New York City's restaurant industry isn't the only one that has been scrambling in the wake of the latest winter COVID surge: almost a dozen Broadway and Off-Broadway shows were forced to cancel performances this week due to COVID spreading among casts and crews, making this the largest number of shows to be put on pause since Broadway came back at the start of the fall.
Major productions who canceled performances include Hamilton, MJ, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jagged Little Pill, Moulin Rouge! The Musical, Tina - The Tina Turner Musical, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Freestyle Love Supreme, and Ain't Too Proud. In addition, the Off Broadway production Little Shop of Horrors has also canceled multiple shows this weekend.
And on Friday night, The Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes had to cancel all its remaining shows for the season, due to "increasing challenges from the pandemic."
One of the more striking incidents happened on Thursday night, when Moulin Rouge! abruptly canceled the evening performance with people already in their seats. A spokesperson told Gothamist that there was a "late-in-the-day positive test result in the company. Out of an abundance of caution, tonight’s performance has also been cancelled." The show hopes to resume performances on Saturday.
For those who work in and around the industry, the closures are a grim sign that Broadway's fall return after a long, dark stretch may have been premature.
"The surge is yet another example of uncertainty," said one Broadway bartender who works eight shows a week, and asked to remain anonymous to retain his job. "But the fact that so many different shows are canceling every other performance shows that this is here to stay. This is causing extra stress for all employees during the busiest time of the season for Broadway. This may be a cautionary tale that Broadway wasn't quite ready to reopen on such a large scale."
The bartender told Gothamist that staff has been proactive at his theater to assure the safety of both patrons and employees, but there have been bumps along the way: "Several shows have had to cancel a performance literally minutes before showtime with over 1,000 people in the audience. This has led to extreme frustration by both patrons and staff as to why this is happening only moments before the show starts," he said.
He noted that each theater and production has their own COVID standards and procedures: "The structure of how COVID tests are being processed and checked seems to vary, and that shouldn't be the case where members of a cast or crew aren't getting test results until minutes before a show," he said. "It also begs the question as to how they were in the theater and performing their duties without having their test results checked."
In the fall, Aladdin was forced to cancel performances immediately after reopening because of breakthrough cases within the company, but there's been nothing like the wave this week. Only one play, Chicken & Biscuits, has ascribed its early closure to the financial impact of COVID-related closures.
The New York Times this week laid out the steep financial perils for productions: "For a show grossing $1 million a week, each missed performance would mean a loss of about $125,000; cancellations on weekends are costlier, because that’s when many shows are most full, and cancellations at this time of year are especially painful, because Broadway traditionally sees an attendance spike during the holiday season."
There is already a vaccine mandate for audiences and workers, and attendees must wear masks in theaters as well. According to Charlotte St. Martin, the president of The Broadway League which represents theater owners and producers, the next step may be to mandate booster shots for all casts and crews.
“At the present time we are speaking with our unions about establishing a process to make sure that all of our eligible employees get a booster shot," she said in a statement. "All of our experts are emphasizing the importance of boosters in providing the maximum protection against the virus at this point in time. As always, our number one priority is the safety and security of our cast, crew and theater-goers.”
Nik Walker, one of the leads in Ain’t Too Proud, praised the cast, crew and producers of that show for the COVID protocols they have in place currently, and for supporting each other through this tumultuous period: "We've worked very hard to create a building that's able to take care of each other," he told Gothamist. "The experience has certainly been crazy and you're hearing things [around the industry] just because of how small Broadway is ... But I've never not felt like the company didn't have each other's backs."
Walker said he is most worried about the spread of misinformation and people making hasty decisions about the future of theater in the face of an ever-changing situation. Things like the last minute Moulin Rouge! cancellation "of course trigger memories of 2020, and I'm not trying to be overly-optimistic, but...it was always gonna have ups and downs, always, because this is of course an uncertain time."
"If you're flying into turbulence, you're flying into cloud covers, it's gonna be turbulence. That's part of what you signed up for," Walker said. "So I think that doing everything you can to be communicative with your audiences and with your company, keeping them informed and clear and safe, I think that's all you can do. But it's worth it to do it because it's literally the livelihood of so many people, both on and off the stage and in house. I live for this, this is my life."
He added that producers, performers and staff are proceeding one show at a time.
"All we got is the next six hours, and then we'll deal with the next six hours, and then we'll deal with the next six," he added. "That's all we can do. If we're doing that then no, I'm not worried and I'm not scared...We can definitely do a Broadway show in the middle of the pandemic. Absolutely."
This story has been updated to reflect additional closures.