As theaters across the country close their doors due to COVID-19, many touring productions are stuck in limbo.
Most national and North American tours of Broadway shows are currently on pause, with cast and crew members sent home, while others tours have been forced to end their runs early out of financial necessity. As they wait, touring presenters and booking agents are attempting to reschedule productions into next season, while attempting to navigate local regulations and already locked-in schedules.
“It is the biggest game of whack-a-mole you’ve ever seen,” said Meredith Blair, president of the Booking Group, which schedules touring engagements. “We don’t know what the end game is for any of these markets or any of these tours.”
While Broadway’s reopening date is dependent on a mandate from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the continuance of national tours depends on when individual cities and markets resume large gatherings, as well as guidance on when it is safe to travel between.
Thus far, tours including “Mean Girls,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “My Fair Lady,” both tours of “Hamilton,” as well as “Frozen” and “The Lion King” have suspended performances, with varying guidance on when they will return. The tours of “Aladdin,” “Miss Saigon,” “The SpongeBob Musical,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Once on This Island” have closed.
The tour of “My Fair Lady” was about to head to Des Moines Civic Center, but was held back just before Iowa ordered all theaters closed on March 17, said Jeff Chelesvig, president of the Des Moines Performing Arts, the parent nonprofit theater organization.
His theater group remains in a “wait-and-see situation” as to when it can resume operations, but in the meantime Chelesvig is looking to see if he can reschedule “My Fair Lady,” as well as the postponed “Riverdance” into his next season, which begins in October, or find room before then.
Al Nocciolino, president of NAC Entertainment, Ltd., which presents touring shows in theaters across New York state and in Pennsylvania, is looking to do the same with “Riverdance” and more.
The challenge is that both presenters had already planned out and booked shows for next season.
“We’re in a very changing situation, but for now it’s locked in,” Chelesvig said.
This is also a challenge for Blair, whose company plans the tours of several Broadway shows, including “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away” and “The Book of Mormon.” These tours, which play between one and three week engagements, or longer for blockbuster shows, were already scheduled in tight succession.
Now, Blair is trying to rebook those tours based on several different scenarios of when theaters could return in each market and without affecting pre-set plans.
“What we’re trying to do is not displace anything that was there,” said Blair. If she were to move any shows in the 2020-2021 season, it would create a “domino effect,” she said.
The decision to close a tour, rather than try to plan for future dates can depend on how many weeks of touring engagements remained (“Hello, Dolly!” and “Aladdin,” for example, only had a few weeks remaining) as well as the production’s finances. Restarting a tour requires additional costs related to travel, rehearsal time and more.
Tour producers also recently reached a deal to pay the show’s employees about three weeks of salary while theaters are closed.
Ken Davenport, one of the co-producers of the “Once on This Island” tour and lead producer on the Broadway engagement, said though the tour had about a dozen weeks remaining, the expense of remounting the show pushed the production toward closure.
“‘Once on This Island’ has always been one of those little shows that could and unfortunately the world is going through so much right now,” Davenport said.”The first ones to get affected are the little shows that could.”
At Troika Entertainment, a producer of musical theater tours, all of the company’s domestic tours are “on hold,” said chief executive Randy Buck. The company’s international tour of “Phantom of the Opera” is still playing in Seoul, South Korea.
Stateside, he said he remains hopeful that his tours, which include “My Fair Lady” “Escape to Margaritaville” and “Cats,” can resume in the “not too distant future.”