A tale of two cities: Sydney shows prepare to reopen as Melbourne theatres remain mothballed

Major shows including Hamilton and Come from Away are poised to reopen in Sydney when the state of NSW’s 70% double dose vaccination target is reached in October, but more stringent requirements in Melbourne mean the road to recovery in the Australian performing arts sector is likely to be a bumpy one.

On Wednesday morning, the Australian production of Hamilton confirmed they would be back on stage at the Sydney Lyric theatre from Tuesday 19 October, with tickets on sale already.

In Sydney, the musical Come from Away has announced its reopening from 20 October at the Capitol Theatre. Both productions will operate under rules set by New South Wales Health. They allow for 75% capacity in seated venues with mandatory proof of vaccination and mask-wearing, once 70% full vaccination is achieved statewide for those over 16. The Sydney Theatre Company’s stagings of Death of a Salesman and Julius Caesar may also be able to proceed if the current downward trend in infection is sustained.

In Melbourne, however, theatres will only be permitted to reopen when 80% of the 16-plus population is fully vaccinated, and only to a maximum audience of 150 people – an unprofitably small crowd for large productions, which typically budget for a minimum house in excess of 85%.

This means major Melbourne productions – which include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Disney’s Frozen and Moulin Rouge! The Musical – will remain mothballed for some weeks to come.

‘We are on two different paths’

“As far as we’re concerned, in Victoria right now, there is no roadmap to reopening,” says Evelyn Richardson, the Melbourne-based CEO of Live Performance Australia. “NSW is taking a very aggressive approach to reopening with 75% capacity. Victoria is taking a very slow and conservative approach. We on are two different paths.

“At 150 people, you might get the odd show opening but nothing on a commercial scale. It’s hugely disappointing. The latest roadmap gives us nothing – not even rules around rehearsals. We need to know how soon we can open at 50% and when we can move through from 75 to 100%.”

Producer Carmen Pavlovic says she felt a “great weight of responsibility” to the cast and crew of Moulin Rouge! The Musical and to the wider Melbourne CBD hospitality and retail sector, who are relying on the blockbuster musical to open at the Regent Theatre this year. “We will do everything in our power to make sure that happens – and to help us get there, we ask Victorians to consider being vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Producers plan to open Moulin Rouge! The Musical in Melbourne when theatres are allowed to seat 50% capacity audiences. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/AAP

Pavlovic is planning to open Moulin Rouge! The Musical when theatres are allowed to seat 50% capacity audiences. “But we cannot sustain that low capacity beyond a few weeks,” she told Guardian Australia.

While the “aggressive approach” of NSW has some epidemiologists worried, it is widely supported within the entertainment industry, which has been shut down since late June.

“We’re just one of thousands of businesses looking at how to reopen in the new Covid-normal,” says Rodney Rigby, producer of Come from Away. “Seventy per cent double vaccination is not too far away and we’re ready to start to re-engage with the community.”

    In some ways, the reopening of shows in Sydney will mirror that following the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in late 2019, when the musicals Pippin and Disney’s Frozen served as globally observed guinea pigs playing to 75% capacity houses.

    Rigby says he’s more than happy to take on the “guinea pig” role this time around.

    As it stands, the NSW Health regulations on audience capacity and mask mandates are nothing new or especially onerous, he says.

    “Once the [NSW Health] app is sorted and audiences can quickly show their vaccination status on their phone with a QR code, it should be a relatively simple process as far as we’re concerned.”

    ‘We want to show the community it’s safe’

    Making sure the show can open on time hasn’t been easy.

    Though Come from Away’s entire cast, crew and office staff will be fully vaccinated within a few days, some are currently stuck in Victoria, unable to travel due to border closures. “We’re working through the protocols regarding getting them into NSW as soon as possible and we’re gearing up for rehearsals to start on October 4,” Rigby says.

    Rigby has also increased the number of standby performers from six to eight in order to cover any sudden gaps in the cast brought on by a stay-at-home health order.

    “We can have a person missing in every department – onstage and backstage – and still operate the show,” Rigby explains. “We want to lead by example and show the community that this is safe and this is how we look after our loved ones, our employees and our audiences.”

    Sydneysiders can expect more announcements in coming days.

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    Tickets from November are on sale for the Australian Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet and Harlequinade at Sydney Opera House. In coming weeks, Opera Australia is expected to announce rescheduled dates for its postponed Phantom of the Opera (Sydney and Melbourne) and its next Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (which is strongly rumoured to be a different production of Phantom of the Opera designed for the outdoor stage).

    Victoria will be watching the reopening process in NSW closely, says Richardson.

    “Melbourne will learn from the Sydney experience. But at some point the states have to realign so that by January we are all operating at 100%. Theatres are open in New York, open in London and they’re living with Delta. We’re confident we’ll have all the necessary tools to mitigate risk.”

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