In mid-December, as Broadway began to suffer the roiling effects of the Omicron variant, the Broadway League had a radical proposal.
The League—the national trade association for the Broadway industry whose 700-plus members include theater owners and operators, producers, presenters, and general managers—proposed to the unions representing Broadway workers that those workers take a 50 percent pay cut during so-called “COVID pauses,” when shows are temporarily shut down because of infections within cast and crew.
The League proposed that full salaries be restored when the shows returned to the stage. However, leaders of the unions representing Broadway workers have so far steadfastly rejected the idea.
Another area of disagreement was around booster shots. The League proposed that mandatory vaccination for all Broadway workers now included getting booster shots. However, the League and the unions disagreed about the number of days workers would get off if they had an adverse reaction to the shots. The League proposed two while the unions wanted five, according to informed sources.
The destructive sweep of Omicron among casts and crews has led to the closure of some shows (Thoughts of a Colored Man, Ain’t Too Proud, Jagged Little Pill, Diana, and Waitress), the pauses of others, and an all-pervasive nervousness—which has undercut the “Broadway is back” positivity of a few months ago when venues reopened over 19 months since stages went dark in March 2020. Brian Moreland, producer of Thoughts of a Colored Man, which closed so suddenly it didn’t have time for a farewell performance, described his emotions to The Daily Beast as “vacillating between disappointed, devastated, sad, heartbroken, and scared.”
Kevin McCollum, the lead producer of Mrs. Doubtfire who has said the show will temporarily close for nine weeks from Jan. 10 to March 14, told The Daily Beast that he had so far lost $3 million dollars as a result of pauses and the upheaval wrought by the pandemic. By laying off 115 people (who he will re-employ in March if they so wish), McCollum said he would save around $4 million, which he will then use to remount the production. He said it was “imperative” Broadway producers, theater owners, and workers come together to “figure out a new normal where variants may mean more shows have to go on pauses in the future.”
Both the League and major unions like Actors’ Equity and Local One IATSE declined to comment in detail on the specific areas of disagreement. “Things are at a very tender, critical stage. People are frustrated and upset on both sides,” one producer with knowledge of the discussions told The Daily Beast. A source at Actors’ Equity confirmed that the 50 percent pay cut had been proposed, though a spokesperson would only say: “We are in ongoing negotiations with the Broadway League about how to adjust our safety protocols for the Omicron variant.”
Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, did not return requests for comment. St. Martin recently apologized after insulting understudies in a Hollywood Reporter interview. “My educated guess is the newer shows maybe have understudies that aren’t as efficient in delivering the role as the lead is,” St. Martin opined about the wave of show cancellations.” Later, she said in a statement: “I sincerely apologize about my recent comments about understudies and swings. I clearly misunderstood and for that I am truly sorry… There was never any intention of disrespect.”
McCollum, a member of the Broadway League who has been on its labor committee for around 25 years, told The Daily Beast that the League was negotiating with 14 unions. “Currently contracts are all set around shows having an ‘on’ and an ‘off’ switch. There’s no mechanism to deal with a crisis that may lead to the closure of a show for two weeks, while remaining viable in the longer term. It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s the industry’s responsibility to come up with a reasonable way to minimize costs, so shows can stay open. We pay everyone based on people buying tickets.”
One producer who requested anonymity told The Daily Beast, “Everyone is very emotional. The unions are blaming producers and producers are blaming the unions. I have never seen anything like this. The unions think producers are being greedy and withholding. But these are the basic economics of a weekly business. How can you pay people if you can’t open your doors? How can you pay for it if audiences are not in the house? Where does the money come from? To me, it’s more devastating not to have a job.”
One Broadway producer told The Daily Beast that he had sent out multiple emails to investors in recent weeks with the subject heading, “Unexpected closing.”
“It’s been heartbreaking,” the producer, who asked to remain nameless, said. He had lost entire half a million dollars in savings, and—for the moment—has quit New York. He was fortunate that some of his shows were making money on tour. “I’m really feeling quite defeated as a producer. I’m finding it really difficult to bounce back. Theater has lost its luster for me right now. My love affair has been dampened. This is not a business where you are focused entirely on making a profit. It’s more nuanced. For me, it’s going to take so long to rebound, both financially and emotionally. I find myself spinning my gratitude wheel, just glad to be healthy and alive.”
Broadway workers themselves inevitably see things differently to producers. Paul Masse, a Broadway musician and conductor on shows including The Scottsboro Boys, Porgy and Bess, and Holler If Ya Hear Me, told The Daily Beast that a 50 percent pay cut seemed “punitive.”
“Because the closures and ‘pauses’ have seemed so completely arbitrary, and even based on Charlotte St. Martin’s own insulting comments about understudies, this is about a lack of people to cover positions,” Masse said. “This is a producing responsibility, not an employee responsibility; staffing your show to the level needed to remain open is a management concern.
“Essentially, if a show is ‘paused’ and cast, crew, and orchestra are paid at 50 percent, this is asking the employees to take a financial loss based on ever-changing health indicators of colleagues. I don’t know the legality of that, but it does seem punitive to me. Overall, in any discussion of unions making financial concessions at this time, I don’t believe any conversation should be entertained without full transparency from the League of each individual show’s finances, which they’ve made opaque by not releasing the weekly grosses beyond the entire industry total.”
If employees are asked to accept a massive loss in income when the need to close the show arises, said Masse, then during weeks with full performances where a profit is made, it should be a part of the plan to use that profit to pay back the 50 percent incurred. “I have long advocated for profit-sharing as part of our union agreements. Transparency and a sense of shared responsibility, and shared success, are essential now.”
Edward Pierce, president of Local United Scenic Artists 829, which represents designers and artists on Broadway and nationally, told The Daily Beast that the industry was hit by the “double, triple whammy of Omicron” just as it was “crawling back to whatever is new and normal. Shows are barely back to running normally. We are fragile as human beings, and fragile as an industry.
“When everyone sits down at the negotiating table, both as producers and unions, they need to be sensitive to that,” said Pierce, who survived his own history-making battle with COVID. “Everyone should keep an open mind when figuring out ways to ensure the industry survives, but we have to represent workers effectively enough to ensure there are jobs they want to come back to. I’m sure we can reach wonderful, human-based agreements as we move forward and work together. We need to make smart decisions, treat people as people, be inclusive of, and open to, all ideas, and somehow we’ll get through it.”
For McCollum, “It is imperative that we as an industry—the Broadway League, every union—gets together to prepare an industry for a future where, at times, shows may have to be paused for the benefit of everyone working in the industry and everyone who wants to come to the theater. We need to figure out a safety net, and the good thing is the people who should be figuring this out are united in their love for theater. I don’t understand why we’re operating as Democrats and Republicans. Why we haven’t created something effective swiftly is baffling to me.”
A source at the Broadway League said: “We felt like the unions laughed at us, and did not listen to what we were proposing. It felt like the unions did not care if more people were put totally out of work or see more shows close. When they started objecting about the booster mandate, it was like, ‘Guys, we don’t have time for this. We are just trying to keep people alive.’ Union leaders are used to negotiating for months and months, creating problems. Their wholesale ‘no’ is what puts shows in jeopardy.”
“We need a middle ground between an on and off switch”
McCollum, also a producer of Six and The Play that Goes Wrong, said the need for change was urgent.
“As a commercial producer, we need to create some middle ground between an on and an off switch. I realize all 14 Broadway unions agreeing to the same terms is difficult. But in many ways I think the League asked for the bare minimum we needed. The unions universally rejected it. What frustrated me was that there wasn’t a real conversation about what the industry needed. I’m personally saddened there wasn’t more creative thinking in response to our proposal in a business that is built on creative thinking.
“I don’t have an answer. I am just one voice. I am very pro-union and pro-efficiency, and believe there has to be dialog in times of crisis. What I did with ‘Doubtfire’ was about taking care of my own show, but it may also show a path forward. For 19 months, our planes were in the hangar. Right now, we have planes in the air. But we have more storms coming, more mutations, more variants. We have to have some mechanism in place that protects people’s health, and which ensures shows remain resourced enough so people feel confident enough to invest in them.”
It was everyone’s responsibility, said McCollum, “to realize this isn’t business as usual, or there will be no business. This is not collective bargaining any more. This should be about smart, creative people coming up with solutions in a crisis. I don’t see that happening fast enough.”
The Tony Award-winning actor Gavin Creel didn’t think the 50 percent pay cut idea would fly with his fellow actors. “The majority of Equity members are not getting paid principal salaries,” Creel told The Daily Beast. “If you cut that in half you’re making their already challenging lives totally unsustainable. The producers know they shoulder the risk. But the laborers, on stage and off, do the work eight times a week on the ground. You have got to respect laborers. It’s not the workers’ responsibility to assume the producers’ losses. It’s also a dangerous precedent to set in tough times. What about the next horrible thing that happens? Do producers and theater owners just go, ‘Oh, let’s do what we did during the Omicron variant?’”
Creel spoke to The Daily Beast while recovering from a second bout of COVID, feeling as if he was suffering from “a form of PTSD,” as it was occurring with the sense of “the world falling apart and Broadways shows closing just as in March 2020. I kept having to remind myself these two times are different. It’s not like we’re all heading back into our caves for the next eight months.”
Creel said a famous producer had said to him, prior to Broadway’s reopening, that the industry couldn’t afford to open and then close again; only tentpole shows like Aladdin with significant corporate financial muscle behind them, thought Creel, were guaranteed to stay open. The next few months were going to be critical, he added. “In traditional times, January is a difficult month anyway, and add that to the lack of tourists in town,” Creel said.
“You’re prepared for the worst as a theater producer,” McCollum told The Daily Beast. “I’m an entrepreneur. I understand risk. Right now it’s mainly people from the northeast corridor seeing Broadway shows. Tourists aren’t coming to Broadway. If we don’t figure out a new model to deal with pauses, then only the major corporations like Disney will survive. Independent producers will not be able to deal with the crushing economics. And genuinely, we love the art form. That’s why we do this. Yes, we hope shows are profitable, but we fundamentally do what we do because we love theater.”
McCollum said that “if the virus has taught us one thing it’s that any business that doesn’t have a mechanism to self-police itself through a crisis is a broken industry. We are resilient people, we’re artists, businesspeople. We need a better mechanism than the on-off switch. We need a mechanism to hibernate, like I am doing now. Think of it like being in a house in the path of a tornado. You go to the basement. There’s nothing much in the basement, but it keeps you safe until you can come upstairs and put everything back together again.”
The 50 percent pay cut proposal, said McCollum, is not intended as a “forever solution, but a temporary fix to help a show survive in the moment. I am very distraught that the industry can’t come up with a solution. If you can’t act with kindness and grace in a crisis we need to talk about that when everyone comes back to work. We have to fix this industry. It’s really broken. What we need is a commissioner, just like baseball has. What happened over the last few weeks is not good for the game, and has done bad things to the game, and it’s bad for the customer.”
“Every day is nerve-racking”
Staying on stage is a collective test of physical health, nerves, patience, and bank accounts at present. When star of Company and Broadway icon Patti LuPone fell sick, the producers of Company felt minded to issue an announcement emphasizing it wasn’t COVID-related. This revealed just how key the presence of stars like LuPone are to attract audiences, especially right now.
“Patti is keeping herself safe,” Chris Harper, producer of Company, told The Daily Beast. “Both she and Katrina (Lenk) get in a car at the end of the night, go home, sleep, then come back and do it again the next day. There is no socializing beyond the show. No mixing with anyone. No partying. It’s a very monastical life right now for everyone involved in the show. Patti takes the energy required to do a Broadway show very seriously. It’s very possible there will be cases, but everyone is working very hard not to get it.”
Harper said the last few weeks had been “really hard. We’ve bought in extra understudies and swings—not just actors but extra people across the board. There are three back-ups for everyone. But it has been emotionally and physically draining trying to keep the show together. But we are also lucky, because audiences seem to be euphoric to be there.” Government financial support had been vital, said Harper, to help “weather storms.”
“Our lives are very short term right now,” said Harper. It’s ‘What are we doing today, tonight, tomorrow?’ The stresses are absolutely enormous. Every day is nerve-racking. Now is the moment for the theater owners and unions to work together and help the industry at large,” said Harper. “Theater only works if people collaborate, and so it is here—the theater owners and unions have to find solutions to these problems. We at least need flexibility on a temporary basis.”
James Latus, a production stage manager “looking for my next show,” told The Daily Beast he was “really scared” for the theater industry. “I don’t think the state will shut Broadway down, I think producers will shut Broadway down. If too many people are out sick or testing positive, they can’t keep canceling shows. They’ll have to shut down.”
It was also a “really tough” time financially for workers like Latus, who had been relying on the income of a presently postponed cast recording of the show he last worked on (The Visitor at the Public Theater). He began working again on the pandemic-delayed show in August, and when the show closed last month filed for unemployment, but was denied money because he had not worked in the previous two quarters of the year—when Broadway and all theaters were closed.
“A lot of people are out of work right now,” said Latus. “It’s a bleak time. Going into the new year it feels like there’s a dark cloud hanging over the industry rather than people feeling hopeful.”
Latus—like Creel—was against the 50 percent pay cut idea, because of it setting a cost-cutting precedent in non-COVID situations. “I shouldn’t be a worker who is suffering. I am still committed to doing the show eight times a week. They wouldn’t tell us ahead of time they were about to do close. It’s not like we could get extra work, so I’m very against the idea. I do think, if the money is available, it makes sense to staff shows better.”
Moreland said COVID had “destroyed” his show, the Omicron variant hitting cast and crew hard. Even before that the company had already been ‘devastated” by not being able to “share in the traditional things that normally build camaraderie and community,” like an opening night party. “I’m very sad we can’t figure out a sustainable model to use when this happens to our companies. I hope we can figure it out. I hope there is a solution that works for everyone. One solution is to staff up: there should be more back-ups for actors and crew. There’s never enough coverage in normal times, and that would really help. It could keep shows going—if the money could be found for it.”
It was most devastating not to be able to play a final show, said Moreland. His voice broke as he revealed he felt he had let the company down by not being able to stage a final show. “I know logically I couldn’t control a variant, but it’s a lot.” But, he adds, he is “bruised but not out.” He is one of the producers of American Buffalo scheduled for this spring, and is also planning a major autumn project.
One producer said even before Omicron, Broadway was trying to “catch up” after stages being dark for 19 months. This producer wouldn’t be more surprised if more shows closed, if they didn’t have a strong advance and because people may be scared to go to the theater.
“If Omicron, or other variants after Omicron, continue then we’re going to have more closures. It’s inevitable,” said Moreland. “Unfortunately, nobody wants that, but we’re powerless against this virus. I think investors are sad and angry, but I am hopeful. There are still packed houses. People are still going to Broadway shows. Audiences are remaining safe.”
Moreland said that the notion that Shuttered Venue Operating Grants (SVOG) had covered his and other productions’ weekly operating costs wasn’t true. “Productions still have to pay our way. I understand why the unions would say ‘no,’ but when these pauses happen how do you expect employers to secure a job for members if there are no tickets being sold?”
Latus thinks the impact of Omicron will make even the most passionate of producers hesitant to invest in shows, “but in my heart of hearts I also think enough people who love theater will continue to produce and fund it. I would just love the Broadway League and unions to be more outraged over the perilous financial positions many of us working in theater are in. A lot of us are living without health insurance. People need to stay healthy, especially right now, and that’s hard to do without health insurance.”
Masse agrees, and would like a focus on the workers making the shows. “There are shows closing, or already closed, that actually received $10 million from the government in the form of the Shuttered Venues Grants to reopen. I think there is something amiss—and I blame the language of the legislation—that they can burn through that by the required deadline and then just toss their hands up. The grants were intended to reopen the industry, not give a few weeks work to people and then bail.”
Those theater workers now back on unemployment would be taxed on their unemployment from last year, Masse said, while the SVOG legislation allows the grant to reimburse 100% of the business loss from 2020, without requiring payment to artists and performers.
“That seems dubious at best, and I’ve been surprised there hasn’t been more discussion of it. What is the point of ‘saving our stages’ if we haven’t saved anyone to continue to create for, and perform on, them?” Masse said.
Producers, said Masse, “have zero responsibility for any musician to have even one person to replace them—in any event, be it illness, vacation, or whatever. Unlike an actor, who has a producer-provided understudy, any full-time musician at a Broadway show is 100 percent responsible for all performances, and must train substitute musicians at their own time and expense.
“Those subs, who are under no obligation or contract to be available at any given time, are expected to learn a show without compensation and able to perform at a moment’s notice, without ever having rehearsed whatsoever. There are benefits to this system, but during this particular moment it is an astonishing fact that no effort has been made to improve upon it, and is a testament to the way shared success and symbiosis works among our musicians that the rest of the industry could stand to borrow from.”
“There is no one and nothing to blame except the virus”
Whatever happens around the 50 percent pay cut proposal, there is a consensus that Omicron has shown Broadway, and theater more generally, that its ways of working must change.
Latus recalled the daily demands for everybody working on The Visitor: constant reminders to the cast and crew to test, how “nerve-racking it was to try and figure out every day if you had the right number of people, or waiting to see if that person with sniffles had a cold or COVID. Did we have enough coverage if that person had to leave the show temporarily? Do you go to a cast member’s party? Do you go for drinks, even if it’s at the bar in the Public where you know everyone has been vaccinated, but you’re going to drink with your masks off? No hugs or kisses backstage. No backstage tours or meetings. No drinks with friends in the dressing room. No autograph lines. Things are going to change, and some of those things may not come back.”
McCollum told The Daily Beast: “There is no one and nothing to blame except the virus. Everyone has been doing their best in difficult circumstances. I have been screaming about the need for a catastrophe clause for a long time.”
Where tickets were once non-refundable, as Broadway recovers so refunds have become available to customers; McCollum said he shut the show down because he could see many people were canceling tickets as Omicron took hold. “I had to find terra firma. I did not want to put our artists in danger. I could not see a way through January and February without hemorrhaging resources. This is not a prelude to closure. When we reopen, I see a bright future for the show.”
McCollum hopes that the vision of shows closing and sizable amounts of money being lost might jolt the industry into action. He thinks the perception is that government money had taken care of all theater’s financial concerns. “But that money got shows up and running again, and only some of the total weekly operating costs.”
McCollum says the 50 percent pay cut was a specific Omicron-related idea, but that it could be used again in other pandemic situations or weather events that necessitate the temporary closure of a show. “We have a multimillion-dollar industry, and to only have a binary ‘on’ and ‘off’ mentality is crushing shows and creatives much more than if we had creative solutions to put into play when we have to shut shows for periods of time, and not close them.
“At the moment the tools are not in place. I am confident healthy advances will again be achievable, and Broadway will thrive again. Let’s not destroy each other. Nobody is at fault. But we must acknowledge this situation, this problem, is real. Right now, theater does not have the strong tentpoles it used to have, and it won’t do for at least a couple of months. I hope it doesn’t last longer.”
Moreland agreed. “We need a better plan,” he told The Daily Beast. “Closing shows is not the answer. It’s not sustainable. We need well-resourced pausing. The question is who will pay for bigger companies. My idea would be to have more investors putting more money into shows, rather than asking or expecting the existing pool to give more money. There are investors out there, we just need to appeal to them.”
Another anonymous producer warned that the tumult of recent weeks may mean, at least in the short term, that investors won’t put large sums into shows. “There will always be angels on Broadway. Everybody, whatever their job, is passionate about what they do. But investing may be more risky right now. I hope we just go forward making smart decisions that guarantee everyone’s safety. I love theater. Being a Broadway producer has been, and is, my dream. I am heartbroken, but I am also resilient. What has happened will just make me more discerning about what I get involved in.”
Moreland is proud that Thoughts of a Colored Man shows that Broadway could “sustain more than one show of color, and every night, 75 to 85 per cent of our audiences were people of color. We must continue to reach out to the community in different ways. If the door is open, people will come.”
Creel is also optimistic for an artistic revolution. That night in D.C. he was going to see Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show is set for a Broadway run. “Maybe the one positive of these times is that Broadway moves past mass-produced touristy schlock and finds great new projects that involve risk and push audiences to see new things,” Creel said. “On the plus side, this time is a growing pain for our industry, where we look at what’s on stage, change it, fuck it up. I’m ready for that.”