NEW YORK — The entirely expected news that Broadway will remain closed through at least May 30 means extended hardship for thousands of arts workers and a protracted economic slam on a city starved for signs of recovery.

The Broadway League, the trade group representing Broadway producers and theater owners, announced Friday that theatergoers holding tickets to any shows through May 30 should seek refunds or exchanges. This includes the few productions that had set performance dates for early spring, most notably the revivals of “The Music Man,” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, and Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.

More broadly, though, the decision casts further doubt on how robustly Broadway might be able to rebound at any point in 2021. The league announcement sidesteps the notion of a “reopening” for the 41 designated Broadway theaters; it stipulates only that “individual productions” will “determine the performance schedules for their respective shows.”

The theater district in Manhattan has been nearly empty since March. Photo for The Washington Post by Jeenah Moon

Industry insiders say privately that some shows are likely to start up after Labor Day, provided there is adequate mitigation of the pandemic, perhaps including a vaccine. Broadway producers have noted that social distancing seating measures will not work in the large venues occupied by multimillion-dollar musicals and plays; they need almost full houses to make their shows profitable.

Producers, too, have spoken of the probability that, at least in the early weeks of starting up again, their shows would run at far less than capacity – an indication they might ask the unions governing actors, stagehands, box office workers and others for temporary salary cuts to defray costs.

Broadway has become increasingly dependent on tourists, who purchase about two-thirds of the seats at some shows. When and if foreign travel – which brings in a third of the business for some shows – will return to anything close to pre-pandemic levels is an unknown.

The forecast for other venues – off-Broadway, touring productions, regional theaters – remains cloudy, too. Some nonprofit theater companies are announcing tentative plans for live, in-person productions next spring. In Washington, D.C., those include Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Shakespeare Theatre Company. But the dates are not firm, owing in part to the vagaries of the covid-19 spread and changes in the restrictions by city officials on the ceiling for mass gatherings.

The Broadway League, which estimates Broadway’s economic impact on New York City at $14.8 billion a year, has 42 task forces addressing the health, safety, labor, economic and governmental concerns raised by the pandemic.

“Our membership is committed to reopening as soon as conditions permit us to do so,” Charlotte St. Martin, the league’s president, said in a statement. “We are working tirelessly with multiple partners on sustaining the industry, once we raise our curtains again.”

Still, the immediate prospects are grim, as noted by Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing more than 51,000 actors and stage managers. “Too many in the industry need help now as we face another six months without work,” she said. “The ongoing lack of work in the arts means we face a critical need for federal COBRA health insurance subsidies, renewed federal unemployment benefits and arts funding. Washington must act.”


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