Covid is sweeping through the casts of musical theatre shows in Sydney and Melbourne, with major live productions forced to cancel performances.
At least 90 performers have tested positive to the highly infectious virus and whole companies have been forced into isolation.
The Sydney festival production of Qween Lear, a musical adaptation of King Lear that was meant to open at the Hordern Pavilion on 7 January, has been cancelled due to a Covid outbreak among the cast.
Frozen the Musical at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne announced Covid-positive cases on Wednesday and cancelled some performances.
Opera Australia, which this week cancelled performances of Great Opera Hits and its much-loved New Year’s Eve performance of La Bohème at the Sydney Opera House, confirmed “more than 20 [Covid] cases across the performing company”.
In a statement on Thursday, Opera Australia’s CEO Fiona Allan said: “I don’t think any of us could have foreseen just how fast Omicron would spread and the effects it would have on the industry”. She committed the company to “opening the summer season on Tuesday 4 January”.
The Sydney productions of Come From Away and Hamilton have already cancelled several performances leading up to New Year.
Many more casts who were in rehearsals in Sydney this week – including the Sydney festival production of A Chorus Line – are now experiencing Covid outbreaks or being forced into isolation as close contacts.
“It’s grim,” a Sydney-based musical theatre performer told Guardian Australia on Tuesday. The performer, who wanted to remain anonymous, painted a sobering picture of the scale of the issue, saying more than a dozen members of the Hamilton cast had been stricken with Covid as well as significant proportions of the cast of Come From Away and the Alanis Morissette musical Jagged Little Pill.
On Wednesday three other prominent musical theatre insiders confirmed to Guardian Australia specific numbers of infected cast members in each production.
One producer, who asked not to be named, said there had also been multiple cases among the casts of A Chorus Line and Qween Lear.
A Chorus Line on Thursday rescheduled its dates at Sydney’s Riverside Theatre from 6-16 January to 13-22 January.
A performer who tested positive in Sydney this week, and also preferred not to be named, told Guardian Australia: “Nearly all the performers I know who are positive only have mild symptoms and we are feeling optimistic about getting back on stage. We will have antibodies so hopefully this won’t happen again. It’s frustrating because we were so strict. We were wearing masks right up until the moment we go on stage but it’s so contagious.”
Hamilton ticket holders are being contacted with offers of a full refund or to rebook their seats. Performances of Hamilton, which were suspended on 22 December, are scheduled to recommence on 5 January.
“We certainly intend to reopen the show as soon as we can,” said a spokesperson for the show’s producer, Michael Cassel.
Guardian Australia contacted producers for Jagged Little Pill, Hamilton, Come From Away, A Chorus Line and Sydney festival for comment and all of them declined to give specific details about the number of positive Covid cases, citing privacy concerns.
‘We need to minimise risk’
Meanwhile, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, another Michael Cassel production – which is currently playing in Melbourne – is “business as usual”.
The producers of Jagged Little Pill, which finished its Sydney run on 19 December, were meeting on Wednesday ahead of the show’s scheduled Melbourne opening on 4 January. “We’ll see where things are at and how performances will proceed,” said a company spokesperson.
Frozen the Musical at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre confirmed in an Instagram post on Wednesday that performances on 29 and 30 December were cancelled due to Covid cases in the company.
Also in Melbourne, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is proceeding as advertised.
Covid is also hitting the independent theatre sector. In Sydney, an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It has its Orlando in isolation as a close contact of a positive case. The show is proceeding with a new actor in the role.
The 2022 Sydney festival, which opens on 6 January, said it planned to proceed despite the cancellation of Qween Lear as well as the “unforeseen disruption” to the musical theatre show 宿 (stay), the latter which has had two performances cancelled but is now expected to go ahead from 12 January.
“Given the evolving nature of the current Covid-19 outbreak, changes to some performance schedules are expected,” festival organisers said in a statement. “Covid remains an ongoing challenge. However, it’s one that the festival is prepared for, and the safety of audiences, staff and performers is, and always will be, our number one priority.
“Any changes to the program will be actioned and announced as required. We’ll be monitoring the situation, working closely with government, and will follow any advice or orders should these change.”
Festival producers are taking extra measures to ensure their shows will go on. Actors are living in bubbles – in single rooms in the same facility where possible. Casts are being bolstered with extra understudies to cover sudden absences.
The State Theatre Company of South Australia is presenting its Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Sydney Opera House from 13 January and is co-presenting the musical Girl from the North Country at the Theatre Royal from 5 January.
“We have understudies for every role in Girl From the North Country and we are bringing in understudies for Virginia Woolf. This is an extra cost of around $60,000 to $100,000 for theatre companies,” said the company’s artistic director, Mitchell Butel.
“We have all cast members in a bubble in company accommodation in Adelaide and Sydney so they are not staying with family or friends. No one is mingling and they are doing rapid antigen tests.”
Butel said theatre audiences were still relatively safe compared with many other venues, adding that most theatres still require audiences to check in, prove their double vaccination status and wear masks throughout the show.
“A theatre audience isn’t there to converse or mingle with as many people as possible, they are there to witness a show,” he said.
“As far as we know, there hasn’t been a single instance of transmission inside a theatre in Australia. But we do need to minimise risk. People are taking their masks off to drink in the foyer. The industry may need to bring back rules that prevent drinking or eating in foyers to keep everyone safe.”
Covid outbreaks are affecting musical theatre productions around the world. On Wednesday Australian performer Hugh Jackman, currently starring in the Broadway revival of The Music Man, announced he had tested positive for Covid in New York.
In a video posted to social media the 53-year-old Hollywood star announced he had mild symptoms “like a cold … a scratchy throat and a bit of a runny nose, but I’m fine … As soon as I’m clear, I’ll be back on stage.”