Broadway May Mandate Vaccinations for Audiences and Workers. That’s Just One Reopening Challenge.

·25 min read
Siegfried Layda
Siegfried Layda

The announcement yesterday of the return of Patti LuPone in Company (previews begin Dec. 20) sealed it: Broadway is indeed coming back from its paralyzing pandemic slumber. But key questions over how to make its Sept. 14 reopening work and how to make theaters safe for audiences and workers remain unanswered.

Official protocols around how crowds will be organized entering and exiting the theaters, whether some shows will have staggered opening times to avoid crowding on the streets, and the use of masks and temperature checks have yet to be finalized.

A corresponding set of protocols for those working on productions—actors, stagehands, production staff—have yet to be agreed upon between the Broadway League and unions, all of which is being done with the consultation of infectious disease specialists. Broadway theaters will have new air filtration systems. The Daily Beast understands one major owner, Jujamcyn Theaters, has had new ventilation systems already installed.

A well-placed source told The Daily Beast that some Broadway actors have said they do not want to be vaccinated against COVID. “Somebody needs to figure out what to do with actors who don’t want to be vaccinated,” one Tony-winning producer told The Daily Beast. “It’s a problem. We can’t force them.”

Broadway Loves a Comeback. A Year Since It Closed, Its Own Might Be Tough.

Mandatory vaccination for audiences and those working on Broadway is under discussion, Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, confirmed to The Daily Beast. The League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry created in 1930, has not made a decision on excluding audience members who have not been vaccinated—as some cruise lines have—“but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be considered,” she said. It was made more complicated, St. Martin added, because there was no universal proof-of-vaccine system yet that would encompass Broadway’s visitors from across America and the world.

As for Broadway workers, St. Martin told The Daily Beast, “Some unions want us to mandate vaccinations. They don’t want to mandate it. And there are some unions who don’t want to mandate it. We’re still negotiating with the unions. We are partners in this. It may well be we have to do rapid testing, unless everybody gets vaccinated. There’s so much we don’t know yet.”

This reporter asked if St. Martin was happy with the idea that some employees on a Broadway show could be vaccinated and others not.

“The Broadway League doesn’t yet have a position,” St. Martin said. “I have a personal position, and my personal position is that anybody who doesn’t get vaccinated is an idiot. I think our members would all prefer people be vaccinated—unless your religion or doctor didn’t want you to have it. I think we have to take caution in how we do this. We know legally as of now we can mandate it, but whether we will or not is another matter. We have not said we are mandating vaccinations, but that doesn’t mean we won’t.”

Brandon Lorenz, spokesperson for Actors’ Equity, the union which represents more than 51,000 professional actors and stage managers nationwide, told The Daily Beast that mandatory vaccination was “a fairly complex issue” and that the union was not mandating vaccines for its members. It was for employers to do this, Lorenz said. The union has produced protocols for fully vaccinated productions and ones where not everyone is vaccinated. In the latter scenario, regular testing is recommended.

Lorenz said, “If anyone is wondering what the fastest way to get back to work is, it’s to get vaccinated and encourage friends to get vaccinated, and your family to get vaccinated. The sooner we all do that, the sooner we can get back to work.” The “overwhelming majority” of Actors’ Equity members, if not already vaccinated, want to be vaccinated, Lorenz added.

The challenge, as The Daily Beast has previously reported, is to make Broadway audiences and employees feel comfortable and safe while seated or working in enclosed spaces in close proximity. Broadway shows cannot be financially viable if forced to employ socially distanced seating for audiences.

From June 19, New York State will begin experimenting with reduced social distancing at large-scale indoor event venues in seated sections that are designated for fully vaccinated people.

“The Broadway League is not considering vaccinated/unvaccinated sections at this time,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast. None of the major theater owners returned The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on if they intended to demarcate sections of seating for the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

“I think vaccination should be mandatory, period, for anyone involved in productions and audiences,” a Tony-winning Broadway producer involved in three returning post-pandemic shows, told The Daily Beast. “We have to do whatever we can following the science to ensure everyone’s safety. Period,” the producer, who requested anonymity, said. “I think it should be standardized. I don’t think this should even be a topic of debate.

“If there is anything we have learned when wearing a mask or social distancing or getting vaccinated, it's that we are not just doing these things for ourselves. We are doing them for everyone else around us. Until people really understand that, I don’t believe there should be anybody on that stage, in that audience, or working behind the scenes who has not been vaccinated when vaccination is readily available. People who choose to reject that are just putting everyone in harm’s way.”

The producer hopes Broadway looks to reopening practices in Australia, where live theater has resumed. The producer told The Daily Beast to expect the announcement of returning and new shows to “snowball” in the coming days, as more shows announce reopening dates.

It had been rumored that certain shows—Hamilton on July 4, Wicked, and The Lion King—may open sooner than Sept. 14. But on Tuesday morning they announced that they would open on that day in a collective announcement made on Good Morning America.

Tickets are also currently on sale for Chicago (from Sept. 14), Come From Away (Sept. 21), Diana: The Musical (from Dec. 1), Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations (from Oct. 16), The Phantom of the Opera (from Oct. 22), Jagged Little Pill (from Oct. 21), Jersey Boys (from Nov. 15), The Play That Goes Wrong (from Oct. 15), The Music Man (from Dec. 20), and Company Six, which was hours away from its opening night when the shutdown of Broadway was announced, will open in previews on Sept. 17, with a new opening night set for Oct. 3.

Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s acclaimed play about racism and power, Pass Over—which played at the Lincoln Center Theater in 2018 to positive reviews, including from this author—will open on Broadway in the fall at the August Wilson Theatre. Mrs. Doubtfire, the stage adaptation of the hit movie starring Rob McClure in the title role, resumes previews at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre Oct. 21, and will reopen Dec. 5.

Alongside an off-Broadway slate of productions, Second Stage also announced its Broadway show cycle: Lynn Nottage’s play Clyde’s will open at the Hayes Theater in the fall. That will be followed by a revival of Take Me Out about a gay baseball player, with a production of the off-Broadway hit Between Riverside and Crazy opening in the fall.

Producer Daryl Roth told The Daily Beast, “For me the key is people getting vaccinated, and I believe that by September they will be, and so people will feel safer and more comfortable to gather together. That is how Broadway has to open to be able to work financially… If people are vaccinated and show proof of vaccinations, people will feel more comfortable sitting next to their neighbors.”

Barry Diller, chairman and senior executive of IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company, is a producer of three Broadway shows this fall/winter: the returning To Kill a Mockingbird and West Side Story, and The Music Man.

“Yes, absolutely,” Diller said, when asked if vaccines should be mandatory for Broadway audiences and workers. “If there is a strong religious preference against it, we can find other ways to test people. But there’s no question that people should be vaccinated. It’s crazy to think otherwise. Vaccines should be mandatory for everybody. The only way that any of us are going to get protection against each other or feel protected, is if you’re vaccinated and the person you’re inches away from is vaccinated.”

Leading Broadway designer Edward Pierce, whose history-making fight with COVID was revealed in The Daily Beast, is fully recovered, “110 percent fit,” and now president of the union representing stage designers (United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829, IATSE). Pierce told The Daily Beast that vaccines should be mandatory outside of medical and religious exemptions. “Those who are not vaccinated need to have regular testing to ensure they and the people they work with are safe.”

James Latus, a production stage manager, told The Daily Beast he supported mandatory vaccination. The cast members of The Visitor, the Public Theater show he was working on pre-pandemic and will return to once theater reopens, want it too, he said. “There is a real sense people need to be vaccinated before we go into the same situation as we had before. In theater we work in close quarters. We’re in the dark against each other, next to each other, a lot. I don’t know if mandatory vaccinations can be enforced, but I think that’s what people want, and it’s what I would shoot for.”

“I worry about protocols, vaccine and testing requirements, ‘compliance officers’ and such." Paul Masse, a Broadway musician since 2001 and a conductor on shows including The Scottsboro Boys, Porgy and Bess, and Holler If Ya Hear Me, told The Daily Beast. "I don’t quite understand what people’s end goal is here, because we will never be zero percent free of risk from anything. If productions are shut down every time there is a positive test in the company, I don’t see how it will ever work. The PCR tests are extraordinarily sensitive, and as long as we ignore things like viral loads and transmission potential, it’s going to be difficult, because there will be positive tests.

“The goalposts keep being moved by those who have egg on their face for the failure of their restrictions, and this idea that nothing really changes after vaccination in terms of what we can do amongst strangers is a major reason many people don’t see the point of being vaccinated.

“I feel certain we will figure out a way to proceed, but there is really just something lost right now and I don’t know how long it will take to get it back if we don't move forward and accept some level of risk,” said Masse. “The process of creating new work is an intimate one; so many creative moments happen not when you're dictated to be together at a set time—though plenty happen then—but serendipitously in relationship to people. This past fall, I created a short concert series for streaming, one of which focused on George Gershwin, and he always stressed that he never just sat down at a prescribed time and wrote, but that his ideas ‘arise from contact with people.’ This is so important and essential.”

“Shows that have 40 to 50 percent-filled audiences won’t be open long.”

The possible mandating of vaccinations is one of a host of pre-opening issues that Broadway bosses are working through.

Charlotte St. Martin told The Daily Beast that the Broadway League expected to next month present the final protocols—conceived with an infectious disease specialist—laying out how theaters will safely reopen to officials of New York State. “We think we’re close to an agreement with the unions on the protocols, but I have thought that before,” she said. Some theaters have had their air filtration systems modified, St. Martin said; others are “doing what is required.”

St. Martin would not say the protocols likely were, but—as The Daily Beast has previously reported—theatergoers can expect to sit as closely as they did before. Broadway needs to reopen and stay open, as near to 100 percent capacity to financially survive. “That is certainly the goal,” St. Martin said. “We’ve said this right from the beginning. It’s why Broadway is the last form of live entertainment to open. Broadway does not operate on a financial model that will allow us to socially distance. Shows that have 40 to 50 percent-filled audiences won’t be open long.”

Audience members can expect to be masked, St. Martin said, and for there to be “contactless services” within theaters. There had been a suggestion that the kinds of shows audiences would see as Broadway found its feet again would be different—shorter, without intermission (to aid crowd control entering, exiting, and at intermission), and with fewer performers. But St. Martin has only heard of some shows looking to have no intermission, but not reducing their production size.

Brian Moreland, lead producer of Thoughts of a Colored Man (which will open at Broadway’s Golden Theatre in the fall) and a member of the board of governors of the Broadway League, told The Daily Beast he had been heartened by the Sept. 14 announcement, and thrilled about his own play being part of ushering in the new dawn.

“It’s still going to take time to turn the lights on,” Moreland added. The Broadway League is in discussion to ensure “the safest possible conditions for people onstage, offstage, and our audiences. I know many producers and casts are raring to go.” The traffic flow to ensure safety backstage will be specific to each show, Ed Pierce said, and Broadway designers and workers are inveterate problem solvers “and itching to use that part of their brains again.”

“We have to follow the science,” another top producer told The Daily Beast. “We have to make sure Broadway opens up according to what the science and experts tell us. It gives me confidence that Sept. 14 is the opening date, with shows picking whatever date feels right for them after that. People are dying to be back in theaters. This is not just fluffy entertainment. This is a lifesaver, and lifeblood for people. One silver lining of the pandemic—akin to the greater appreciation of teachers—is that people are understanding the significance of what this medium has to offer.”

Daryl Roth led the post-pandemic return of New York theater, with the socially distanced immersive experience Blindness at the off-Broadway theater which bears her name. On Broadway, she is a co-producer of Company. “Everyone is particularly excited for Company to come back. There’s a great buzz around it,” said Roth. She is also a producer of How I Learned to Drive, in association with Manhattan Theatre Club, which will return next spring to the Samuel Friedman Theatre.

“Everyone has their own speed,” Roth said. “Some of my friends aren’t ready to go back to restaurants yet. I’m comfortable sitting outside. More people will get vaccinated, COVID cases will fall. People will become more comfortable.”

“Of course people will come back to Broadway, presuming that the experience is… let’s call it better than decent, meaning that people are going to have to accept being quite close to each other when seated,” Barry Diller told The Daily Beast. “I do think people are going to have to be vaccinated. I don’t think mask wearing will be mandatory. I hope not, as it isn’t conductive to people laughing, and making all the other strange sounds people make in the theater.”

The Broadway League, right now at least, imagines that audience members will be masked. Diller said, “The CDC, which is what the Broadway League is taking their lead from, hasn’t been very accurate about much of anything throughout this whole pandemic. I’m hopeful that by August/September that that particular protocol will be abolished. I think it’s going to be really difficult for Broadway if you have to wear masks. If the rules allow what it was before, people will come—that I am sure of.”

One leading producer, who asked not to be named, said, “The power struggle between the mayor and governor has been unreal.” The industry had been taken by surprise by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s April 29 announcement that New York City would fully reopen on July 1. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that venues including Broadway could reopen from May 19 caused a “cluster-fuck” of confusion, according to one producer.

“The mayor and governor treat us as a pawn in their power struggle,” the anonymous producer said. “We hope they’re done doing that now. We need to work together. We are all on the winning side, but it’s bothersome.”

One producer told The Daily Beast, “It’s important for New York to fully reopen to international tourists, but I hope domestic and tri-state audiences can keep shows going. I know they may not want to see Wicked or The Lion King, but I hope sentimentality and nostalgia will guide them to supporting those shows in the short term, as well as new shows.”

Getting international tourists back to New York, and back to Broadway is critical, said Diller, “although it’s not going to return until we get international protocols which we don’t yet have.” If the return of international travelers in meaningful numbers is not achieved by the end of the year, “then I have worries not just for Broadway but New York itself, which is dependent on tourism,” Diller added. “We have to create an international COVID passport,” a universal proof of vaccination. “Without it, I think things will be very tough.”

Some artists remain frustrated at confusion and miscommunication from arts sector leaders. “The Broadway League has been less than helpful or transparent with information,” said Paul Masse. “Our unions have had some tiny moments worth cheering in the last few weeks, but overall the last year has had the effect of exposing the limitations, and in many cases incompetence, of many of the leaders meant to represent performers and theater artists.

“The truth is, we all have our own personal level of comfort and I know many people who would have gone back to work a year ago without question, while others are trapped in some kind of lockdown fanaticism I will personally never understand. But when the actors’ union started issuing bits of lunacy like two people singing cannot face each other and must be behind plexiglass barriers and 12 feet apart, it seemed the pandemic had completely sapped everyone’s sanity. Thankfully, they’ve moved on from some of those items, and it is ever-changing as people learn more.”

Mark Brokaw, director of How I Learned to Drive (starring Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse), told The Daily Beast he was looking forward to his show returning to Broadway in the spring. “I think everyone is feeling cautiously optimistic. We’re all chomping at the bit to dive back into rehearsals in February, two years from when we walked out the door with the close down.

“We’re living for that day we’re all in the room together again. And besides all the work to make everyone safe from COVID, there’s a tremendous amount of work being tackled to address and rectify the racial inequities in our industry—and that work is crucial to a successful reboot of Broadway and the rest of the theatre. That’s exciting. We’re not returning to the world we left, and that’s a good thing.”

As for the kinds of shows audiences will see in in a post-pandemic Broadway, Diller dismissed one early notion floated of having fewer performers on stage.

“That is insane. You can take these things, like many have, much too far. You need as many people on stage as you need to play the play.” What about intermission-less plays? “The Music Man cannot be done without an intermission,” Diller said. “We did West Side Story without an intermission, and I think there will be more of that. I don’t think that has to do with COVID protocols or anything like that. I think anytime anyone goes to see a show now and finds out there’s not an intermission, they smile. They’re happy.”

Is Diller as confident a Broadway producer post-pandemic as he was before? “David Geffen and I have invested probably $50 million on Broadway this fall. I wouldn’t say we were optimistic, but God knows our money is in.”

As The Daily Beast has reported, activists and campaigners are holding Broadway to account for its lack of diversity—in terms of material on stage, and those responsible for its creation. On Friday, the Broadway League announced that Gennean Scott, most recently vice president of human capital and inclusion at Omaha Performing Arts, had been appointed as the organization’s first director of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

“I’m heartened by every organization and person that has participated in some extraordinary conversations that are happening right now,” said Brian Moreland. “People are listening throughout the entire industry. The announcement of Pass Over is particularly significant. I thought that we weren’t going to see a lot of changes until 2022—not because people didn’t want it, but because it would take some time for the system to clear and something new to come in, and to really feel the effects of change. But no, it’s happening.”

Another Tony-winning Broadway producer, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Beast, that it was vital for him to finance stories “with diversity and proper representation in mind.”

Returning to work, Ed Pierce said, was “an opportunity to investigate ourselves, inspect our work and not just accept things but to really sure looking out for each other in so many ways. It’s not just about physical safety but mental safety, and how we treat each other and respect each other. Our union is very engaged in special justice issues, and we need to make sure we are infusing that into the conversations when Broadway reboots.”

Actors’ Equity’s Lorenz said it was necessary for the industry to investigate the marginalization of certain groups and harassment prevention. The union also wants Congress to ensure unemployment provisions do not expire for arts workers in September, and that the sector itself needs funding, given that people who attend shows spend money in restaurants, hotels, stores, and on childcare.

Paul Masse agrees. “Everyone is in a totally different situation, and there is going to be tremendous imbalance in the professional performing arts industries for quite some time. I think we will find that considerably more people than we know have left the business for good, and I respect that a great deal. The amount of work available will take years to come back to what it once was.

“But one thing is very important to communicate to the public and to the government: This rhetoric that Broadway will reopen and performers are all employed again is quite dangerous, especially to pin it on a date that coincides so directly with when the extended unemployment benefits are currently set to run out—and when the COBRA subsidy expires.

“The vast majority of the industry will still be out of work in September and for many, many months beyond, and these people will still need help. We cannot allow anyone to have the impression that you can take away all the assistance in September and we all move on into the future. I have heard very little regarding any more extensions of aid, and that is a truly terrifying thought for me and my colleagues.”

James Latus said some colleagues on The Visitor had left New York and theater for good. “Even before this, theater is tough. There are the ups and downs of unemployment.” The pandemic had driven them to change careers and lives. “I think the theater industry will lose about 15 percent of its workforce,” said Latus. “It will take a while for those coming back to sort their lives out to come back. Others may choose to stay in their new cushy jobs, or the suburbs, or wherever they went to live. And then there are others of us, who even if we are hopefully returning to work, still have to live through the whole summer scraping by on unemployment.”

Latus said the announcement of the return of Broadway had “delighted” him. Even though he still has no return-to-work date, “it lifted the weight off my soul and heart. I am just joyous.” He said he and his colleagues remained concerned about the absence of an international audience, and how dressing rooms would be configured. “But generally we are feeling relieved that someone in authority has said a date.”

Latus does not know when The Visitor will return, but as well as the upgrading of ventilation systems, also thinks production teams should have COVID compliance officers to ensure performers and crew and audience are as safe as possible. In his show he believes some choreography will be re-conceived to separate performers, and that rehearsals may be masked at least at the beginning.

While excited about the return of Broadway, the anonymous Tony-winning producer said there was also an air of caution. “Even people working on the most successful shows are gun-shy for a myriad of reasons. There is an economic downturn, some producers and investors may not have the resources they had before. Some of them, not me, are concerned about us not reaching herd immunity. I’m being very mindful about reaching out to my investors. I don’t know where people are at. I found it unseemly for a long time asking for money for Broadway shows. We’re at such a point of reckoning right now. I think people need the space to grieve and reflect over what has happened in the last year. That’s just me. I know other producers are jumping in and surging on to get things going.”

“I know there is so much uncertainty, but in regular times there is uncertainty—will people like this show, will they buy tickets?” said Brian Moreland. “This is in some ways no different. It’s a gamble, and we need to take the gamble. I don’t know if investors will be hesitant. Time will tell whether the audiences are there or not.”

Even though he has enjoyed having their full attention these last few months, Moreland is encouraged that the company which oversees the marketing of his show suddenly has its schedule busy with meetings with other shows. “People are moving around, meeting, conversing, and planning. There’s movement afoot. A friend who is a Broadway wardrobe supervisor just told me they were heading to the theater to check out the costume situation. All the costumes have been there ever since Broadway shut down. There are issues around dry rot, moth issues, humidity. Actors’ bodies may have changed.”

“May 19th was just the date originally given for the lifting of most restrictions for business purposes,” said Paul Masse. “I don’t actually understand why organizations wouldn’t want to be among the first, if they can manage the financial risk in the short term. With Broadway so complicated to open up, there is a real opportunity this summer for organizations to feed whatever yearning for the arts there is and snag valuable esteem and press. If I were in a position to be producing anything right now, I’d have been clamoring to be among the first. But I don’t really see that happening now, and it is puzzling, The theaters still sit empty.”

Before contracting COVID, Tony-nominated Ed Pierce designed the ground-breaking production of To Kill a Mockingbird at Madison Square Garden, presented to nearly 20,000 New York City public school students. Pierce was also the associate scenic designer on the original Broadway production of Wicked (alongside the show’s designer Eugene Lee) and has adapted and supervised the design for all worldwide productions of the show over the last 16 years.

Pierce will be working on the return of Wicked on Broadway, in London, and on tour. He will also return to working on To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway and its touring version. No safety protocols have been formally presented to the union by the Broadway League, although Pierce hopes the successful protocols his union’s members have experienced returning to work in the film and TV industries will be translated to theater. ‘What’s still unknown is how to protect the audience, and how to keep everybody safe on both sides of the footlights,” said Pierce.

“I have come to feel very strongly that we all need to scrutinize and hold accountable the ‘non-profit’ organizations who kept huge swaths of executive and administrative salaries going while employing zero artists,” Paul Masse said. “While Broadway is made up of mostly commercial producers who can rightly focus solely on profit margins, many major theater and concert organizations are not-for-profit, and inherent in that is an obligation for public good.

“Imagine the work that could have been created and ready to go if a salary and benefits had been available to creative people to bring us out of this with meaningful works of art. I thought artists and their patrons were brave, cutting edge, at the forefront. This pandemic has made blatant the people for whom theater is a hobby and the people for whom it is a need. To be clear, humanity needs the arts.”

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