Encouraged by the vaccine rollout, a wide swath of Philadelphia’s music, dance, and theater groups are developing plans to welcome back live audiences come fall.
The Kimmel Center on Monday announced a 13-show Broadway lineup for next season, starting with Hamilton at the Academy of Music. The Philadelphia Orchestra in a few weeks is set to reveal details of its return to Verizon Hall and live listeners with a full slate of 2021-22 concerts. Most of the Kimmel’s major resident companies, in fact, are plotting out dates for the fall.
By then, it will have been more than a year and a half since the pandemic separated the vast majority of the performing arts sector from live patrons.
The Kimmel’s reopening (it shut down in March 2020) is being spurred by the anticipated resumption of touring Broadway, which undergirds the center’s finances each year with a lucrative lineup of shows.
“The Broadway touring industry, the various producers and Broadway League and performing arts colleagues across the country — everybody is looking at this moment as moving forward,” says Kimmel president and CEO Anne C. Ewers. “And I think it is.”
Ewers and other arts leaders, however, are being realistic, keeping one eye on artistic plans while casting another on the unpredictable course of COVID-19 and its variants. What happens, for instance, if Hamilton is on its way to opening here in October as infection rates are rising and the government’s limit for theater capacity dips to, say, 50%?
“Sadly, with Broadway, we can’t afford it at 50%,” she says. “It’s too expensive to do Broadway without people being able to sit next to each other. We need at least the attendance to be at 75%.”
The Kimmel’s lineup promises to be popular. After Hamilton in October and November, the season brings several notable local premieres. Hadestown plays the Academy of Music in February; a much-praised, intimate adaptation of Oklahoma! comes to the Shubert Organization’s Forrest Theatre in March; and Dear Evan Hansen appears in the same hall in August. Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has a July run at the Academy of Music.
Casts have not been announced.
Performing groups outside of the Kimmel Center are also planning a comeback. Many Philadelphia-area theater companies are looking at reopening in either fall or in January, says LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, the area theater consortium. Philadelphia’s Grammy-winning Crossing choir, which has kept up its presence online and by performing outdoors, hopes to be singing maskless in front of live audiences by September but is wary.
“Observing the lessons learned from navigating the perpetually shifting sands of the last year, we’ll set protocols later in the summer, when there is concrete information about gatherings,” says Crossing conductor Donald Nally.
The Kimmel’s resident companies are striking a similar balance between hopeful and cautious.
“We are hoping for dates in November,” says Joan Myers Brown, Philadanco’s founding artistic and executive director. The dancers have been rehearsing to stay in shape, though the troupe’s roster has been trimmed to nine from 12. “We are trying to hang in until we get to the other side of the mountain,” says Myers Brown.
The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia has three outdoor concerts planned at Stoneleigh garden in Villanova in June and July and intends to be back in the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater for a season-opener in October, said executive director Anne Hagan.
The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society also aims to be back in the Perelman this fall, even as it continues concerts in the American Philosophical Society for both live and online audiences.
Pennsylvania Ballet is considering a program for the Perelman in October and has “every intention of bringing back The Nutcracker exactly as people know and love, if situations allow,” says executive director Shelly Power.
If, however, distancing and safety protocols require adjustments, a number of questions must be considered, she said. Among them: whether a shortened Nutcracker with no intermission would be possible, and whether the boy choir could be retained.
In either a full production or a reduced one, “we have every intention of bringing the orchestra back live if we can do it safely. We will work with the orchestra closely on how this will occur,” Power said.
Several arts leaders said that even absent government-mandated building occupancy caps, they would be considering limits on audience size. The Philadelphia Orchestra plans to host live audiences in Verizon Hall in the fall with “likely restrictions on venue capacity,” said orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky.
The Philly Pops is planning a full slate of shows in Verizon Hall starting with “Sinatra at the Sands” early in the fall, and Opera Philadelphia hopes to be back at the Kimmel in the second half of the 2021-22 season.
With no performances happening, the Kimmel has seen its financial model scrambled by the pandemic. Normally, the center brings in 93% of its budget with ticket sales, rental and other income, with the modest remainder covered by donations. Ewers is in the midst of a $10 million campaign to help the center get through the shutdown, with $5.5 million raised so far — “the hardest money I’ve ever had to raise,” says Ewers, adding that, understandably, many donors are giving toward critical needs like food and housing.
The arts center has managed to remain open occasionally as a site for voting and blood drives, and has moved its education programs online, but is eager for a return to its core purpose.
Says Ewers: “It’s just been so hard every day to think about what it was like to experience a live performance and what it was like to see people coming into the venue and being excited.”
Kimmel subscribers will have access to tickets starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday at kimmelcenter.org/broadway, 215-893-1955.