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New York Theater in 2021-2022: Looking Forward by Looking Back

Another interruption to Broadway and Off Broadway when we thought we were headed for normal. What's coming in the new year?

Funny Girl. Image: Courtesy of Funny Girl on Broadway promo material

During the past few months, it was starting to seem like slowly but surely, the New York theater industry was getting back on its feet after the devastating setbacks caused by pandemic-initiated total closure for over a year and a half. New shows opened on Broadway and off, and long-running shows like Phantom of the Opera, Aladdin and The Book of Mormon re-opened with much fanfare (including a festive block party featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber DJ’ing a dance party open to all comers). These were vital economic signals not only for Broadway, but for New York City and its businesses, which depend heavily on tourism dollars. A life-saving government support bill (sponsored by New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer) helped underwrite the revival. But the wildfire of new Covid cases brought about by the Omicron variant have caused anxieties anew, leading to serious concerns in some corners and utter panic in others.

The Music Man. Photo: Joan Marcus

I remain optimistic, hoping the new outbreak will blow through the city in a matter of weeks (as some medical professionals have predicted) and the recovery will resume. Fortunately, January tends to be a bit of a slow period for theater anyhow (with many shows ending at the end of the calendar year and new shows in early production and rehearsal; and it’s also the month with the lowest number of tourists in the city).

So, this gives us an opportunity to take a look forward and see what the remainder of the 2021-22 season has to offer, as well as look back at the highlights and lessons learned from the first half.

August/September 2021—The Resurrection

Despite a concerted effort to produce theater online and offer fans a chance to see their favorite performers doing “something different,” the first lesson learned upon the rise of the first curtain in late summer was that there’s really nothing like live theater. Nothing. Being in an audience for the first time in a year and a half with others sitting (somewhat) nearby was thrilling. The fans felt it and the actors felt it.

Some highlights:

What Happened? The Michaels Abroad – a community (of modern dancers) coping with both personal loss as well as the pandemic and isolation. About as “meta” as you can get, but it worked well because it was so relatable.

What Happened? The Michaels Abroad. Photos: Jason Ardizzone-West

Kristina Wong: Sweatshop Overlord hilariously and touchingly chronicled the efforts of the eponymous performance artist’s efforts to contribute by creating a network of volunteers who took scrap material and sewed masks for essential workers in the early months of the pandemic when protective gear was in short supply.

The Public Theater re-opened Shakespeare in the Park with a rollicking production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. One of Shakespeare’s weaker plays, this production brought in a message of the value and importance of community.

The pause also produced a chance for theater companies to re-examine discrimination within their organizations and to reassess their levels of inclusiveness, resulting in a great deal of change, or at very least new, purposeful mission statements. How that plays out in the long run remains to be seen.

Mrs. Doubtfire. Photo: Joan Marcus

The most powerful lesson from the first half of the year is that audiences can no longer (at least for now) be relied on to fill seats for even popular plays. And operating at partial capacity is a death knell to a production, as evidenced by the many shows (some critically acclaimed, others not) which closed early, from Chicken and Biscuits to Fairycakes to Diana.

Which leads us to some thoughts about the forthcoming second half of the season. Several plays, like Skeleton Crew, have postponed their opening by many weeks with the hopes that their cast and crew will no longer be impacted by Omicron. And Mrs. Doubtfire has gone on hiatus until early March because of the impact on ticket sales. Probably a wise move. Meanwhile, productions like the highly anticipated The Music Man, are making so much use of understudies that its star, Hugh Jackman, has made several public statements about how valuable and underappreciated those members of the team really are. And, like the script of an old Hollywood movie, there are understudies getting unexpected recognition. Who knows, a star may be born amidst the chaos.

The Music Man. Photo Courtesy of Music Man on Broadway Twitter page

Presuming things return to normal within the next few weeks and a full shutdown is avoided (as things look now, a total shutdown is extremely unlikely), I’m looking forward to several productions:

  • Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl
  • Paradise Square, set in The Five Points neighborhood of old New York
  • John Douglas Thompson as Shylock in Theater for a New Audience’s Merchant of Venice
  • Ruth Negga and Daniel Craig in Macbeth (not to be confused with the just-released film version, starring Denzel Washington)
  • Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer winning drama How I Learned to Drive
  • The Music Man, because you can’t go wrong with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster
  • SNL alum Cecily Strong in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was originated by Lily Tomlin
  • Playwright Joshua Harmon’s examination of the recent resurgence of anti-semitism in Prayer for the French Republic

Fingers are crossed and breath is being held in hopes that I’ll be reviewing most, if not all of the above for you in the coming months. Producers have likely realized after the initial return that audiences are hungry for good, solid entertainment. And that if they don’t make it happen, seats won’t be filled.


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