Live arts performances are back in the US, but audiences have been slow to return

There are fears that Covid-19 is accelerating long-term trends that have troubled arts organisations for years. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Patti LuPone, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig came back to Broadway.

Norwegian diva-in-the-making Lise Davidsen brought her penetrating voice to the Metropolitan Opera. Dancers filled stages, symphonies reverberated in concert halls and international theatre companies returned to American stages.

The resumption of live performance after the long pandemic shutdown brought plenty to cheer about over the past year. But performing arts organisations are reporting persistent - and worrisome - drops in attendance.

Less than half as many people saw a Broadway show during the season that recently ended than did so during the last full season before the coronavirus pandemic. The Met Opera saw its paid attendance fall to 61 per cent of capacity, down from 75 per cent before the pandemic.

Mr Jeremy Blocker, managing director at New York Theatre Workshop, the off-Broadway theatre that developed Rent and Hadestown, said: "People got used to not going places during the pandemic, and we're going to struggle with that for a few years."

And some fear that the virus is accelerating long-term trends that have troubled arts organisations for years, including softer ticket sales for many classical music events, the decline of the subscription model for selling tickets at many performing arts organisations, and the increasing tendency among consumers to purchase tickets at the last minute.

A few institutions are already making adjustments for the new season. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has cut 10 concerts, after seeing its average attendance fall to 40 per cent of capacity last season, down from 62 per cent in 2018-19.

Even as much of the nation tries to move past the pandemic, it continues to disrupt audience behaviour - putting a crimp in a Broadway that had been booming and adding to the woes of orchestras and opera companies that had been struggling.

Some arts leaders note the ongoing apprehension among some potential ticket buyers about catching the coronavirus. "There are sizeable pockets of people, and some of those overlap with our core audience, who are still wary about being in public spaces," said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theatrein New York.

There are exceptions, though, showing that a hot property can still draw audiences. Some Broadway revivals have done boffo business at the box office, including Neil Simon's marital comedy Plaza Suite, which offered fans a rare opportunity to see spouses Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick working together onstage; The Music Man, starring Jackman, a huge draw; and Into The Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical that is playing to rhapsodic crowds.

Fire Shut Up In My Bones, the first work by a black composer to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera, played to sold-out houses as word-of-mouth spread.

And the concert industry, which attracts younger patrons than many other performing arts sectors, has been a real bright spot. Live Nation, the global concert giant, recently reported that it had sold 100 million tickets for the full year, more than in 2019.

But scattered hits and crowded concerts can distract from the reality that, for most classical and theatrical institutions and shows, attendance is down, ticket prices are depressed, productions are fewer, and memberships or subscriptions have fallen.

The initial post-shutdown optimism - bolstered by pent-up demand - was tempered by wave after wave of new virus variants that raised health concerns and led to numerous performer absences and performance cancellations.

"We were optimistic last summer, when the vaccine first came along, and everyone was feeling, 'This is great' and "Let's go'," said Mr Adam Siegel, managing director of Lincoln Centre Theatre, a New York non-profit.

"As it turned out, Covid wasn't quite done with us. It wasn't a season of opening post-pandemic but during a pandemic, and of course, attendance was weak."

A recent study of 143 performing arts organisations in North America by TRG Arts, an analytics firm, found that the number of tickets sold was 40 per cent lower in the 2021-22 season than before the pandemic, and ticket revenues were down by 31 per cent. The firm attributed the decline to a variety of factors, including ongoing unease about the coronavirus and changing habits around attending live performances.

Fewer people are showing up to live theatre performances since they resumed in the US over the past year. PHOTO: NYTIMES

For performing arts organisations, diminished attendance comes at a cost.

Broadway offers the most obvious evidence of diminished attendance and its economic consequences. During the 2021-22 season, which started slow and late as the industry gradually reopened, there were 6,860 performances seen by 6.7 million people, grossing US$845 million (S$1.18 billion).

By contrast, during the 2018-19 season, the last full season before the pandemic, there were 13,590 performances seen by 14.8 million people, grossing US$1.8 billion.

"There are fewer tourists, fewer older people and very few groups, and the other thing that can't be underestimated is that people are still working remotely," said Sue Frost, a lead producer of Come From Away, an improbable feel-good Sept 11 musical that opened in 2017. "I don't know when that changes."

Come From Away, which had been doing well before the pandemic, plans to close in October - shortly after the closing of Dear Evan Hansen, which also faced a post-shutdown reversal of fortunes.

So what happens next? Arts leaders say they are making peace with not knowing. The risk of serious illness seems to be far lower than at the beginning of the pandemic, but the danger of business interruption remains high, as infections continue to prompt periodic cancellations.

And it is not clear when - or if - arts audiences will return to pre-pandemic levels.

"I have no illusion that we can just snap our fingers," said Mr Siegel. "It's going to take however long it takes."

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