Last month, in the famous moment of public punishment during a conversation with the “Company” cast, a woman in the audience, who was told to put the mask back on, refused and then, mocking the directive, waved it in the air and put it over her eyes. On stage, Patti LuPone didn’t like it and told her to get out. As if bred in a legend-resistant lab—and unlike almost everyone else on Manhattan’s west side—this man was immune to Patti LuPone’s wrath. Defiantly shouting back, she declared: “I pay you a salary.” A Covid theater security officer escorted her out of the building.
According to the actress, the woman should have been expelled as soon as it became clear that she was not going to wear a mask. “It shouldn’t have depended on me,” she said. Earlier this week, I called Ms. LuPone to gauge her attitude towards the changing Covid protocols in the theater world. Tuesday Broadway League, trade association, announced that the owners and operators of all 41 Broadway theaters will implement a mask-free policy effective July 1, just in time for the start of the 2022-2023 season.
In writing statement, League President Charlotte St. Martin did not even pretend to justify the decision with statistics. “Millions of people enjoyed the unique magic of Broadway by recently watching the 75th Tony Awards,” she began, overlooking the fact that “watching” usually takes place at home.
“Are they afraid of losing an audience?” Ms. LuPone questioned, pointing out that masks are still required of cast and crew backstage. “I dont know.” The unions, about a dozen of which are involved in running the theater industry, have been pushing for strict safety rules since the start of the pandemic.
After steadily rising for a decade, Broadway’s revenues have clearly fallen over the past two years. Gross receipts for the week ended June 19 fell to $29 million from the pre-pandemic peak at the end of 2019 is nearly double that. Covid outbreaks among performers have shut down production, further complicating matters. A few weeks ago, Hugh Jackman, currently starring in The Music Man, a second test for Covid was positive. leaving the role of Professor Harold Hill to Max Clayton.
Although the infection rate has eased recently after a spike in late spring, the seven-day average in New York is still more than 10 times what it was last June. However, Broadway theaters – old, windowless and often poorly ventilated – present a particular vulnerability for those who work in them, especially for the actors who interact closely with each other on stage without masks.
Sam Rockwell, who starred in American Buffalo in Circle in the Square, is one of several actors I spoke to who were alarmed by the change in policy. “We are doing theater in a circle,” he told me. “The other day a guy was coughing four feet away from me.” He and the rest of the cast and crew are constantly being tested. “We are testing to be able to remove the mask. We deserve the privilege of taking off our mask and spitting on the stage,” he said. “I don’t know if it occurs to the audience that they are protecting the actors on stage. If someone is angry about having to wear a mask, they should know that we are testing every day.”
It’s hard to know who benefits from the removal, given that people who go to the theater tend to get older and come to New York from somewhere else. What’s more, anyone who has refrained from attending the show due to fear of Covid is unlikely to spend hundreds of dollars on it now that restrictions have eased. “Just looking at it pragmatically doesn’t serve the audience,” Mr. Rockwell said. “Is it about if you want to see Hugh Jackman on the show? Do you want to go see this show? without Patty? Because let me tell you that if she gets Covid, she won’t be on the show for 10 days.”
Last week, six of the 11 actors in Tracey Letts’ acclaimed play “The Minutes” fell ill. One of them, Blair Brown, now in her 70s, has been extra careful in the past two years, staying away from restaurants and public transportation. She didn’t understand how the League would periodically re-evaluate the need for masks—which it has committed to doing—given that movie theaters don’t have a broadcast tracking system.
While it can be difficult for the public to sympathize with actors who seem to be basking in privilege in every way, most of those who appear on the New York stage do not form the ranks of the rich and famous. At the same time, according to the League’s own demographic survey from three years ago, the median annual income for a Broadway theater goer’s family is $261,000. If you don’t want to put on a mask for Hugh Jackman, you can do it for the chorus actor who makes a lot less than the two-line guy who’s going to bed early to teach a barre class at Equinox the next morning.