Broadway theatres that have braved hurricanes and snowstorms — and even the 1918 influenza epidemic — were ordered closed on Thursday as the coronavirus outbreak blacked out live entertainment across the US.
Andrew Cuomo, the New York state governor, moved to shut down a vital part of New York City’s cultural life and tourist economy as authorities responded to the pandemic.
Mr Cuomo announced in his daily briefing that the US state would prohibit any gatherings of more than 500 people for the foreseeable future and also called on retired doctors and nurses to join a reserve of healthcare workers.
“This is going to get much worse before it gets better,” he said.
With startling speed, sports leagues, festivals, concerts and other live events that are pillars of American cultural life have abruptly come to a halt in recent days. On Wednesday night, the National Basketball Association announced the indefinite suspension of its season. The National Hockey League and Major League Baseball quickly followed suit and the hugely popular “March Madness” college basketball tournament was cancelled.
California’s Disneyland theme park is closed and Live Nation, the largest events company and concern promoter, has told artists, including Billie Eilish, to end their tours. Even New York’s St Patrick’s day parade, one of the city’s longest-running and most celebrated events, has been postponed for the first time.
Those moves — along with closures of schools, business conferences and houses of worship — are an attempt to prevent large gatherings of people in confined spaces in the midst of the outbreak.
Earlier this week Mr Cuomo ordered a one-mile “containment zone” in New Rochelle, a New York suburb in Westchester county that has been an epicentre of the outbreak in the US, and deployed the National Guard to assist.
So far, the state has confirmed more than 200 cases of coronavirus — including the head of the Port Authority that oversees the New York region’s airports — and Mr Cuomo said that number would almost certainly grow.
Broadway, as the saying goes, is famous for making the show go on. Its theatres brought the lights back up a mere two days after the September 11 2001 terror attacks, and routinely work through all manner of disturbances.
That tenacity is born of commercial demands. While sports team owners tend to be billionaires, and should weather the interruption to their seasons, the typical Broadway show is backed by dozens of investors — often of only moderate wealth. A stoppage could wipe out shows that have required several years and millions of dollars to develop.
“Producers are not billionaires,” said John Kenrick, a Broadway historian, recalling how shows went on in spite of the health risk from the 1918 flu epidemic — although many theatres soon went bankrupt.
Like others in the theatre community, Mr Kenrick had in recent days questioned the wisdom of packing people — many of them older — into confined spaces in the middle of a pandemic. “I applaud Cuomo for having the guts to do this,” he said, even as he predicted that many shows would be forced to close.
Shows typically carry insurance that may offer producers some protection. But Eddie Perfect, the Tony-nominated lyricist for the Beetlejuice and King Kong musicals, said the closures would ripple through the community of performers and backstage staff.
A prolonged closure could tip some shows over the edge, he added. “Shows live or die by whether they’re meeting their weekly operating costs. If you start to go below that you’re haemorrhaging money,” he said.
Shortly before the ban, Mr Perfect noted, discounted $199 tickets had begun appearing on ticketing sites for Hamilton, a blockbuster show whose tickets typically fetch several times that. “That’s something I thought I’d never see,” he said: “That’s the Broadway version of the apocalypse.”
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Broadway may be especially vulnerable to coronavirus because it has become reliant on tourists — many of whom are now being kept at home by travel restrictions or their own misgivings about visiting a crowded metropolis.
According to statistics from the Broadway League trade group, 63 per cent of last season’s 14.7m attendees came from outside the greater New York area. They helped to push up attendance and ticket prices, generating a record $1.8bn box office haul.
The theatre season had been entering its busiest stretch as producers roll out shows in time to qualify for the annual Tony awards.
In a statement, Charlotte St Martin, the League president, said: “Our top priority has been and will continue to be the health and wellbeing of Broadway theatregoers and the thousands of people who work in the theatre industry every day.”
Even before Mr Cuomo’s announcement, there were signs of trouble for Broadway.
When Billy Eugene Jones took the stage for a matinee show of A Soldier’s Play at the Roundabout Theatre this week he was confronted by clumps of empty seats. About half the theatre was bare, by Mr Jones’s estimation, even though the show was sold out.
“It’s impacting the audience, clearly. You can see it,” the veteran actor said on Wednesday.
The previous evening, Mr Jones and the rest of the cast were called together and informed that the usual Broadway ritual of meeting fans after the performance to pose for pictures and sign autographs would be suspended for safety reasons.
“It’s not cliché, man. It’s the truth that the show must go on!” he said.
Scott Rudin, the producer of such hits as To Kill a Mockingbird and West Side Story, said he would cut prices for remaining tickets to his shows to $50 — an unusually low price.
On Thursday morning, hours before Mr Cuomo’s announcement, some intrepid theatregoers were still hoping to capitalise on the disruption.
Charlotte Hendrix, 72, who was visiting from South Carolina with her husband Bill, pledged to see “as many shows as we can”. They caught two shows on Wednesday and had tickets for two more on Thursday, and seemed unnerved by a Times Square in which some passers-by were wearing masks and even latex gloves.
For one show, Mr Hendrix noted, they paid $80 a ticket for 10th-row orchestra seats. “It just couldn’t have gotten any better than that!” he said.