While watching “Together Apart,” the latest online anthology about life during the pandemic, I wondered: Will COVID-19 inspire great theater? Has a pandemic ever done so? Yes, Shakespeare wrote “King Lear”during the plague, but that’s not a play about the plague.
“Together Apart,” available for free through August 20th, is not great theater. I don’t think it’s meant to be. The idea for the show came to singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb during a reunion on Zoom she attended for alumni from Brown University who had studied musical theater. As her former classmates one by one recounted what it had been like for them over the past year, Loeb thought: This could be a musical.
Eventually, some 100 Brown alumni participated, including such pros as Broadway veteran Ann Harada and Julie Bowen of the TV series “Modern Family,” but also many amateurs. The result is an evening of ten “mini-musicals,” interspersed with comic monologues by Eric Kirchberger portraying Dr. Anthony Fauci. Some of the pieces are fun; some funny; some…well-meaning. A couple aim higher. But whatever the merits of the individual pieces, and the songs in them, the overall effect is 90 overstuffed minutes that seem more about connection – the opening number is entitled “How Can I Connect?” – than art or even entertainment. It’s not a huge leap to see “Together Apart” as more for the sake of the people who put it together than for the people watching it. As Loeb explained to the Associated Press: “People really had the passion to connect and to tell these stories and to work together. So it created a lot of purpose during this time. And, for a lot of people, it created an opportunity to be creative.”
Still, some of that creativity pays off for theatergoers, even those who didn’t go to Brown. My favorite is “The New Normal” (although it has my least favorite title), about an elementary school classroom conducted via Zoom, where, one by one, the parents intrude into the box occupied by their children, and take over, squabbling amongst themselves. One of the funniest aspects of this piece is how straight-faced the actual little kids are, when the adults push them aside.
There is an effort to tap into some of the major current issues. “Red State/Blue State” is a jokey piece about online dating, in which (as is usual for such sketches) the would-be couples are laughably incompatible, but in this case it’s because their worldviews reflect the political schism in the nation as a whole. In “Breathe,” an African-American couple who are planning to get divorced are forced to stay together as roommates because of the lockdown; living together through the cataclysm of the George Floyd murder changes the trajectory of their relationship.
Two of the most heartfelt pieces, though, are, perhaps not surprisingly, about personal reunions: In both “La Dolce Jersey” and “Find The Music,” two old friends reconnect and retrace their lives.
There has been much talk of late that out of the pandemic will emerge a hybrid theater. But hybrid in this context usually means a mix of stage and screen, in-person and online. Will the hybrid spirit of these anthologies — which mix professional craft and amateur enthusiasm – also outlast this pandemic period?