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Covid interruptus… and Six (finally!) opens on Broadway
Covid brought all theatrical ventures to a screeching halt in the English-speaking theatrical capitals on both sides of the Atlantic, and all over the world. No one was unaffected; but some shows — and some people — were affected more than others.
There’s a separate column to be written about how, while the theatre’s primary workforce — freelance theatre workers of all stripes — were massively impacted by a sudden and complete loss of income (or the means of earning one), many venues actually thrived in shutdown, receiving massive Culture Recovery Funds to continue to pay their staff and underwrite operational costs, without producing a thing or employing any freelancers at all. The (usually) unfunded Menier Chocolate Factory, for example, received £831,830 in the first round of grants.
Of course, as with the furlough scheme, the intention was to preserve the venues/jobs so that if/when the crisis passed, those venues and jobs would still exist, instead of simply closing down forever.
And the Menier, which had just begun previews with its production of Paula Vogel’s Putlizer prize winning Indecent (pictured above is Alexandra Silber) when the first shutdown occurred in March 2020, has indeed happily survived to re-open that production a few weeks ago.
Charing Cross Theatre, another small-scale London producing venue, was five days away from beginning previews for the London premiere of another Broadway hit, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, just yesterday announced that the production will finally arrive there, for a run from November 8 to January 8, some 18 months after it had originally begun rehearsals, with Janie Dee once again leading the cast.
A tentative return is being made to restore interrupted productions like these to the stage; but not all shows have been so lucky. On Broadway, for instance, two shows that had already begun previews — Martin McDonagh’s The Hangman and a revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a cast that comprised Rupert Everett, Laurie Metcalf, Russell Tovey and Patsy Ferran — shut, but never to return.
Few shows on Broadway, suffering the coitus interruptus of Covid, have so far had a happier ending than Six, the Broadway transfer of the fringe-born West End hit, that was shut down just an hour and a half before its original opening night in March 2020. The New York critics — who are traditionally invited in to see a preview performance ahead of the official opening — had already been to see it, and their reviews were all ready to run the next morning. But none did when the show failed to open.
Until Sunday night, when the show had its official opening finally at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The critics returned to see it again last week, and I would love to read their original reviews alongside the ones that have now finally been published.
The reviews are (mostly) raves, mixed with relief that Broadway is at last back, and that the critics are occupying their centre orchestra seats again. Citing the show’s tag line on the fate of the wives of Henry VIII — “divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived’ — Jesse Green suggested in his review for the New York Times that “a fitter catchphrase for the musical-in-waiting seemed to be ‘divorced, beheaded, quarantined’.” And he added, “But now it is here, all but exploding with the pent-up energy of its temporary dethroning.”
In the Chicao Tribune, Chris Jones reflected on then and now, writing: “They survived the old man with the meaty chicken legs and the messy beard. They survived 600 years of patriarchal history, of the underbelly of who-lives-who-dies-who-tells-your-story. And, believe it or not, the women of Six also survived the great pandemic closure of 2021. Remarkably, the original stars of the Broadway musical were present on the stage Thursday and firing on all human cylinders, even though their show was beheaded in its prime some 19 months ago, missing its official opening night, and maybe a Tony Award or two, by one day. For those of us who were present at Six”on that final scary Wednesday — March 11, 2020 — back when the world was a different place, heading to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre to see, or re-see, the British musical from Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss finally open felt cathartic.”
And he made the observant point, “All shows open in a temporal context they can’t always control. Six,”especially at just 80 intermission-less minutes and with low costs, an existent YouTube fame, a gently progressive sensibility and a youthful target demographic, is as well-suited to this moment as any piece of live entertainment.” He concludes, “Six is a practical, entertaining, well-executed, self-aware show that knows how to please its audience and delivers a soupçon of Broadway pizzazz and good humor without asking a lot or overstaying its welcome. As such, it might well represent just the level of commitment Broadway audiences currently are willing to make.”
Another show suspended during previews, Diana the Musical (pictured above is Jeanna de Waal in the title role) is resuming performances at the Longacre Theatre from November 2, prior to an official opening on November 17.
But for this one, we won’t have to wait for the reviews till then; in an unprecedented step, the production was filmed by Netflix during lockdown — and released on the streaming platform last Friday (October 1).
So some reviews are already in — not necessarily by theatre critics, though. In a one-star pan for The Guardian, its chief film critic Peter Bradshaw wrote, “While you’re waiting for Pablo Larrain’s movie Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, this will have to do. Although there is a danger it will cause you to hyperventilate. Not since the Cats movie have I literally shouted from my seat: “What? What?WHAT?” Only by having Diana ride on stage on the back of a Jellicle cat could this be more bizarre. If it was deliberate satire it would be genius, but it’s not. It’s a saucer-eyed retelling of the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, with bobbing chorus lines of footmen and flunkies who with a costume change morph into step-in-time phalanxes of snarling tabloid hacks, while Diana solemnly warbles downstage about her loneliness and determination in a pool of follow spotlight.”
He goes on, “Aside from Mel Brooks’s classic fictional stage creation about the Third Reich, the imaginary musical that this most resembles is the sub-Lloyd Webber extravaganza Elephant!, about the Elephant Man, in Richard Curtis’s comedy The Tall Guy, with its quirky chorus line of elephants and their perky trunks. It’s another study of terrible loneliness… This is a Rocky Horror Picture Show of cluelessness and misjudged Judy Garlandification. I can imagine masochists getting together for Diana: The Musical parties, just to sing the most nightmarish lines along with the cast. The rest of us will need a long lie down.”
In a separate article by Guardian columnist Stuart Heritage, it was damned again: “If you built a time machine and used it to tell Diana that she would one day get her own Evita, she would be absolutely thrilled. However, Diana died a quarter of a century ago and will never get to see Diana: The Musical. Some people get all the luck.”
He notes of its Netflix release ahead of its Broadway opening, “Presumably the business model is that people will see Diana: The Musical on TV, fall in love with it and then snap up tickets like crazy as soon as it reopens in theatres. It’s genius. Or it would be, if Diana: The Musical was actually any good. However, Diana: The Musical contains a song where Diana is chased through the streets of London by members of the paparazzi who all chant “Better than a Guinness, better than a wank / Snap a few pics, it’s money in the bank” in excruciating cod-cockney accents, so I’m sure you’ll understand that “good” isn’t necessarily the first adjective I’d reach for here.”
And he concludes, “It brings me no pleasure whatsoever to tell you that it isn’t better than a Guinness, and is considerably worse than a wank.”
I can’t wait to see what New York’s theatre critics make of it next…..
Showcasing new musicals in development…
New musicals are born in all sorts of ways. Six, of course, began as an undergraduate Cambridge University show, from where it had an Edinburgh fringe run, and then via an extended London run in the tiny (and grubby) Arts Theatre, made its way to Shaftesbury Avenue’s Lyric and now the Vaudeville on the Strand.
Diana the Musical had its first run at La Jolla Playhouse, near San Diego, where its director Christopher Ashley is artistic director, so presumably there was no one to say no. But the mystery to me, at least, is how the investors — faced with an end-result they could actually see — chose to proceed to a Broadway run.
But each and every musical begins with the writing of its first song — and whether that tiny acorn goes on to become a mighty oak will depend on a lot of factors. Last night producers Katy Lipson and Adam Lenson joined forces to present The Chamber Musical Sessions, a one-night showcase of new work found via a contest to create new intimate shows, with four or less performers, with first songs performed from some 15 new shows that are in development, chosen from over 200 entrants.
Lipson and Lenson (which has a BIalystock and Bloom vibe about it, but hopefully with the intention of creating hits, not flops!) separately made their West End producing debuts as part of Nimax’s “Rising Stars” festival in the summer (Lipson with Cruise at the Duchess, and currently The Last 5 Years at the Garrick, and Lenson with a handful of performances of Public Domain, a show he first presented as a live digital offering broadcast from Southwark Playhouse, before offering it to audiences in person at the Vaudeville). They are now at the cutting edge of trying to change the culture of British musical theatre, and instead of waiting for work to arrive fully-formed on the stage, they are extending the invitation to audiences to be part of the journey.