No 'Nutcracker'? Or 'Messiah'? How Theaters Are Facing A COVID Christmas In normal times, audiences would be flocking to theaters for Christmas productions right now. But 2020 is anything but normal — especially when it comes to holiday traditions.
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No 'Nutcracker'? Or 'Messiah'? How Theaters Are Facing A COVID Christmas

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

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

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Handel and Haydn Society in Boston has presented Handel's "Messiah" every holiday season since 1854. Chicago's Goodman Theatre has been staging Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" for more than 40 years. And then there's "The Nutcracker," a staple for ballet companies all across the country. But this year is not that kind of year. Here's reporter Jeff Lunden.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

DEE DEE BATTEAST: (As Frida) Merry Christmas, Uncle Scrooge. God save you.

LARRY YANDO: (As Ebenezer Scrooge) Bah. Humbug.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Normally, family audiences would be flocking to see "A Christmas Carol" at the Goodman Theater, but COVID-19 has not been just a humbug. It's been a significant hit to the company. Executive Director Roche Schulfer says the income from its popular "Christmas Carol" helps support the Goodman's other work.

ROCHE SCHULFER: It's about a $1.7 million asset to the budget. And yes, the fact that we can't do it on stage for 60 performances or so has a big financial impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALLET, "THE NUTCRACKER")

LUNDEN: 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.

ERIKA OVERTURFF: It is the bulk of our ticket revenue for the year. So losing "Nutcracker" more than any other show has the biggest financial impact for us.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY PERFORMANCE OF GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL'S "MESSIAH")

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY CHORUS: (Singing) And he shall purify.

DAVID SNEAD: People think that "Messiah" is like classical music's "Nutcracker." For us, at least, it really isn't from a financial perspective.

LUNDEN: David Snead is president and CEO of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society.

SNEAD: We break even on it. So for us, it really is about engaging new audiences.

LUNDEN: 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.

SCHULFER: 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.

LUNDEN: For American Midwest Ballet's "Nutcracker," young people don't just fill the audience. They fill the stage, says Erika Overturff.

OVERTURFF: There is a cast of over 125 dancers usually. We have the professional company plus many, many students and community members.

LUNDEN: So these companies, like many others across the country, didn't want to leave their audiences with a lump of coal in their stockings, says Schulfer.

SCHULFER: You know, it's been such a terrible year for people. And we thought to provide "Christmas Carol" for free.

LUNDEN: With the help of donors and corporate sponsors, all three companies are offering their shows for free. The Goodman has produced an audio version of "A Christmas Carol" for streaming and broadcast. American Midwest Ballet is offering an online version of "Nutcracker" and the Handel and Haydn Society taped what they call a "Messiah" for Our Time for Boston's GBH and streaming.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY PERFORMANCE OF GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL'S "MESSIAH")

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY CHORUS: (Singing) Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

LUNDEN: David Snead says it fulfills H&H's mission statement, which is to inspire the intellect, touch the heart and elevate the soul.

SNEAD: 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. And we're learning a lot that we're going to apply in the future, even when we go back to giving live concerts.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY PERFORMANCE OF GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL'S "MESSIAH")

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY CHORUS: (Singing) Hallelujah.

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

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