but now Delta cases are surging and so are concerns within the theater industry. As CNBC reported today, ticket sales are lagging as theatergoers face a renewed threat from COVID’s latest variant.
Some of Broadway’s biggest hits — Hamilton, The Lion King, and Wicked — are set to reopen at full capacity on September 14, but so far there are plenty of tickets left for all three blockbusters, even during opening week. Hamilton, which was notoriously difficult to get tickets for in pre-COVID times, has only one performance sold out so far through June 5, 2022.
Broadway theater owners and producers attribute the lackluster sales to uncertainty around the highly contagious Delta variant. With theatergoers hesitating to flock to crowded theaters, some within the Broadway community are beginning to question whether the reopening at full capacity is being rushed. “The theater-going public are voting with their dollars,” John Kenrick, an American theater historian, lyricist, and theater producer told CNBC. “If you rush this, it’s going to cost you a lot more than if you take it slow and steady.”
“COVID does not operate on our calendar,” he continued. “It doesn’t give a damn about our financial needs. Until everybody gets a lot more sensible about that, we’re going to pay a price for it.”
Before the pandemic, only 20% of Broadway productions made a profit on their investment. What chances do they have now with such limited ticket sales? Even though some have a buffer from stimulus payments and state assistance programs, the reality is looking grim. “If we open and go for more than two weeks with low occupancy, the likelihood is that many shows would have to close and most likely not be able to reopen,” Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, told Bloomberg.
We saw long lines for the first preview of Pass Over at the August Wilson Theatre on W52nd Street, and that success continued throughout the week. CNBC noted that the play hasn’t quite sold out but in a recent performance there were only 100 empty seats in a theater of 1,200.
Matt Ross, one of the show’s producers, told CNBC that they hired an epidemiologist to develop intense protocols so that they might avoid “the start and stop again thing.”
And of course, tourism is a major factor here. Tourists typically make up 70% of Broadway ticket sales but that audience isn’t rushing back. The Office of the New York State Comptroller is projecting 36.1 million visitors in 2021, which is still a massive reduction from 66.6 million in 2019. Hopes of tourists from Canada, UK and Europe returning have been dashed by concerns of the new variant — although Reuters reported last week that plans are being made to allow vaccinated foreigners into the United States in the future.
That could be contributing to why a limited-run, dramatic production like Pass Over is faring better over the larger hits. “Musicals historically outperform plays,” Brian Moreland, the lead producer of Thoughts of a Colored Man, opening on October 31, told Bloomberg. “They’re larger, you can get more people into the theater, and if there’s any type of language barrier, it’s OK to watch the singing and dancing.” But now, “musicals are at risk of suffering because of a lack of tourism — especially when you’re a long-running musical, where possibly you have exhausted the New York audience,” he explained. “Plays have the benefit of being smaller and more on-brand of a time and place” which “can really appeal to the New Yorker or domestic traveler.”