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Will NY arts return after COVID? 'The show will go on,' Cuomo says

Peter D. Kramer
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to do for Broadway and New York arts venues what he did for the Buffalo Bills: Put fans back in the seats after rapid pop-up COVID testing.

In his second State of the State address of the week on Tuesday, the Democrat announced the “New York Arts Renewal,” a plan to bring back the arts after 10 months in the dark.

"One thing is clear," Cuomo said. "We must act. We cannot wait until summer to turn the lights back on and provide a living wage for artists."

The arts, he said, "accounts for almost half a million jobs and generates $100 billion in economic output" and artists are "part of what makes New York, New York.

“What is a city without social, cultural and creative synergies?" Cuomo asked. "New York City is not New York without Broadway."

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The pandemic has taken a huge toll on artists, the governor said, citing a National Endowment for the Arts study that found 52% of actors, 55% of dancers and 27% of musicians out of work in September.

Cuomo pointed to the success of Saturday's Buffalo Bills playoff game, at which fans were welcomed back to the stands at Bills Stadium. Thousands of fans were rapid-tested for COVID before being permitted inside. That model could be expanded, to scale, for other venues, he said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that the rapid-testing program piloted for last week's Buffalo Bills playoff game showed a way forward for entertainment venues and, perhaps, Broadway.

"Mass rapid testing poses great possibilities and can be completed in as little as 15 minutes," he said. "Testing was done in a drive-thru at approximately five minutes per car. All early indications suggest this model was successful and it poses great possibility to reopen events to the public."

That sounds good to Bruce Wheeler, the general manager at Port Chester's Capitol Theatre, a newly refurbished rock venue.

Wheeler said he hadn’t seen the governor’s speech, but he liked what he was hearing about it.

“Our last show was the beginning of March 2020, and we've been eager to reopen, but we want to ensure that we're doing it safely, not only for our patrons, but for our staff,” Wheeler said. “The message from the governor today would seem to put some new energy into that goal. We're very eagerly awaiting what those protocols will be. And then we'll make efforts to match or exceed those protocols.”

Jack Ahearn, an employee at The Capitol Theater in Port Chester, walks away after placing a "Stay Safe Port Chester" message on the marquee, March 12, 2020, when the theater went dark. Bruce Wheeler, The Cap's executive director, said the rock venue is ready to try to meet any protocol it must to reopen. It just needs to know what they are.

Broadway and Tribeca

Without giving financial details of the public-private partnership, Cuomo announced a series of performances and events across the state "beginning February by more than 150 world-class artists, including Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Renee Fleming, Wynton Marsalis and Hugh Jackman."

The project will be overseen by Tony-winning Broadway producer Scott Rudin and Jane Rosenthal, one of the creators of the Tribeca Film Festival, which will mark its 20th anniversary with in-person screenings, the governor said.

The New York State Council on the Arts will play a role, as will other arts groups. Among them, Cuomo said, are: 

  • Ballet Hispanico 
  • ARS Nova
  • The Albany Symphony Orchestra
  • The National Black Theater
  • Pendragon Theater in Saranac Lake
In his second State of the State address of the week on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the “New York Arts Renewal,” a plan to bring back the arts after 10 months in the dark. Ali Ewoldt, originally from Pleasantville, has starred in Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and The King and I on Broadway. Ewoldt, photographed Oct. 14, 2020 outside the Majestic Theater in Manhattan

Some performances will be at outdoor venues in state parks and other state facilities, Cuomo said, along with "flexible venues adapted for social distancing, like the Park Avenue Armory, St. Ann's Warehouse and the Queens Theater."

Cuomo said the arts drive will "culminate with two landmark events," the opening of Little Island at Pier 55, a new park and performance space in the Hudson River off 14th Street, and the return of the Tribeca Film Festival.

While he mentioned Broadway's value, Cuomo was short on details about the return of that industry, which will take time to start back up.

When the pandemic hit, Broadway producers returned all advance ticket sales and stopped advertising and marketing. Any restart would mean cranking that mechanism back up, building back an audience and getting back in the rehearsal hall. Some shows, such as "Frozen," announced they would not return when Broadway reopens.

When Broadway shut down, Tony-winning producer Kevin McCollum had $200,000 in sushi downtown, awaiting his opening night audience for "Six," a musical about the wives of Henry VIII. The curtain was set to rise at 6:30 p.m. Cuomo shut the theaters at 5 p.m. No opening.

McCollum had another musical, "Mrs. Doubtfire," in its second week of previews.

Asked at the time if closing theaters was extreme or necessary, McCollum said it was both.

Tony-winning producer Kevin McCollum had a musical about to open, "Six," and another in previews, "Mrs. Doubtfire," when Gov. Cuomo shut the theaters in March.

"It was extreme, but it was very necessary because those of us in the theater, it's very hard to socially distance backstage, not including the audience," he said.

"Rapid testing is important," said McCollum, a Tony-winner for "In the Heights." "The ability to know people are safe in a facility is important. And I think Cuomo has been remarkably clear and working as hard as he can and I know the theater is deeply appreciative of his support and his clarity on these issues."

But the industry is in dire need of help, he said, help that will result in immediate economic activity.

"The economic impact of Broadway is not a trickle down," he said. "It is a waterfall to hospitality and restaurants and airlines," he said. Money is spent up front, he said, on union workers who get shows ready for audiences and go home to houses they own and kids they're putting through school.

A vision 

The details of rapid pop-up testing will need to be worked out, McCollum said.

"I think the concept can work. It's different testing people in a car versus testing people on the street, but I also know that that's logistics and execution. But if you have the vision, the logistics and the execution can follow. And what we've lacked on a federal level is the vision. Cuomo has done the best he can, hampered by not having a federal plan."

While short on financial details, Cuomo said "this initiative will be a joint effort between the state and the philanthropic partners."

The state, Cuomo said, will look at large indoor spaces "with testing and ventilation to explore what possible safe and smart options exist."

He also announced the Creative Rebuild Initiative, which will "put over a thousand artists back to work and fund dozens of community arts groups, each playing a vital role in New York's vibrant art scene."

"The show will go on," Cuomo said. "The fans will be back. New York will be in New York again. We will go to performances and we will applaud like never before."

McCollum has a producer's optimism, buoyed by Cuomo's announcement and Save Our Stages federal relief aimed at bringing Broadway back.

"We are ready to come back as soon as it's safe and as soon as we get the support we need from Save Our Stages, but also the city and the state," he said. "And everyone's working very hard to make that happen."

Bjorn Olsson, the executive director of the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, is pictured in front of the hall March 17, 2020, shortly after it closed for the pandemic. Said Olsson on Tuesday: "We're all hurting. We're all suffering. But, you know, we want to be safe when we open for our artists, for our volunteers, for our audiences, and for ourselves. We just want to make sure that it doesn't end in tragedy."

'A roadmap' forward

Bjorn Olsson, executive director of the Tarrytown Music Hall, said Tuesday that Cuomo’s proposal, coming on the heels of the venue-assisting Save Our Stages, could be a great relief to artists, who have suffered much in the pandemic.

"If you desperately try to look for silver linings, I think there are a couple," Olsson said. "We've learned that there really is no substitute for live performing arts. We all enjoy a good stream, but it's just not the same. And there's the economic side of it, how much Tarrytown's downtown has been able to flourish because we've been able to to pull in so many people, week in and week out."

Olsson said the early fall and winter, when people realized it was going to take a lot longer to get on the other side of the pandemic, was hard, but he said "it feels like we sort of have a roadmap for it."

"I don't think you can ever get to 100% certainty, but this certainly does seem like a good way to open that path a little earlier than otherwise, but we will have to wait for what the actual guidance is on that," Olsson said.

There's a lot of pent-up demand.

"Our audience, people we talk to, they can't wait to get back," Olsson said. "Our hundreds of volunteers, they can't wait to get back and see more shows. And I think artists are itching to get out on the road again. Once this is over, I think it's going to be an amazing celebration of the performing arts everywhere."

He likens it to the Roaring Twenties, which roared, in large part, because of what had come before: World War I and that other pandemic, 1917 influenza.

"The Roaring Twenties also saw the greatest theater building boom this country has ever seen," Olsson said. "The Music Hall is way older than that, but so many of the big historic venues that we still have today were built in the 20s and 30s and came after the influenza epidemic because there was just such a hunger for it."

Peter D. Kramer is a 32-year staffer at The Journal News. He can be reached at pkramer@lohud.com or on Twitter at @PeterKramer. Read his latest stories. Please follow the link on the page below and become a backer of this kind of coverage. It only works with you as a subscriber.