Special FeaturesThe Top Theatre Stories of 2020, From Zoom to ZazzAn extended intermission. An overdue reckoning. A lot of gridded stages.
December 31, 2020
In a frenzied year of ups and downs (OK, mostly downs), it was often the headlines that gave us a sense of clarity, whether that clarity came with frustration, pain, hope, or enthusiasm. Take a look below at the top stories that kept the Playbill news desk busy in 2020, even in a time without Broadway shows.
An Extended Intermission Across the Theatre District, no 2020 headline loomed larger than “The Shutdown.” In an early measure to prevent the spread of the newly raging coronavirus, every Broadway house went dark on March 12, 2020. Though they were, at the time, scheduled to reopen a month later, they have all remained shuttered since. The closures were extended to early June, then September, then January 2021, and now, June, with the Broadway community taking each blow in stride. Regional theatres across the country faced similar devastation, with public safety roadblocks still deterring most performances. Some were able to present, with Equity approval, in-person shows, albeit primarily in open-air spaces. Across the pond, London took on, perhaps unintentionally, a stop-and-go approach, with some West End venues welcoming socially distanced audiences before Tier 3 restrictions hindered any more reopening plans (the city is currently under Tier 4). Some governmental support for the performing arts world has come, but the community won’t begin to heal in earnest until live theatre can return. Those Summer Nights (and matinees) of 2021 can’t come soon enough.
Broadway Says Black Lives Matter As the country confronted its long-upheld systems rooted in white supremacy in the wake of the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black lives, the theatre industry faced a reckoning of its own, challenging members to question the systemically racist practices in place. Black artists and theatre workers—including performer-director Schele Williams, stage manager Cody Renard Richard, and composer Griffin Matthews—shared their own accounts of experiences of racism in the theatre. Complicit artistic leaders were called out in pursuit of accountability, and change was demanded. The anonymous collective We See You White American Theater, on behalf of BIPOC theatremakers, released a 31-page document outlining the necessary redistribution of power and funding in the industry. Additional groups were founded and/or mobilized—such as the previously formed Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Broadway Black or the newly established Black Theatre United and Broadway for Racial Justice—to provide resources for BIPOC artists, to celebrate Black excellence, ensure their voices were heard in a predominantly white space, and to pave the way for a more equitable and anti-racist future.
The Spotlight in Washington The pandemic and resulting shutdown saw, nearly instantaneously, over three million industry professionals out of work. From the Be an #ArtsHero campaign to the Save Our Stages Act, Washington was deluged with calls to provide support to the performing arts industry that went beyond the Paycheck Protection Program and CARES stimulus checks. By the end of July, any pandemic-related assistance offered to arts workers dried up, leaving the industry to fundraise through virtual events and allocate as nonprofits saw fit. The uphill battle was arduous and long, with no funding specifically allocated until December 21 when Congress approved a new financial stimulus package that included $15 billion for the Save Our Stages Act. With Broadway shuttered until at least June, more aid is needed, meaning the rally cries heard throughout 2020 are unlikely to quiet any time soon.
Zooming In No artist likes being put in a box, but if you wanted to have your voice heard within the past nine months, a box—or at least a virtual rectangle—may have been the only choice. Previously utilized mostly by businesses for video conferencing (and perhaps by TheBradyBunch decades ago), Zoom and other similar services brought the theatre community together in a new way, enabling artists to share their talents worldwide. First to the gate may have been Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, whose Drama Desk-winning Stars in the House launched March 16 to promote support for The Actors Fund. A hybrid chat show and concert series, Stars in the House has reunited casts of numerous Broadway productions and classic TV shows while offering the wisdom of Coronavirus expert Dr. Jonathan LaPook. Zoom has been utilized to great effect for music videos featuring large casts and orchestras, virtual fundraising galas, holiday musicals, and the occasional Tony and Olivier winner. Reading series like Play-PerView and Spotlight on Plays ensured the show went on, even if without an in-person audience. The invitation-only Quarantuneshas raised millions of dollars for charitable organizations with performances by John Legend, Bernadette Peters, Billy Porter, the original cast of Hamilton, and dozens of others. Even schools and local theatres have been able to get in on streaming thanks to a new platform from ShowTix4U and licensing companies making streaming rights available for many of their titles for the first time. Out of necessity, virtual productions are no longer newfangled, and the new year will challenge theatre artists to remain innovative on the digital stage.
Streaming Giants Take (Over) the Stage In addition to Zoom presentations and stars on social, streaming giants continued their liaisons with the theatre, becoming as big a platform as ever for many shows in the absence of live performance. The most high-profile Broadway stream was of course the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning hit Hamilton, which dropped on Disney+ in a film capturing the (nearly) complete original Broadway cast in July. Amazon Prime Video allowed audiences to revisit Heidi Schreck's remarkably timely What the Constitution Means to Me. Netflix added all-star film adaptations of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Boys in the Band (with the full cast of the recent Broadway revival), and The Prom to its library, the latter two courtesy of megaproducer Ryan Murphy. Netflix was also responsible for reassembling the cast of Diana—the only show to return to its Main Stem home during the lockdown—for a filmed release in 2021.
Those We've Lost Each year, the theatre community pauses to remember those that leave us. This year was different, as we could not huddle on the street for moments of silence as marquee lights dimmed. We were not able to sit at a crowded memorial and communally recall the performances that moved us. And though we may mourn in a more isolated fashion right now, we are no less a community. The deaths of Mart Crowley and Terrence McNally in March—and then Larry Kramer in May—led celebrities and fans alike to social media to share their anger, shock, and sadness over the loss of each of these pioneering LGBTQ+ playwrights, and also to share their love and gratitude for the works of this great triumvirate of storytellers who brought gay characters and themes to the forefront of their of their stories. Nick Cordero, who was lost to a long battle with COVID-19 mid-summer, was celebrated online, with a chorus of co-stars, friends, and theatre family, each in individual video boxes, yet voices joined together to sing “One of the Great Ones,” his song from A Bronx Tale promising that he’ll be “the one we won’t forget.” In December—just when a difficult year began to tease it would soon be over—the deaths of Ann Reinking and of Rebecca Luker sent the community once again reeling. Videos of Ann Reinking dancing the "Hot Honey Rag" from Chicago at the 1996 Tony Awards ceremony and the “Everything Old is New Again” scene from the film All That Jazz were circulated. Then there were the clips of Rebecca Luker’s clear soprano voice breaking hearts as Lily in The Secret Garden or cheering them as Maria in The Sound of Music. We may not yet be able to share hugs, but we share these great losses. Though we may not be together, we have found a way to commune.
The Rat of All Our Dreams Emily Jacobsen (@e_jaccs) didn’t know she was initiating a movement when she posted her “Ode to Remy” TikTok August 10. In a clear falsetto, she sang a love ballad to Remy, the lead of the Pixar-Disney 2007 animated film Ratatouille, after hearing about Disney World’s new Ratatouille ride. Once composer-arranger Dan Mertzlufft watched her TikTok, he interpolated some signature motifs and themes from beloved Disney movies such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Full of musical spectacle and an imaginary 40-person ensemble, a Broadway-level finale was born. Soon after, songwriters and musicians built upon the prospect of a Ratatouille musical, expanding the song list for specific characters. The creativity didn’t stop there, with designers across all disciplines—costume, scenic, puppetry—offering their artistic vision. Playbill even joined in on the fun, teaming up with the artist who designed the key art that quickly became the emblem of the musical—Jess Siswick, and made the official (fake) Playbill. While it seemed that the musicalized version of Ratatouille would be just a TikTok fever dream, in true, unpredictable 2020 fashion, it's now receiving an all-star concert presentation to benefit The Actors Fund.
The whole social media sensation is a great year-end reminder that while auditoriums remain dark, the collaborative spirit of theatre lives on, and future generations will ensure that it remains so.