Film & Television · Theater

Front Row Center: Live Theater at Home

“The show must go on” has long been the rallying cry of actors, directors, stage managers, and myriad other artisans who devote their lives to the theater. (It’s also the title of a heartbreaking song) that Queen’s Freddie Mercury recorded in 1990, the year before his untimely death.) 

In the face of (most) adversity, shows do go on. But we’re living in a new normal. And, live theater, one of our oldest communal activities, doesn’t really fit with the concept of social distancing.

On March 12, Broadway shut down. Four days later London’s West End followed suit.

To give this some perspective, other than during strikes by various theatrical unions, Broadway has been completely dark only once before: September 11th through the 13th, 2001. In fact, shows continued to run during the flu pandemic of 1918. 

The history of London theater is a bit more uneven, with a two-year shutdown, 1592-1594, because of the Bubonic plague; a Puritan ban for 18 years in the 1600s; and a necessary blackout during World War II’s Blitz.

As much as our current situation is creating hardship for theater fans, it’s wreaking havoc on the lives and livelihoods of the industry’s professionals. (If you have the ability and desire to help, consider a donation to The Actors Fund or Equity Cares/Broadway Fights AIDS.

Another more personal way to show your support is to enjoy some of the live theater available to you from the comfort and safety of your home.

London’s renowned National Theatre will be streaming a free play on its YouTube channel every Thursday at 2 p.m. EST through April. You can watch it on any Internet-enabled device (digital TV, PC, tablet, or even your smartphone), and each production will be available for a week, along with bonus material, like backstage tours, post-show “talk backs,” and interviews with cast and crew. For the past decade, the National Theatre, in conjunction with Fathom Events, has made many of its productions available in U.S. movie theaters. This extension of that program has the potential to reach an even broader audience — and provide some much-needed quarantine-era entertainment.

The National Theatre at Home series includes:

Until April 8 One Man, Two Guvnors

The hilarious adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters stars James Corden. It tells the story of a broke and bumbling servant whose two different employers are plotting to con a local mobster so they can run away together. For no apparent reason — other than delighting the audience — the plot includes mistaken identities, cross-dressing, music-hall numbers, a geriatric waiter, and the most outrageous audience participation you’re likely to see outside of Blue Man Group. Corden was lauded for his brilliant physical comedy at the National, on tour, and in the West End, before moving with the show to Broadway and earning a Tony Award.

April 9 – April 15 Jane Eyre

This bold version of Brontë’s novel, adapted by Sally Cooke and “devised by the company,” began at Bristol’s Old Vic before transferring to the National and touring the U.K. Working with a sparse presentational set, the production pares down Jane’s story to reveal a heroine with deeply convicted morality and a will of iron. (If you prefer elaborate costumes and sumptuous Victorian drawing rooms, you may want to look elsewhere.) Actress Nadia Clifford was hailed for her unorthodox portrayal of Jane (she seems at times more like a caged animal than a virginal governess), and Tim Delap pales a bit in comparison as the passionate and haunting Mr. Rochester. But that’s immaterial; this is Jane’s story, after all.

April 16 – April 22 Treasure Island

Writer Polly Findlay and director Bryony Lavery adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure for boys into a “dark and dangerous” coming-of-age story with a girl at its center. “Jim” Hawkins is played by diminutive but spunky Patsy Ferran, who upon adopting a pirate’s life has the added challenge of being female in a world in which, “maps are for men, not girls.” Additional women’s roles have been added to the testosterone-charged original, including Dr. Livesley, Israel Hands, Red Ruth, Silent Sue, and Joan the Goat. Lizzie Clachan’s set design is extravagant and exciting — a massive pirate ship, ingeniously manipulated by actors to become every other setting in the fast-moving production. 

April 23 – April 29 Twelfth Night

Director Simon Godwin also takes pleasure in adding a gender-bending element to Shakespeare’s beloved (and already gender-bent) comedy. Devoted twins, Viola and Sebastian, are shipwrecked, and Viola washes up on a beach, convinced her brother is dead. To preserve her modesty, she pretends to be him and becomes a sort of student intern to Prince Orsino, who pines for the lady Olivia, who is in mourning for her brother but manages to fall for Sebastian, who is quickly falling for Orsino, on whose love errand he (she) has been sent. Add to this general confusion an ambitious steward, Malvolia, (rather than the traditional Malvolio), a more effeminate than usual Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and his man-crush Toby Belch. “If music be the food of love, play on” indeed!

 

If you’d like to make your current confinement even more dramatic, you can enjoy a free seven-day trial of BroadwayHD. Plays, musicals, ballets, opera, concerts, documentaries, and more are available on demand, commercial-free.

Right now, you can choose from the classic works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Chekhov; a large selection of “vintage” stage drama starring Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards, Jr., Ingrid Berman, Lee Grant, Katharine Hepburn in Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie, and even a very young Meryl Streep in a “music hall” version of Alice at the Palace

Musicals include fan favorites Les Misérables, CATS, Miss Saigon, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. You’ll also find revivals of Gypsy (with Bette Midler), Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, The King and I, Bye Bye Birdie, 42nd Street, Carousel, Kiss Me, Kate, and more. Plus newer shows like An American in Paris, Kinky Boots, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill (with Audra McDonald).

You can catch many performing arts specials on your local PBS station, and there’s an online database where you can find filmed productions from Broadway and the West End to enjoy on-demand. And, finally, if you live in an area that has regional theater companies, check in with them as well. Most productions have been canceled, but excerpts or entire performances can be found online. 

Before you settle down to rewatch Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, or even Friends, consider an evening with — if not exactly at — the theater. 

As we all work together to protect our families, neighbors, and communities, it’s comforting to know that the show can still go on. In our living rooms.

 

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