For those who missed the special last night, NBC is offering “One Night Only: The Best of Broadway” online. I’m not sorry I saw it; among the pile-up of familiar songs from familiar hit shows, I found the two-hour TV program worth watching for four performances in particular:
“Seasons of Love” from Rent, whose lyrics (“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes/How do you measure? Measure a year”) offers even more reasons to cry at the end of this terrible year.
A peek at the new musical “Diana” with Jeanna de Waal as Princess Diana performing the song “If”
Lauren Patten and the cast of Jagged Pill performing the showstopper “You Oughta Know.”
Patti LaBelle singing The House I Live In:
What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me
…The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me
I know she’s been singing this for decades, but it was a spot-on choice for 2020. An early anti-racist song, written by Earl Robinson (who also wrote Ballad of Americans, and Joe Hill) it debuted in the musical revue Let Freedom Sing on Broadway in 1942, and was subsequently recorded by Frank Sinatra, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.
The show was certainly worthwhile as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares Equity Fights AIDS. With painless pitches blended with fond memories of Broadway from a mix of Broadway stalwarts and celebrities such as Nathan Lane, Sutton Foster, Billy Porter, Sean Hayes, Vanessa Williams and Barbra Streisand , the show ultimately raised $3,051,297 for the charity’s COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund
As a TV show, “One Night Only: The Best of Broadway” was entertaining. But it was, first and foremost, a TV show. By that, I mean it reinforced what is probably the average television viewer’s preconceptions about Broadway, and by extension, about live theater in general.
Of the nine shows showcased, eight were musicals. Only one (“Jagged Pill”) opened in the 2019-2020 season, and another (“Diana”) was scheduled to open. You would never know from watching this TV program that 25 shows actually did open on Broadway last season before the shutdown in March.
I suppose you could argue that the shows in the season weren’t necessarily “the best” (or maybe the TV producers tried but just couldn’t get them on the broadcast, for whatever reason.) But I found it odd that the musical numbers that launched the two-hour program were from “Jersey Boys,” a popular jukebox musical but one that closed on Broadway three years ago; “Rent” closed in 2008.
The Tony Award broadcast routinely gives straight plays short shrift, but this NBC special went further; it barely acknowledged that plays exist at all. (As one wag observes, it was like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade without the parade.) For the one play featured, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” it kept to the Tony playbook. Three cast members just talked about the show, rather than performing a scene from it (albeit accompanied by a video flashing quickly through some of its special effects.)
It also felt like a mixed bag to watch a slew of celebrities talk about the first Broadway show they saw or their Broadway debuts, for at least two reasons. First, it just underscored how horribly absent live theater is from all our lives now. But also, a noticeable percentage of the celebrities reminiscing are known primarily for their screen roles, not their stage performances; some have had only one Broadway credit (including Tina Fey, the host of the broadcast, whose single credit is as the book writer for “Mean Girls,” which got more numbers than it deserved.) And some of those performing, well-known on television, have had no experience on Broadway at all.
Introduced as “one of the greatest performers in the history of Broadway,” Barbra Streisand in voiceover tells us that “my love affair with Broadway started at 14, when I saw The Diary of Anne Frank. I remember the price of the ticket. It was for $1.89 in the balcony.” She was an usher at 16, “where I was paid…$4.15 an hour.” She made her Broadway debut at 19. “There’s nothing more exhilarating than live theater.” All of this was charming in its way, but maybe a little less so to those who know that her second and last Broadway show closed 53 years ago.
The broadcast, in short, was nostalgic for a Broadway of the past. But it seemed to be a Broadway that never was. Broadway has always been deeper and broader, more serious and more adventurous than “One Night Only: The Best of Broadway” presented it. The broadcast was geared for a television audience that’s been taught to see Broadway in a limited way, precisely because of such broadcasts, which seem to be afraid they’ll be unable to attract TV viewers otherwise. And this narrow TV-perpetuated perception may be one factor in keeping Broadway from moving forward more fully as a creative and cultural center of the nation.
Near the end, host Tina Fey says “Broadway will be back better than ever, and we’ll see you here soon” – a sentiment repeated frequently by people throughout the show. At a time of reckoning in so many ways, including in the theater, many are not just hankering for Broadway to be back, but looking forward to its being tangibly better.