With Broadway now closed for the season, Tinseltown is up to its usual tricks. But this year, some shows have already closed, without explanation, and at least one more will close in a couple of weeks — all due to flu viruses:
The coldest winter in decades isn’t just costing jobless Americans $88.6 billion. New research suggests it may be causing a slight boost in domestic production as well, as artists, actors and others unable to get to rehearsal times, theaters or auditions for various reasons, try to go “outside.” One of those reasons is the flu: Almost all major touring shows — from Grease to CATS to The King and I — canceled performances earlier this month because of an outbreak of the virus caused by the virulent Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV. Now, the flu has caused additional cancellations, which point to not only an economic effect, but also a potential health problem. But canceling is often a last resort. When an illness — such as flu or respiratory distress — is severe enough, production companies rarely even consider shutting down the show. (Reducing the size of a Broadway musical or theater production can have a severe effect on ticket sales and a creative loss of time and money.) Instead, the effects are usually postponed, though a fair bit of insurance can get any production through rough patches. Sometimes, shutting down can avoid further illness. Toronto endured a fatal West Nile virus outbreak in 2011, after the city abruptly postponed “Ghost the Musical.” The show had sold enough tickets for nearly $1 million in revenues, a lot more than the uninsurable, but with only six actors performing, the shutdown was crucial in averting a larger health disaster. It’s hard to overestimate the value of a performer to a production, and closing a show while she’s sick does very little to protect the public. Not only is it unlikely that productions will be forced to shut down if they experience serious illness, it’s hard to believe that they will have the resources to do so: the cost of treating the ill often exceeds the cost of postponing.
As I understand it, some parts of the entertainment world are more preoccupied with health than others. As suggested above, medical reasons seem to be a relatively small issue with some shows. Health-related cancellations for union reasons are also quite rare.
At the same time, the economic effects are substantial: a failing touring production is definitely a damaging loss for the economy, as is a private rehearsal canceled at the last minute. And finally, cancelations hurt hard workers: union actors, for example, get paid performance-to-performance, so any loss in work can really hurt.
Assuming, of course, that the economic costs are small relative to the health effects: that’s an open question. New treatments for MERS look promising; if they become commercially available, they may help. However, it’s not clear whether these cases — which aren’t tied to the more common flu virus — are a fluke or whether we may be seeing a wave of infections from another virus or from the virus itself.
As I wrote here, at least two serious medical cases (which are not treated with Tamiflu) have been reported. Meanwhile, infections seem to be surging from Europe to Africa and Asia. This is the group of migratory animals that allegedly transmit these infections to humans, though, so finding out who is infected would almost certainly offer an important clue to finding a vaccine or treatment. Unfortunately, research into a vaccine or therapy for such an animal flu has never taken off, mainly because the last reported outbreak occurred a decade ago, and without a vaccine, research into potential immunity seems useless. That’s good news: we’re not likely to be exposed to a pandemic, nor do we want to take the risk. But this could, of course, change; at this point, though, it seems unlikely that better solutions are on the horizon.