In the premiere episode of The Theatre Channel “Welcome to the Café,” Olivier winner and Tony nominee Jenna Russell performs “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. Having been filmed in the midst of a pandemic, a song about upper class Manhattanites drinking, buying hats, and going to a Pinter play hits differently.
After her show-stopping performance, Russell and series creator Adam Blanshay chatted with Playbill about performing during a pandemic and how musical theatre still translates on screen.
What inspired you for this project?
Adam Blanshay: The Theatre Café is the epicenter of London’s West End. It’s not only a coffee shop and ticket agent, but a platform for all lovers of theatre to congregate and gather. They should be heralded in that they have not ceased their operations. They initially launched a brilliant concert series with performers doing concerts from the safety of their homes days after we went into lockdown. When that wrapped, I bumped into the owner of the Café on the street. He told me he will not be reopening his door to patrons during the continued London Theatre closures and instead would like to continue to use the space as a venue to film content. I then proposed to him to make essentially fully-realized musical music videos as a web series, and thus bore the idea of The Theatre Channel.
Did you approach this performance on camera differently from when you’re a stage?
Jenna Russell: I did, obviously the song is part of a scene, and then the song becomes a three act play in itself, but it’s rooted in a show, where the characters are bouncing off each other. Joanne is teaching Bobby/Bobbi something here. I just tried to remain true to the song and Sondheim. Like Mamet says “invent nothing, deny nothing.” I attempted to do that.
Were there any challenges you faced (aside from the expected pandemic restrictions)?
AB: A big learning curve for us has been the complexities of music licensing on an international scale, and all of the intricate negotiations that have to take place through the various writing parties and their representatives in order to green-light the filming of a production number. Something that was entirely new to us coming from the world of live theatre. But we’re getting the hang of it.
Where did the idea for having a Café Four come from?
AB: The creative team collectively decided that, while each episode will consist of a new cast of 6-8 headliners, we wanted to create a through-line, or glue that ties each episode together. It was director Bill Deamer who came up with the concept: two women and two men, who each bring something special to the table. They act as triple-threat chameleons that conceptually help tie the overall series together, and we love watching as audiences are falling in love with them.
What does The Theatre Channel bring to fans in this unprecedented time?
JR: I think the sentiment behind [it] is to bring some theatre snippets to us all in these bewildering times. I was grateful to have the opportunity to perform and to perform Sondheim. It’s been hard on the theatre community all over the world. It was gorgeous to get to sing, if only for an afternoon.