Theater

In Dark Times, PBS Celebrates Broadway

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On March 12, 2020, New York’s Governor Cuomo prohibited large gatherings in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Broadway officially closed. Two-time Tony-winning diva Patti LuPone told The New York Times, “The idea that our venerable, majestic houses are dark, and that there will be no lights on Broadway — I’m romanticizing, but that’s the heartbeat of the city, and to think that they’ve been forced into darkness is shocking.” But, she quickly added, “I’m shocked that they took this tack, but also grateful they did, just to keep us healthy.”

The original plan was to keep the “great white way” dark for one month. City officials and theater producers believed that the threat of COVID-19 would pass in weeks. We all did.

Closing the 41 Broadway theaters (and countless smaller venues off- and off-off-Broadway) was a major decision, one that had happened only on rare occasions in the past due to storms, strikes, and the World Trade Center terrorist attack of 2001. Interestingly, theaters stayed open during the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919, the pandemic with which COVID is most often compared. Professional theater generates millions in tourist dollars, and other businesses throughout New York have felt the impact of their closure, from hotels to restaurants to car services. More distressing, hundreds of thousands of theater professionals – a group that famously lives hand to mouth even in the best of times — are out of work. 

Organizations like The Actors Fund have pulled together resources to help the community, while others have advocated for additional government aid. At this point, Broadway plans to reopen June 1, 2021. But, like so many things, we’ll have to wait and see.

For those of us who are theater fans rather than thespians ourselves, PBS offers a bittersweet tribute, once again hosting “Broadway’s Beston Friday evenings throughout November. In this fourth season, the public television network will showcase two acclaimed stage productions, a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary, and a legendary leading lady in concert.

 

One Man, Two Guvnors

The Great Performances series starts off with a hilarious farce that played to sold-out houses in London’s West End and on Broadway, before launching its star’s late-night television career (and subsequent fame and fortune). 

Set in the English resort town of Brighton in the 1960s, the script by Richard Bean is based on a popular Commedia dell’arte plot from the 18th century. The story revolves around a hapless servant, Francis, trying to simultaneously satisfy two masters: Roscoe Crabbe and Stanley Stubbers — without revealing to either that he works for the other. 

If that weren’t challenging enough, unbeknownst to Francis, Roscoe is actually Roscoe’s sister Rachel pretending to be her now dead brother, who was killed by her lover Stanley, who is now hiding from the police until he and Rachel can escape together. (Phew!) In addition to the obvious mistaken identity twists, the play is filled with pratfalls, sight gags, outstanding physical comedy, and one of the best audience-participation sequences I’ve ever seen. James Corden, beloved current host of CBS’s The Late Late Show, won the 2012 Tony Award for his virtuosic role as Francis.

One Man, Two Guvnors premieres Friday, November 6 at 9 p.m.

 

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

Sometimes, the story of how a Broadway show got to Broadway is as interesting as the show itself. Documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles provides background and cultural insight into one of theater’s most adored musicals: Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler’s familiar story of a persecuted Jewish community that loses first its traditions and then its home is explored through original footage, interviews, and social commentary on its enduring themes of belonging, loss, and rebirth. 

The film examines how and why Fiddler on the Roof has resonated with audiences for so many years and across so many cultures, and how it alludes to the American immigrant experience. It also includes personal stories from lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock; the 1971 movie’s Tevye, Israeli actor Topol; current and past stage casts; and Broadway luminaries Harvey Fierstein, Joel Grey, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. (For a sneak preview of Miranda’s pre-Hamilton, unauthorized but incredible, wedding adaptation, click here.)

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles premieres Friday, November 13 at 9 p.m.

 

Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn

Settle in for a pre-holiday treat and you’ll find yourself humming along — even if you’ve never seen Holiday Inn before, chances are Irving Berlin’s score will be instantly familiar. The classic songs, include “Shaking the Blues Away,” “Heat Wave,” and, of course, “White Christmas.” 

Holiday Inn is the story of Jim Hardy (played by Bing Crosby in the 1942 movie), a Broadway hoofer who moves from the city to the country (Connecticut, in this case), leaving his career and a fiancée behind. With a new dance partner and love interest, he turns an old farmhouse into a “holiday inn.” (Not to worry, this is a reference to all the holidays celebrated in musical numbers, not the contemporary hotel chain.)  

This exhilarating 2016 Tony-nominated Broadway production by the Roundabout Theatre Company stars Lora Lee Gayer, Megan Lawrence, Megan Sikora, Bryce Pinkham, Danny Rutigliano, and Corbin Bleu. 

Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn premieres Friday, November 20 at 9 p.m. 

 

Lea Salonga in Concert

At just 18 years old, and after an extensive international casting search, Lea Salonga originated the role of Kim in Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr.’s gorgeous musical Miss Saigon. For the London production, she won the Laurence Olivier Award, and in New York, the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Theatre World Award, and the Tony, making her the first Asian woman to do so. Salonga was also the first Asian actress to perform as Eponine and then as Fantine in Les Misérables

Thirty years and many stage and screen roles later, Salonga’s voice remains just as heartbreakingly beautiful. In 2019, before taking on the cannibalistic baker Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, she performed in concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In this filmed version of that acclaimed appearance, she performs many of the songs that made her a Broadway star, as well as her most popular tunes from Disney animated features Mulan and Aladdin

Lea Salonga in Concert premieres Friday, November 27 at 9 p.m. 

 

PBS premiere dates are listed above. Check your local PBS affiliate’s schedule for additional airdates. Or search on pbs.org/broadwayonpbs and the PBS Video app.

 

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