The audience in the Lyceum Theatre, where a performance of Tina Satter’s “Is This a Room” had just ended, erupted in hearty applause at the decision by producers Matt Ross, Sally Horchow and Dori Berinstein. They had only recently celebrated ecstatic reviews for “Is This a Room” and Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.,” which, slightly more than an hour each, have been running on alternating nights at the Lyceum on West 45th Street.
It was only last week the producers announced that the plays, set to run through January, would close Nov. 14 because of anemic ticket sales. Now, they will continue in rotation until Nov. 28.
“We believe so strongly that works like these deserve to be on Broadway,” Berinstein declared, as the crowd stood and cheered. The moment was indeed worth an ovation, for the turn of events is gratifying and — should the productions gain further momentum and extend again — a remarkable change of fortune. Fading shows often run “Last weeks!” ad campaigns to drum up business, but rarely do they publish official closing dates and then take them back.
It’s an indication of just how uncharted and impromptu this treacherous theater season has been, as productions here and across the country return to live performance and grapple with how to lure skittish audiences back. The anecdotal evidence, gleaned from social media and private conversations with industry leaders, suggests a variety of challenges — lingering fears of the coronavirus, the disinclination by some patrons to wear masks and resistance to high ticket prices. Broadway requires audience members to show proof of full vaccination and wear masks in theaters, except when eating or drinking.
There’s little data, though, on which to base any firm conclusions — partly because the industry itself has become so averse to sharing any financial information. Before the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, Broadway productions, through their trade group, the Broadway League, published individual weekly reports on gross receipts and attendance. Those reports did not return when Broadway did, beginning in June with “Springsteen on Broadway” and continuing through August and September, with the start of plays such as “Pass Over” and the restart of big musicals including “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked.”
The reason isn’t hard to imagine, based on conversations with insiders: Some producers and owners of the 41 Broadway houses may be worried a breakdown by show will reveal all too plainly the haves and have-nots. Just recently, though, Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin began publishing a weekly “composite” or aggregate tally of the grosses — due, she wrote in an email, “to the increased demand for how Broadway is doing.”
For the week ending Oct. 31, there were 27 shows on Broadway, on average filling 77.5 percent of their capacity. That was a drop from the week before, when 85 percent of the seats were filled at 26 shows. Some insiders say, however, that a more incisive measure of health is the average ticket price, derived by dividing Broadway’s total gross receipts by the total number of attendees. For the week of Oct. 24, the average ticket sold for $126; a week later it had fallen to $117. The price decline is good for consumers but potentially hazardous for the bottom lines of productions that cost hundreds of thousands to operate each week.
Early on in the restart, some industry leaders had expressed their private nervousness to me about too many productions returning too quickly. Disney’s decision to shutter the Broadway run of “Frozen,” for instance, stemmed in part from a belief that there would not be sufficient clientele for their family-oriented fare; the company also had “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” returning. But reliable information about how any particular show is doing is hard to come by. In a business in which rumor is oxygen, it is difficult to gauge which shows are breathing easy and which are gasping for air.
So you grab the solid news where you can, which is what I did by heading to the Lyceum for the curtain call Wednesday of “Is This a Room,” a dramatization of the FBI transcripts of the arrest of whistleblower Reality Winner, the former National Security Agency contractor who pleaded guilty to leaking classified material. Ross, one of the producers, said the turnaround evolved rapidly.
“It was a decision we made in the last 96 hours,” Ross said in an interview Wednesday. A decision, Horchow added, based on the “enormous response” at the box office.
Is the reprieve at the Lyceum a fleeting icebreaker — or a harbinger of a greater thaw?
Blythe Adamson, an epidemiologist whose company, Infectious Economics, consults on covid-19 issues with Broadway shows, said recent developments in thwarting the coronavirus bode well for live performances. In particular, the availability of vaccine for younger children is likely to ease the anxieties of some vaccinated parents who worried about bringing the virus home from the theater.
“A big factor in why we’re going to see an increasing willingness to come to see these shows is the approval of vaccination of children,” said Adamson, whose clients include the Lyceum plays. Important, too, she added, are booster shots. That these advances are occurring as the holidays approach contributes to her optimism.
That’s not even to mention, Adamson added, the happier holidays for the casts and crews of “Is This a Room” and “Dana H.,” who have a few more paychecks to look forward to.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, “to see actors employed in New York City, doing what they love.”