As a rule, theater buffs are a loyal, ravenous bunch. So when all mass gatherings, including Broadway shows, were banned in early March to mitigate the COVID-19 health crisis, many folks went into kind of dramaturgical withdrawal.
Within days, the ever-resilient theater community jumped to the rescue with a dizzying array of online programs, many raising funds to provide emergency aid for those in the performing arts hurt by the shutdown. These offerings take a variety of forms, from the streaming of archived plays and musicals, world premieres of original works, live talk shows, readings with Broadway celebrities, podcasts, DIY webcasts, tribute videos –– the list goes on.
If you haven’t seen the video recreation of the opening number of “A Chorus Line” by 44 members of the revival cast (hello Tony Yazbeck and Charlotte d’Amboise!) performed in quarantine in their homes, backyards, and driveways, with toddlers and pups in tow, be sure to check it out.
Not that these online endeavors could ever substitute for the real thing — the ineffable thrill of witnessing flesh-and-blood actors transforming themselves before your eyes onstage, and physically sharing the communal experience with likeminded fans. But the programs help fans get their theater fix at home and are a welcome balm for the soul during these worst of times. Best of all, most content is free of charge.
Following are a few highlights of these online options.
Broadway.com has long offered digital content to complement the New York theater scene. But since the shutdown, it is streaming an at-home version of their popular #LiveatFive program, where host Paul Wontorek and friends deliver news updates on the pandemic’s impact on the theater community. They serve up interviews with Broadway stars in their living rooms and invite viewers to ask questions.
In a recent episode, Rob McClure talked about starring in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” which only played three previews before theaters went dark. The website also hosts special events, like a livestream presentation of Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer and Cellar” starring Michael Urie, which was a smash hit Off Broadway a few years back. The solo show was streamed on April 19 as a benefit for the Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund.
Play at Home
In response to the closures, a group of dedicated theater artists came together to form the Play at Home project, a series of short plays commissioned to inspire joy, connection, and hope during this unprecedented period of isolation. It also offers playwrights a chance to continue working, although the plays are not meant to be professionally produced. Scripts are posted for free for anyone to download, perform in their living room, and share on social media. Plays are no more than 10 minutes long and have roles for one or multiple aspiring actors. This is a joint effort among Baltimore Center Stage, New Haven’s Long Wharf, The Public Theater, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and Woolly Mammoth in Washington.
Access at PlayAtHome.org.
Stars in the House
When Broadway shuttered, Seth Rudetsky and husband James Wesley quickly sprang into action. They created “Stars in the House” that features Broadway stars performing mini-concerts from their homes, casual and unfiltered. Shirts are wrinkled, hair is tousled, and beds are unmade, which adds to the charm. During the show, they request donations to The Actors Fund, an essential lifeline to the performing arts community.
The roster of stars is mind-blowing — Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Raúl Esparza, Santino Fontana, Lea Salonga, Audra McDonald, and Jonathan Groff, to name a few. A spinoff, called “Plays in the House,” offers staged readings of beloved plays, often performed by original cast members. To date, they have raised more than $214,000.
National Theatre at Home
The London-based National Theatre was hit hard by the shutdown. So this pioneer in live-captured, world-class theater is digging into its archives to serve up popular shows and solicit vital funds for the theater. Each successive free program debuts on a Thursday and can be downloaded on its YouTube channel and accessed for a week. Past shows include “One Man, Two Guvnors” starring James Corden, and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
Access on NationalTheatre.org.
Broadway on Demand
A brand new membership-based streaming service is being created with an extensive archive of live-captured shows, livestream events, interactive platforms, and educational resources. The premier initiative, “30 Days of Opening Nights,” will be kicked off with a star-studded live concert supporting performing arts professionals affected by the health crisis. Members can choose between basic and premium subscriptions. This offering is set to launch in mid-May.
Check out the details on BroadwayOnDemand.com.
The Shows Must Go On
A YouTube channel devoted to the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber that periodically grants free access to beloved shows for 48 hours, urging donations for The Actors Fund and other international arts support groups. So far, viewers have been able to watch “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (2000), and “Phantom of the Opera at Royal Albert Hall” (2011). In addition to full-length shows, you’ll also find clips of legendary performances and behind-the-scenes footage. Streams every Friday at 2 p.m. for 48 hours.
Visit its YouTube channel to access.
“Little Did I Know”
Soon after launching in late March, the podcast musical “Little Did I Know” shot up to #3 on the Apple’s US podcast charts. Billed as “the first Broadway-level podcast musical,” it stars Richard Kind (“Kiss Me, Kate”) and Patrick Page (“Hadestown”), among others. The plot revolves around a group of recent college grads who attempt to revive a broken-down theater in 1976. New episodes are released every Tuesday through May 12. As a special treat there’s a livestreamed “jam session” allowing fans to interact with the stars on April 23 at 5 p.m.
Visit its YouTube channel to access.
WNET’s All Arts
A media arts platform was created by WNET to stream live content and offer archived material. Recently it presented a staged concert reading of the harrowing “The Soap Myth,” starring Ed Asner and Tovah Feldshuh, which examined whether the Nazis made soap from corpses of murdered Jews. A special panelist discussion featuring the cast will be livestreamed on April 20 at 6:30 p.m. EST.
Watch “The Soap Myth” and more on allarts.org.
Red Bull Theater Live
Red Bull Theater has created a mix of online programming to help make up for its shuttered shows. As part of its informal “Remarkabull Podversation” program, Michael Urie chatted about “Romeo & Juliet.” Also on offer is a series of live readings featuring original casts from previous productions. On April 20 at 7:30 p.m., catch a livestream reading of its acclaimed 2015 hit, “’Tis a Pith She’s a Whore,” by John Ford.
Visit RedBullTheater.com for programming details.
Soundstage is series of free podcasts, courtesy of Playwrights Horizons, that was actually conceived before the pandemic. The playwrights, directors, and sound designers created these works specifically to optimize the aural experience. The premiere audio episode was Heather Christian’s “Prime: A Practical Breviary,” while the second installment was “Gather,” by Robert O’Hara.
Access the podcasts on PlaywrightsHorizons.org.
Okay, this is for those hankering to see drag queens rather than Broadway. Past events have featured Mimi Imfurst (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”) doing her jaw-dropping take on Carole Baskin from “Tiger King,” and “Black Girl Magic,” a digital show spotlighting black drag performers, hosted by Vinchelle. Plus they are putting their legendary Drag Brunch shows online (you supply the Bloody Marys). In this twisted universe, they assert that “Everything’s coming up COVID!”
Access at DragDiva.com.