In Rehearsal One Minute, Laid Off the Next: The Fate of Broadway’s ‘Room’
Actors were two weeks into rehearsals when the show, which was set to star the Tony-winning actress Adrienne Warren, was postponed indefinitely.
Two weeks into Broadway rehearsals for “Room,” a show 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, and on Thursday, actors were continuing to work through Act II. But then, inside the rehearsal studio on 42nd Street, 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,” said Michael Genet, one of the show’s actors.
The churn of Broadway machinery had ground to a halt. The producer, Hunter Arnold, explained to those present — including the star, the Tony-winning actress Adrienne Warren — that an attempt to save the show through dozens of phone calls to potential investors had been unsuccessful.
“I said, very truthfully, that this is the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do in my professional life,” Arnold said in an interview on Friday. “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, said he had 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,” he said.
“Room,” adapted from a novel by Emma Donoghue, who later turned it into a film starring Brie Larson, had been preparing for its Broadway debut after premiering in London in 2017 and staging productions in Ireland, 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 3 and run through mid-September.
More on N.Y.C. Theater, Music and Dance This Spring
- Doubling Down on Corn: For their Broadway musical, “Shucked,” the country-music songwriting team Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark embraced heartfelt songs and campy performances.
- Puppetry of Pi: Members of the puppetry team for the stage adaptation of “Life of Pi,” now in previews on Broadway, discuss making the show’s animals seem real on a very crowded lifeboat.
- The Unsinkable Marilyn Maye: The inimitable singer is about to make her Carnegie Hall solo debut. In an eight-decade career, it’s a crowning moment — and just another gig.
- Encores!: The New York City Center’s series, which specializes in brief revivals of Broadway rarities, will see its new music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, lead a restored performance of “Dear World.”
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” because of personal reasons.
In an interview on Friday, Nathan Gehan, a Broadway producer and general manager, said he had 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 overseas beginnings, Sam Julyan and James Yeoburn.
Gehan said 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 7. He said he believed that his company had enough financial commitments to “hold up our end of the bargain.” But in the days since, Gehan said, 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 said.
The show had been seeking to raise up to $7 million overall, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In a statement, Arnold said that the exiting producer provided the remaining producers with a list of “interested parties” with regard to fund-raising, but that “it became quickly apparent that list was neither viable nor sufficient to close the economic gap we were facing.” They reached out to more than 200 contacts looking for potential investors, Arnold said, 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 said. “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 said. In the rehearsal room, some people cried and some hugged, but the conversation quickly turned toward ways they could get the show back on track.
“People were hopping on calls trying to figure out who could help,” said 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.”
Still, actors who had signed on for more than five months of work were suddenly looking at empty schedules. Arnold said he assured them they would receive their paychecks for the work they had done, though he cautioned that the checks could take a few days to clear because they were coming from an account at Signature Bank, which was recently seized by regulators as part of a larger banking crisis.
A spokesman for the Actors’ Equity union said it was working to ensure that the production was following the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Arnold added 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 said he was “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 had been punctured.
“I’ll just do my taxes I guess?” Ellington said. “I really haven’t thought that far.”