The ‘Mean Girls’ tour traveled to Oklahoma before being knocked out by the coronavirus. At first the production was able to continue by flying alumni from its Broadway run, but ultimately the number of company members testing positive was just too high, so earlier this month the show decided to cancel its remaining shows in Tulsa, and then postponed races that would have followed in two Wisconsin cities, Madison and Appleton.
When the show hit the pause button, Jonalyn Saxer, the actress playing Karen Smith, found herself with two weeks off and without a home of her own – like many actors, she ditched her New York apartment and packed up her things when she signed on tour. The show offered to take her wherever she wanted to go, and she chose her parents’ house in Los Angeles.
“I was home over Christmas, and when I left I said, ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back,'” she said. “Two weeks later, I was like, ‘Hi mom and dad!'”
The lucrative touring market for Broadway shows is being rattled by Omicron’s push, as coronavirus cases surge in parts of the country even as they have begun to decline nationwide.
Last weekend, productions of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” in San Francisco and “The Ball” in Baltimore were canceled due to positive tests at their businesses.
“Hamilton” has been particularly hard hit: This month it halted its four touring US productions, in Buffalo, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and San Antonio, due to positive coronavirus tests.
The phenomenon is in some ways similar to what happened on Broadway, where so many theater workers tested positive in December that half of all shows canceled performances on some nights. But there is one key difference: While on Broadway there has also been a detrimental drop in ticket sales, elsewhere in the country, according to producers, attendance has generally remained flat.
“Tours, when we can play, are going well – audiences are showing up and audiences are enthusiastic,” said ‘Hamilton’ lead producer Jeffrey Seller. “Tours don’t go well when Covid sweeps through our business, which has happened to every one of our tours.”
For actors, touring now involves less sightseeing and more risk management than before.
“It’s the highest of peaks, because we’ve been waiting a year and a half to come back and do what we love to do, but it’s not the same,” said Saxer, who tested positive for the virus in November during his tour. was in Spokane, Washington, and recovered while quarantined there.
“It’s not like we can say, ‘Let’s check out that cool bar,’ because actors all over the world are losing their jobs because someone tests positive,” she added. “That ups the ante.”
“Come From Away” tour actress Christine Toy Johnson said she hasn’t eaten at a restaurant since July.
“In some cities, we’re in hotels and we’re the only ones wearing masks,” she said. “It’s very stressful, I’m not going to lie. But it was also an exciting time to be back in theater, making art again.
There are currently around three dozen shows traveling from venue to venue, stopping at a mix of nonprofit performing arts centers and for-profit theaters in nearly 300 cities. Americans, according to Meredith Blair, president and CEO of the Booking Group, an agency that organizes touring shows. Shows make a lot of money: those featuring union actors (there are also tours with non-union actors) made $1.6 billion at the box office in 2018-2019, which was the last season complete before the pandemic; that’s just slightly less than the $1.8 billion spent by moviegoers attending Broadway shows in New York during the same period, according to the Broadway League.
There seem to be several reasons why touring audiences have remained more stable than Broadway audiences. Most venues that show touring productions rely on locals rather than visitors, so they’re less vulnerable to the drop in tourism that’s hit Broadway. Many tour sites have a large number of subscribers who, remarkably, have maintained their subscriptions throughout the pandemic. And some venues are in parts of the country where residents have been less inclined to make changes to their routines because of Covid.
“There’s a huge difference between New York and audiences on the road,” said Rich Jaffe, co-CEO of Broadway Across America, which presents Broadway tours in 48 North American markets. “Down the road, they see these places as their theaters – it’s a big part of their communities, supporting jobs and creating economic ripple effects for local downtowns that are quite significant. If we have a show, the audience is there.
Many North American tours bypass Canada due to government capacity restrictions there. But in the US, where there’s usually no capacity limit, site operators seem happy with the way things are going, despite Omicron’s bumps.
“We’ve already presented five weeks of touring on Broadway, and we’ve had great turnout — our audiences are showing up with enthusiasm,” said Joan H. Squires, president of Omaha Performing Arts, which has hosted touring productions from “Cats” and “Hamilton” in the fall, then “Dear Evan Hansen” in the days before and after the New Years holidays. Squires ended up scanning tickets at the door for “Dear Evan Hansen” because too few of volunteer ushers were available but she attributed this more to wintry weather than Covid concerns.
The biggest brands, as always, sell the strongest. And “Hadestown,” which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2019 and began touring in October, is off to a strong start. “‘Hadestown’ came just as we were starting to see the peak of Omicron, and it far exceeded our attendance and sales goals,” said Maria Van Laanen, president and CEO of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. at Appleton.
Presenters in some cities describe a slowdown in sales with the success of Omicron. “We definitely noticed a slower buying pattern over the holidays – any other year we would have been completely sold out, but obviously that wasn’t the case as there was some hesitation,” Jeffrey said. Finn, vice president of theater. production and programming at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. “Having said that, I’m seeing a big recovery as we head into spring with the hope and expectation that Omicron won’t be as present.”
Security measures vary across the country. Most shows require audiences to wear masks, except in cities where such requirements are prohibited; vaccination rules for the public follow local government protocols (actors and other theater workers must be vaccinated).
Maintaining visits required shows to add staff members. “Hamilton” now employs seven “universal swings,” who are versatile performers ready to travel wherever they need to fill, up from four before the pandemic; “The Lion King” brought three more swings.
“Come From Away” offers a particularly vivid case study in the creativity also needed to keep shows afloat. The company was hit by Covid earlier this month when it arrived in Minneapolis, where it was due to spend two weeks.
“We went 15 weeks with no problems, but then Omicron came along and started to wreak havoc,” said Johnson, who has been on the tour since 2018. “At one point half the cast was put on. apart.”
The producers canceled three performances, giving them plenty of time to bring in actors from California, New York and Toronto, and the show then resumed with a mixed cast that included not only Broadway alumni but also productions in Australia, Canada and Great Britain.
“It’s the endless Rubik’s Cube of trying to keep a show going,” said “Come From Away” lead producer Sue Frost.
Among those on the plane was Happy McPartlin, a Broadway cast replacement, who had just recovered from her own Covid case. “I said ‘Of course’ because that’s what we do here,” she said. “I knew what state we were in. We had a few bad weeks where the numbers weren’t in our favor, and one of the tour people came and saved us. I said, ‘If you need me, I’ll do the same for you.’
Not all cancellations were short-lived. In December, “Ain’t Too Proud” canceled two weeks in Washington; “The Lion King” missed 12 performances in Denver, while “Wicked” canceled six performances in Cleveland. “Hamilton” closed for a month in Los Angeles, and when it reopens next month, it’s now scheduled to stay just six more weeks, rather than ending in the spring as originally planned.
“I almost forgot about Covid for a little while because we got so used to it, and it was so much fun to do the show, but on Christmas Eve we had so many positive tests that we didn’t got to do the show, and we canceled half an hour after it was supposed to start,” said Nicholas Christopher, who plays Aaron Burr in the Los Angeles production of “Hamilton.” Christopher had moved from New York to Los Angeles for “Hamilton”; he, his wife and their new baby all tested positive in December, then he found out the Los Angeles series was ending.
“It’s very revealing and very humbling, and it makes me appreciate what we’re doing even more, because it’s been taken away from us so many times,” he said. “It’s almost like PTSD, having quit the show again. It still feels like a dream I’m ready to wake up from.