PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 15-21: The Battle of Broadway

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Sept. 15-21: The Battle of Broadway It was worse than anyone imagined. The Broadway theatre knew it would suffer from the by now infamous terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center, as many other industries would, as indeed all Americans would. But after staggering through the half-week that began on Thursday, Sept. 13 (after two days dark), Broadway producers woke up to crippling statistics. Take, for example, that perennial model of the robust show, The Phantom of the Opera. The Andrew Lloyd Webber money machine saw its box office take dip from nearly half a million the previous week to $185,490 in the week ending Sept. 16. And attendance slid from 8,162 to 3,455.
The Phantom of the Opera, The Full Monty and Chicago.
The Phantom of the Opera, The Full Monty and Chicago. (Photo by <i>Phantom</i> by Joan Marcus, <i>Monty</i> by Craig Schwartz, <i>Chicago</i> by Carol Rosegg)

It was worse than anyone imagined. The Broadway theatre knew it would suffer from the by now infamous terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center, as many other industries would, as indeed all Americans would. But after staggering through the half-week that began on Thursday, Sept. 13 (after two days dark), Broadway producers woke up to crippling statistics. Take, for example, that perennial model of the robust show, The Phantom of the Opera. The Andrew Lloyd Webber money machine saw its box office take dip from nearly half a million the previous week to $185,490 in the week ending Sept. 16. And attendance slid from 8,162 to 3,455.

Granted, these were numbers for a five-show week, but even the League of American Theatres and Producers estimates for a regular eight-show week were grim. And Rent, which, due to its unusual schedule, managed to do seven shows, played to total of 2,442 people—roughly 300 a night in a theatre that holds 1,200.

Producers began to meet with the theatrical unions and guilds almost immediately, pleading for concessions lest, in the face of America's first homeland attack since Pearl Harbor, the ship of Broadway go down. They met again on Monday, but by that time any help that might be forthcoming was too little, too late for some shows. Four productions that were never solid hits, but might have eked out a much longer life— Stones in His Pockets, If You Ever Leave Me..., A Thousand Clowns and The Rocky Horror Show—posted closing notices in quick succession on Sept. 18. A fourth, Kiss Me, Kate, gave up the fight the next day, and it seemed more were to follow. Rumors about the death throes of Chicago, Rent, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables swirled. For 24 hours, it felt as if Broadway in toto would come crashing down, victim of the most sudden and crippling economic crisis in its history.

Finally, on Sept. 20, the Broadway heavies reacted. Unions and guilds representing actors, stage managers, stage hands, musicians, wardrobe and other trades agreed to accept concessions, though only on four long running Broadway musicals—Phantom, Les Miz, Rent and Chicago—and one new one, The Full Monty. A 25 percent pay cut for four weeks would ensue on Sept. 24. In addition, directors, choreographers and playwrights will waive their royalties for the same time period. The idea seemed to be that this quintet of musicals represented a long-term source of employment to theatre workers and ought to be saved.

Absent from the list of lucky shows were any of the musicals mounted by Disney (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aida) or Dodger Theatricals (The Music Man, Urinetown, 42nd Street). Equity president Patrick Quinn explained simply, “These were the five producers that came to use initially asking for help,” and said assistance would be considered for others if a request was made. Soon after, however, was reported that the Dodgers petitioned the unions for help on Wednesday morning and had not yet received a response. Some parties have speculated that the Dodgers are being punished by labor for their use of non-Equity performers on The Music Man tour. Equity fervently denied it. The League attacked the crisis on another front the next day, launching an ambitious marketing campaign designed to win back the tourist audience which has resolutely avoided Manhattan's theatre world since two hijacked jumbo jets struck the twin towers, plunging the city and nation into a wartime mindset. The campaign, which will encompass television, radio and print ads, will include radio commercials featuring the voice of The Producers stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and a television spot in which every actor in every show on Broadway would stand in the middle of Times Square and sing "New York, New York."

As for the future, nobody pretends to know. Some prognosticators believe the theatre will bounce back in a week. Some say it will remain financially and spiritually stalled for months. The signs of the erratic week that just passed are difficult to interpret. Rocky Horror called it quits, but soon producer Jordan Roth spoke of bringing the show back at Halloween. The Broadway bound By Jeeves lost its investors, but only days later gained new ones (courtesy of a resourceful Andrew Lloyd Webber). Bat Boy, the quirky Off-Broadway musical, announced it would close, but whispered that it would not shutter began at nearly the same instant. Two other Off-Broadway hits, Tony 'n Tina's Wedding and The Syringa Tree decided to play it safe, by suspending operations and returning later in the year.

Perhaps the most hopeful sign indicative of the theatre's imminent return to good health was the opening of Urinetown, the first big musical of the new Broadway season. A brazen satire loaded with sarcasm, irony and a darkly comic picture of an apocalyptic dystopia, many wondered whether the show—up until now praised by critics and embraced by audiences—would survive the currently grave climate. But critics chose not to sniff at its inappropriately wicked tone, but acclaim the work as braver and bolder than ever. The reception seemed to indicate that in New York City, at least, the public was willing to accept the idea that, even during one of our country's gravest moments, theatre can be a vital and restorative force.

—By Robert Simonson