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“Mrs. Doubtfire,” the musical comedy at the Stephen Sondheim theater that’s far better than most critics have allowed, is just the kind of show that will attract family audiences back to Broadway.
An old-fashioned musical comedy put together by total pros, it has something for all generations from kids to grandmas. Laughs flow, fun is had, small-mindedness is lampooned, tolerance is preached and families are brought closer together. Those all are markers of what Broadway theater has done for years.
Had “Mrs. Doubtfire” closed this month, Broadway would have lost a viable new show perfect for tourists from across American and abroad. Many of those visitors have already seen “The Lion King;” they’ll be wanting something new and fun.
That’s why producer Kevin McCollum’s decision to pause (technically to close and reopen) the show from Jan. 10 through March 14 is a very smart move.
Let’s look at the reality. Last weekend, as I walked through Midtown, tourists were thin on the ground. The situation flows from a brutal combination of winter, understandable omicron fears, loss of the theater-going habit on the part of casual Broadway fans in New York and government regulations adding more hassle to travel.
Broadway has spent much of the pandemic focused on internal navel-gazing. This winter, it has woken up to the reality that a good chunk of its customer base is not currently walking through the theaters’ doors or, at least, not doing so while paying a price that can cover the high production costs of a heavily unionized business.
Shows cannot run on fumes or on the hot air from social media posturing. Butts in seats (and paying butts, at that) remain a prerequisite for commercial entertainment.
In this instance, it’s smart to reduce available inventory. Sure, some people are determined to see a show, God bless them, and it’s great they can catch, say, “Hamilton” or “Company” or “The Music Man.”
But look at the airlines: the number of flights from New York to London is still only a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. The carriers know they can’t fill them all. So they’ve cut them back, just as some of New York’s great hotels have closed entire floors.
Broadway is facing much the same problem but, historically, it rarely has reduced inventory in down times and then expanded like mad in boom periods. The structure of the entertainment business makes that tricky. But COVID-19 is teaching a helpful lesson: it really doesn’t matter right now how good a show might be; external factors are depressing demand. And unlike huge airlines, producers operate with thin margins and little capitalization.
That’s why I could name 100 Broadway shows that have closed far sooner than they deserve. There just has never been any way to take a pause. Sometimes Broadway has too many shows; sometimes it could support many more.
And let’s be frank about something. Understudies and swings have performed heroically over the last few weeks, a moving demonstration of Broadway’s deep bench of talent.
I see enough Broadway theater to know that the understudies often can be better at the role; in fact, I play a silent game with a pal when we see musicals where we see who can be first to find the ensemble member who really should have been cast in the lead. There’s one every time.
As it turned out, “Mrs. Doubtfire” was not the only show to hit the pause button until winter is over. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” another family-friendly attraction, did the same (that one plans to reopen in June). The Bob Dylan musical “Girl from the North Country” did it too, albeit with less surety.
But look ahead a little. Omicron is on the wane. More people are realizing that they have to figure out how to live with this disease and carry on enjoying their lives. And, like all respiratory infections, the weather plays a significant role. While it’s sufficiently cold and snowy to make you cough and splutter even without COVID-19, theaters are not going to come roaring back to life.
But come spring break, we all surely will feel differently.
Flowers will bloom, moods will lift and lockdown-weary folks should start embracing life. Spring and summer will be a whole lot better on Broadway; I’m staking what little reputation I have that we’re all currently underestimating how much better.
Just you wait.
I know these pauses have caused real financial hardship for many people. Of all stripes. But I can’t bear to see quality work not get a fair shake, especially when I think some of these paused shows have so much to give to stressed-out families who so badly need human interaction on the streets of the greatest city in the world, and time with their own families in a nice, affordable balcony seat. Having fun together.