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No 'Nutcracker'? Or 'Messiah'? How Theaters Are Facing A COVID Christmas

The Land of Snow scene from one of American Midwest Ballet's pre-pandemic productions of <em>The Nutcracker.</em>
American Midwest Ballet
The Land of Snow scene from one of American Midwest Ballet's pre-pandemic productions of The Nutcracker.

Normally, family audiences would be flocking to see A Christmas Carol at Chicago's Goodman Theatre at this time of year. But as we all know, 2020 is anything but normal, especially when it comes to holiday traditions.

The Goodman has been putting on the Dickens work for 40 years. Boston's Handel and Haydn Society has presented the Messiah during the holiday season since 1854. And then, of course, there'sThe Nutcracker, a staple for ballet companies.

COVID-19 has been a significant hit for the Goodman Theatre. Executive director Roche Schulfer says the income from A Christmas Carol helps support the company's other work. "It's about a $1.7 million asset to the budget," he explains. "And yes, the fact that we can't do it on stage for, oh, roughly 60 performances or so, has a big financial impact."

In Omaha, Neb., American Midwest Ballet has been reckoning with the loss of its annual production of The Nutcracker, says the company's founder and artistic director, Erika Overturff. "It is the bulk of our ticket revenue for the year," she says. "So, losing Nutcracker, more than any other show, has the biggest financial impact for us."

That translates to a loss of a half million dollars on a budget of a little under $2 million.

David Snead, president and CEO of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society says people may think the Messiah "is like classical music's Nutcracker." But for his Society it really isn't, at least from a financial perspective. "We break even on it," Snead says. "So, for us, it really is about engaging new audiences."

For these three arts organizations, bringing in new audiences is one of the most important aspects of their holiday offerings, says Roche Schulfer of the Goodman Theatre. "People who don't know anything about the Goodman know about Christmas Carol. And it's an entry point for a lot of young people," Schulfer says.

For American Midwest Ballet's Nutcracker, young people don't just fill the audience, they fill the stage. "There is a cast of over 125 dancers — usually, we have the professional company, plus many, many students and community members," says Erika Overturff.

So, these companies — like many others across the country — didn't want to leave their audiences with a lump of coal in their stockings. "You know, it's been such a terrible year for people. And we thought to provide Christmas Carol for free," says Schulfer.

With the help of donations from Goodman Theatre's board and corporate sponsors, an audio production is now available for streaming and will be broadcast on Chicago Public Radio on Christmas eve and Christmas day. American Midwest Balletwill have a video of Nutcracker online for free, while the Handel and Haydn Society is offering what they call a "Messiah for Our Time,"on Boston's GBH and online.

"We're actually going to be able to reach many hundreds of thousands of more people than we would if we did it the old-fashioned way," David Snead says of the 2020 Messiah. "So, I actually think there's a lot of opportunities and we're learning a lot that we're going to apply in the future, even when we go back to giving live concerts."

Plus, he says, this approach fulfills H&H's mission statement, which is to "inspire the intellect, touch the heart and elevate the soul."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.