Let's Put on a (Virtual) Show! How Live Theater Has Survived in the Time of Pandemic (Guest Blog)

The Tony Awards are back on this fall and stage companies have gotten creative in staging old and new works virtually

theater tony awards pandemic

Public Theater; American Theatre Wing; MCC Theater

The Emmys are happening, so why not the Tonys? The American Theatre Wing announced last week that its annual awards show will happen, virtually of course, probably in late October. There’s a lot to be decided: Who will host? Who will stream? Will anyone perform? What we do know is that 18 shows are eligible, those that had been open long enough before Broadway closed down in March and had been seen by enough Tony voters to give them a fair shot at getting votes. (That eliminates high-profile productions like Scott Rudin’s “West Side Story” revival and the Bob Dylan songfest “Girl From the North Country” that had opened less than a month before Broadway shut down.)

In related theater news, Netflix will stream a freshly performed production of “Diana: The Musical.” The show was in previews on Broadway when the curtains came down and will now debut for a wider audience ahead of a still-planned official Broadway opening next spring. Netflix, no doubt, is aware that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has been viewed more on Disney+ than it has, or will ever be, seen on a live stage.

While most the media attention likely remains on television and films, no sector has performed a more necessary and admirable service than live theater, especially as shows and smaller companies literally fight for their survival. The stage community has shown remarkable resilience, thanks to Zoom and a “show must go on” spirit, by offering countless star-driven performance and conversations. Wouldn’t it be interesting if one positive result of this long intermission is creating a new audience for live theater? Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage has called stage artists the “second responders,” and it’s hard to challenge that sentiment.

Because these offerings can be viewed from anywhere, it means those who have only heard of New York City’s famed Public Theater, for example, can now enjoy Richard Nelson’s series of plays centered on the Apple family. That fictional clan has been the subject of many productions at the Public, and has reunited via Zoom for two newly written shows to discuss life under quarantine. Thousands have tuned in.

A unique, socially conscious, entity called Theater of War has given us at least four presentations, including Oscar Isaac and Frances McDormand in the “Oedipus Project,” Jeffrey Wright in “The Book of Job Project,” and Amy Ryan in “Ajax.” These are generally scenes from famous Greek works, followed by discussions with health care workers, who have found fascinating ways to relate to a guy named Sophocles. McDormand and Jesse Eisenberg just performed a new one. Next up: Damian Lewis, on September 3.

Other relatively unknown companies have come out of the blue, when so many are feeling exactly that. Brooklyn’s Moliere in the Park presented a hilarious “Tartuffe,” starring Raul Esparza. Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson performed a reading of Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” shortly after the playwright’s death to COVID-19. Edie Falco and Julianne Moore recently performed online readings. Bryan Cranston and Sally Field Zoomed from different rooms in different locales in a brilliant reading of “Love Letters.”

Theater companies all over the country are offering works from their archives — none more so than L.A. Theatre Works, with its audio trove) as well as original readings and lively conversations. “The Present,” at Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse (now called Stayhouse), is arguably the hottest national ticket. This is 90 minutes of immersive illusion, and only 25 people are allowed “in” at a time. As soon as new shows are added, they sell out immediately.

Even before the news of the Tonys’ return, we suggested that there should be awards — the Pandemies? — given to those performers who have done the most consistent and watchable work during this time. These could include Oscar Isaac, who also played an embittered AIDS victim opposite Marisa Tomei in MCC Theater’s virtual reading of “Beirut.” Then there is last year’s Tony winner, Santino Fontana, who has been remarkable in at least four performances. Michael Urie has been omnipresent, most memorably in an original one-act called “Frankie and Will,” in which he played the isolated Bard during a plague. Creatively barren, Will picks up a script called “King Leir,” and decides that with a few “spell-checks,” he can steal it as his own.

No one knows when stages will officially reopen, on Broadway or elsewhere in the country, or how many will venture back into the seats. But this time has proved the theatrical community’s need to entertain us. And it deserves a streaming ovation.

18 All-Time Great Tony Awards Performances, From 'Dreamgirls' to Parkland Students' 'Seasons of Love' (Videos)

  • “Cabaret” (1967)Joel Grey sang “Willkommen” to the big time, winning both a Tony (and later an Oscar) playing the M.C. in this musical set in the early days of Nazi Germany.
  • “Promises, Promises” (1969)OK, the song “Turkey Lurkey” frankly doesn’t make any sense — and the whole office holiday party is kind of shoehorned into the plot. (The show’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” however, became a big hit for Dionne Warwick.) But Michael Bennett’s choreography is head-bobbingly, arm-spinningly awesome.
  • “A Chorus Line” (1976)The full “I Hope I Get It!” opening number from the quintessential backstage show — amazing how long CBS let the numbers run back in the day. Bonus for “Gilmore Girls” fans: That’s Kelly Bishop as the haughty dancer who says, “I had it when I was in the front.”
  • “Sweeney Todd” (1979)Angela Lansbury won the fourth of her five Tony’s playing the daffy Mrs. Lovett, the baker of “The Worst Pies in London,” in Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical.
  • “Dreamgirls” (1982)Jennifer Holliday’s rendition of “And I’m Telling You…” has been widely imitated, and this is the performance that is most often imitated. A-ma-zing.
  • “Cats” (1983)Andrew Lloyd Webber continued his domination of Broadway with this feline musical starring Betty Buckley as Grizabella. Interestingly, the breakout ballad “Memory” was one of the few songs whose lyrics didn’t come from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
  • “Grand Hotel” (1990)Michael Jeter, perhaps best known from the sitcom “Evening Shade,” was a rubber-limbed sensation playing a tipsy bookkeeper in the number “Let’s Take a Glass Together.”
  • “Rent” (1996)Jonathan Larson’s rock opera version of “La Boheme” gained extra poignance with his unexpected death after the first Off Broadway preview. The show became a phenomenon, and launched the careers of Idina Menzel, Jesse L. Martin and Taye Diggs.
  • “Chicago” (1997 revival)Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking displayed all the athleticism of Bob Fosse’s original choreography in the hit revival of Kander & Ebb’s musical about the dawn of celebrity criminals (which led to the Oscar-winning 2002 movie).
  • “The Lion King” (1998)While Disney’s stage version of the animated movie swept most of the major awards in 1998, we chose the opening number from the 2008 telecast — celebrating the show’s 10th anniversary and with clearer shots of Julie Taymor’s magnificent puppets and stagecraft.
  • “Wicked” (2004)Idina Menzel may have had some cold-induced pitchiness on the final note, but she (and co-star Kristin Chenoweth) are still pretty sensational on the now-standard showstopper “Defying Gravity.”
  • “The Drowsy Chaperone” (2006)Sutton Foster shows off while insisting that she doesn’t want to show off no more in this delightful number.
  • “Spring Awakening” (2007) Duncan Sheik’s rock musical about rebellious teens shook up the staid world of Broadway with a just-mouthed rendition of “Totally F—ed” performed by very young Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher Jr. and Skylar Astin.
  • “Gypsy” (2008 revival)Everything came up roses for Patti LuPone, who won her second Tony Award playing the irrepressible Mama Rose in the classic musical about showbiz striving.
  • Neil Patrick Harris’ Tony Opening Number (2013)It’s hard to fill a space as cavernous as Radio City Music Hall — but NPH did just that with a “bigger” number (written by “Hamilton” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda) that included high steps, high notes, leaps, magic, shout-outs to “How I Met Your Mother” fans and even Mike Tyson. Wow.
  • James Corden’s Tony Opening Number (2016)The hard-working late-night host (and a Tony winner himself) did his own version of a dream-big number, running through a dozen classic Broadway musicals from “Les Miz” to “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Annie.”
  • “Hamilton ” (2016)Audiences at home finally got a chance to see a slice of the buzzed-about hip-hop hit, which even scored an intro from Barack and Michelle Obama.
  • Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Drama Students Sing “Seasons of Love” (2018) There wasn’t a dry eye in Radio City Music Hall when students from Parkland, Florida, performed the anthem from “Rent” months after a horrific mass shooting killed 17 of their classmates and teachers. The Tonys had honored their drama teacher, Melody Herzfeld, with a special award.

A look back at some of Broadway’s highest kicks (and notes) over the history of the Tony telecast

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