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With Theaters Still Closed, 136-Year-Old 'Playbill' Does A Quick Online Pivot


With theaters on Broadway and across the country shut down, companies that service the performing arts have had to adapt. Reporter Jeff Lunden checked in with Playbill, the program magazine that's given out at theaters, to see how its operations have changed.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Playbill has been around for 136 years. And it's not just a program; it's a cherished souvenir, says Alex Birsh, the company's vice president.

ALEX BIRSH: It has become kind of the best memento of your night out at the theater. And we find ourselves incredibly fortunate to be associated with this ridiculously fantastic art form that we miss, oh, so much.

LUNDEN: In normal times, this small family-owned company distributes programs for up to 3 1/2 million theatergoers a month in 125 venues across the country - for free because of the ads for cars and jewelry and restaurants.

A BIRSH: We lost 75% to 80% of our revenue because of theater being closed.

LUNDEN: Playbill got a PPP loan, which lasted a couple of months, but had to furlough half its staff. So for the time being, it's digital only. And here's the kicker - before the pandemic, attracted about 2 million unique users a month; now it's over 3 million.


ALEXANDRA BILLINGS: (As character, singing) I am what I am...

LUNDEN: During the pandemic, Ruthie Fierberg - Playbill's features editor - has begun producing online performances for the website. On the 51st anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, she put together a Gay Pride program.


B D WONG: (As character, singing) ...Sometimes the deuces...

LUNDEN: And in celebration of the 19th Amendment, she produced a Women in Theater special.

RUTHIE FIERBERG: These full-on hour-and-a-half benefit concert spectaculars that you are more accustomed to seeing on CBS after a hurricane is something that you are now seeing on and Playbill's YouTube channel instead.

LUNDEN: With Broadway idled, Playbill has been able to get all kinds of theater stars to appear online, like B.D. Wong, Alexandra Billings and Brandon Victor Dixon.


BRANDON VICTOR DIXON: (As Collins, singing) Open your door. I'll be your tenant. Don't got much baggage to lay at your feet.

LUNDEN: Vice President Alex Birsh says this has been a big shift for the company.

A BIRSH: It has been a remarkable 180 to be serving within theaters, at productions and then now producing productions ourselves online.

LUNDEN: And Playbill is creating photo galleries, quizzes and contests online as well.

FELICIA FITZPATRICK: My philosophy has always been - let's create a digital community of Broadway fans.

LUNDEN: Felicia Fitzpatrick is the social media director. She says she's seen an uptick in engagement.

FITZPATRICK: Theater kids have so many opinions, and they love sharing them, and I love them for it, right?

LUNDEN: So in one social media challenge, she invited fans to sing on the website.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I'm going to do what I want to, and I want to dye my hair blue.

LUNDEN: Playbill's president, Philip Birsh, says he's proud of the way the company has adapted to the moment but knows it's going to be a while before theater comes back.

PHILIP BIRSH: We'll have to reinvest our own capital back into the company in order to bring it up to speed once Broadway is back. But we will return.

LUNDEN: In the meantime, theatergoers are going to have to get their fix of show tunes and high kicks online.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY TRIO'S "MEYER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 14, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
Previous audio and Web versions of this story incorrectly identified Philip Birsh as Playbill's publisher. He is president and CEO.
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.