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Broadway Shows Can Reopen In May, But That Doesn't Mean They Will

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that Broadway could reopen in May. Above, the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre near Times Square on Jan. 15, 2021.
Cindy Ord
Getty Images
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that Broadway could reopen in May. Above, the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre near Times Square on Jan. 15, 2021.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo upstaged the Broadway League on Monday. Industry insiders expected the trade organization, which represents theater owners and producers, to say that some Broadway shows would reopen in September with more coming back during the fall. But at a press conference Cuomo beat them to it, lifting most capacity restrictions on restaurants, bars, museums, gyms, salons and retail shops by May 19. That list also included Broadway.

But the reality is that Broadway shows need time to rehearse, recast and develop safety protocols onstage, backstage and for the audience. It's a process that will take more than a few weeks. And Cuomo's announcement stated that the 6-foot social distancing rules would not change. Broadway producers have long said they can't afford to reopen shows at less than full capacity.

The Broadway League responded in a statement: "We applaud the Governor's recent announcement easing capacity limits on performance venues in New York State. We are encouraged by this good news, which is a long-awaited indication that New York is truly on the road to recovery. We look forward to reopening at full capacity and are working to safely welcome audiences and employees back to Broadway theatres this fall. As always, we continue to work closely with our elected officials and will share more information as soon as plans become finalized." Actor's Equity, the union representing Broadway performers also welcomed the news, adding that it looked forward to a reopening that "prioritizes the safety of the workers."

One possible workaround is to require audience members to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result — something that has been standard for entry to sporting events, which have operated at limited capacity in New York state since April. The Broadway League has not said whether that will be required, though several nontraditional theater venues in New York City have been requiring audiences to provide such proof, and Lincoln Center, which will start outdoor performances next week, is requiring it as well.

The return of Broadway is central to New York's economic recovery. It's an industry that in pre-pandemic times brought in close to $2 billion in ticket sales and audiences of close to 15 million people annually and employed 97,000 workers.

Other theater centers around the globe are starting to reopen; productions of Hamilton, Harry Potter and Frozen have recently begun performances in Australia and, in London, some West End shows are preparing to begin performances on May 17 with more to open this summer.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.