Theater Heroes of 2020

Many people in the theater community have stepped up to this moment of multiple crises, including those I detail below, listed roughly in alphabetical order. They stand in for all the others. None acted alone – at a time when we are all literally in isolation.

Laura Benanti and the #SunshineSongs performers

Benanti — “tired, freaked-out, unshowered” — posted a video on social media suggesting that high school seniors whose shows were being canceled because of the pandemic could share a video with her of their performing, using the hashtag #SunshineSongs.
“I thought I’d get 20-25 responses.”
She got thousands.
She has now produced a documentary called Homeschool Musical Class of 2020, debuting on HBOMax today, in which she focuses on seven of the teenagers. Each performs a single song of their choosing – they’re in effect music videos — but we also learn how remarkable these students are. Several were actively involved in protest movements; one helped organize a protest in his hometown that produced a list of demands for police reform, which the town council enacted into law. “I want to do everything I can to make the world a better place, and make some cool art while I’m doing it.”
One had to defer college because her parents had to shut down their shop and could no longer afford tuition; another became homeless,
“Art is what gets us through.”

Renee Blinkwolt and Jason Eagan

In the early, uncertain days in March after every theater in New York was shut down, Ars Nova’s managing director Renee Blinkwolt and artistic director Jason Eagan decisively canceled the rest of their season but promised to pay in full each person who had been scheduled to work during that time — staffers, artists, independent contractors — 223 people in all, for a total of about $685,000. They were quick to say that they were lucky; they had money on hand, because their annual gala had happened already.
Consider them early responders. A number of theaters have since committed to supporting their artists and other workers.

Jeremy O. Harris

After  “Slave Play” made it to Broadway, Jeremy O. Harris inked a deal (as they say) with HBO in March – right before all the theaters shut down. The deal included a discretionary fund to support the theater, an indication that he wasn’t just going to take the Hollywood money and run; his commitment to theater – and to change in the theater – was real. In the months since then, Harris has come through in a myriad of ways. He produced new online productions of two great plays, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” and “The Wolves,” which he offered to the public for free. He funded two $50,000 commissions for Black women playwrights in collaboration with New York Theatre Workshop. He created something he called the Golden Collection,  15 plays/play collections by Black playwrights, which he will be donating to libraries and community centers across the country. He has also used his newfound fame to proselytize, promoting the idea of “some type of symbiotic system between Hollywood and the American theater,” advocating for a new Federal Theater Project, and looking for ways to open theater up to a wider public.  Asked during a recent talk show appearance about whether he feels optimistic, Harris said “there’s a lot of reason to feel despondent right now…but in this moment we get to reframe and reimagine who theater is for, how we get it to them, and how to change the dynamics of theater that makes it so difficult to get to.”

Emily Jacobsen, Daniel J. Mertzlufft and #Ratatouille TikTokers

Emily Jacobsen is a 26-year-old school teacher, but she’s also a Disney fan and a TikTok enthusiast. After the pandemic resulted in a canceled trip to Disney World, she made up a 16-second song for TikTok entitled “Ode to Remy,” about the rat who aspires to be a French chef in the 2007 Disney animated film Ratatouille. Daniel J. Mertzlufft, a 27-year-old composer and arranger who had been making TikToks throughout the quarantine , took her song and ran with it, arranging it, making suggestions for a finale. What followed is surely unprecedented in the history of the American musical – no, in the history of theater. Literally thousands of  singers, actors, composers, choreographers and stage designers who were moonlighting as TikTokers added their own contributions – and Ratatouille The TikTok Musical  was born, which, thanks to Broadway producer  Greg Nobile of Seaview productions (Moulin Rouge, Slave Play, etc.).is premiering online January 1. Its “run” is just scheduled for 72 hours, but there are indications of a bright future – another Broadway producer had already publicly proclaimed an interest in bringing it on stage when Broadway reopens.

Mertzlufft has become something of a star,  appearing in this star-studded video with James Corden, seemingly destined for an illustrious musical theater career.

 

But will we look back at 2020 as the year they figured out a new way to create theater?

This may be a good place to reiterate my gratitude to the theater makers — too numerous to single out — who embraced online platforms early, often, and with increasing craft…and more often than not, as fundraisers for a worthy cause.

 

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Billionaire composer Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t need any more accolades, but he certainly deserves them, by being the single most prominent person working to reopen theaters safely worldwide — methodically monitoring medical progress and state-of-the-art practices around the world, testifying at government hearings, lobbying, giving interviews — and even arguably putting his life on the line; the 72-year-old participated in vaccine trials.

Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald has visibly stepped up what was already an extensive record of activism, singing regularly in Zoom benefits for the arts and other charities (such as Covenant House, where she’s served on the Board of Directors since 2014), and co-founding Black Theatre United, a new organization committed to “help protect Black People, Black Talent, and Black Lives.” Other Broadway stars have met the moment too, but she’s the only one who joined Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski for “Ladies Who Lunch” at Sondheim’s 90th birthday celebration. which was a fundraiser for Artists Striving to End Poverty. (so I have an excuse to show it again.)

Cody Renard Richard

A week after George Floyd was killed, igniting a nationwide protest movement demanding a reckoning on racism, Cody Renard Richard was one of those who took the reckoning to the theater. A stage manager with eleven Broadway credits including The Lion King and Hamilton, Renard spoke out on social media about demeaning experiences as a Black man working on Broadway, which led to several interviews.

Renard didn’t stop there. He created the Cody Renard Richard Scholarship Program to encourage more BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) students to become theater makers and theater managers.

Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley

On March 16th, the day after all remaining New York City theaters were ordered closed, the well-known Broadway musician, writer, and radio host Seth Rudetsky and his husband James Wesley launched “Stars in the House” on the YouTube channel of the Actors Fund with guest Kelli O’Hara singing and answering questions from the hosts in her own home. They have produced a livestreamed show every day since, so far raising more than $600,000 for the Actors Fund and more than a dozen other charities. The shows are a hybrid of variety show, talk show, fundraiser, and coronavirus public service announcement, with a doctor or two on call. Often, they are cast reunion shows. At the beginning of April, they added a twice-weekly “Plays in the House,” livestreaming readings of popular or classic plays;

“They make us feel like we’re all still together,” Audra McDonald has said of them, “while raising so much money for causes including The Actors Fund, raising awareness, and keeping us all together

 

Brooke Ishibashi, Carson Elrod, Jenny Grace Makholm, Matthew-Lee Erlbach

The founders of Be An #ArtsHero are all theater artists (they prefer to say arts workers) who are focused on convincing the Senate to “allocate proportionate relief to the Arts & Culture sector of the American economy.” As Matthew-Lee Erlbach told me “we’ve all become activist-advocate-lobbyists…and we’re doing it all through an incredible team of volunteers working 16 to 19 hour days.”  By the very title of their organization, they’re saying: Anybody can step up.

Is there anybody you would like to add to this list? Please write about them in the comments section below.

 

 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

3 thoughts on “Theater Heroes of 2020

  1. Holly-Anne Devlin for producing over 80 events for artists during the pandemic and keeping 400 people employed continuously. She also formed the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Action Committee whose main goal is saving small businesses and restoring public safety in the theatre district. She was SpectrumNY1’s New Yorker of the Week for her efforts

  2. I’d say the great Andre DeShields has participated in more Covid fund raising events than almost any other entertainer. Attentions must be paid.

  3. Andrew Barth Feldman and Alex Boniello for their work with Broadway Jackbox (raising money for The Actors’ Fund and Broadway for Racial Justice) and Broadway Whodunit (original improvised live-streamed shows allowing actors to perform and get paid).

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