A friend and I were speaking on missing how we were missing live theatre. Watching productions of lived filmed plays and musicals has soothed the ache, but nothing will heal it until we can enjoy live productions again. Naturally, that segued into hits, misses and surprises. I won’t go into hits [many] and [thankfully very few] misses here. However, there were three performances that have stood out for me.
A few years ago I had the pleasure to see Josh Groban on Broadway, as the titular Pierre, in “Pierre and Natasha: The Great Comet of 1912”. There was not exactly a stage, per se. The theatre was styled in such a way that elevated paths and performing pits were woven throughout the venue. While the audience on the main floor were the crux of where the performance was focused; all in the audience, even those in the bleachers had their turns to be as much participants as voyeurs. I still have a “love letter” handed directly to me by one of the actors during the performance, it was delightful. What made this performance stand out was a scene in the musical where the stars and the muses aligned as one for one magical space in time and laid their blessings upon Mr. Josh Groban. Something ineffably sublime was happening as he played and sang. Groban had complete command of the moment. He knew it. We in the audience knew it. He knew we knew he knew we knew, you know? It was visceral and awe in the true sense of the word before over use conflated its meaning. It was magnificence! I had never felt anything like before, I do pray I get to enjoy such again.
On the flip side of that was Broadway standout, Norm Lewis. Mr. Lewis was using his talents as the titular role in an off-Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd”. He was the draw and you understood why. He was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. All the way up until the near opposite of what happened to Josh Groban fell upon him. Lewis broke out in visible sweat and had completely lost his voice on the end note of “A Little Priest” just before the end of Act One. I suspected it had become really bad around “Epiphany”, the first really off notes I noticed from his usually melliferous voice. To his credit he barreled through to intermission, but all could see it was close. It was the first, and thus far only, time I have attended a performance where the lead performer had to be replaced betwixt acts. And this was on opening night to boot. It was reported he was out sick for another couple of days before he was able to return to the stage. As elated as Josh Groban had to have felt on his magical night; I imagine was the despondency of Lewis on that night.
Next was the a revival of “Godspell”. It’s a personal favorite, much like “Pippin” where I will watch each any revival that I can catch so I have seen several performances. Thus, I can say it was not the best, nor the worst production of the play I’ve seen. Still, I knew I was in for something a little different when the actor who portrayed Jesus walked on water [in a wonderfully executed special effect] only for the actor in the dual role as John the Baptist/Judas who followed immediately behind him and fell into the pool. Notice how I state ‘the actor’ for each? That is because I do not remember their names. Lovely actors, sure, but not one that stood out to me. However, there was one member of the ensemble who did. A dynamic actor I still remember wore leopard print leggings, a black tank top and her hair in Bantu knots. She garnered my attention from the moment she stepped onto the stage, but it was her rendition of “By My Side”, what until that performance had always been one of my least favorite songs in the musical, that seared into my soul with her rich voice. During final bows we locked eyes, I blew her a kiss and touched my heart for the gift of that song which was my introduction to the talent that is Uzo Aduba. If you’ve watched the TV series “Orange is the New Black” or the limited mini-series, “Mrs. America”, you understand why the woman now has three Primetime Emmy Awards under her belt.
Finally, and the first live theatre that taught me to never underestimate the understudy. Powerhouse Debbie Allen was in the lead role in a revival of “Sweet Charity” on Broadway. I have followed Allen’s career off and on since her appearance on the television show “Good Times” in the 70s. It was the now a decade later. She had received good reviews for her performance. My late-husband purchased tickets as a birthday present for me. I was very much looking forward to seeing her live. Regrettably, I never got to see Debbie Allen in that role. She was unable to perform the night we had tickets. The role was being performed by her understudy, an eventual Tony award winning turn as co-star in the show, but that night I knew nothing of her, so I was very disappointed to say the least. The understudy was excellent and I enjoyed the show, but I was there to see Debbie Allen, not whoever she was, I didn’t bother to keep the playbill I was that upset. Still, I went from not wanting to know her, from not being able to forget her.
Years later the same actress appeared on what eventually became a signature television role for her. This was years before one could easily check IMDB for an actor’s resume. Her character on television was very different from the Broadway role in which I was introduced to the actress. In fact, it took her second appearance on the show for me to make the connection and I was both impressed and flabbergasted because Dr. Lilith Sternin (eventually and formerly Crane), was no Charity Hope Valentine that’s for sure. Fans of the TV show Cheers are likely smiling already knowing I’m speaking of the phenomenal, singer-actor-dancer triple-threat that is Bebe Neuwirth. No longer anyone’s an understudy, I’ve since seen her as the marquee star on Broadway as Velma Kelly in the revival of Chicago. As much as I adored the movie, I cannot hear “All That Jazz” and not think of Bebe Neuwirth first.
There’s just something about live theatre that movies and television cannot touch. I have seen Pippin, in various incarnations on and very off Broadway at least a fifteen times live since I first was implored to “come and waste on hour or two” by the Lead Player in a what I now know is a sanitized high school production, but my preteen self was enchanted and have loved live theatre, and especially musicals, ever since.
I (im)patiently wait for Broadway to open again.