When the COVID-19 pandemic blew Broadway’s curtains closed in March 2020, artists and audiences hoped the intermission would be counted in days and weeks as a quarantine of months washed over them. Producers and consumers alike had to pivot abruptly: performers had to find alternate forms of employment and audiences had to find alternate forms of entertainment. A trap door opened beneath show business, with no script or choreography available to help it stick a landing.
Jane Cox, director of Princeton’s theater program and lighting designer for a new Off-Broadway revival of “Assassins,” was one of the first to peek from behind those closed curtains. In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, she offered a glimpse into artists’ experience living behind them.
“There was literally no work … the phone didn’t ring for basically 15 months,” she recalled. “The people who this had the biggest impact on [were] people who were specialized theater technicians … the vast majority of those people are not going to have any kind of other financial support, and pretty much all those people left the business.”
However, Cox sees a silver lining in this low point, and the possibility of a triumphant return.
“There was a long-overdue racial reckoning in the theater this year,” said Cox.
The time off, she said, helped identify a “collective recognition of how shockingly underpaid and over abused theater people are in the profession, which has an obviously enormous impact on equity and diversity because it’s a business that’s very hard to survive in if you don’t have some kind of other financial support.”
Tess James, lecturer in theater at the Lewis Center and Cox’s colleague on the “Assassins” lighting design team, took a less optimistic stance.
“There are a lot of workers currently having this conversation, but I think there’s a lot of producers that are not engaging,” James said. “Profit motives are challenging when they are mixed with art.”
Cox and James’ words cast clear writing on the wall for Broadway: It must not waste a crisis.
While the theatrical world wrestled with the pandemic, viewers now isolated in their living rooms resorted to in-home streaming services, which rose to the occasion and smothered consumers in content. Now, as Broadway’s curtains open before an unfamiliar and uneasy world, much has changed, including their offerings. Some modern staples such as “Hamilton,” “Hadestown,” “Come From Away,” and “Wicked” have been able to reopen while unlucky fare like “Frozen,” “West Side Story,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” permanently closed. Smaller shows that had been getting ready to open in spring 2020, like the star-studded “American Buffalo,” never saw the light of the stage.
Other works conceived before the pandemic have changed to meet the audiences of 2021 where they are. That includes the “Assassins” revival. Directed by University faculty member John Doyle, the Stephen Sondheim classic looks quite different from when it premiered in 1990.
“What was really exciting about this production is that we got to react to everything that happened in the last 18 months,” James said. “It was a new idea because we were living in a new world.”
Despite the resilience and innovations of artists, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic compels us to ask whether it is safe enough to issue the cue: “Enter the audience.”
As theaters reopen and curtains fly, several pandemic-related changes and updates have emerged: only vaccinated patrons can attend performances through at least January 2022, mask mandates will be enforced for indoor spaces, and many older venues have begun updating and improving their air circulation standards.
“Especially working on ‘Assassins’, everybody took it incredibly seriously,” James said. “I felt pretty safe, everybody was very respectful. We don’t want to go back, so everybody is taking it really seriously, as seriously as it should be!”
Despite these efforts to set the stage, the audience may still miss its cue. According to Morning Consult’s “Return to Normal” tracker, in mid-November only 45 percent of U.S. respondents said they would be comfortable attending a theater performance. This comes after an earlier peak of 48 percent in early July that was followed by a drop to 37 percent in late August right as the Delta surge was approaching its peak in the United States.
Reflecting on their experience seeing a show after lockdown for the first time, two students who participated in the Mathey College trip to see “Wicked” offer further insight into audiences’ perceptions of, and comfort with, theater in the new normal. Their reactions support a case for optimism in defiance of the numbers yet also provide asterisks that may explain them.
“I felt safe going to the theater production because of the vaccine requirement that Broadway has right now. Otherwise I might not have gone,” Ethan Kahn ’22 said.
Mathey College also provided a bus to transport the students to and from the theater.
“Because Princeton created … a controlled environment there and back, I didn’t feel at risk,” Ariana Rausch ’24 said.
These theater-goers’ words add more writing to the wall: audiences’ love for Broadway, though strong, remains conditional. Audiences still have health and safety risks at the forefront of their minds when returning to Broadway.
Another challenge for Broadway is that the dearth of tourists visiting New York City looms large over expected ticket sales. According to nytix.com, tourists purchase 75 percent of all Broadway tickets, and they estimate that the number of curious potential theatergoers coming from away will not rebound before 2025.
On the uncertainty and challenges facing theater companies in their return, Cox offered an explanation: “I think the first time you do it, it’s a big hurdle, going back.”
Cox’s view on how Broadway returns leaves the status quo behind.
“In the long run, I hope that COVID will help make a correction, perhaps, to the fact that we’ve been using the biggest commercial platform, Broadway, largely for tourism, like a sort of theme park,” she said. “Broadway theaters sort of abandoned the local community and served people who were coming in.”
The other threat to Broadway is the difficulty of luring audiences back to their seats despite the continued evolution of streaming content. Both “Hamilton” and “Come From Away” now stream into living rooms for a nominal fee, dulling the allure of parting with hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the privilege of seeing them live. Streaming services such as Disney+, Broadway HD and Netflix hope to continually add Broadway shows to their ranks, potentially further denting audiences’ enthusiasm for returning to live theater and paying premium prices. According to data from MarketWatch, ticket prices were the only things that didn’t fall down the trap door.
Ticket prices’ levitation trick did not receive applause from the Mathey students.
“I don’t think I’d personally consider buying a Broadway ticket at full price right now, so it was really generous and nice that the tickets were free. Broadway tickets are expensive,” Kahn said.
Similarly, Rausch said, “I’m a broke college student, I can’t just be going to Broadway all the time.”
However, both the theater-makers and theatergoers find something missing in streaming content. James suggested that audiences will find their way back to theater.
“I think that we’ve missed being in the room with each other and having shared experiences in that way,” she said. “I did miss the dynamics of my body in the room while the thing is happening.”
“If I saw [‘Assassins’] on a screen I’d be impressed with it, but I don’t think it would overwhelm me the way that it overwhelms me when I’m in the room with them,” James added.
Cox echoed similar sentiments.
“I’m always interested in seeing what happens when people do things truly live,” she said. “I like the dork factor in theater. I like when you see people on stage pretending to be other people. I like that maybe the curtain doesn’t close at exactly the right moment. I guess that has to do with the philosophy of embracing that we’re human you know, we’re not machines and we make mistakes.”
Audience members also enjoy being back in the seats.
“I hadn’t seen live theater for […] two years until I went to Broadway mostly because of COVID, and so it had been a long time. What I might have been able to tell you beforehand, but what I really felt in the moment was just that energy of live theater was really incredible. You can’t replicate that by streaming Netflix or something like that,” Kahn explained.
“I really liked how Disney allowed ‘Hamilton’ to be played on a streaming service rather than in person, but it doesn’t beat the feeling of the theater where you can hear the authenticity of the performer’s voice,” Rausch added. “It’s just a different environment. In intermission, you talk about what you thought about it, which parts you liked, which parts you thought could have been better. You can’t do that by yourself in your dorm room.”
While we can debate whether the world is a stage, it is clearer in 2021 than ever before that the world desires the stage. Apparent in the words of artist and audience alike is that there is something inherently collaborative, visceral, and deeply human about performing and experiencing live theater. Exactly what live theater looks like in the coming months and years as the curtains rise is, however, still up for debate. Broadway has reopened, but it must face the various pressures to reform if audiences are to suspend their disbelief once more.
Andrew Johnson is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect and Satire at the 'Prince.' He can be reached at email@example.com.