Broadway League president hopes for January reopening—with full theaters and masks
The Daily Beast
May 25, 2020
Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin talks candidly to Tim Teeman about a possible January reopening with full houses, fewer shows, masks—and major financial challenges.
Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League, makes clear she does not “have a crystal ball.” But her personal belief is that Broadway will reopen in January 2021, she reveals in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast.
For St. Martin, Broadway’s post-pandemic reopening means safety protocols being in place to ensure audience members can sit next to each other as they did before, likely—at least in the first phase of reopening—wearing masks, with actors, singers, and dancers able to perform in the same numbers and proximity, and with the same energy, as before.
“We know that we cannot socially distance within theaters with the present financial models we have,” St. Martin said.
Most of the “cautiously optimistic” members of the Broadway League—the national trade association for the Broadway industry, created in 1930—believe the reopening date to be the end of this year, “and some believe not till spring 2021,” she said.
Broadway’s closure was first announced, effective immediately, on March 12. In May, the closure was officially extended. The League said that all Broadway tickets could be either refunded or exchanged for all shows leading up to Sept. 6. St. Martin said this date had been chosen with summer “as a big travel time” in mind. The League wanted to give people “enough notice to make other plans.” Now, Broadway will likely remain closed through the fall and early part of winter.
“I actually am a little more optimistic than those who say Broadway will reopen in the spring, but I tend to be an optimistic person,” said St. Martin. “I tend to think it will be after the first of the year, in January, just because of the massive number of people who come to New York City around the holidays.”
This year, she doesn’t think a Broadway that reopened before Christmas would have had enough time to acclimatize to handle the possible Christmas crowds “as things get back to normal. You can barely walk through a theater door in November or December. If Broadway was open and tourism was back, we’d be testing social distancing pretty heavily and dramatically, and we have so many phases to get through before then.”
“We are at the mercy of statistics and medical information the government delivers every day,” St. Martin said. The difference of predictions around reopening depended on “where you are in the health and science area,” she said. “The Spring people believe that’s when a vaccine will be available—that’s when Broadway will reopen. But every day there is new information, like news of vaccines being developed earlier.”
The League’s 700-plus members include theater owners and operators, producers, presenters, and general managers in North American cities, as well as suppliers of goods and services to the commercial theater industry.
The impact of COVID-19 on Broadway has been measured in the closures of high-profile shows like Frozen, and the very personal stories of figures like actor Nick Cordero and leading designer Edward Pierce.
St. Martin said that in the last ten weeks Broadway has been losing an average of $35 million a week; this will remain so for however long Broadway remains closed. If this continues to January, that means a total loss of around $1.5 billion—with the sum heading towards $2 billion if the closure continues into next spring.
“I’m not an economist,” St. Martin said, when this reporter asked how long Broadway could sustain such losses. Around one in four shows recoup their investments, she said, and she had heard from producers who “still believe in their products, that they can come back and do well.”
Whenever Broadway does return, St. Martin said it would not financially rebound quickly.
“If I use my common sense I would say Broadway will be back, but not as strong as it was when it closed,” said St. Martin. “It may take a couple of years to get back to strong attendance and profitability. And I may be wrong. It may take four years, but I have no doubt we will be back.”
There has been talk of socially-distanced new ways of performing, new ways of seeing shows; of fewer performers, fewer audience members. But St. Martin sees the reborn Broadway—with as many safety protocols for audience and performers in place as possible—as much like the old Broadway as possible.
“We can’t socially distance the cast and crew in these 100-year-old-plus buildings,” St. Martin said. “And we can’t afford to socially distance the audience. We have terrific theatrical employees, but they are the most expensive theatrical employees in the world.”
The current financial model of Broadway, where financial margins are so tight even when shows sell well, means a socially distanced Broadway is not viable, said St. Martin, even if some shows could be solo concerts, or one man/one woman shows. Not every show needs an orchestra.
“We do anticipate some loss of business when we reopen,” said St. Martin. “But we’re not going to open until we have the information that tells us it’s safe to sit next to each other, and for the cast and crew to be dancing and kissing and everything else they do, sweating on each other. We’re not going to put people’s lives at risk, at least not knowingly.”
It would be “illogical,” said St. Martin, to not anticipate that fewer shows would be playing on Broadway. Of the full slate of shows scheduled to have opened this spring, three have been canceled, two postponed to the fall (“which means getting postponed again probably,” said St. Martin).
The question, St. Martin said, was for the shows that had already opened and those that were planning to open, “how can they keep their casts and financing intact enough to come back? It’s going to cost $750,000 to $1.5 million to relaunch.” It would be logical” to assume not all Broadway theaters will be occupied or full.
When they closed, there were two or three shows on some theaters’ waiting lists, said St. Martin. “People will always be passionate to get their projects on stage. But this is now tied to the national economy, health, and safety and things we don’t control that impact us.”
Some theaters would be empty temporarily, St. Martin said. “If you have 40 theaters and 25 shows, that means 15 theaters will be closed. I don’t think there is any doubt they will return to life—and this is not a cheerleader speaking. We have temporary closures all the time when theaters go dark. A show might not be a hit and close, and the next show will not be ready for from three to six months later. I don’t think any theaters will close for good.”
Whatever the League’s experts recommend, the unions representing Broadway’s 96,900 workers are also seeking expert advice.
For example, the Actors’ Equity Association—whose president Kate Shindle will speak in detail to The Daily Beast in a forthcoming piece—has employed David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration, to advise on post-COVID working conditions.
St. Martin said the Broadway League was not yet surveying audience attitudes. “We don’t plan to until the curve is completely flattened, because why waste our money to have people tell us they’re not coming back until they feel safe? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
“Most professional researchers we talked to said, ‘You don’t do a survey during the ‘shock and panic’ phase. I know a lot of people are, and good for them. We will start that research when the virus has flattened out in New York, and some baselines have been established.”
Audiences, said St. Martin, can expect to have to wear masks and go through temperature checks, as well as get firm guidance on how to enter and leave theaters (and hopefully how to circulate within them—a scrum even in older times, as Broadway-goers know from mingling at intermissions and queuing for the restrooms).
In the Broadway of the future, “I think you’ll probably see a lot of contactless activities, like with scanning tickets, and no faucets and hand flushes in the restrooms,” said St. Martin. Concession servers, she said, would likely be wearing masks and gloves and “serving your drink in a paper cup that you personally throw away. New products are being developed every day, it seems.”
Broadway queues were already long outside theaters, pre-pandemic. How would they work, in an era of social distancing, this reporter asked. “I hope it becomes a problem, by which I mean that the audience comes back,” said St. Martin. “There is some thinking that the side streets of Broadway would be shut down to accommodate the lines, and enable social distancing.”
There are six not-for-profit theaters on Broadway. Did St. Martin want Broadway to receive the kind of city, state, or federal financial support, such as theater receives in countries like Britain and Germany?
“Yes, it would be nice to get some support, seriously,” said St. Martin. “We get absolutely not one penny from the city or state or federal government unlike London and most other places. We provide a $14.3 billion economic impact in New York City alone. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a little of that back?”
Had St. Martin ever asked or lobbied for such money for Broadway, this reporter asked.
And the response was?
St. Martin laughed. “No,” she recalled bluntly of the response she had been given. “I think one mayor said, ‘What are you going to do? Move?’ This was a long time ago.”
Could the reverberations of the pandemic lead to a new Broadway financial model constructed around less costs to take the pressure off productions to make the money they presently have to?
“That’s a big ‘if,’” said St. Martin. “If wages dramatically decreased, if rent for theaters decreased, if fees for all designers decreased, we could come back and socially distance and lower prices.”
Until now, St. Martin had never considered the viability of such a model, “but I also never knew there could be a pandemic could shut down the world.” The challenge would be to make a scaling down of Broadway equitable and workable, and financially sustainable, for all who work on it.
“If it were possible, it would be now,” St. Martin said of this possibly radically reinvented Broadway. “I don’t know that it is. Let’s say Broadway can’t come back next January, then it can’t come back in the spring, will there be a different model? I don’t know, but we want to ask, if we want to work in theater, and if we want international tourism in New York City to come back, and if we want the city to be all that it is—then maybe. But there would be a lot of pain to go through before we ever got there.”
Have those discussions around a new model started among producers? “I think it’s early for that, but I have no doubt that people are discussing it—but they are not discussing it as part of our task forces.”
“I don’t think I’m going to entertain that honestly,” said St. Martin of this radical reinvention model. “I think we believe that part of theater and the experience of theater is about shared emotions, shared joy, and shared tears. It’s what makes live theater different from anything else.”
So, to be clear this reporter asked, for St. Martin personally, the reborn Broadway is essentially the old Broadway—from how the audiences are able to sit to how the performers are able to perform?
“I believe we will be back, and eventually we will be back to where we were before”
In order to achieve an effective and lasting reopening, the Broadway League has increased the number of task forces looking at all issues around Broadway’s rebirth from 15 to 22. “As if 15 weren’t enough,” said St. Martin, drily. “As we learn more things it creates the need for more people to do more homework.”
Four task forces are working on safety protocols—as they relate to backstage and in theaters and others for tours. There are 10 marketing task forces, in order to “how we let people know what we are differently. We can do a lot to mitigate challenges, but if people don’t know about it what good will that do if the perception is it hasn’t changed,” said St. Martin.
Other task forces are focused on government relief of different types, and more task forces will evolve “as we learn more.” The League is reaching out to medical experts around issues like air sampling. It was too early to make announcements, she said, principally because the advice and information “changes overnight.”
St. Martin would not elaborate on the discussions the League had had with Broadway unions, following the agreement forged at the beginning of the pandemic to ensure hundreds of workers were paid for a certain amount of time through April.
“Yes, we are in discussion with the unions all the time, but in order to shore up anything there has to be money available, and a lot of the shows have run out of money,” said St. Martin.
The League, said St. Martin, was working with New York State officials in Albany and the federal government in Washington D.C., pushing for extended unemployment insurance and extended health insurance coverage. St. Martin is optimistic that the HEROES Act would contain a clause enabling unemployed people whose health insurance has run out to get their COBRA insurance paid for by the government.
“Nobody is shoring up producers’ and theaters’ bank accounts,” said St. Martin. “This is out of the goodness of their hearts and a sincere desire to take care of all the people on Broadway.” If producers and theaters could continue to pay workers, as in the initial agreement, they would, she said. “But it’s a lot of money. Most of the shows, even big shows that had big advances, are at risk of using those advances, so where do you get the money from to pay for all of that?”
Older audiences and international tourism are two significant constituencies that St. Martin concedes will be difficult to attract back.
But she said she took some heart from changing audience demographics. Last season, the average age of an audience member was 42. And only 15 percent of the audience was over 65.
“There will certainly be some people we lose until COVID doesn’t exist any more,” said St. Martin, “but our audience has been getting younger. Last season 25 percent of the audience was under 25 and 3 million were under 18. The area we are most concerned about is international tourists: they were 19 percent of business last season and we do believe it will be a while before they are back because of travel restrictions and so forth.”
St. Martin hopes, as in previous moments of crisis, that domestic tourism to New York City increases—when visitors feel comfortable to do so—but she knows on this occasion New York has been the heart of this pandemic, which might put off domestic tourists.
“We do know there are a lot of avid theatergoers who will show up the minute they are allowed to show up,” said St. Martin. “This is a time of uncertainty, but at the end of the day I believe we will be back, and eventually we will be back to where we were before.”
Then there is the issue of people wanting to spend money on Broadway tickets—with unemployment at record levels, and people nervous about their personal finances, will they want, or be able to pay for tickets?
“That is logical,” conceded St. Martin, “but our theater is totally commercial. We don’t get government funding. It’s a supply-and-demand pricing model. Last season was our biggest season in history. We had 14.8 million theatergoers, 75 percent of shows are under $125, 50 percent of shows are under $100. The premium pricing everyone hears about represents 3 to 5 percent of shows. And a lot of premium price shows are $140. We’re in line with professional sports, concerts, and other forms of live entertainment.
“The press likes to talk about the $800 Hamilton tickets and the $1,100 Bruce Springsteen tickets, but there are 39 other shows on Broadway. I do think it’s most likely we will see some price changes. How deeply discounted they are depends on any financial model that changes. The running costs are also not cheap. Most of the musicals cost $1 million-plus in running costs. Tickets have got to be a certain price for the show to stay open.
“People want to go to Broadway shows. They talk about how expensive it is, but they continue to buy tickets, to talk about it. I think we will be back. Do I think it will be the best season in history? Probably not. That will take a couple of years, but I think we will open, and find ways to doing business so we can build it.”
Regional theaters may be imperiled, but St. Martin sees them akin to those department stores and businesses that have claimed Chapter 11 and bankruptcy during the pandemic. “I think they will come back under new ownership and refinancing. Theaters are job creators, and the heart of many of our cities around the country. I don’t think they’ll stay closed for long.”
As for Broadway, “New York is very much like London,” St. Martin said. “Theater is a way of life in this city. Eighty percent of people who come to New York for pleasure list Broadway as a number one or two reason for visiting.
“People love to say, ‘Broadway is going to die, ‘Broadway is dead.’ Two years ago, we had only 15 plays, and the headlines were ‘The play is dead,’ ‘Broadway is dead.’ The next year we had the biggest play season in history. I think Broadway will survive.”
“We will be back,” St. Martin vowed. “We won’t be socially distancing without a good financial model, and people will be able to return to Broadway again. I don’t see Broadway audiences sitting with masks for the rest of their lives, but if you been sitting watching TV reruns for the last few months you might be willing to risk a little bit while wearing a mask to see something new, fresh, and alive at the theater. It’s really something we will all learn together.”