If you’re like me, you’ve been feigning for Broadway all year. Scratch that, make it a year and a half, as Broadway has been closed since March 12, 2020. I […]
If you’re like me, you’ve been feigning for Broadway all year. Scratch that, make it a year and a half, as Broadway has been closed since March 12, 2020. I am an enormous fan of musical theater, and having no new albums to listen to and no news coming from The Great White Way, it’s been a rough time. Thankfully, New York has finally gotten some of this pandemic in check, and has deemed theater safe enough to return! The new play, Pass Over, has been playing for a few weeks now, and tonight, Hadestown becomes the first musical to return to Broadway post-COVID. It’s a new world, indeed, and we have learned to adapt to these changes however we can.
One such way I’ve coped was finding theater at home! Beginning during the quarantine and continuing into this year, Broadway has shifted to other means of distribution, from proshots (live recordings of a staged show), to film adaptations, to new original musicals made for smaller screens! It’s been a delightful year, getting to experience these, and with so many more to come before the year is out, I’ve decided to split this feature into two parts. Today, we shall cover some of the most prominent theater-at-home experiences that I’ve seen since March 2020 (I still haven’t seen The Prom, though). Then in a few months, I will return with such inclusions as the Dear Evan Hansen and Diana movies, Come From Away‘s proshot, and the long-awaited West Side Story remake (if it doesn’t get pushed back again). I had a blast working on this piece, so I hope you enjoy these mini reviews!
Note: This list is in order of viewing, not ranking.
It’s crazy to think that the Broadway megahit Hamilton was only released a year ago on Disney+. During the pandemic, people grasped for any entertainment they could find to experience together, from Tiger King to Among Us. But Hamilton was a different story, seeing as it was the talk of the town well before COVID-19 struck and the film adaptation was highly anticipated for years in the making. Alas, the film finally graced Disney’s streaming service in 2020, and personally, I wasn’t a huge fan. Having seen the show in person a few times and listened to the soundtrack many more, I found the proshot to be fairly underwhelming in terms of scope. Bad editing and unnecessarily tight camera angles made for a general loss of the show’s majesty. Hamilton is not only its actors and its songs. Hamilton is lighting, set design, choreography, costumes; Hamilton is a well-oiled machine with multiple cogs turning in unison to tell the story of America. By reducing the musical to a small-screen film format instead of a live theatre-based experience, it just doesn’t hit properly. ‘Tis a real shame that a show relying on in-person experiences to deliver the grandest sense of awe has to be so expensive, but I must say it’s worth it. When Broadway comes back, Hamilton will continue to be all the rage, and that’s not surprising in the least.
In the Heights (Home Release)
I have never been a fan of In the Heights. Going straight from Hamilton, which I adore, to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s earlier work, I found myself quite disappointed by the original Broadway cast recording of this show. Just something about the cast seemed off, whether it be Lin’s general lack in singing ability, or Karen Olivo’s general unlikability. I just felt very turned off by the show, but that’s not to say it couldn’t be respected. One of my closest friends is the son of a first generation immigrant, and he holds it in very high regard for displaying the very real struggles and lifestyle of immigrants in America. Thankfully, this sentiment shines through In the Heights’s film counterpart in every way. From its excellent casting choices to its vibrant and welcoming visuals, this film sets up a world that anyone can relate to. Anthony Ramos is a fantastic Usnavi, delivering a raw perspective of everyday life in Washington Heights that unforgivingly offers up spectacular highs and devastating lows. In the Heights is joyful, depressing, light, and dark all mixed together to create something truly remarkable. Not to mention, its set design, cinematography, and sound editing make it one of the cleanest and over-the-top movie musicals I have ever laid eyes on. This film is a wonder to behold, and it’s currently my favorite film of the year.
The Boys in the Band (Netflix)
I knew going in that The Boys in the Band was not a musical, but a film based on a play, starring the original Broadway revival cast from 2018. Produced by Ryan Murphy – of Glee and American Horror Story fame – the film follows 7 gay men as they celebrate one of their birthdays. The ensemble cast is entirely homosexual as well, including Jim Parsons, Andrew Rannels, and Zachary Quinto, each with their own quirky personalities. What begins as a manic depiction of existentialism and lamentation – mind you, teeming with homosexual slurs muttered by the men themselves (this truly goes on for the whole movie and if you push through it starts to become less jarring) – slowly turns into a beautiful story about learning to live your truth and the desperate struggle that accompanies that journey. The Boys in the Band left me near tears, shocked by the gritty realism I had just witnessed onscreen. The acting is brilliant, with the all-star cast putting their all into these characters. I felt for every single man due to their own unique issues, and I was left with my mind reeling and my mouth agape. It’s a story that will make you question the life you live, for better or worse. This was a tremendous film and absolutely one of the highlights on this list.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)
I had no idea what this film was going into it, except that it was about an all-black jazz band, and it was Chadwick Boseman’s last role before his untimely passing. Unbeknownst to me, this film would be one of the most gripping and harrowing experiences I’ve ever laid eyes on. From beginning to end, Chadwick Boseman is a joy to watch, whether he’s excitedly rambling about his ambitions or recalling his tragic past through tear-filled eyes. The man was a treasure with some serious acting chops, and Ma Rainey will stand as a testament to his sheer talent. The film follows the basic premise of “tensions erupt in a recording studio,” and with such a small cast and an even smaller set piece, there is still so much passion and energy gushing out of this film. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion, shining a beaming light on the struggles of African Americans in the 1920’s and the effects such indecencies can inflict on the minds of those growing up in such an alienating world. It’s a tale of outcasts, but simultaneously it’s a tale of family, and how music can bind together a group of similarly downtrodden individuals, united by the chill of a cold, unwelcome world. Ma Rainey left me stunned, upset with the state of our society, and hopeful for a brighter future for all oppressed peoples.
David Byrne’s American Utopia (HBO Max)
David Byrne is a creative genius. The Talking Heads frontman has been known for decades as an eccentric being with a mind full of nonsensical lyrics and abstract concepts. Now, with American Utopia, he has put that brilliant psyche onstage in front of a live audience in the form of a theatrical greatest hits album. This is yet another proshot, directed by Spike Lee of all people, and it’s expertly crafted from start to finish. Not only is it full of catchy songs, peculiar choreography, and powerful messages, but the show’s concept is born from a yearning for capturing the spirit of human life. Byrne himself says in the show, “I wondered what if we could eliminate everything from the stage except the stuff we care about the most? What would be left? Well, it would be us… us and you.” American Utopia brings together the most barebones display of music and imagery to create something magical and intimate. It portrays profound thought against a bland canvas of grey. It sings the praises and the shortcomings of today’s society, all the while wearing button-up suits and no shoes. This show is something that must be seen to be truly felt, but once you experience Byrne’s mind for nearly two hours, you begin to see the world for what it is. Even as he rides away on his bicycle during the end credits, you are left dreaming of a better world thanks to the mind he left wide open.
Central Park: Season One (Apple TV+)
I started watching Central Park while the show was nearing the end of its second season. I had no idea the show had so much under its belt already, having never watched any original content from Apple TV+ before. You see, I wasn’t always a fan of the world’s multitude of streaming services, but that’s a story for another time. Thankfully, Apple TV+ is home to some fun content, including Central Park, which blends Loren Bouchard’s unique sense of humor and animation with theater-quality musical numbers (not to mention, its star-studded cast including the likes of Leslie Odom Jr, Josh Gad, and Tituss Burgess). Produced by Gad himself, Central Park follows a quirky mixed family living on the grounds of New York’s Central Park, which the father happens to be the caretaker of. Josh Gad plays the bard-like narrator who takes viewers through each episode’s zany plot, typically involving a harebrained scheme at the hands of Bitsy Brandenham, owner of the luxury hotel that overlooks Central Park. Each episode includes a handful of catchy tunes that span across every genre. Musical numbers range from the sad and emotional, to show-stopping, to duets, to rap solos. Central Park‘s first season is an experiment in animation that never ceased to delight me. I’ve separated the seasons because I’m sadly slogging through the inferior second season right now, and I’ll cover it in Part Two. As for season one, I highly recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a musical-loving fan of Bob’s Burgers.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (Netflix)
I am so utterly saddened by this whole thing. I was so looking forward to Jingle Jangle, as Allan and Javon were absolutely beaming about it when it first came out last November. I thought “oh boy, a brand new Christmas musical to fold into the annual traditions! I can’t wait to see it!” Then I put it off until, well, last week… and I have to say, I am so disappointed by what I found. Jingle Jangle, on the surface, is a depressing, mostly colorless tale about a completely unlikeable inventor – Jeronicus Jangle – whose whole family leaves him penniless and alone. The viewer is told to feel bad for Jangle and to hate his former-assistant-turned-nemesis, Gustafson – played by Keegan Michael Key – even though his motives are fairly justified for being “evil.” The story doesn’t really kick off until halfway through the film, and even with a standard two hour runtime the entire movie feels like a slog. Jingle Jangle feels overly childish at times, with supporting characters that seem so ridiculous and bland that it’s impossible to see why any adult would want to watch this. So many times throughout my viewing, I felt like I could barely hang on. The only saving graces Jingle Jangle has in its corner are a pretty great soundtrack by John Legend, and a stellar (as always) performance by Keegan Michael Key. I would consider this one a hard pass, and it certainly won’t be returning to my home every Christmas. But do give the soundtrack a listen.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Broadway during quarantine! Stay tuned for Part Two coming sometime in December (most likely), and stay safe out there! Theater may be returning live, but we’re not out of the woods yet! If you plan to visit a Broadway show soon, please follow the proper guidelines set in place. Let’s work together to create a safe Broadway!