The year that’s ending was one of shock and sorrow, but more uplifting to think of it as a year full of Sondheim — starting from the New York Philharmonic’s “Celebrating Sondheim” concert when the year was new; to the previews of the gender-reversed revival of “Company” when Broadway still open; to the Raul Esparza-organized “Take Me To The World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” a collection of vibrant music videos launched not on his birthday in March but in April on the 50th anniversary of the original “Company”; to the theater artists wearing face shields who gathered on the red steps of Father Duffy Square in October to sing from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George; to the first streaming version of the long-running concert series “Sondheim Unplugged,” filmed without an audience in Feinstein’s/54 Below in December, and presented on demand until a week into next year.
So yes, it’s hard to disagree completely with humorist Dave Barry’s assessment of 2020 in his annual year in review: “This was a year in which our only moments of genuine, unadulterated happiness were when we were able to buy toilet paper.” We NEED Times Square’s #GoodRiddanceDay (today at noon) But once again the arts made a difficult time easier to bear.
It hasn’t been easy for the people who provide the arts. The pandemic relief bill that was finally signed into law on Sunday includes some $15 billion for the entertainment/cultural industry in the Save Our Stages bill — which the Washington Post’s Peter Marks last week called “the largest public rescue of the arts in U.S. history.” But nobody is claiming it will be enough to stop “a great cultural depression,” as local musicians union president Adam Krauthamer told Patricia Cohen in the New York Times. “My fear is we’re not just losing jobs, we’re losing careers.”
“[E]ven in these extraordinary times, the losses in the performing arts and related sectors have been staggering,” Cohen wrote on Saturday. “During the quarter ending in September, when the overall unemployment rate averaged 8.5 percent, 52 percent of actors, 55 percent of dancers and 27 percent of musicians were out of work, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. By comparison, the jobless rate was 27 percent for waiters; 19 percent for cooks; and about 13 percent for retail salespeople over the same period.” It’s not just performers. The $878 billion industry supports some 5.1 million jobs, which includes “agents, makeup artists, hair stylists, tailors, janitors, stage hands, ushers, electricians, sound engineers, concession sellers, camera operators, administrators, construction crews, designers, writers, directors and more.”
Optimists see theaters reopening next Fall. But, Charles McNulty of the L.A. Times predicts “old theater habits will likely take another year to restart, as confidence in the safety of public gatherings slowly returns.” Yet, if “the economic implications of this are devastating,” he adds: “could there be artistic renewal in the wreckage?”
In his essay last week vividly headlined “My dream for theater: Toss the old business model in the dumpster fire of 2020″, McNulty argues that theater’s economic model was broken even before the pandemic. He lays out a hoped-for future of the theater — getting rid of seasonal programming, having a more “inclusive embrace” in audiences, placing “artistic imperatives over institutional obligations,” treating artists “as sharers in a collaborative mission rather than disposable gig workers,” committing to a flexibility of schedule, space and mind — that he admits may seem Utopian. But it’s a future that in one sense seeks to revive the past:
“Golden Ages in the theater are not just a coincidence of lucky births, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides or Marlowe, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Golden Ages happen through a circuit of audiences, artists and institutions. All three elements must be in place for the stage to flourish.”
The Week in Theater Reviews
The artist who calls himself Mur has written a musical about trees. On the surface, artist and subject differ greatly. Trees can live for thousands of years; a spruce in Sweden is said to be more than 9,500 years old. Mur is 35. Trees thrive in forests, Mur in New York City.
But trees are surprisingly social and actively communicate with one another, albeit in mysterious ways that scientists are only beginning to study, according to “The Hidden Life Of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. And much the same can be said about Mur, who was inspired by Wohlleben’s book to create “Trees.” Mur seems to be social, he likes to communicate, but he sometimes does so in mysterious ways, at least in “Trees.”….a lyrical, non-linear work that gains beauty with each viewing…
After shutting down after February because of the pandemic, the long-running monthly concert series has gone virtual…
There is little question this concert will offer a measure of relief to the loyal audience of the series, and delight lovers of Sondheim (Sondheimites? Sondheimaniacs?) who are discovering the series for the first time.
As for me: It’s not quite what I had expected. (see videos)
The Week in Theater News
2020 Steinberg Playwright Awards and $10,000 each have been awarded to Ngozi Anyanwu, Lucas Baisch, Jocelyn Bioh, Christopher Chen, Jordan E. Cooper, Nathan Alan Davis, Guadalís Del Carmen,
Steph Del Rosso, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, Miranda Rose Hall, Aleshea Harris, James Ijames, Candrice Jones, Hansol Jung, Anna Moench, Diana Oh, Madhuri Shekar, Sanaz Toossi, Leah Nanako Winkler, and Rhiana Yazzie.
An interesting detail below from the “Save Our Stages” legislation that gives $15 billion to live event entertainment venues. It’s a no-no to use the funds for the presentation of anything “of a prurient sexual nature.” Okay then. https://t.co/4SIkLc8JUd pic.twitter.com/rkxzEL4wfa
— Peter Marks (@petermarksdrama) December 22, 2020
Like our own sourdough, the “Ratatouille” musical was a concoction of pandemic boredom. But it’s also the culmination of a larger phenomenon in musical theater: Social media platforms, especially TikTok, are allowing for a fan experience that goes beyond the live attractions in 41 little boxes in midtown Manhattan like never before. Call it a new ecosystem of musical theater fan fiction, where creativity flourishes in unpredictable ways.
Rest in Peace
Rebecca Luker, 59, go-to Broadway performer for three decades ( “Show Boat,” “The Sound of Music” “The Music Man,”….”Fun Home.) wife of Danny Burstein, a COVID survivor.
Roger Berlind, 90, a producer or co-producer of 100 shows on Broadway who won 25 Tony Awards (from Amadeus in 1981 to Oklahoma in 2019.) Berlind was a Wall Street executive who abruptly quit his job after his wife and three of his four children were killed in an airplane crash, then launched his career in the theater, where as a young man he had wanted to be a songwriter.
The Week in Theater Videos
“You Will Be Found” performed by Dear Evan Hansen’s Broadway, North American Tour and West End companies
The first hour of Save The West Bank Café Telethon, featuring Joe Iconis,
Joe Iconis, Nathan Lane,Matthew Broderick, Anna Chlumsky, Debra Messing, Gabrielle Stravelli, Iain Armitage, Lauren Patten, Martha Plimpton, Kerry Butler, Christine Pedi, Amy Hillner Larsen
Michael L Walters, Pete Townshend, Amra-Faye Wright, Aaron Kaburick, Alice Ripley, Kevin Smith Kirkwood,Christine Bianco, Laura Bell Bundy, Stories of the West Bank film by Gaylen Ross, Tom and Michael D’Angora, KT Sullivan
The ninth hour and final hour, featuring Sean Penn, Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Andrea McArdle, Bobby Cannavale, Christine Pedi, Joe Iconis, Gabrielle Stravelli, Chip Zien, Alison Fraser, Mary Testa, Anna Chlumsky, Debra Messing, Morgan Fairchild, Ryann Redmond, John Gallagher Jr., Kelli Barrett and Jarrod Spector, Judy Kuhn, Becky Gelke, Betty Buckley, Melissa Rivers, Lee Wilkof, Evan Handler, Emily McNamara, Scott Foster, Taylor Crousore, Michael West, Tom and Michael D’Angora, Tim Guinee,
Alice Ripley, Eric Michael Gillet, Kevin Chamberlain, Brian Gallagher and Megan Hilty,
Janet Momjian, Karen Ziemba, George Salazar,
Chita Rivera, and André DeShields
For all the hours in-between check out Save West Bank Cafe page
The “Celebrate Sondheim” concert from a year ago.
The opening number of “Company”