“The wheels are in motion — it’s just that everyone is touching wood [for luck] every five minutes,” the director of “Hadestown,” Rachel Chavkin, said about the national tour of the Tony-winning musical. “There’s a balance between excitement at beginning to carve your life around something concrete again and a skepticism about that. For me, personally, I am beginning to think about making soft plans for the fall. I have a calendar with some dates that say ‘Subject to change.’ ”
The promise of national tours is crucial for many performing-arts centers, which are planning to present smaller and mostly outdoor events in the spring and summer. Arts center officials expect almost a dozen Broadway shows — including “Mean Girls,” “Tootsie” and “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations” — will usher in the return of indoor, full-capacity productions. It appears that Broadway producers are eyeing fall as the most likely option for performances to resume.
Widespread vaccinations are a cornerstone of plans that include a variety of safety measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to alleviate audience concern, arts center officials say. With the expectation that vaccine distribution will peak by late May, the fall timing seems achievable.
“It’s a sign that we’ve gotten through it and can get back together,” said Katherine Ramsberger, president and chief executive of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, where seven-show Broadway subscriptions went on sale last month. The series opens with “Hadestown” on Sept. 21 and continues through June 2022’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The arts center has sold 13,000 subscriptions in the weeks since they became available last month, a number on par with the same period last year.
“What this is telling us, a year later with no activity, is that we haven’t lost ground,” Ramsberger said. “People have the will and spirit and passion to come back.”
The return of Broadway road shows is critical to the financial recovery of regional arts centers. “From a business perspective, you need that anchor,” Ramsberger said. “Broadway is that for all of us.”
The tours are complicated puzzles that require linking months of dates and venues. Many will return to the places where they had been booked pre-pandemic, but on a different schedule or reconfigured route.
Arts center executives have been meeting virtually and sharing resources as they wait out the pandemic, and their collaboration makes the return more likely, said Bob Bursey, executive director of Texas Performing Arts in Austin, which is selling subscriptions to seven shows in its Bass Concert Hall, starting with “Hamilton” on Dec. 7.
“We have a shared understanding of health and wellness protocols,” Bursey said. “We are all in alignment about how we’re going to move forward collectively.”
Theaters and arts centers in Utah, Colorado and California have posted their potential schedules, while D.C.’s Kennedy Center could announce its theater season and subscription packages as soon as mid-April, according to a spokesman. “We want Broadway tours to return as soon as possible,” Brendan Padgett said.
“Mean Girls” will not reopen on Broadway, but its producers hope to return to touring in the fall. The company had been on the road for six months when everything shut down last March, director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw said. He is encouraged about the planning underway, although it is too soon to know whether the same touring cast will return. No contracts have yet been offered.
“Everyone has different lives now. Some people have moved out of the city. Some people are saying, ‘We’re not doing that anymore,’ ” he said. “Hopefully we will have the same company, because the ‘Mean Girls’ tour was fantastic.”
Nicholaw predicts the company will begin work in mid-to-late summer. The show’s sets and costumes are in storage, and the company will need only a short rehearsal and tech period to get up to speed.
“Everything is ready,” he said. “We can pick up and go.”
Other shows that had plans to tour in the past year will need more time. Chavkin and her team were casting for the “Hadestown” tour when the shutdown hit. While they compiled a list of performers, they do not know their availability or interest a year later.
“We’re not going back to square one,” she said, noting that scene and lighting designers were finalizing the tour’s design. “There’s not a magic switch. Reality and recovery don’t work that way.”
The production will probably have four weeks of rehearsal followed by a shorter tech process before it hits the road, but Chavkin is offering no specific dates. “That’s part of the trickiness,” she said. “Every schedule has to be built in reverse from opening night, so until we have a concrete sense of when opening night is, we don’t want to give exact dates.”
The fall target for major tours gives arts centers a runway to prepare, said Tom Gabbard, chief executive of Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte. Working with the Covid-19 Theatre Think-Tank, a national research consortium, Gabbard and his fellow arts center leaders have been coordinating on the protocols for audience members and artists. Issues include the use of rapid testing for backstage workers and requiring staffers and volunteers to be vaccinated, he said. The arts center is also working with the local corporation Honeywell on airflow.
“We are working to improve air in our theaters and establish standards that can be helpful to colleagues,” he said. The art center has purchased portable air filtration machines to use in dressing rooms and restrooms “as an extra measure of safety” and is creating new plans for entering the theater and waiting for the restrooms. He anticipates mask mandates will continue into next year, and there will be limited food and beverage sales. “Consuming food and beverages and wearing a mask are mutually exclusive,” he said.
Working toward reopening has rejuvenated those who have endured a difficult year, Gabbard said, and ticket buyers are expressing a similar sentiment. “You could imagine people dabbing their eyes, shedding a tear,” he said. “I think there will be plenty of that coming back.”
The artists will be sharing those emotions, too, Chavkin said.
“I suspect many audiences buying tickets now will want to be part of this cultural moment of regeneration,” she said. “It’s going to be quite singular, as unprecedented as the last year has been.”