Last Thursday, two weeks into Broadway rehearsals for Room, the stage adaption of Emma Donoghue’s novel about a mother held captive with her young son, the first act had been fully blocked. Tickets were on sale. Critics had been invited.
It was 18 days until the first preview performance. At the show’s rehearsal studio, on 42nd Street, the cast were continuing to work through act two. Then a lead producer gathered members of the cast and crew to announce that a financial shortfall meant the show would be postponed indefinitely.
“It just became pin-drop silent,” says Michael Genet, one of the actors.
The churn of Broadway machinery had ground to a halt. Room’s producer, Hunter Arnold, explained to those present — including the Tony-winning actor Adrienne Warren, who was taking on the role Brie Larson won an Oscar for in 2016 — that an attempt to save the show through dozens of phone calls to potential investors had been unsuccessful.
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“I said, very truthfully, that this is the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do in my professional life,” Arnold says. “We had spent the last few days doing everything in our combined power to try to save something that we believe is really beautiful, and failed.”
Genet, who has been acting on Broadway since 1989, says he has experienced plenty of turbulence in the industry: one musical he was in, Lestat, shuttered in 2006 after 39 performances. “But I had never had the rug pulled out in the middle of rehearsal.”
Room had been preparing for its Broadway debut after premiering in London in 2017 and staging productions in Dublin, Scotland and Canada. Directed by Cora Bissett, the production, which was also slated to feature Ephraim Sykes and Kate Burton, was scheduled to start performances on April 3rd and run until mid-September.
Arnold, whose current shows include Some Like It Hot and Leopoldstadt, told the cast and crew — and, soon after, the public — that a lead producer had decided not to “fulfill their obligations to the production” for personal reasons.
Nathan Gehan, a Broadway producer and general manager, says he decided to withdraw his producing company, ShowTown Productions, from being a general partner on Room because of a family crisis. As a general partner, Gehan’s company assumed the show’s financial liability, along with Arnold and the British producers who had shepherded the show from its beginnings, Sam Julyan and James Yeoburn.
Gehan says he had planned to continue to raise funds and do “boots on the ground” producing work despite announcing his intention to withdraw as a general partner on March 7th. He says he believed that his company had enough financial commitments to “hold up our end of the bargain”. But in the days since then, Gehan says, he and his producing partner, Jamison Scott, had been cut out of the process by the other producers; they learned of the postponement with the rest of the public.
“To have to go through rehearsal and not have anything to show for it is just gut-wrenching,” he says.
The show had been seeking to raise up to $7 million overall, according to a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
In a statement, Arnold says that the exiting producer provided the remaining producers with a list of “interested parties” with regard to fundraising but that “it became quickly apparent that list was neither viable nor sufficient to close the economic gap we were facing”. They got in touch with more than 200 contacts, looking for potential investors, Arnold says, but could not find the necessary support.
“We are still processing this turn of events and, since this is ongoing, cannot speak to each statement made by Mr Gehan,” he says. “Suffice to say, we do not entirely agree with his version of events.”
The story told in Room is a particularly raw and emotional one, following a mother (played by Warren) who was kidnapped as a teenager and has been living in one room for seven years, raising a child she bore after being raped by her captor. Warren appeared to respond to the news about the show with a broken-heart emoji on Twitter.
The two child actors who play the young boy, Christopher Woodley and Aiden Mekhi Sierra — both of them anticipating their Broadway debuts — were told about the show’s postponement after their parents had arrived, Genet says. In the rehearsal room, some people cried and some hugged, but the conversation quickly turned towards ways they could get the show back on track.
“People were hopping on calls, trying to figure out who could help,” says Justin Ellington, the sound designer, who had been preparing to show the director the music and cues for the first act on Thursday. “It didn’t feel like people were like, ‘Oh, I’m missing out on all this money’ — that was not the talk. What I was feeling and hearing in the space was connected to the piece and telling this story.”
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A spokesperson for the US Actors’ Equity union says it is working to ensure that the production is following the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement. Arnold adds in a statement that union company members would be “fully compensated on the terms of their contracts”. Baseline Broadway contracts for actors and stage managers include a stipulation that if a show is discontinued, the workers must be paid for the rest of the rehearsal period, plus at least two more weeks.
In his statement, Arnold says he is “committed to creating comparable compensation terms” for nonunion employees.
Even as the actors and crew members hold out hope for a new investor to swoop in, the bubble of excitement around staging a new show with a major Broadway star has been punctured.
“I’ll just do my taxes, I guess,” Ellington says. “I really haven’t thought that far.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times