After more than 21 months away from the theatre, the audience didn’t even wait for the first note to be sung before erupting into applause. On Dec. 15, Toronto’s Mirvish Productions brought up the lights once more on the feel-good blockbuster Come From Away, reopening the musical after an epic pandemic pause to a sold-out house of more than 1,200 jubilant patrons at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
One invited guest, however, had sent her regrets that afternoon: As Ontario’s provincial government grappled with the growing threat of the Omicron variant, Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, sent word she would not be attending. David Mirvish, who heads the company, had hoped to continue a conversation he had begun with the minister last summer, urging the province to help the commercial theatre sector with financial incentives similar to those in place for the country’s film and TV industry.
Over the next 12 days, a slow-motion, multifactorial cataclysm triggered by COVID-19 rocked the company, Canada’s largest commercial theatre producer, just as it was hoping to find its feet again. The crisis forced Mirvish to shutter three of its biggest shows, including Come From Away after only one week’s worth of performances. It also offered a gutting illustration of how the virus continues to scramble the live entertainment landscape, reinforcing what the company says is a new need for government support.
This week, after announcing it was permanently closing Come From Away, representatives of Mirvish Productions acknowledged in interviews with The Globe and Mail that the company does not yet know whether the rest of its season, set to run through next summer, will take place on schedule. And David Mirvish hinted that a financial disaster may loom if new restrictions on audience capacity aren’t lifted by the time his long-awaited production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – expected to cost more than $25-million in upfront capital investments – is scheduled to open in June.
On Wednesday, Mirvish spoke with The Globe to explain why he is now, after decades as a commercial theatre producer, appealing for government support. “I’m not looking for publicity here,” he said. “I just want people to understand my business a little better.”
Digging into the industry math – including figures shared with The Globe by Mirvish and a spokesperson for Mirvish Productions – illuminates the increasingly precarious nature of commercial theatre. It also underscores the unusual role it plays in Canada, where it is regarded as a significant driver of tourism (during non-pandemic times), but is something of an odd duck in a field dominated by not-for-profit companies.
When the company restarted performances, it had made adjustments to increase safety within its theatres, including suspending refreshment sales so no one would need to lower their masks to eat or drink.
But at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 18, a little more than 48 hours after Come From Away’s triumphant opening, the province imposed a 50-per-cent capacity limit on theatres. That meant the Royal Alex, a 1,244-seat house, could welcome only 622 patrons a night, while the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre, where Mirvish had opened a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar earlier in the month, faced a maximum of 1,000.
That move on its own essentially guaranteed the productions would lose money: Broadway-style shows generally need to run at 60- to 70-per-cent capacity to bring in enough revenue to cover weekly running costs. That includes salaries for the cast, musicians, crew and front-of-house staff; housing for tours; lighting and sound equipment rentals; marketing costs; and licensing fees paid to the original creators and producers. Any extra revenue goes toward paying down the upfront capital cost of a production – and, ideally, some profit.
When the restrictions hit, Superstar had already sold more than 80 per cent of available seats to future performances. That created an embarrassing logistical logjam, forcing Mirvish staff to call up many ticket buyers, inform them they could not be accommodated within the new limits, and offer credit or refunds.
But the economics were still acceptable for that show because of a U.S. federal government program, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which provides a safety net of up to US$10-million to cover pandemic-related losses incurred by commercial shows on Broadway or on tour. The U.S. producer on Superstar tapped that fund, allowing Mirvish Productions to cover its own share of the weekly costs through the reduced box-office revenues.
For the company, it made a certain kind of sense to proceed, even if there were no profit, in the same way its presentation of the play Blindness was mounted at a financial loss last summer, before capacity restrictions were eased in October. “We felt, you know, you have to put a toe in the water,” to get people used to returning to theatre, explained John Karastamatis, a Mirvish spokesperson.
But Omicron was hitting the shows in other ways. Cancellations began to roll in among Come From Away ticket holders who were growing anxious about the variant; new sales, which had only begun in November, didn’t take off as hoped. After the latest restrictions reduced the Royal Alex capacity to 622 seats on Dec. 18, “we had performances … where we had 450 people,” Karastamatis said.
On Sunday, Dec. 19, Mirvish decided to scrap a planned transfer from the West End of Leopoldstadt, an acclaimed Holocaust epic written by Tom Stoppard that was about to begin its second week of rehearsals in London before a Jan. 22 opening in Toronto. A statement from David Mirvish said the capacity restrictions and other factors, including “looming border closings and quarantines expected, have complicated logistics.”
He added that the Omicron variant itself presented health risks that could be dangerous in a company as large as Leopoldstadt’s, with more than two dozen actors.
On the afternoon of Dec. 23, Mirvish announced it was suspending performances of Come From Away until the following Tuesday, Dec. 28, because of a single positive case of COVID-19 in the company.
The next day, Christmas Eve, Mirvish cancelled the 11 remaining performances of Jesus Christ Superstar after an outbreak in that company. Rescheduling wasn’t an option, since the production was booked for a stand in Boston after Toronto.
And then, the final blow: On the evening of Monday, Dec. 27, Mirvish announced the newly reborn production of Come From Away would not return from its weekend suspension. With a COVID-19 outbreak whipping through the company – as of Dec. 28, at least 11 people had contracted the virus, with a backlog of tests still awaiting results – the show was officially over.
Why not simply take another break? “It just made no financial sense,” Karastamatis said. Already the company had missed out on the holiday season, when shows typically bank significant profits: On Broadway, for example, the accumulated gross revenue for ticket sales to all shows in the final week of December, 2019, hit US$56-million; by the first week of February, 2020, that figure had plummeted to US$26-million.
The restart had already cost about $1.5-million for rehearsals, equipment upgrades and other expenses. Pausing the show again would have required even more investment. And there was another inescapable issue: “What if we restart again and the same thing happens? We get a week or two weeks in, and some other variant comes along?” Karastamatis asked.
Over the past 21 months, Mirvish Productions has attempted to speak with staff in MacLeod’s ministry to discuss the possibility of financial support, Karastamatis said. “We were told that we are not a client of the Ontario government, and they had nothing for theatre that wasn’t subsidized by the government.”
On Friday, Manvir Hundal, a spokesperson for MacLeod, did not directly address Karastamatis’s statement but instead pointed to a $100-million tourism recovery program introduced in October that would reimburse up to $1-million in one-time COVID-19-related losses suffered by for-profit companies. “We remain committed to working with our sectors to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.
Mirvish has applied for that program, which closed in November and was exclusively targeted at past losses; it would not cover current or future shows.
Without some sort of safety net, Mirvish calculated the risk of continuing Come From Away wasn’t worth it. Even on Broadway, where individual productions could access up to US$10-million, some shows that had reopened in the fall after their COVID-19 hiatus have already opted to close, including Jagged Little Pill and Waitress. On Tuesday, the Motown musical Ain’t Too Proud announced it would close Jan. 16.
Still, for those fans who had hoped to see Come From Away in Toronto, there is a silver lining: In the interview, Karastamatis revealed that part of the rationale for closing now is to protect the show for a future remount, perhaps three or four years down the line.
“You don’t want to squander the show’s momentum by eking out a run, when all people will hear is, ‘Oh, Come From Away’s closed again! There’s another outbreak!’ Those are risks that should not be taken with something like this,” he said.
“So, David’s decision was, let us close this production and let us wait for the pandemic to disappear, or become something that is not as difficult as this one. And then we can look at a new production of Come From Away.”
Mirvish himself, though, says there are structural problems that need to be addressed for the health of the entire industry, which brings in tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and tourist spending. After all, in a good year his shows welcome between one million and two million patrons, or about the same number as those attending Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors home games.
In the short term, he says he believes a backstop similar to the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant would help his company deal with the continuing uncertainty over COVID-19, especially as opening night approaches for Harry Potter, which has the potential to be a big tourist draw.
He also notes that many state and other governments in the U.S. have introduced incentives for live shows, similar to the provincial and federal tax-incentive schemes that have helped draw billions of dollars to Canada’s TV and film production industry. “Just put us on the same playing field,” Mirvish says.
Without that type of support, he says Toronto may revert to its days of hosting brief runs of tours that originate in the U.S. or U.K., rather than being a creative hub that launches original shows into the world and plays host long runs of other shows with Canadian talent, such as the new Harry Potter production, attracting tourists from other markets.
Mirvish mentions examples of other industries receiving government support, such as Canada’s defence of softwood lumber and the new buy-American policy to encourage sales of domestically produced electric vehicles. “You don’t bury your head in the sand and say, ‘It doesn’t matter that they are subsidizing electric vehicles that are only made in the United States. We don’t care if we lose jobs in Canada.’ Well, that’s what they’re doing with live theatre. They’re not keeping us on the same competitive plane as what’s going on in the States. Or England,” Mirvish said.
“Both of them have long-term plans and short-term plans,” to address COVID-19 as well as structural issues in the industry. “We have nothing.”
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.