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Irene as Broadway showstopper

Storm forces cancellation of weekend performances, throwing plans of thousands — many from out of town — into disarray. Off-Broadway theaters also feel the pain.

August 29, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • A man walks in Times Square as Hurricane Irene arrives in New York on Sunday.
A man walks in Times Square as Hurricane Irene arrives in New York on Sunday. (Mike Groll / Associated…)

Reporting from New York — — When Kate Naver, an Australian who'd come to New York to see Broadway shows, watched Friday night as "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" star John Larroquette ad-libbed a joke about Hurricane Irene, she was tickled.

But shortly after the show ended, she was far less pleased when she learned that the storm had forced the cancellation of Broadway performances the rest of the weekend, including a Saturday evening staging of "Mary Poppins" for which she held a ticket.

"I'm from Melbourne, where we have storms like this all the time," Naver, 37, said. "I can't believe so many people now have their theater plans ruined because of some rain, or even a lot of rain."

Naver is among the thousands of theatergoers, many from out of town and on restrictive schedules, whose plans were thrown into disarray when the theater trade group the Broadway League announced it was canceling all weekend performances because of Irene. Many off-Broadway theaters were forced to follow suit when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg halted all mass transit at noon Saturday, effectively cutting off actors and crews from Manhattan.

It was the first en masse closure in New York theater for nonlabor reasons since a blackout in August 2003. To some, the pain was more acute because Irene caused little damage in the city and also brought little rain during the daytime matinee hours.

Theatergoers weren't the only ones losing out. For an industry that has been blessed lately with healthy attendance — Broadway took in a record $1.08 billion for the year ending May 31, a 6% increase over the previous year — it was a substantial blow. For some shows, the storm scrapped four performances, each one capable of bringing in as much as $250,000 in ticket sales, according to one estimate. Off-Broadway productions had it even rougher, since they usually operate on thinner margins.

Refunds are being given to all Broadway patrons, with some shows working out exchange policies, though many out-of-town visitors won't be able to take advantage of them. The Broadway League and many off-Broadway theater operators said they would resume a normal schedule Monday, when a full roster of public-transit services was scheduled to return.

For "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the closures were an especially difficult pill. Three productions were canceled, slowing momentum on a show that seemed to have been given a jump-start when it rebooted with a new book and director in June.

"There was a little bit of here-we-go-again," said "Spider-Man" co-lead producer Jeremiah J. Harris, alluding to the show's much publicized problems. "It was definitely something we didn't need."

Harris said he and his partners had decided to shut down even before the Broadway League came to the same conclusion for the entire theater district.

"It would be a problem if, during a performance, the electricity went out with 2,000 people in the theater and only the emergency lights came on, and Spider-Man was hanging up there," he said, seeming to evoke the show's history of actor mishaps.

All three performances had been sold out, Harris added, resulting in an estimated loss of about $700,000 over the weekend.

Producers point out that, unlike baseball, theater performances can't be made up, since Actors' Equity and various circumstances limit the number of performances in a given week. That meant the shutdown caused a particularly issue for smaller productions, which need every dollar they can get.

"What [Bloomberg] did was cut us off at the knees," said Pamela Hall, a partner and director at the St. Luke's Theatre, a popular off-Broadway venue near Times Square that is staging several productions, including the farce "My Big Gay Italian Wedding" and the musical "Danny and Sylvia."

"First he sent out a directive telling us to close, and our actors all live in New Jersey and Brooklyn, so they couldn't get here even if we wanted to stay open."

A hugely popular show such as "The Book of Mormon" was less likely to feel the impact. But ticket holders may not have been thinking that way; many had waited months for tickets to the Tony-winning musical satire, often paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege of entering the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Those who bought tickets at the box office could exchange them for another time subject to availability — a challenge, since there isn't an available "Mormon" seat for weeks if not months.

Around Manhattan, patrons offered everything from frustration to resignation when asked about their shelved theater plans. Many opted for shopping, some for comedy clubs.

A few were trying to keep a brave face. Sue and Scott Cherry from Dallas watched as their planned Saturday night outing for "Jersey Boys" was scotched. "I guess we'll just find a bar," Scott Cherry said.

The performers too looked to make the best of a tough situation.

At a revival of the Cole Porter musical "Anything Goes," one actor offered a bit of gallows humor to the nervous New York City crowd Friday.

When his costar fed him the line "Captain, Captain — a catastrophe! We may have to delay the sailing!" the actor playing the captain, Walter Charles, quipped. 'What is it? Icebergs?"— and then added, "A hurricane?" eliciting a huge laugh from the audience.

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