Skip to main content

Audiences comfortable with travel will find deals on tickets as Broadway continues its recovery, thanks to an unprecedented program of public funding to the arts

Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

Six, which reimagines the six wives of Henry VIII as a Spice Girls-style pop group on a concert tour, is the breakout hit of this Broadway season.Joan Marcus/Handout

Broadway is back. And while you’re watching a big-budget musical with dozens in the cast, you might well forget that it’s returned in the middle of a pandemic.

Nevertheless, reality does sometimes burst down the aisle – literally, in the form of the mask-mandate enforcers.

The front-of-house teams in Manhattan’s famed commercial theatre district now include staff trained to deal with patrons who forget about or don’t follow the rules.

The first time I saw one of these super-ushers zip by my seat and shine a flashlight right at an older man whose schnoz had emerged from his mask, gesturing for him to pull it up, I wanted to stand up and cheer. That hero demonstrated all the expert timing and precision of a veteran followspot operator.

Theatre is a serious business in the Broadway district – estimated to contribute more than US$14.5-billion to New York’s economy pre-pandemic. Producers have therefore invested a lot of money not just into getting musicals and plays running again, but making sure that audiences feel as safe as pandemically possible.

“I feel 100-per-cent comfortable going to the theatre now because there are protocols, there are screenings, there is compliance around mask-wearing,” says the Tony-winning director Diane Paulus, who reopened two shows on Broadway this fall, Waitress and Jagged Little Pill, but early in the pandemic was too anxious to even get take-out dinner.

Broadway – which rebooted slowly in summer, then reopened in earnest in September – now has many months under its belt demonstrating that masked, fully vaccinated audiences don’t seem to be a driver of COVID-19 infections. “It appears that going to the theatre is not in and of itself a super-spreader event,” says Paulus, while acknowledging this is “anecdotal.”

Opinion: You oughta know Jagged Little Pill packs a more powerful punch than Tony winner Moulin Rouge

How did Broadway get its groove back in the late summer while most Canadian theatres (outside of Quebec) are only now starting to open major shows to full-capacity audiences?

It’s thanks to one of the biggest influxes of public funding to the arts in American history – more than US$16-billion made available through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program (SVOG).

Despite its name, this federal program does not just help owners of physical theatres, but the producers who rent them too. Broadway productions that were shut down in 2020 due to the pandemic – whether preexisting hits such as Hamilton and Hadestown, or ones still in previews such as Six – have had access to up to US$10-million each to get back on their feet.

“The game changer for our industry was SVOG,” says Kevin McCollum, currently producer of Six, which reimagines the wives of Henry VIII as a pop group, and a stage adaptation of Mrs. Doubtfire. “Republicans and Democrats saw that if we did not help fund the facilities and the people who take the risk to create shows that the Broadway theatre would basically be crippled.”

The unprecedented bipartisan support – there’s a tax credit of up to US$3-million available to producers in New York, too – has jump-started the strange business of Broadway, where it’s long been said you can’t make a living, only a killing. (Maybe a quarter of shows recouped their costs before closing in the good old days.)

It’s all about earning more at the box office than what you spend on weekly running costs – which are now higher than ever. There are the COVID health and safety managers newly on the payroll, regular testing of cast and backstage crew, extra front-of-house staff to check vaccination cards.

Producer Sue Frost of Junkyard Dog, which is behind the international success of Come From Away, says coronavirus costs are tens of thousands of dollars a week. She’s pretty frank about how the most successful Canadian musical of all time is doing since reopening on Broadway on Sept. 21: Weekend sales are pretty much back to normal, but weekday performances are a harder sell.

All those workers who normally fill Manhattan office towers during the week are still largely working from home, while tourists who tend to come on longer holidays are only just beginning to return as entry restrictions are lifted. (It is clear walking around Times Square in the middle of the week that the city is not quite back to normal by the fact that you can see the sidewalk instead of just the shoulders of the people in front of you.)

Broadway has become more and more reliant on international tourists in recent decades; they made up a record 19 per cent of the audience in 2018-2019. Come From Away’s secret weapon in New York pre-pandemic was that visiting Canadians made up about 12 per cent of its audience.

The threat of a new variant (like Omicron) shutting down or inhibiting travel again has always been a possibility. Still, when I stopped by her office, Frost was feeling positive about Come From Away’s longevity on Broadway (and very positive about sales for the Toronto production that reopens Dec. 15). “If everything continues to go in the right direction, we could be here a very long time,” she says.

In the before times, it was very easy to see exactly how well individual Broadway shows were doing because the industry group the Broadway League reported weekly on how much money each show grossed in ticket sales (though running costs were a closely guarded secret). This fall, however, it has suspended that practice, instead offering a weekly snapshot of the entire district’s box office, which is harder to decipher.

Rumours are rampant that shows appealing to younger adults – like Six, which recently extended its run to September, 2022 – are doing very well, while shows that appeal to older adults – especially plays – are struggling due to the varying comfort in different demographics in attending live, in-person events.

A couple of brand-new productions without access to SVOG have announced early closing dates due to low sales – or, in the case of a new comedy called Chicken & Biscuits, the financial impact of having to cancel shows due to breakthrough COVID-19 cases among the cast and crew.

The latter situation has been rare – Broadway employees are required to be vaccinated and actors are tested at least two times a week – though both Aladdin and Chicago have also had incidents that led to pauses in the performance schedule.

This does mean visitors to New York are taking a risk that the show they want to see might shut down due to a breakthrough case – on top of the personal risks of travel that vary week to week.

Canadian theatregoers comfortable with flying in who are flexible about what they want to see, however, will find great deals this holiday season at the TKTS booth in Times Square – and online (where one Cyber Monday offer I saw had Orchestra seats for Jagged Little Pill starting from US$69).

Manhattan without the overwhelming crowds and with more affordable Broadway ticket prices? It’s a real best of times, worst of times situation right now.


Two top Broadway travel tips

1. Book your hotel through a site that monitors for deals; my Manhattan hotel dropped in price as my dates got closer, the first time that’s ever happened.

2. Don’t book an expensive private PCR test (which is currently necessary to fly back to Canada if you’re staying more than 72 hours) in advance. There are mobile testing units everywhere around Times Square free to anyone; my results came in less than 24 hours.


The Sensation Six – and other new musicals on Broadway this season

Six recently extended its run to September, 2022.Joan Marcus/Handout

It’s no surprise Six is the breakout hit of this Broadway season; it has a killer premise, perfectly executed.

This fast-and-furious new musical by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, which originated in Britain – and passed through Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre on what ended up being a longer-than-expected journey to New York – reimagines the six wives of Henry VIII as a Spice Girls-style pop group on a concert tour.

Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and the ones whose names you’ve forgotten from history class take turns singing songs about their lives in a quest to be crowned the most hard-done-by queen Henry ever had.

Winnipeg’s Andrea Macasaet is an absolute hoot as Boleyn, the mean girl of the group. It makes sense to cast a Canadian in this role given she speaks a little French and, in Gabriella Slade’s costume design, has a certain Avril Lavigne edge.

Brittney Mack makes a strong case for Anna of Cleves as queen of the pack, however, performing German techno and Nicki Minaj-inspired numbers that draw clever comparisons between 16th-century portraiture to dating app profile pics and show why romantic rejection can be the greatest gift of all.

You could read Six as a satire of a culture of competitive victimhood – but it creators are more empathetic than that. Katherine Howard, played by an Ariana Grande-styled Samantha Pauly, sings about how sexually desired she was from a young age: “Ever since I was a child, I’d make the boys go wild.”

But as she chronicles the experiences of being hit on by men when she was 13 to being married to at age 17, the reality of what that means gradually sinks in. The music industry’s sexualization of minors and our lurid fascination with Tudor history are skewered simultaneously – in a catchy song that I walked out humming.

(Compare and contrast the way the most recent Tony Award winner for best musical, Moulin Rouge!, has a mere throwaway line about how its leading lady, Satine, was pimped out by her father at age 13.)

Six’s young writers are not above groan-worthy and obvious jokes, mind you. (“I guess he really liked my head,” is saved only by Macasaet’s ironic delivery). But it has the right fan base (younger) and running time (short) to really hit at this tenuous moment on Broadway.

Six’s main competition at the Tony Awards this year

Flying Over Sunset

Currently in previews, opens Dec. 13

Composer Tom Kitt (Next To Normal), lyricist Michael Korie (Grey Gardens) and the great playwright James Lapine (Into the Woods) tell an unlikely but semi-true story, based on the time Cary Grant, Clare Boothe Luce and Aldous Huxley took an acid trip in the 1950s.

Mrs. Doubtfire

Currently in previews, opens Dec. 5

A new musical from the team behind Something Rotten! is based on the beloved family movie of the same name that starred the late Robin Williams; the reviews were promising during the show’s “out of town” tryout in Seattle – especially for star Rob McClure.

MJ

Begins previews Dec. 6, opens Feb. 1, 2022

A purely entertaining bio-musical of Michael Jackson seems impossible given the controversial elements of the pop star’s life, and a serious one seems like a tough sell. Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright with great artistic integrity, is on board as book writer, however.

Paradise Square

Begins previews Feb. 22, 2022, opens March 20

Garth Drabinsky is back at it after his first big post-prison production stumbled in Toronto in 2017. Reviews from the current Chicago try-out suggest this epic set in a Free Black and Irish immigrant neighbourhood in Manhattan during the Civil War era has rich history on its side, but needs work. Canadians in the cast include Chilina Kennedy.


Clyde’s – and three other plays that show how Broadway is building back better (and Blacker)

Uzo Aduba, Kara Young, Ron Cephas, Edmund Donovan, and Reza Salazar star in Clyde's.Joan Marcus/Handout

Broadway has almost always been a great place to see a new musical, but when it comes to new American plays, many of the best have not made it there. Producers are trying to change that – and, this season, seem particularly willing to correct one lacuna by putting on an unprecedented number of plays by commercially neglected Black playwrights on in the district once known as the Great White Way.

Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is a Black playwright who has not been neglected. Intimate Apparel, her poetic 2003 play set 100 years earlier inspired by her seamstress great-grandmother, only played off-Broadway but went on to be one of the most-produced dramas this century, while Sweat, her empathetic 2015 drama about a Pennsylvania factory town swallowed up by opioid addiction and racial tensions, became a part of the wider cultural conversation after the election of Donald Trump.

The latter made its Broadway debut in 2017 – and, with its reputation as a prophetic work of art (that still stands up, unlike Hillbilly Elegy), has been staged all over including Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto right before the shutdown in 2020.

Clyde’s, Nottage’s latest now having its world premiere at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre, is a surprise sequel to Sweat but has a completely different tone. Set in a truck-stop diner run by a boss-from-hell named Clyde (In Treatment’s Uzo Aduba), it is a workplace comedy that focuses on the lives of three formerly incarcerated people working in the kitchen.

Jason (Edmund Donovan), a character from Sweat who perpetrated its most heinous act and who is now covered in white power tattoos, is one. He ends up forming an unlikely alliance with a young Black single mother, Letitia (the absolutely electric Kara Young), and a Latino romantic Rafael (Reza Salazar), whose journeys to jail were both related to addiction, as so many are.

Unlike Sweat, Clyde’s is not a fully realistic play. The proprietor – played with cruel verve and in outrageous outfits by Aduba – appears with grease fires behind her at various points; she berates her employees – who she says won’t be able to find jobs anywhere else – and makes them feel like they deserve that abuse.

By contrast, Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones), an enlightened sandwich artist of sorts, pushes his colleagues to believe that they have potential to make the best sandwiches in the world. His story of how he went to jail may be too good to be true – but in the purgatory of parole, who are you going to listen to, the voices of devils or angels? Clyde’s comes to a sudden stop that leave you hungry for more – but it’s a heartwarming and genuinely funny one-act play. On until Jan. 16.

Aduba, left, and Ron Cephas Jones perform in Clyde's.Joan Marcus/Handout

Three other dramas by Black playwrights to see this season

Trouble in Mind

To Jan. 9 at the American Airlines Theatre

The Shaw Festival revived this 1955 tragicomedy by Alice Childress brilliantly this past fall. Its depiction of a Black actress’s struggle to give a truthful performance in a social-issue play penned by a white liberal was ahead of its time; LaChanze stars in New York.

Slave Play

To Jan. 23 at the August Wilson Theatre

Playwright Jeremy O. Harris’s Tony-nominated comedy concerns a trio of interracial couples undergoing “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” at a fake plantation; its shocking premise and conclusion give you an idea of what it might have been like to encounter Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf back when it was actually controversial. In the middle, however, there’s a poignant exploration of how anti-Black racism can permeate the personal (and some affectionate fun poked at current academic jargon).

Skeleton Crew

In previews Dec. 21, opens Jan. 23 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Dominique Morisseau is one of those widely produced American playwrights who it is shocking to discover has never had a show on Broadway (though she did write the book for Ain’t Too Proud, a jukebox musical about the Temptations). This play, the third in a trilogy set in her hometown of Detroit, gives a snapshot of life among the workers at an auto plant on the brink of foreclosure. Phylicia Rashad is part of its Broadway premiere.