The Lights Brighten on Broadway

Volume CI, No. 11November, 2001

Bill Dennison

Broadway appears to be back. The theatre lights that dimmed after the World Trade Center attack have brightened and, despite continued uncertainty in regard to the economy and air travel, and the general unease created by the declared war against terrorism, attendance figures and theatre box office reports continue to be positive.

Two of the six shows that received concessions from theatre unions in the midst of the crisis, Phantom and Le Mis, are already paying back half of the 25 percent wage cut. Two others, Chicago and The Full Monty, have announced to casts, orchestras and crews that if theatre grosses remain positive through the four-week period of concessions, the wage cuts will be repaid. Rent and Kiss Me Kate, the remaining two shows, have also seen sharply improving box offices. Kiss Me Kate, where employees agreed to donate an additional 25 percent of salaries to keep the show from closing, was actually sold out for at least part of the last two weeks. As a result, the 25 percent donations stopped after the second week and Kiss Me Kate producers started paying full salaries after the third week.

A seventh show which had also requested wage cuts, Beauty and the Beast, withdrew the request after box offices grosses returned to near pre-crisis levels after only three weeks of losses. With a little over a month before the beginning of the holiday season, typically a period of peak attendance, Broadway appears to have weathered the worst of this unprecedented disaster that has so shocked our city.

“I believe that all of the theatre unions acted responsibly in helping the industry through this crisis,” President Bill Moriarity told Allegro. “We were able to work with the producers to avoid the closing of several shows – closings that not only would have affected our members, but had the potential to severely deepen the economic problems facing the entire city.

“I have to add, however, that if these shows have rebounded to the point of making money during this period, I think all of us, including the other theatre unions, would expect that theatre employees would be made whole,” Moriarity said. “Just as everyone pitched in to help, all of us should share in this remarkable recovery.”

The attack on the World Trade Center has dramatically demonstrated the importance of the theatre and other live entertainment to this city’s overall economic health. For two days following the attack, the city’s entertainment industry shut down. Hotels and restaurants emptied out. Parking facilities were vacant lots and taxis roamed empty. On Sept. 13, at the mayor’s urging, theatres resumed performances – in many cases, to nearly empty houses.

Keeping the theatres open, however, was seen as key to reviving the city’s economy and its morale. In the first week after the disaster, the reopened Broadway shows took a big hit. Many of the bigger shows lost as much as a quarter of a million dollars. Five shows, including The Rocky Horror Show, closed and half a dozen more were preparing to do likewise.

A group of producers representing five shows asked to meet with the theatre unions and appealed for concessions to keep them open. After several meetings all the unions, either formally or by tacit agreement, accepted a 25 percent wage cut for a four-week period. The six shows mentioned above received these cuts and in the following week The Music Man was also granted the concessions.

By weeks three and four business had improved sharply. However, while box offices continue to grow, concern remains about the longer-term prospects. How will the heightened threat of terrorism affect air travel in the longer term? How soon will tourists return to New York in large numbers? And how long can theatre-goers from the metropolitan area keep the seats filled? All of these questions have still to be answered.