Broadway's Winter Hibernation: Why Are So Many Shows Closing Temporarily?
On Wednesday, two significant developments took place on Broadway: The Bob Dylan musical Girl From the North Country announced that it was closing on January 23 and vacating the Belasco Theatre, with the aim of reopening this spring at a different venue. An hour later, the producers of To Kill a Mockingbird announced that it would play its final performance at the Shubert Theatre this Sunday, January 16, with the intention of reopening at the Belasco on June 1.
Girl and Mockingbird are not the only Broadway shows closing shop for the winter: Mrs. Doubtfire stopped performing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on January 10, with a plan to resume on March 15 (it is not moving theaters). A trend seems to be emerging, in which producers have turned to a Mother Nature-approved solution for sustaining their productions through thin times: hibernation.
This isn't just a response to Covid, although the number of Broadway shows that resumed performances following 18 months of total shutdown might have convinced producers that it is possible to thaw after an extended deep freeze. And for many shows, such cryogenics now seem like the only way to survive.
It's easy to get caught up in the Omicron hype and conclude that Broadway is becoming a pandemic fatality. While Covid-related company absences have led to several canceled performances in the past month, and the threat of Omicron has surely kept some audiences away, this is an aggravating factor in a perennially difficult time of the year.
January and February have long been brutal months for the commercial theater in New York. Producers of 11 Broadway shows opted to closed in January 2020 rather than press on through the winter. No one wants to be in New York when the weather is this miserable, so the tourists mostly stay away, limiting the audience to stalwart New Yorkers. This is fine for not-for-profit theaters with a subscriber base (like Roundabout and MTC, which regularly program for January). It is also workable for hit shows like Wicked and Hamilton that can scoop up the few tourists that do come to our frozen shores. But for new plays and musicals that have not yet been laureled with awards and broad name recognition, this time of year can be deadly.
Over the years, I have listened to many an actor at Tony time speak about playing through January and February as if they were Washington's troops toughing it out at Valley Forge. In the past, it might have seemed worthwhile to run a show at a loss through these months just to maintain a presence on Broadway until ticket sales pick up. Producers also obviously feel a sense of loyalty to their employees and want to keep them gainfully employed through the famine so that all can enjoy the eventual feast.
But this can be a fraught strategy as well: The producers of Beetlejuice know all too well the kind of intense jockeying that takes place not just for available theaters, but those spaces that aren't selling out nightly. Encouragingly, Beetlejuice is now getting a new lease on life by reopening at the Marquis on April 8.
With fewer shows vying for Broadway theaters right now, a new normal could be emerging in which shows with the biggest name recognition (Hamilton, The Lion King, Wicked, Phantom) stay open year-round, while more niche fare and shows that have not yet built up a brand take an extended break after the holidays. This would represent a new way of doing business on Broadway, but perhaps a more sustainable one in the long term. If Mockingbird, Doubtfire, and Girl can reopen and attract ticket-buyers later this year, expect more shows to follow their lead in 2023.