Needless to say, 2020 didn't exactly go as planned. Broadway's busiest time of year became an increasingly lengthy intermission. Frolics in Times Square became rallies for artist relief and social justice. But this Thanksgiving, we're grateful for the glimmers of light that illuminated a path through dark times. Read on below as members of the Playbill editorial staff (past and present) share some of those moments—primarily on screen—that offered a respite from tense times, hope for the future of live performance, and a reminder that even if theatres are dim, the theatre community is as vibrant as ever.
They say you never forget your first time. A little more than a month had passed since the shutdown, and I was desperate for the well-known feeling of seeing a show that somehow just invigorates your soul. Bad news was coming in by the hour, and the prospect of working at a journalistic outlet was quickly evaporating. Enter, screen center, Michael Urie in a virtual production of Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer and Cellar. It was the first time in weeks I had truly laughed (and cried happy tears) in addition to being the first virtual production I'd ever experienced. Watching Urie run around his apartment as Barbra Streisand and a shopkeeper in her Malibu home's underground mall was the Chaotic Good we all needed. The multiple camera angles added depth both physical and emotional, and Urie's unbridled joy at being able to perform this work he knew so well was palpable despite the lack of a physical audience. Venues might be closed for the foreseeable future, but that night proved theatre was still alive. Here we all were—at home, watching a live theatre performance that served as a balm for the community. The next day, work felt lighter. There was a collective sigh of relief: perhaps theatre in a pandemic could work. Eight months later, we know for sure it can.
June’s Black Lives Matter movement protests called for an urgent examination of racism across all industries and sectors. As the theatre industry had its own reckoning, it seemed that the community at large needed direction on how to begin unpacking. I was so grateful that Broadway Advocacy Coalition held their three-part forum “Broadway for Black Lives Matter Again.” They created a necessary space for Black theatremakers to take a collective breath together and begin the healing process. They also provided tangible action items and accountability resources for allies. It felt so important for non-Black community members to listen to the stories and experiences that Black theatremakers have been navigating and holding onto for so long. There’s certainly more work to be done, but I really appreciate BAC helping us take those first steps.
Against chaos and uncertainty, the usually bustling Times Square came to a standstill for a moment of order, design, tension, balance, and harmony. In a surprise, pop-up performance, a socially distanced throng of Broadway stars took to the red TKTS steps to sing an inspiring rendition of "Sunday" from Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George. Leading the group was the show's original star herself, Bernadette Peters, whose delicate soprano guided us through "the flecks of light, and dark" that we've faced this year. I still watch the video regularly: to appreciate the impassioned arrangement from Broadway Inspirational Voices' Michael MicElroy, James Sampliner, Billy Porter; to play "I Spy" with the likes of Gavin Creel, Carolee Carmello, and Norm Lewis; to remind myself that even as theatres are dark, we ourselves carry with us the words George muttered so often when he worked: Order. Design. Tension. Composition. Balance. Light. Harmony.
The air felt lighter as Tony Award winners André de Shields and Lillias White took the stage for Broadway Advocacy Coalition’s Broadway VS. The evening, hosted by Amber Iman, was a fundraiser to support the next generation of BIPOC leadership within the theatre industry through the Cody Renard Richard Scholarship Program, as well BAC’s other initiatives to support and empower artist activists. Inspired by the Verzuz Instagram Live sensation, Broadway VS pitted de Shields and White against each other, the stars going head-to-head as they revisited highlights from their career in an effort to claim the title as the legend. Though presented as a competition, the event was a sublime celebration, honoring two Black theatre titans whose work has shaped Broadway and generations of performers under them. In a year marked by unprecedented challenge, both on Broadway and beyond, Broadway VS was a beacon of joy and community, and a reminder of the healing power of Broadway and the incredible Black talent making waves in it.
For New York City as a whole and the theatre industry in particular, April was a low point. COVID cases were peaking, stages were still newly dark, and no one knew what to expect in the coming months. But in true New York City spirit, people began to create a new ritual of coming together for one minute in the early evening to bang pots and pans, whistle, and cheer in support of essential workers. And in true The Show Must Go On spirit, Broadway performers contributed their voices to the daily community moment. For me, the most moving (and amazing!) example was Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell belting Man of La Mancha’s “The Impossible Dream” from his apartment window. At the time—as well as several months later—it was nearly impossible to watch a YouTube video of the musical moment by Stokes, for whom the performances were just the beginning of his 2020 activism, and not feel buoyed.
Getting to live-tweet events from the brand account is one of the most exciting but also most stressful parts of managing Playbill's social media. You’re both completely absorbed in what’s taking place on screen, but also in the mad rush to share the news of what’s happening in real-time. Many events pass for me in a flurry of GIF-making and copy-writing, but I will never forget the experience of watching and live-tweeting through The Antonyos this past June. In a year that has included so much pain and grief for Black people especially, The Antonyos stream was such a bright spot. It was radical—not just in its execution of a new and entirely virtual awards ceremony, but in the fact that it was a celebration entirely focused on Black joy and Black artistry. A few things I’ll never forget about that night: The show opening with Sasha Allen singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the gender-inclusive performance categories, mother-daughter duo LaChanze and Celia Rose Gooding taking home acting awards in the same night, and the musical and dramatic performances commemorating milestones in Black theatre history. The ongoing pandemic has robbed the theatre community of so much this year, but seeing how theatre artists (and Black theatre artists specifically) have innovated and generated unforgettable experiences like The Antonyos (all from their respective homes no less!) has been deeply inspirational and serves as a testament to the creativity and resilience of the community. As a Black woman and as a theatre lover, I am beyond grateful for The Antonyos, and I hope they continue for many years to come.
It’s always been said that theatre is a community, and that concept has really upheld during these trying times. The day after the shutdown, the community was mobilizing to keep spirits alive and remain connected. In June, Playbill presented the Pride Spectacular, and seeing how the show came together and the way everyone involved dealt with the difficulties of a virtual event was inspiring. It’s encouraging to see it happening all around us, as artists continue to find ways to remain creative and supportive of each other's endeavors. I am thankful for each and every one of the people who make an effort to continue to make art and for those who take the time to enjoy it. One day, we will sit together in the dark waiting for an overture to start, but in the meantime, we will continue to find ways to connect and create even when we are away from each other.
One of the first performances streamed live from the stage of a theatre after the shutdown was The Old Vic's Lungs, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith. Though the performance as a whole was great, it was the surprisingly the bows that made the biggest impact on me. The actors were socially distanced throughout the performance, but during the bows, they pulled out a large plexiglass panel on wheels and, with one actor on each side, put their hands in the same spot and shared a kiss. It was incredibly moving, not only because we had just watched a play about a relationship that, due to COVID-19, had to be staged without any physical contact between the two lovers, but because it suddenly brought into focus the true impact of the loss of physical contact and fellowship we were—and are—experiencing during this pandemic. It's cliche that we don't realize what we take for granted until it's taken away, but it's true! Seeing theatre artists adjust to these wild times and able to bring us some version of what we all so sorely miss, even in the oddest of circumstances, was moving and filled me with immense hope: a feeling I was in sore need of in the summer of 2020.
When my alma mater, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, went online for classes and subsequently for fall theatre productions, they were able to reach out and involve alumni in a lot of that programming. I had the great privilege of joining the university cast in the production of Caridad Svich’s Desdemona’s Child (blood cry). It was a hybrid online/live production with some actors completely in Zoom boxes and others on campus in masked/socially distant filmed scenes. We were never all in the same room. We were never in the same room with the director. But that didn’t compromise the power of a script to move people and effect change. I watched college students cry and rage as they worked through the difficult text—Desdemona’s Child (blood cry) is a contemporary response to Shakespeare’s Othello, set in a gulf coast town dealing with a rising flood and the disparity of its destruction, and, concurrently, racial injustice and violence. Even with Broadway on pause and our industry struggling to find ways to create, there are little colleges in Oklahoma (and I suspect across the country) doing important work. When live theatre comes back, get ready for some powerful storytelling. Because the storytellers are ready!
During an interview several years ago, Paula Vogel told me that I absolutely had to read Eisa Davis' play Bulrusher. This stunning work has been a favorite since; a text I return to again and again. In the fall, Vogel streamed a performance of Bulrusher via her Bard at the Gate series that I can only describe as magical. Directed by Davis and starring an incredible Kara Young in the title role, the virtual reading reminded me that while our theatres may be shut, the power of words, and the potency of live performance, will never disappear.
I am bowled over by what Playbill was able to accomplish with these digital concert specials. We already mentioned the Pride Spectacular, of which I am ridiculously proud, but I never thought we'd be able to still push boundaries beyond that. All three of our digital specials are an example of what I want theatre to look like. Collaborative, resourceful, inclusive on all spectrums, and passionate. Every one of these happened because artists said yes. Performers learned new songs on their own; musical directors conducted rehearsals over Zoom. For ¡Viva Broadway! Hear Our Voices, in particular, instrumentalists from around the globe recorded their lines alone; sound designers augmented live performances to make them feel like they all happened in the same room; choreographers and dancers cleared furniture. The entire company, creative team, and design team of over 100 artists were all of Latinx heritage (with the exception of myself and one other ally), proving the well of talent at our disposal that too often goes untapped. And, we were also able to celebrate the deep legacy of Latinx stories, music, and dance throughout musical theatre history. It's not just In The Heights and On Your Feet!. There is always more, if we only look.
It was a late Saturday morning when, working on the computer, I heard a cacophony of horns honking, pots and pans clanging, and hundreds of people yelling from their windows. It reminded me of the daily moment of thanks that were part of much of the pandemic, when New Yorkers opened their windows each night at 7 PM to open their hearts and display their deep appreciation for the brave healthcare workers who have continued to put their own lives at risk to take care of those with this insidious virus. Yet on this day, the honking seemed even louder, the yelling somehow more passionate, and the banging more a reflection of four years of frustration. As I went to turn on the TV to check the news, I thought that the winner of the election must have been named. And, indeed, that was the case: Joseph Biden was elected 46th President of the United States, and it was the one true moment of joy I have experienced since this pandemic began. It was also a moment of great theatre, watching fellow New Yorkers dance and sing in the streets, all sharing this powerful experience. I quickly put on shoes and a mask, heading outside into the Theatre District to capture the excitement on my cell. I high-fived a few people—socially distanced of course—and felt a sense of optimism that has eluded me for months. It made me more sure than ever that we all will get through this difficult time and that the theatre will return more passionate than ever. There will be new stories to tell, and they will be told by a more diverse group of artists and creators than ever. Stay strong, stay focused, and stay safe, and I will see you at the theatre before you know it.