On April 8, a reporter in Albany asked Gov. Cuomo about Broadway’s recent cancellation of performances through June 7 and what that plan meant for the state at large. The governor sniped back: “I wouldn’t use what Broadway thinks as a barometer of anything unless they’re in the public health business and have seen better numbers and models.”
Cuomo, as he often does while grandstanding, totally misunderstood the point. The Broadway League’s penciled-in date wasn’t an ironclad throw-the-roses comeback, but a method of managing tourist travel plans and cash flow during an ever-evolving situation. It would, arguably, be less responsible to cancel shows all the way through January, unless you happen to own a time-traveling DeLorean. (Broadway is currently closed through Sept. 6).
Cuomo’s flip tone was alarming. Broadway is the tourism lifeblood of New York City, the largest metropolis in the country. You can’t have a serious conversation about reopening restaurants and hotels without also including Broadway, which drives thousands of people to those businesses each day. Absent just 41 theaters, Times Square is little more than some big-screen TVs and an H&M. Cuomo later dumped theater into a shrugging, vague Phase 4 of his reopening plan, with all the drive and expediency of completing the Second Avenue Subway.
He’s part of a growing trend of professional scolds who, as the world begins easing crippling weeks-long coronavirus lockdowns, would rather question and condemn than spitball productive ideas. A mopey story in The Atlantic about London’s West End doubted whether the theater has any appeal in the near future, asking, “When will we want to sit in a room full of strangers again?”
Well, get me a mask — I’ll be there in 15 minutes!
Instead of blasting theater as trivial and frivolous during a crisis, shouldn’t we instead praise the companies that are creatively attempting to adjust to our new reality right now? In our weeks of lockdown, we have not only flattened the curve, we’ve fattened our knowledge. We now know that 6 feet of distance is good, so are masks; the outdoors is relatively safe. Why can’t theaters use that info to responsibly thrive?
An inventive theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, already is. They’ve laid out a healthy and innovative plan to begin staging productions by August.
Barrington Stage Company, a major regional theater where the Tony Award-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” began, is bucking the growing trend of postponing seasons into 2021 and getting on with the show. Its offerings will include small-cast plays, such as “The Price” by Arthur Miller, and intimate concerts like a performance by 92-year-old cabaret star Marilyn Maye. They’ll be performed in BSC’s main-stage theater at one-third capacity, or outdoors, with plenty of hand sanitizer and no packed lines.
“It should feel like a big party, very leisurely spaced out,” longtime artistic director Julianne Boyd told the Berkshire Edge. “All of the shows we’re doing are in a single act, 80 minutes or so long, so no intermissions, no long lines in the lobby for the bathrooms or the refreshments.”
Frankly, that sounds great even when we’re not social distancing.
An April study out of China examined the source of 318 coronavirus outbreaks. While most occurred indoors or on public transit, just one took place in open air, involving only two cases. The growing consensus is that transmission in parks or on the sidewalk is relatively low.
Knowing this, the artistic director of The Cabaret in Indianapolis, Ind., told the Indianapolis Star that she’s turning an alleyway near her theater into a Parisian cafe-like venue with a stage and strung-up lights. A space usually meant for garbage and parking would become “a casual nightclub” with singers and solo performers, said CEO Shannon Forsell.
Meanwhile, some venues in Florida are investing in previously unused technology to make theaters cleaner than ever before.
The Cocoa Village Playhouse in Brevard County has purchased a device that completely fills its auditorium with disinfecting mist. “It’s amazing,” executive director Anastacia Hawkins-Smith told Florida Today. “You can fog the whole theater in 10 minutes.”
She’s also stocked up on infrared thermometers to check audience members’ temperatures before the show. Cocoa Village’s production of the musical “Into The Woods” aims to start performances again May 28.
Granted, getting Broadway up and running has more logistical challenges than your average theater — mainly due to size, cost and density — but New York is checkered with theaters of all different shapes and styles, and wiggle room for adaptability. If one small New York theater can safely reinvent itself, it shouldn’t have to wait for “Wicked” to do so. The Broadway and off-Broadway industries will surely be watching intrepid theaters like those in Florida, Massachusetts and Indiana to see if their experiments work, and what strategies they can steal from them.
And so they should, because the show must always go on.
Johnny Oleksinski is The Post’s entertainment critic.
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