West End and Broadway theatres are closed, but there's still ways to get your theatre fix
Last Thursday, Broadway formally shut down business, announcing a 32-day closure to run to 13th April. It kicked in at 5pm that day, thus terminating the opening night performance, scheduled for just an hour and a half later, of the Broadway transfer of the musical Six (the reviews were already written and ready to go as critics routinely now see shows at designated invited previews, but they have now been held until the opening finally happens).
This followed a city and state order prohibiting gatherings of more than 500 people, so they had no choice. Two days ago, President Trump revised the guidelines, telling the public to avoid groups of more than ten people. Carnegie Hall has now already extended its closure to 10th, so the idea that Broadway may come back on 14th April is looking increasingly unlikely. Especially when New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has today declared, "You are past the time of monetizing these decisions. You are at a point of deciding: how many people are going to live, how many people are going to die?”
As Patti LuPone, who was starring in the London transfer of Company to Broadway that was in previews ahead of a planned opening on 23rd March, commented to the New York Times when the initial closure was announced last week, "The idea that our venerable, majestic houses are dark, and that there will be no lights on Broadway — I'm romanticizing, but that’s the heartbeat of the city, and to think that they've been forced into darkness is shocking. I’m shocked that they took this tack, but also grateful they did, just to keep us healthy."
It's a thought echoed by a performer from a very different genre, the Grammy Award–winning Senegalese singer Angélique Kidjo, who was due to appear at Carnegie Hall last Saturday, and told the New York Post following its cancellation, "It’s a good thing and a real sad thing at the same time. People have to be safe. Right now, I mean, our lives are in danger with this virus. The concert, we can reschedule — it can happen anytime."
So it was hardly surprising that the West End duly followed suit on Monday... though not by official government decree. In the Prime Minister's now daily briefing, Boris Johnson said, "It is time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others. That means people should work from home where possible and avoid pubs, clubs and theatres." Notice the "should" - not "must". So he handed the decision to theatre managements and audiences themselves. And, as Richard Morrison noted in a column for The Times yesterday, "By doing that, he created an ambiguity that makes it improbable that entertainment venues can claim compensation for their closure on their insurance policies".
This may have saved some cash for the financial services and insurance industry, but is almost certainly dooming the theatrical sector. And some shows are already falling like dominoes in turn: The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, now in its fourth year at the Criterion, was previously scheduled to end that run on 3rd May; it announced yesterday that it played its final performance last Sunday before the shutdown was imposed. Likewise, the Royal Court abandoned the rest of its planned run for Shoe Lady, which was supposed to close on 21st March.
SOLT, in a display of real leadership to the sector, brought the curtain down on shows in all West End theatres with immediate effect that night, despite the Prime Minister's own prevarications and uncertainty, for the health of theatre staff, actors and audiences alike. Even if it was a blow to me personally, as I had been desperately keen to see City of Angels at the Garrick that evening - already guessing that a shutdown of the West End was imminent, I had personally requested permission to attend from the director Josie Rourke and producer Nica Burns, and both had kindly agreed to let me in.
But it wasn't to be; I travelled into the West End and the first sign of trouble was as I emerged onto Charing Cross Road from Leicester Square station and saw theatre staff outside Wyndham's, handing out leaflets that explained that the scheduled performance of Leopoldstadt was cancelled. I wasn't going to see that show myself, but picked one up anyway - which somewhat mysteriously cited another reason for the cancellation: "We very much regret that due to technical difficulties beyond our control, it was necessary to cancel this performance."
So I travelled back home - via a theatre right on my doorstep, Southwark Playhouse, about 500 yards from my home. And here's where I was delivered a really bittersweet gift: not only was that night's performance of The Last Five Years that I'd raved about here playing, but also its sublime leading actress Molly Lynch was back in the show, too, for the first time since going off ill more than a week earlier (some performances were lost before they brought in a temporary cover).
So I was able to see it one more time, and Lynch was able to perform it one last time, before the entire live theatre industry was shut down yesterday. (And if it was a haunting way to end this chapter of my theatregoing life, at least it was an achingly beautiful one, too, in which a couple close the chapter on their own relationship).
I wasn't the only critic seeing one last show, though: in the Daily Telegraph, Claire Allfree reported on her visit to Jermyn Street Theatre, where veteran Shakespearean actor Michael Pennington was playing Prospero in a new production of The Tempest. As she wrote, "If there is a national crisis going on, someone forgot to tell the 20 or so doughty members of the audience who on Monday night ignored waffly government suggestions regarding self-isolation and the over-seventies and went to the theatre." She went on to describe the performance she witnessed: "The Tempest is an elegiac play at the best of times; on Monday night, it felt positively end of days. Lines such as 'The solemn temples, the great globe itself/ yea, all of which it shall inherit shall dissolve" seemed to acquire, in Pennington's hypnotically sonorous delivery, a charge of almost unbearable poignancy."
Allfree ends her review by quoting a notice on Jermyn Street's website: "Our revels are now (susp)ended," and says, "To which admirable display of fighting spirit one can only say: bravo."
And it's that fighting spirit which is now taking over on Twitter and other social media channels. TheShowMustGoOnline was one such initiative that was quickly launched, with the intention of reading the complete plays of William Shakespeare in the order they were written, livestreamed on YouTube from March 19th at 7pm.
YouTube will come into its own as a archive of past performances, too, of course, in which theatregoers will be able to curate their own journeys through theatrical performances. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Opera in New York is already streaming a title from its Live in HD series each night through the duration of its closure. The performances, originally captured as live broadcasts in movie theatres worldwide, will begin at 7.30pm (EST) from the company's homepage or the Met Opera on Demand apps for Apple, Amazon, and Roku devices and Samsung Smart TV. Other producers are also making past productions available: Jamie Hendry, who brought Stiles and Drewe's musical version of The Wind in the Willows to the London Palladium in the summer of 2017, has now made a video version of it available online for free at willowsmusical.com). As Hendry has commented, "We're facing huge challenges ahead, but at this time of uncertainty this is a small contribution we can make to continue bringing theatre to audiences." It is gestures like this that will make all the difference as we are confined to our homes in the next few weeks. I hope we can all take advantage of them.