Let’s Put on a (Virtual) Show! How Live Theater Has Survived in the Time of Pandemic (Guest Blog)

The Tony Awards are back on this fall and stage companies have gotten creative in staging old and new works virtually

Last Updated: August 24, 2020 @ 9:17 AM

hollyblog guest blog banner

The Emmys are happening, so why not the Tonys? The American Theatre Wing announced last week that its annual awards show will happen, virtually of course, probably in late October. There’s a lot to be decided: Who will host? Who will stream? Will anyone perform? What we do know is that 18 shows are eligible, those that had been open long enough before Broadway closed down in March and had been seen by enough Tony voters to give them a fair shot at getting votes. (That eliminates high-profile productions like Scott Rudin’s “West Side Story” revival and the Bob Dylan songfest “Girl From the North Country” that had opened less than a month before Broadway shut down.)

In related theater news, Netflix will stream a freshly performed production of “Diana: The Musical.” The show was in previews on Broadway when the curtains came down and will now debut for a wider audience ahead of a still-planned official Broadway opening next spring. Netflix, no doubt, is aware that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has been viewed more on Disney+ than it has, or will ever be, seen on a live stage.

While most the media attention likely remains on television and films, no sector has performed a more necessary and admirable service than live theater, especially as shows and smaller companies literally fight for their survival. The stage community has shown remarkable resilience, thanks to Zoom and a “show must go on” spirit, by offering countless star-driven performance and conversations. Wouldn’t it be interesting if one positive result of this long intermission is creating a new audience for live theater? Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage has called stage artists the “second responders,” and it’s hard to challenge that sentiment.

Because these offerings can be viewed from anywhere, it means those who have only heard of New York City’s famed Public Theater, for example, can now enjoy Richard Nelson’s series of plays centered on the Apple family. That fictional clan has been the subject of many productions at the Public, and has reunited via Zoom for two newly written shows to discuss life under quarantine. Thousands have tuned in.

A unique, socially conscious, entity called Theater of War has given us at least four presentations, including Oscar Isaac and Frances McDormand in the “Oedipus Project,” Jeffrey Wright in “The Book of Job Project,” and Amy Ryan in “Ajax.” These are generally scenes from famous Greek works, followed by discussions with health care workers, who have found fascinating ways to relate to a guy named Sophocles. McDormand and Jesse Eisenberg just performed a new one. Next up: Damian Lewis, on September 3.

Other relatively unknown companies have come out of the blue, when so many are feeling exactly that. Brooklyn’s Moliere in the Park presented a hilarious “Tartuffe,” starring Raul Esparza. Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson performed a reading of Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” shortly after the playwright’s death to COVID-19. Edie Falco and Julianne Moore recently performed online readings. Bryan Cranston and Sally Field Zoomed from different rooms in different locales in a brilliant reading of “Love Letters.”

Theater companies all over the country are offering works from their archives — none more so than L.A. Theatre Works, with its audio trove) as well as original readings and lively conversations. “The Present,” at Westwood’s Geffen Playhouse (now called Stayhouse), is arguably the hottest national ticket. This is 90 minutes of immersive illusion, and only 25 people are allowed “in” at a time. As soon as new shows are added, they sell out immediately.

Even before the news of the Tonys’ return, we suggested that there should be awards — the Pandemies? — given to those performers who have done the most consistent and watchable work during this time. These could include Oscar Isaac, who also played an embittered AIDS victim opposite Marisa Tomei in MCC Theater’s virtual reading of “Beirut.” Then there is last year’s Tony winner, Santino Fontana, who has been remarkable in at least four performances. Michael Urie has been omnipresent, most memorably in an original one-act called “Frankie and Will,” in which he played the isolated Bard during a plague. Creatively barren, Will picks up a script called “King Leir,” and decides that with a few “spell-checks,” he can steal it as his own.

No one knows when stages will officially reopen, on Broadway or elsewhere in the country, or how many will venture back into the seats. But this time has proved the theatrical community’s need to entertain us. And it deserves a streaming ovation.

Mary Murphy is magazine and TV journalist and an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. Michele Willens is a New York-based writer and NPR theater commentator. They are writing a book on the history of entertainment journalism.