It's been one year since theater shut down, and we're just getting glimmers of a return this summer.
With only a few live performances to attend, yes, we've had more time to learn to grow mushrooms. But it's been tough to find a bright side for every one of these 12 months, to say nothing of the hardship for theater workers who have not been able to do the thing that they — and we — love.
If we've learned one thing in that time, it's that there's no replacement for the experience of sitting in a room with other people, watching artists share a story. But if you're looking to recapture at least a piece of what we're missing, these alternatives could help tide you over for a few more months.
Would community theater even be a thing without Moss Hart? He co-wrote "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and "You Can't Take It With You." He directed "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot" and, for good measure, wrote the Judy Garland version of "A Star Is Born." His 1959 memoir, meant to launch a never-completed series of books, doesn't get around to all of those, but its picture of his showbiz-mad youth bursts with entertaining anecdotes.
'Every Little Step'
My favorite theater documentary is about my favorite musical "A Chorus Line," that classic about showbiz survival. The 2008 doc, available on Amazon and elsewhere, peeks in as a team that includes original "Chorus" collaborators assembles a Broadway revival. Actors Equity, the performers' union, allowed unprecedented access to auditions. The result is a revealing look at the grueling process of getting a gig.
'Finishing the Hat'/'Look, I Made a Hat'
Stephen Sondheim's 2010 and 2011 volumes of lyrics, memoir and gossip make you feel like a Broadway insider as he shifts between greatest-hits reminiscences (like the time "Into the Woods" star Joanna Gleason became the only actor ever to suggest a lyric he liked) and acidic evaluations of peers.
High school musicals online
You've probably sampled streams of plays produced before the pandemic and created-for-online shows. But if you're missing amateur theater, options are more scarce. Some high schools have Zoomed their plays (as have student actors at Children's Theatre Company), but a surprising number of school productions, featuring young people falling in love with theater right in front of your eyes, are available in a YouTube search. Start with an impressive "Les Miserables" on the page of the King's Academy in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Reading plays can't duplicate sharing a space with other theatergoers' imaginations. But Maggie O'Farrell's dazzling 2020 novel has your back. Shakespeare is a tangential character, and we're more interested in his family back in Stratford: wife Agnes, his daughters and his beloved son Hamnet. A cruel plague touches them all, but when Agnes ventures into London at the end of the book to see the new "Hamlet," O'Farrell's description of how a play can transform our way of seeing could bring tears to theater-starved eyes.
The actor/writer, a veteran of the Guthrie Theater, Old Log Theatre and Theater Latté Da, is a font of musical knowledge and he's willing to share. Follow him on Twitter, where he offers video tributes to greats such as Baayork Lee and Ethel Merman in "Musical Theatre in a Minute" videos (check the hashtag #musicaltheatreinaminute and the misspelled #musicaltheatreinamimute). Wojtanowicz and Sheena Janson Kelley founded Musical Mondays, a monthly cabaret that has pivoted to Musical Mondays Trivia at maxwojtanowicz.com.
Theater Mu has created a robust variety of experiences, including made-for-streaming plays, readings and this boozy talk show in which Mu staffers hang out with theater folk from here and afar.
'Off Book: The Black Theatre Podcast'
Many theater pros have turned to podcasting to stay creative; my favorite new listen has been this lively offering at broadwayblack.com. The site features news and archived episodes in which three hosts and their guests are startlingly candid about what they're up to. A great one to start with features guest Katori Hall, who wrote Mixed Blood Theatre's "Pussy Valley" and the Broadway musical "Tina." (Actor Tonya Pinkins has an even dishier podcast, "You Can't Say That," at broadwaypodcastnetwork.com.)
'Original Cast Album: Company'
Legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker was there for 19 hours in 1970 when the cast of "Company" pulled an all-nighter to record the cast album. It's a rare peek at entertaining behavior theater fans don't usually see: Sondheim issuing ridiculous commands, Elaine Stritch alternately flirting with the camera and breaking up with it, young performers singing until their voices are shot. It's streaming at the Criterion Channel. For bonus delight, stream the series "Documentary Now!" for John Mulaney and Seth Meyers' devastating/affectionate parody, "Original Cast Album: Co-op."
'Stars in the House'
This almost-daily YouTube show has been a lifeline. Beginning less than a week after Broadway shut down last March, hosts/husbands Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to theater makers, while also providing fun chats. They've reunited casts of shows such as "Pippin," "A Chorus Line" and "Fun Home." They've streamed concerts by Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald. They've brought together the TV casts of "SCTV" and "Frasier," whose affection for each other radiates from their Zoom boxes. And they've shot the breeze with Chita Rivera and Jenifer Lewis, who is bad at remembering not to swear. A special Tony Award should be in the offing for this monumental project.
If you're missing your favorite local stage performers, this webseries is the place to go. Shanan Custer, Alex Galick, Stacia Rice, Sara Marsh and dozens more appear in a situation comedy where the situation is "We love making theater but it doesn't always love us back." Horrendous auditions, boorish co-stars, misguided productions, humiliating side hustles. It's all here, along with clever storytelling.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367