To Close or Not to Close? The Shuffle Along Quagmire

The most shocking news on Broadway as of late has been the unexpected closing announcement of Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The show’s stellar leading castmembers include Tony winners Audra McDonald, Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell. With 10 Tony nominations, Shuffle Along failed to clinch one even if the losses were rather expected given the colossal success of Hamilton this season. Following news of Audra McDonald’s pregnancy and her departure date of July 24, lead producer Scott Rudin announced the show will close with McDonald. This comes even after the start of rehearsals for her replacement, Grammy-winner Rhiannon Giddens, and with no other leading performers announcing resignation.

When I initially heard the news, my instinct was that closing a Broadway show based on a leading lady’s pregnancy was nothing short of preposterous. Broadway producers fancy the ability to open a show with a leading star to turn a quick profit, but the longevity of a show’s run and its long-term profitability has to be present long after the star is gone. So why close a show after 38 previews and 100 standard performances because of a star on hiatus? Is there an ethical issue at play for the implied guilt resting on her shoulders?

What’s often hard to swallow for many is that Broadway and commercial theatre as a whole is more of a business than what meets the eye. In the way that a company needs to weigh the options between shareholders and employees, Broadway works in the same way. The key difference here is that a Broadway show doesn’t benefit from the “luxury” of layoffs of entire sectors or departments in order to save money. If a show runs long enough and casts turn over, the ability to adjust pay scales presents itself, but the margins are so minimal (unless an incredibly big star is present) that the savings still may not balance the cost to operate. Hidden from the general public, of course, is the full breakdown of the show’s operating costs; this is everything from theatrical rental space, salaries, dues, and so on. Put simply, for a show to comfortably run, the box office sales have to equal or outweigh the operating costs. No brainer, right?

McDonald is, without question, a huge box office draw and sales of the show have been strong since previews began with capacity hovering around 100%. Rudin’s statement to close the show, while a surprise, is simply a case of smart business. Though he’s indicated that the show’s advanced sales have slowed since McDonald’s announcement, it may actually be better for us to assume that the advanced sales after July 24 have taken a sharp decline. If this is true, we may also consider that the box office assumptions would not be enough to compete with the show’s operating costs while still being able to take in a profit. Once the operating costs become higher than what the box office can bring in, producers are faced with a new gamble: let the show continue to run at a loss and hope things turn around or cut your losses before anymore money is lost. Continuing to run the show at a loss ceases returns to stakeholders (who have generally invested anywhere from $10k to $1m in the show) and costs the producers to continue to front more of their own money to keep a show operating. Rudin’s decision to close now is like a pre-emptive strike on both of these measures. The investors, who are the first non-salaried people to be paid back for a show, can still get some of their return back while the show is turning a profit.

The question then becomes, “What of the cast and crew?” And my answer to that is, sadly, “That’s the nature of the biz.” Being a Broadway cast or crewmember is not for the risk averse. It’s a cold response, I know and I hate the way it sounds. To try and put an optimistic spin on this is this: for the duration of the run, Shuffle Along will enjoy nearly sold-out performances and will never suffer the tragedy of playing to empty seats. It may be that I, generally, dislike the idea of pointing blame or guilt on particular parties; my sugarcoating mentality would have preferred the announcement be made about an expected sharp drop in sales. The show, when it’s over, will be a financial loss, but the potential overall losses of the show could have far outweighed where the show is now.