Entertainment

Broadway shows announce fall return, but Canadian productions still in limbo

After the industry's longest hiatus in history, some of Broadway's top shows have announced that familiar refrain: The show must go on. Hamilton, Wicked, The Lion King and Come From Away will resume performances in the fall. But restarting a musical in these times is no easy feat.

Hamilton, Wicked, The Lion King to resume shows in NYC on Sept. 14

After more than a year-long hiatus, Hamilton is among the Broadway musicals returning in September. Wicked, Come From Away and The Lion King also announced returns. As for productions in Canada, the situation is far from clear. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

After the industry's longest hiatus in history, some of Broadway's top shows have announced that familiar refrain: The show must go on.

HamiltonWickedThe Lion King and Canadian musical Come From Away said they will resume performances in the fall, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced public health restrictions in the state would be lifted on Sept. 14. 

Shows will be allowed to reopen at 100 per cent capacity, Cuomo said, and tickets are now on sale. 

"This rare alliance between three of Broadway's fan favourites sends a message that Broadway is united in its commitment to ending a devastating period of hardship for the tens of thousands who make their living directly on Broadway shows and the tens of thousands in dependent industries," reads a news release from the producers of Hamilton, Wicked and The Lion King.

The three shows are among Broadway's biggest, but other productions have also resumed ticket sales. Musicals that have confirmed runs in September include Chicago, Aladdin and the new show SixThe Phantom of the Opera previously announced it would return in October, while shows Mean Girls, Frozen and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had already said they didn't plan to remount performances in New York despite the fall reopening of Broadway.

WATCH | Broadway shows to reopen this fall:

Broadway shows to reopen this fall

5 months ago
6:51
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says tickets to Broadway shows will go on sale Thursday for performances beginning on Sept. 14. Theatres have been closed because of COVID-19 since March 12, 2020. 6:51

Dear Evan HansenDiana and Mrs. Doubtfire are planning to welcome audiences for their official openings in December. 

Selling tickets now allows producers to gauge interest in their shows. Is there thunderous demand or is it more tepid? How enduring is the interest? Once producers get answers — and much-needed cash from interested theatre-goers — they can plan. Shows that receive a lukewarm response may need to invest in more advertising or change it up.

Broadway shows thrive on tourists. They accounted for roughly two-thirds of the people in the seats before the pandemic struck. Producers are banking that visitor numbers will be up by fall. The hope is that theatre-lovers, both tourists and New Yorkers, are eager for Broadway's return.

"The moment those theatre lights go down and the stage lights come up is probably going to be one of the most emotional moments in theatre in New York. And I can't wait to be standing in my spot in the back of the theatre," said Stacey Mindich, the lead producer of Dear Evan Hansen.

People walk through the theatre district in Manhattan on May 6. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last week that Broadway theatres can reopen at full capacity starting on Sept. 14. They have been closed since last spring due to the pandemic. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Canadian show dates still tentative

The situation in Canada, meanwhile, is far less certain. In Toronto, the Ed Mirvish Theatre announced in early May that it hoped Hamilton, which was interrupted during previews in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, would resume in roughly 18 months. When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was first postponed, organizers said it would be delayed until 2021, but there have been no official updates and tickets are not currently on sale.

And while Come From Away has announced its Broadway run, the Toronto production currently has no planned date to resume.

Elsewhere, Jesus Christ Superstar has shows scheduled for fall runs in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, while Anastasia is scheduled to begin its tour in Ottawa in November. 

In an email to CBC News, Mirvish Productions director of sales John Karastamatis said it is currently "impossible to make an accurate prediction" about when shows would be able to resume in the city. 

But the fact theatre is resuming in other locations, such as New York and in the U.K., is helpful, providing a test run for Canadian theatre-goers to observe how the industry will look post-pandemic.

"We can learn from them, and we can point to their (hopefully) successful reopening so that our audiences will be even more confident about the safety of returning to live performances here," Karastamatis wrote.

He also said that if the "vast majority of adults" in Ontario are vaccinated by early June, with second shots following soon afterward, there is a chance that some shows could make it to the stage in Toronto by November or December. Even if that were possible, theatres would not be at full capacity initially and audiences would be masked.

A letter from theatre producer David Mirvish is shown here, announcing that productions at Ed Mirvish Theatre were being cancelled due to COVID-19, March 17, 2020. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Restarting a show isn't like flipping a light switch though, especially when it comes to a big musical. Cast members may have left, requiring new hiring. Orchestras and ensembles must re-learn their parts, choreographers need the cast in the room to synchronize and costumers need to check fittings. Producers say the task is like opening a show from scratch.

The pandemic has also added new safety concerns for everything from handling props to theatre cleaning. Broadway seats are very close together, and the venues are not particularly airy or spacious. Just getting inside before the pandemic required standing in a long line and cramming into entrances.

Audiences must adjust

Audiences will also have to adjust. Actor Katharine McPhee wondered about small things like folks coughing during a show. That used to be annoying; now it may be triggering.

"I feel like it's going to take a long time for people to not have some trauma connected to us all being fearful," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. 

Another challenge is the fact physical distancing is not really economically feasible for the 41 Broadway theatres. The financial demands simply don't favour keeping many seats purposefully empty.

The average operating costs for a play are about $300,000 US per week, while weekly costs run $600,000 US for musicals. Conventional wisdom is that many shows need to sell at least 80 per cent of tickets just to break even.

Figuring out ticket pricing will also be tricky. Should there be regular prices initially and then deep discounts later in the fall to attract more wary customers? Disney is trying to lure customers by promising to pay all Ticketmaster fees and offering skittish ticket-buyers the freedom to exchange or even cancel tickets at no charge.

There's going to be a lot of number-crunching from now until fall.

With files from The Associated Press

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