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Broadway is back – how New York’s famous shows have opened for business again

For more than a year and a half, Broadway has been dark, the last major attraction in New York City to remain closed. Starting this month, however, the theatre district will start flickering back on, the small pinpricks of light growing bigger and brighter by the week.

Everything came back – concerts, indoor dining – but Broadway fans have had to live without this art form for so long,” said Ayanna Prescod, co-producer of “Pass Over” and host of the “What’s Up Broadway?” podcast. “I see the excitement to come back and I see the worry. But I know it’s safe. I bring my mother to shows.”

Earlier this summer, a few productions had tiptoed back onto the stage, namely “Springsteen on Broadway” and “Pass Over.” This month, the pace will pick up with 15 shows, followed by 12 in October, six in November and four in December. The returnees are a mix of stalwarts, debuts and revivals. Several shows, such as “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Company” and “Six,” were in the midst of previews or early in their run when the pandemic struck.

“In a traditional year, we only have new shows,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, a national trade association. “Now, we have ‘Wicked’ and ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Company’ and ‘Six’ and ‘Girl From the North Country.’ ” In other words, two established musicals, two newbies and one revival starring Patti LuPone.

New York City officially reopened July 1, but Broadway did not join the stampede. Theatres used the extra time to institute measures that would protect audience members and employees without disrupting the live theatre experience. The venues upgraded their HVAC air-filtration systems or installed new filters recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depending on the age of the building. Theatre owners trained their ticket takers to check vaccine cards or digital apps for patrons 12 and older (effective through Oct. 31) and negative test results for young children and exempt adults. Ushers also learned how to enforce the indoor mask mandate with diplomacy.

“We wish we could have opened 18 months ago, but we were not coming back till the safety protocols were in place,” said St. Martin, adding: “We could not open Broadway with social distancing.”

Because of these practices, the theatres can pack their houses. By definition, a Broadway theatre must have at least 500 seats. Many of the 41 venues can fit two or three times as many people; for instance, the Gershwin Theatre, the largest playhouse, can hold 1,933 patrons. On Sept. 2, “Waitress” and “Hadestown” (pictured top) sold out their reopening nights, with overjoyed theatregoers occupying more than 2,000 seats combined. The following day, “Waitress” broke the single-performance sales record at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, toppling the previous top earner, “Betrayal,” which starred Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz in 2013.

“These protocols make you feel safe,” said Dori Berinstein, co-founder of the Broadway Podcast Network and a producer for “Is This a Room” and “Dana H.,” which will kick off previews in September and October, respectively. “You can relax and lose yourself in the performance.”

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A signpost for Broadway in New York (Martin Keene/PA)

For the most part, the Broadway experience has changed little. Theatregoers can buy tickets online or at the box office. Everyone streams in through the same entrance and must stop at the first set of ushers, who will scan tickets and check proof of vaccination and IDs. Another group of ushers posted inside the theatre will help with seating and hand out programs. In the pre-show announcement, a staff member will remind guests to turn off their cellphones and wear their masks. During intermission, guests can lower their face coverings to drink and eat their purchases from the concession stands. After the show, some people will disappear into the night, while others will congregate under the marquee sign to critique the show or linger over the evening.

“The theatre was so prepared. There were no delays or concerns,” Bob Hofmann, vice president of Broadway Inbound, an official wholesale provider for travel companies, said of his recent evening at “Pass Over.” “Initially, it felt weird to wear a mask, but it didn’t take long for it to feel like the same theatrical experience.”

In 2019, more than 14.6 million people attended a Broadway show over 1,705 weeks, according to Broadway League. The industry won’t come close to reaching that number this year. For one, Broadway lost more than half of its 2021 season to the pandemic. International tourists, who account for about 15 to 20 percent of ticket sales, are mostly not permitted into the country. Ardent theatregoers pounced on tickets as soon as they went on sale – Hofmann calls them the “ready-to-goes” – but many people are proceeding more cautiously. Some are waiting to ensure that theatres are safe and that no outbreaks occur. Others want more shows to open, so they can load up their itinerary with multiple performances.

“We won’t be 100 percent or even 85 percent sold out tomorrow. It will be incremental,” Hofmann said. “More shows coming on and more activity will bring people back.”

Hofmann said he has noticed that people are buying tickets closer to curtain time instead of weeks or months in advance, a pattern seen throughout the travel industry. He said now is an opportune time to plan a Broadway outing, especially if you are willing to book further out. “There is a window of opportunity for all of the shows,” he said. And, yes, that includes mega-hits such as “Hamilton,” too.

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Times Square and 42nd Street is a busy tourist intersection of neon art and commerce and is an iconic street of New York City and America

Unlike airlines and hotels that have lowered rates to entice travellers, Broadway has kept its prices steady. During the 2018-2019 season, admission averaged about $124, although more than half of Broadway tickets cost less than $100. To purchase tickets, it’s best to go straight to the source – the show’s website and ticket provider or the theatre’s box office – and avoid the labyrinth of online ticket resellers and brokers.

Since the pandemic, the theatres have introduced more flexible refund and exchange policies, with most venues allowing patrons to cancel or reschedule within 48 hours of showtime. Additionally, if people plan NYC trips through an online travel operator, they can sometimes tack a Broadway show onto the vacation package. For example, an “activities” search on Expedia uncovered five shows for early October, including “The Lion King,” “Come From Away” and “Girl From the North Country.”

Much to the relief of budget hawks and procrastinators, the theatre district’s last-minute ticket-buying options have also returned. The TKTS discount ticket booth in Times Square, which reopens September 14, sells same-day tickets and next-day matinee tickets for up to half-off. You must buy the tickets in person, but you can peruse the roster of shows and prices on the company’s app and website. Many productions allocate a number of seats for the digital lottery: Simply toss your name into the virtual ring and hope for the best.

For example, LuckySeat.com is holding lotteries for “Pass Over” ($30) and “Hadestown” ($47.50). Broadway Direct also runs lotteries for several shows. On the day of the performance, some theaters sell rush tickets for a discounted price, such as $35 for “Pass Over.”

To increase your chances, people can at the box office as soon as it opens. You can also try your luck in the cancellation line, which releases returned tickets for face value, including premium seats for highly coveted shows. If your legs aren’t too wobbly after a day of running around the city, consider a standing-room-only ticket for a sold-out performance. Playbill and BroadwayWorld have compiled a roundup of these alternatives, but always check with the theatre for the most current information.

“It’s a game,” Hofmann said of these methods. “Try the lottery or day-of services for a second or third show.”

For productions on the top of your wish list, he said, buy your tickets ahead of time. After 18 months of waiting, you don’t want to waste another New York minute to see a show on Broadway.

© Washington Post

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