As New York Reopens, It Looks for Culture to Lead the Way

on Jul17
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Broadway is planning to start performances of at least three dozen shows before the end of the year, but producers do not know if there will be enough tourists — who typically make up two-thirds of the audience — to support all of them.

The Metropolitan Opera is planning a September return, but only if its musicians agree to pay cuts.

And New York’s vaunted nightlife scene — the dance clubs and live venues that give the city its reputation for never sleeping — has been stymied by the slow, glitchy rollout of a federal aid program that mistakenly declared some of the city’s best-known nightclub impresarios to be dead.

The return of arts and entertainment is crucial to New York’s economy, and not just because it is a major industry that employed some 93,500 people before the pandemic and paid them $7.4 billion in wages, according to the state comptroller’s office. Culture is also part of the lifeblood of New York — a magnet for visitors and residents alike that will play a key role if the city is to remain vital in an era when shops are battling e-commerce, the ease of remote work has businesses rethinking the need to stay in central business districts and the exurbs are booming.

“What is a city without social, cultural and creative synergies?” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked earlier this year in an address on the importance of the arts to the city’s recovery. “New York City is not New York without Broadway. And with Zoom, many people have learned they can do business from anywhere. Compound this situation with growing crime and homelessness and we have a national urban crisis.”

And Mayor Bill de Blasio — who could seem indifferent to the arts earlier in his tenure — has become a cultural cheerleader in the waning days of his administration, starting a $25 million program to put artists back to work, creating a Broadway vaccination site for theater industry workers and planning a “homecoming concert” in Central Park next month featuring Bruce Springsteen, Jennifer Hudson and Paul Simon to herald the city’s return.

Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for an Urban Future, said, “The way I look at it, there is not going to be a strong recovery for New York City without the performing arts’ leading the way.” He added, “People gravitate here because of the city’s cultural life.”

There are signs of hope everywhere, as vaccinated New Yorkers re-emerge this summer. Destinations like the Whitney and the Brooklyn Museum are crowded again, although timed reservations are still required. Bruce Springsteen is playing to sold-out crowds on Broadway and Foo Fighters brought rock back to Madison Square Garden.

Shakespeare in the Park and the Classical Theater of Harlem are staging contemporary adaptations of classic plays in city parks, the Park Avenue Armory, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a number of commercial Off Broadway theaters have been presenting productions indoors, and a new outdoor amphitheater is drawing crowds for shows on Little Island, the new Hudson River venue.

Haley Gibbs, 25, an administrative aide who lives in Brooklyn, said she felt the city’s pulse returning as she waited to attend “Drunk Shakespeare,” an Off Off Broadway fixture that has resumed performances in Midtown.

“I feel like it’s our soul that’s been given back to us, in a way,” Gibbs said, “which is super dramatic, but it is kind of like that.”

But some of the greatest tests for the city’s cultural scene lie ahead.

Hunkering down — cutting staff, slashing programming — turned out to be a brutal but effective survival strategy. Arts workers faced record unemployment, and some have yet to return to work, but many businesses and organizations were able to slash expenses and wait until it was safe to reopen. Now that it’s time to start hiring and spending again, many cultural leaders are worried: Can they thrive with fewer tourists and commuters? How much will safety protocols cost? Will the donors who stepped up during the emergency stick around for a less glamorous period of rebuilding?

“Next year may prove to be our most financially challenging,” said Bernie Telsey, one of the three artistic directors at MCC Theater, an Off Broadway nonprofit. “In many ways, it’s like a start-up now — it’s not just turning the lights on. Everything is a little uncertain. It’s like starting all over again.”

The fall season is shaping up to be the big test. “Springsteen on Broadway” began last month, but the rest of Broadway has yet to resume: The first post-shutdown play, a drama about two existentially trapped Black men called “Pass Over,” is to start performances Aug. 4, while the first musicals are aiming for September, starting with “Hadestown” and “Waitress,” followed by war horses that include “The Lion King,” “Chicago,” “Wicked” and “Hamilton.”

The looming question is whether there will be enough theatergoers to support all those shows. Although there have been signs that some visitors are returning to the city, tourism is not expected to rebound to its prepandemic levels for four years. So some of the returning Broadway shows will initially start with reduced schedules — performing fewer than the customary eight shows a week — as producers gauge ticket demand.

And “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a big-budget, Tony-winning play that was staged in two parts before the pandemic, will be cut down to a single show when it returns to Broadway on Nov. 12; its producers cited “the commercial challenges faced by the theater and tourism industries emerging from the global shutdowns.”

“What we need to do, which has never been done before, is open all of Broadway over a single season,” said Tali Pelman, the lead producer of “Tina — The Tina Turner Musical.”

Safety protocols have been changing rapidly, as more people get vaccinated, but there is still apprehension about moving too fast. In Australia, reopened shows have periodically been halted by lockdowns, while in England, several shows have been forced to cancel performances to comply with isolation protocols that some view as overly restrictive.

“On a fundamental level, our health is at stake,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton,” which is planning to resume performances on Broadway on Sept. 14. “You get this wrong, and we open too soon, and then we re-spike and we close again — that’s almost unthinkable.”

Some presenters worry that, with fewer tourists, arts organizations will be battling one another to win the attention of New Yorkers and people from the region.

“There’s going to be a lot of competition for a smaller audience at the beginning, and that’s scary,” said Todd Haimes, artistic director of the Roundabout Theater Company, a nonprofit that operates three theaters on Broadway and two Off Broadway.

Another looming challenge: concerns about public safety. Bystanders were struck by stray bullets during shooting incidents in Times Square in May and June, prompting Mayor de Blasio to promise additional officers to protect and reassure the public in that tourist-and-theater-dense neighborhood.

The city’s tourism organization, NYC & Company, has developed a $30 million marketing campaign to draw visitors back to the city. The Broadway League, a trade organization representing producers and theater owners, is planning its own campaign. The Tony Awards are planning a fall special on CBS that will focus on performances in an effort to boost ticket sales. And comeback come-ons are finding their way into advertising: “We’ve been waiting for you,” “Wicked” declares in a direct mail piece.

The economic stakes for the city are high. Broadway shows give work to actors and singers and dancers and ushers, but also, indirectly, to waiters and bartenders and hotel clerks and taxi drivers, who then go on to spend a portion of their paychecks on goods and services. The Broadway League says that during the 2018-2019 season Broadway generated $14.7 billion in economic activity and supported 96,900 jobs, when factoring in the direct and indirect spending of tourists who cited Broadway as a major reason for visiting the city.

“We’ve pushed through a really tough time, and now you have this new variant, which is kind of scary, but I still hope we’re on the right track,” said Shane Hathaway, the co-owner of Hold Fast, a Restaurant Row bar and eatery whose website asks “Do you miss the Performing Arts?? So do we!!” “We’re already seeing a lot more tourists than last year,” Hathaway said, “and my hope is that we continue.”

At the tourist-dependent Met Museum, attendance is back, but not all the way: it’s now open five days a week, and has drawn 10,000 people many days, while before the pandemic it was open seven days a week and averaged 14,000 daily visitors. Plus: more of the visitors now are local, and they don’t have to pay admission; the Met continues to project a $150 million revenue loss due to the pandemic.

If the Met, the largest museum in the country, is struggling, that means smaller arts institutions are hurting even more, particularly those outside Manhattan, which tend to have less foot traffic and fewer big donors. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, for example, is trying to recover from a pandemic period without when it lost millions in revenue, reduced staff and had to raid its endowment to pay the bills.

The city’s music scene has faced its own challenges — from the diviest bars to nightclubs to the plush Metropolitan Opera.

According to a study commissioned by the mayor’s office, some 2,400 concert and entertainment venues in New York City supported nearly 20,000 jobs in 2016. But the sector has had a hard time.

Many are waiting to see if they will get help from a $16 billion federal grant fund intended to preserve music clubs, theaters and other live-event businesses devastated by the pandemic. But the rollout of the program, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant initiative, has been slow and bumpy. Some owners, including Michael Swier, the founder of the Bowery Ballroom and the Mercury Lounge in New York, were initially denied aid because the program mistakenly believed they were dead.

Elsewhere, a music and arts space with a 1,600-person capacity in the heart of hipster Brooklyn, cut its staff from 120 people to 5 when the pandemic arrived. After the state lifted restrictions on smaller venues in June, it reopened and began hiring back some workers, but its owners fear it could take a year or two to return to profitability.

The club got help in the form of a $4.9 million shuttered venue grant from the federal government, which it said would be used to pay its debts — including for rent, utilities, and loans — and to fix up the space and pay staff. “Every dollar will be used just to dig ourselves out from Covid,” said one of the venue’s partners, Dhruv Chopra.

And the Met Opera is still not sure if it can raise its gilded curtain in September, as planned, after the longest shutdown in its history. The company, which lost $150 million in earned revenues during the pandemic, recently struck deals to cut the pay of its choristers, soloists and stagehands. The company is now in tense negotiations with the musicians in its orchestra, who were furloughed without pay for nearly a year. If they fail to reach a deal, the Met, the largest performing arts organization in the nation, risks missing being part of the initial burst of reopening energy.

Some cultural leaders are already looking past the fall, at the challenge of sustaining demand for tickets after the initial enthusiasm of reopening fades.

“We have a lot of work to do to make sure that people know that we’re open,” said Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, “to make people comfortable coming in, to keep the shows solid, and to get through the holidays and get through the winter.”

Laura Zornosa contributed reporting.

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