The Show Must Not Go On: 14 Times Broadway Went Dark
On Monday, June 29, the Broadway League announced that all Broadway shows have been canceled for the remainder of the year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Though it’s far from the first time the brilliant lights of the Broadway marquees have gone dark, it’s definitely the longest drought; most of the previous shutdowns lasted no more than a few days or weeks, whereas this one began back on March 12.
It’s also the first time a public health scare is to blame; other culprits include worker strikes, power outages, and inclement weather. While you’re waiting for Broadway’s stars to return to the stage, put on your favorite original cast recording and find out how past shutdowns played out, as compiled by Untapped Cities.
1. The 1919 AEA STrike
Theater actors had succeeded in creating their own union—the Actors’ Equity Association, or AEA—in 1913, but they hadn’t succeeded in securing certain contract regulations and other workplace standards by the end of the decade. So on August 7, 1919, the AEA organized a strike against the Producing Managers’ Association (PMA). Actors marched through the streets of New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. Broadway performances ceased for a whole month, until the PMA agreed to the union’s requests. The strike came to an official end on September 7, 1919.
2. The 1960 AEA Strike
All was well (enough) in the AEA for the next 40-odd years, but the actors struck again for 11 days in 1960—from June 2 to June 12, 1960—to call for pension improvements. According to The New York Times, restaurants near the theaters suffered anywhere from a 25 to 75 percent decrease in business during the shutdown.
3. The One-Day Walkout of 1964
The 1960s were a tumultuous decade for Broadway actors, who threatened to walk out in June 1964 if their minimum wage wasn’t increased. Negotiations happened fast—resulting in a $12.50 increase in base weekly salary, spread out over four years—so only 16 of the original 27 shows ended up shutting down on the night of June 8, 1964.
4. The 1968 AEA Strike
The last strike of the ’60s, which occurred from June 17 to June 21, 1968, was also over wages. The AEA wanted a 54 percent weekly salary increase for all members (plus a shorter contract renewal period and higher pay for actors in traveling shows) to account for the rising cost of living in New York City. After a few days, the organization accepted a 20 percent increase, and performers returned to work immediately.
5. The Broadway Musicians strike of 1975
In 1975, it was Broadway musicians’ turn to demand better pay; 300 of them refused to perform for 25 days—from September 18 to October 13, 1975—after which they reached an agreement with producers for an extra $90 per week over three years.
6. The September 11 break
No Broadway performances occurred following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani was anxious to reopen the theaters both to keep the economic effects of a shutdown to a minimum and to demonstrate the solidarity and strength of the community. Shows went on as planned on September 13, and several culminated with rousing renditions of “God Bless America.”
7. The Virtual Orchestra Backlash of 2003
In 2003, the League of American Theatres and Producers wanted to get rid of orchestra minimums, which mandated that about 25 musicians (depending on the theater) perform live during each show. Instead, several live musicians would be accompanied by “virtual orchestras”—computers with prerecorded music that could be easily adjusted to match singers’ tempos. The backlash was huge, and actors and crew members joined the musicians in a five-day strike from March 7 to March 11, 2003 to oppose the proposal. In the end, the orchestra minimums did get decreased to 18 or 19 live musicians.
8. The Northeast Blackout of 2003
A second round of theater closures hit Broadway in 2003, when a sudden blackout occurred throughout Northeastern America and parts of Canada. The outage affected an estimated 45 million Americans and forced theaters to keep their doors closed on August 14, 2003. When power was restored to most of the Theater District just past noon the following day, producers decided that one night off had been enough and resumed production.
9. The 2007 Stagehand Strike
Stagehands proved the show could not go on without them by shutting down Broadway for 19 days in 2007—from November 10 to November 29—during which time they negotiated drastically better salaries, overtime pay, and relaxed rules for load-ins (when the crew sets up a new production in a theater).
10. Hurricane Irene Blackout of 2011
One year before Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city, Hurricane Irene struck New York City, forcing theaters to close for a 48-hour period from August 27 to August 28, 2011.
11. Hurricane Sandy Shutdown of 2012
To keep people safe during Hurricane Sandy, city officials closed the subways—and Broadway theaters followed suit. After four days of going dark, from October 28 to October 31, performances began to reopen after Halloween. But lower turnout caused the permanent shutdown of a few shows that fall, including The Performers and Kathie Lee Gifford’s Scandalous.
12. The Blizzard of 2016
New York City was hit with its biggest blizzard in history on January 23, 2016, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned travel and declared a state of emergency. Broadway called off all performances that night—but only that night.
13. The Blackout of 2019
A completely unexpected partial shutdown occurred on July 13, 2019, when a power outage affected more than 20 Broadway theaters on the west side. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, performers from shows like Hadestown and Waitress entertained audiences with impromptu concerts in the streets. Shows like Beetlejuice, Burn This, and Beautiful, which performed on the opposite side of Broadway, were able to go on.
14. THe Coronavirus Closure
On March 12, 2020, Governor Cuomo banned events with more than 500 attendees to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which meant all Broadway performances would need to be immediately canceled. The initial shutdown was scheduled to last until April 12, but officials have prolonged it incrementally as the pandemic continued to devastate the nation. On Monday, June 29, the Broadway League announced all theaters would remain dark through the end of the year, with tentative plans to reopen in early 2021.
[h/t Untapped Cities]