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Keepers of the Dream

By Karu F. Daniels

These great Black actors did King’s important legacy a great service.

Since his April 4, 1968 assassination, the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has lived on in pop culture through a multitude of projects spanning film, television, music and theater.

On Broadway, the iconic Civil Rights Movement leader’s likeness, message and “dream” has been brought to life in various forms throughout the decades.

In September 1976, Billy Dee Williams appeared as King in the original play “I Have a Dream,” which was presented as an evening of music based on the life and words from the slain activist’s most famous speech of the same name. 

Conceived by Robert Greenwald (who directed “Me and Bessie”) with a book adapted by Josh Greenfield, the production played 88 performances with eight previews at the Ambassador Theatre. 

Presented with special arrangement with Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change, the play told the story of King’s life from 1955, when he helped to lead the bus boycott Montgomery, Ala., until 1968, when he was murdered Memphis.

Featuring 12 gospel and civil rights songs used to separate the scenes, “I Have A Dream” also starred Judyann Elder, Leata Galloway, Ramona Brooks, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Sheila Ellis and Millie Foster.

Billy Dee Williams

For Williams – a big Hollywood attraction at that point thanks to the success of his starring roles in the Diana Ross-led feature films “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Mahogany” – “I Have A Dream” marked is return to The Great White Way after an absence of 10 years.

Billy Lee Williams & Harrison Ford in Star Wars

The New York City native, who went on to gain international notoriety as Lando Calrissian in the “Star Wars” franchise, was last seen on the Broadway stage in 1967’s “Hallelujah Baby” with Leslie Uggams, which won five 1968 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

After his legacy would become the subject if numerous television films throughout the succeeding decades – starring Paul Winfield, James Earl Jones, Robert Guillaume, Clifton Powell, Courtney B. Vance,  and Jeffrey Wright, among others – his powerful presence was revived on the great stage when Samuel L. Jackson made his Broadway debut in Katori Hall’s anticipated play “The Mountaintop” in October 2011.

Directed by Kenny Leon (with Kamilah Forbes serving as Assistant Director), the two-hander play, also starring Angela Bassett, was set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and reimagined what the leader’s final moments were before his assassination after delivering his legendary “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a massive church congregation. 

“The Mountaintop” originated overseas and after transferring to the West End’s Trafalgar Studio 1 in 2010. The production featured powerful performances by David Harewood as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lorraine Burroughs as the mysterious maid Camae, under the direction of James Dacre.

Samuel L. Jackson

The acclaimed show garnered two Evening Standard Awards Nominations, including Most Promising Playwright for Hall, and was awarded the coveted 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play.

That same year, the playwright received the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn prize.

Hall, a native Memphian who caused a roar on Broadway – pre-pandemic – with the Tina Turner bio-musical, “Tina,” and the creative force behind the buzz-worthy Starz drama series “P Valley,” counts August Wilson as an inspiration.  The infamous location where King was murdered is in the same neighborhood the Harvard and Julliard alum was raised.

“I grew up with this history only a stone’s throw away,” she said. “It is my bloody heritage. The Mountaintop follows Dr. Martin Luther King on the night after he gives this great, prophetic speech.”

In more recent years, King’s voice was prominently featured in Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning 2014 play “All the Way” starring “Breaking Bad” baddie Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The play presented a bird’s eye view of what happened behind the doors of the Oval Office and inside the first years his presidency and his fierce and ferocious fight to pass a landmark civil rights bill.

Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr.

OBIE and Theatre World Award winner Brandon J. Dirden – in his first lead Broadway role – portrayed King in a light like never before.

“I think what Robert Schenkkan has done is captured a side of him that nobody’s ever seen before — as a politician,” Dirden, who originated the role at the  American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts the year before, said in an interview.  “That’s not the first adjective that comes to people’s minds when they think of Dr. King. Orator? Sure. Preacher? Yes. Civil Rights Activist? Yes. But nobody ever put politician on that list. In this play, we see how he had to straddle both sides — not republican and democrat, but politics and everyday folk.”

In 2016, the play was adapted into an Emmy Award-nominated HBO film helmed by “Austin Powers” director Jay Roach with Anthony Mackie starring as King.

Anthony Mackie & Bryan Cranston

Three years later, Schenkkan had more of a story to tell about LBJ’s struggle to fight a “war on poverty” with “The Great Society,”which played Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater to rave reviews.

For this acclaimed production, newcomer Grantham Coleman made his Broadway debut as King, playing opposite to powerhouse Brian Cox as Johnson.  The Juilliard grad, who first gained notices with the original 2013 Off-Broadway production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s  “Choir Boy,” knew he had big shoes to fulfill but was up for the challenge with a fair share of trepidation.

Grantham Coleman

“Research for the part was research I was doing my whole life, but I was worried I wouldn’t portray him accurately,” Colman confided. “The director and writer approached me about it, and they understood my fears. They were more interested in conveying the spirit of Dr. King and the person [he was] and his struggles, instead of casting someone who looks like him. A lot of his personal beliefs are mine as well, so it wasn’t a huge struggle to get to where his mind was.”

These great Black actors did King’s important legacy a great service.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Here’s to hoping there’s much more from whence they came to keep the dream alive on The Great White Way.

Karu F. Daniels has written for the Associated Press, The New York Times, New York Daily News, CNN, ABC News, Billboard, NBC News, The Daily Beast, Ebony, Essence, and Playbill among other outlets.

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Cover Story

Irene Gandy: Living History

By: Marko Nobles

“The producers called the box office and let them know they would not receive any other shows from their company if I were not let in. From that point on I was let in and word got around on who I was.”

Normally when we celebrate our history or historical figures, they are people of the past who have done amazing things to help build our society to where we are today. There are also those that we watch make history as they live their lives. One of those history makers is Broadway’s longest running African American Press Agent and Producer Irene Gandy.

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

A conversation with Irene is an education on the theater, media, racism, changing times, the music industry and a lesson on communication and building relationships which has been the central theme of her 50+ years as a press agent. “Originally I went to NYU and I wanted to be a writer.” Says Irene of her beginnings. “My professor said I couldn’t write and I should change my major. So I was only there for six weeks and I was in Greenwich Village and I decided to be a hippie. This was in the 60’s and I was sleeping in the parks along with people like singer Richie Havens, Peter Tork of the rock band The Monkees, All of those people ended up being something including Bill Cosby who was performing regularly at the Id. 

Irene spent one day as an Actor, but her one small acting part led to a chance reconnection with a high school classmate. This chance encounter would set her on her path to becoming a Broadway Press Agent. “I ran into Fred Garrett, who I hadn’t seen in years, he was working for the Negro Ensemble Company as a company manager. He said that they had all the actors they need but they were looking for a press agent but the only candidates coming for interviews were white and we’re the Negro Ensemble Company and we want to train Black people for these jobs so would you interview for the press agent position doing an apprenticeship with Howard Atlee? I knew nothing about what a press agent does so I just went and talked to him and I ended up interviewing him about what a press agent does. I left and thought I would never get the job. Howard Atlee called me a couple days later and asked me if I could start working.”

Profliic press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

Irene’s first major task as a press agent was to deliver a press release for a Negro Ensemble Company benefit to the New York Times for coverage. “I went to the 3rd floor to get the release to Sy Peck and the person at the front said I’ll take it to him but I said I have to give it to Sy Peck, so I’ll wait for him. I had to wait because Howard said to give it to Sy Peck directly and I had just started. I did not want to lose my job. So eventually Sy Peck comes out wondering who’s holding up his schedule (it was deadline day). So I gave it right back to him telling him ‘Howard Atlee said I have to get this to you and as a matter of fact who are you and what do you do that’s so important that I have to wait an hour and a half?!’ He then explained what he did and took me on the floor, introduced me to everyone explaining their roles. That was the start of my good relationships with the press. That was my first real introduction to being a press agent. “   

That led to working on many shows including River Niger, Ceremonies of Dark Old Men, Hay Fever, Johnny Johnson and then she went on the road with the legendary musical Purlie! At that time there were no Black persons working on shows in that capacity. In some cities Irene wasn’t even allowed to go into the box office.  Irene called back to New York and instead of making the issue about race expressed concern for the bottom line. “The producers called the box office and let them know they would not receive any other shows from their company if I were not let in. From that point on I was let in and word got around on who I was.”

By now Irene was in the union as one of the few Black Press Agents and is the longest Black Female continuously working on Broadway over the last 50 years. Why is that? Because one needs to work continuously on Broadway for three years to be accepted in the union. “With me starting out with Negro Ensemble Company and them always having shows it allowed me to work continuously and most people only work show to show and how many shows are on Broadway for three years?” Irene also explains that the job of a press agent is not a glamorous one. “You have to be thick skinned, sometimes you are really a glorified flunky – getting cabs, going to get newspapers, holding umbrellas. But really for me being a press agent is building relationships. Going to lunch, getting a new media staff member at a tv show coffee. The relationships are key to getting stories placed.”

Prolific press agent and Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy with Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad.

Over her career Irene has actually retired and unretired many times. During one of her retirements from the theater she went over to the music industry and worked with legendary artists including BB King, Patti LaBelle and The Jackson 5. 

After her time in the record industry Irene decided to move to Seattle with her daughter Mira so she could live “a normal life.” But boredom set in, theater came calling and Irene returned to New York to work on Bubbling Brown Sugar. 

“After one of my shows closed, in 1986,  I received a call from the union that Jeffrey Richards needed a press agent which began my years in his office …Ironically I worked for his mother, Helen Richards, a General Manager, on the musical Purlie when it went out on the road many years earlier.”

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy with the eight time Tony Award winning producer Jeffrey Richards.

For 35 years she’s been with Jeffrey Richards (who she lovingly dubs her “work husband”) as the Press Agent on countless hit shows including Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hair, Radio Golf, Speed-the-Plow, August: Osage County, Race  and many others. She’s brought her unique relationships with media and the community to help make these shows successful. 

The next evolution for Irene was to become a producer. She first served as a producer on the show The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and then in 2014 Irene co-produced Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. 

Gandy is hopeful that on Broadway she can see more Press Agents, as well as creatives, producers and managers, of color in the future. As a trailblazing Press Agent she says, “I think the producers should invest in people of color to be a press agent. Because when a show closes the press agent is immediately let go. So, there is not the opportunity to continue to work for the necessary time to be accredited as a press agent. If the producers would commit to invest in an ongoing position, then there would be the chance for that press agent to go to the next show without that gap and not have to start over to get that three years of service.” Irene also warns those looking to work as a press agent “you have to realize that you’re really behind the scenes, not trying to be backstage. This job,  it’s all about relationships and learning to work with others.”

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

When we talk about history it is too often in the past but there is something utterly amazing about being in the presence of history and Irene Gandy is Living History.

__________________________________________________________

Marko Nobles spent years learning, growing and becoming an experienced professional in the fields of PR, Marketing, Radio, Event Production and Entertainment. Born & raised in Harlem, Marko has worked with community organizations, non-profits, small businesses and even developed his own company, InJoy Enterprises, a multi-service business that provided consulting services in the areas of PR/Promotion, Marketing, Event Production, and Event Management & Coordination and continues to produce special entertainment events featuring independent artists.

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Cover Story Creative Long Form

Bah Humbug!: Finding the Comedy in A Christmas Carol

You’re gearing up for the holidays, and your boss starts to wax poetic about how Christmas is more of a nuisance than a celebration.  Later in the evening, when some eccentric guests show up at the office party, he complains that they may be products of his indigestion, and says he’d rather be getting a good night’s rest than chit-chatting.  Soon, the familiar music comes in.  And no, it’s not the brass tuba and mandolin plucking of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme, but rather the joyful sounds of carols – A Christmas Carol, to be exact.  

Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol

Scholars have speculated that Charles Dickens’ 1843 holiday classic may be the “most adapted” text in the English language.  And indeed, A Christmas Carol was the subject of Dickens’ first “public reading,” a practice he would continue annually during the holidays until his death in 1870.  Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why A Christmas Carol seems to have a very special relationship with theatricality – it’s been adapted hundreds of times in the 20th and 21st centuries: there were the “story theatre” style productions that began in the 70’s; the large-scale Broadway musical performed at Madison Square Garden until 2003; Patrick Stewart’s famous one-man version; traditional productions mounted annually at regional theatres across the country; modern-day spinoffs like A Christmas Carol in Harlem or 3 Ghosts, a steam-punk adaptation – and everything in between.  Basically: if you can imagine an iteration of A Christmas Carol, it’s undoubtedly been done somewhere in the world.  

A Christmas Carol in Harlem

Most scholars agree on the importance of the character Scrooge when considering the theatrical and literary legacy of A Christmas Carol.  He’s the heart and (blackened) soul of the original text, and one of the major reasons why it’s been adapted within an inch of its life.  Not unlike the great white whales of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, characters like Lear and Richard III, Scrooge has been played by some of the all-time greats of theatre and film, including Patrick Stewart (as discussed above), Michael Caine, Jim Carrey, Lionel Barrymore, Kelsey Grammer, Albert Finney, and Jefferson Mays – in a one-man version that opened at the Geffen Playhouse in 2018 and was re-recorded to be streamed for holiday audiences this season.  

Michael Arden, director of Mays’ one-man version of Christmas Carol, agreed that Scrooge is the ultimate, and one of the first, anti-heroes, in the tradition of Lucifer or Faust.  Though he’s undoubtedly evil, bitter, and miserly, Arden described him as the “heart” and “center” of the piece.  For these very reasons, it’s one of the most difficult roles to interpret.  Actors find themselves asking: how “mean” does Scrooge have to be in order to give the show, and his transformation, appropriate stakes?  

Estella Scrooge The Musical

There are easy pitfalls.  Ben Brantley wrote of Walter Charles’ portrayal, for example, “…you can forget for long patches that A Christmas Carol is about [Scrooge’s] conversion to goodness.  Perhaps so as not to frighten younger spectators, he’s largely a benign scoundrel.”  And Alexis Soloski wrote that Anthony Vaughn Merchant’s recent Scrooge “didn’t seem that mean” – rather that he just went “for laughs.”  

“Humor” and “wit” were two of the first qualities Arden named in describing Scrooge.  I, too, in re-reading various adaptations of the play, was struck by how funny Scrooge can be.  Between his complaints about the unrealistic expectations of Christmas, loud carolers, over-indulgent writing and speech, indigestion, lack of sleep, teenagers generally, love generally, and work generally, it can feel more like reading an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” than the first act of A Christmas Carol.  Any actor playing Scrooge must walk that knife’s edge between frightening darkness and a sense of humor to rival Larry David.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol

And the Scrooge-Larry David parallels don’t stop there: Scrooge is a man of a certain age, who lives alone and seems generally mystified by current social mores.  You could easily see an episode of Curb focusing on Larry’s annoyance with Christmas carolers who are too loud, or Larry being flummoxed by the tradition of giving gifts to your employees in addition to what you already pay them.  In many adaptations, when Scrooge is first warned of the appearance of three ghosts he asks, “I think I’d rather not…couldn’t I take them all at once and be over with it?”  You could easily see Larry David wagering with a fearsome ghost in the same way.  And the famous expletives Larry uses when confronted with teens who are “too old to dress up for Halloween,” coffee he believes isn’t hot enough, and a crush who voted for George W. Bush – to name just a few – can be seen as direct descendants of Scrooge’s “Bah Humbug.”

But given how funny Scrooge can be at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, it’s not hard to see how the good, earnest, transformed version we encounter at the end of the play could end up feeling like a wet blanket.  Arden disagreed.  He reminded me that Scrooge is still funny at the end of the play – it’s just a different kind of humor.  “At the beginning of [A Christmas Carol],” Arden explained, “Scrooge uses [humor] as a defense.  In the end when he’s playing the practical joke on Bob Cratchitt – it’s humor with a different motivation.  He wants to have fun.  He wants to make up for lost time and use humor to do that.”

Michael Cain in A Christmas Carol

While “Scrooge” (and “being a Scrooge”) has become synonymous over the years with malice, bitterness, and greed, the comedy in the character should not be underestimated.  “It’s what makes [Scrooge] likeable even though he’s horrible,” Arden explained. “You [as an audience member] get that there’s hope there, and it’s identifiable.”  Ben Brantley underscored this point in his rave review of Campbell Scott’s most recent interpretation: “…he’s probably a lot like many New Yorkers you know.  And those who have already had your fill of premature Christmas music may find yourself rooting for Scrooge as he dismisses the carolers who gather outside his house.”  

Larry David and the success of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm has made it clear that characters today can be mean-spirited AND funny.  Written and portrayed in a certain way, a cynical and jaundiced view of the world can fuel laughs.  Moreover, as Arden argued, we root for characters who are funny, because, even if they appear cynical and closed on the outside, a great sense of humor indicates the humanity within.  And Arden said, too, what’s ultimately important is that an audience identifies with Scrooge – he is our surrogate and our window into the play, the reason it’s been adapted again and again, and the character in which we see ourselves, for better or for worse – or more to the point, for better AND worse. “Dickens was trying to put the reader in Scrooge’s shoes,” Arden explained.  “In some senses [he’s] a bit ridiculous and cartoonish, but the more you get into him, the more we start to see ourselves in Scrooge, even in small ways.  That’s why he travels through so many different past experiences…we have to understand him as ourselves…”  Put another way, Scrooge’s story “has always been – and remains – our own,” as Brantley has said.  

Campbell Scott in A Christmas Carol

Larry David owes a great deal to Dickens’ leading man.  Ebenezer Scrooge was the first to prove that a miserly, cranky and even seemingly nasty middle-aged man can be the emotional center of a show with the capacity to change – one that is “prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay good,” even to this day.


Katie Birenboim is a NYC-based actor, director, and writer. She developed and hosted a weekly live interview show entitled “Theatre Book Club” for Berkshire Theatre Group, and she’s performed and directed at Classic Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Barrington Stage, City Center Encores!, The Davenport Theatre, and Ancram Opera House, to name a few.  She is a proud graduate of Princeton University and member of Actors’ Equity.

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Spotlight on Plays

Broadway’s Best Shows is proud to present Spotlight on Plays, a starry series of livestream readings of Broadway’s best plays to benefit The Actors Fund

TodayTix is Spotlight on Plays exclusive ticketing partner. 


Spotlight on Plays presents

7 Great Plays by 7 Great Playwrights

ANGRY, RAUCOUS AND SHAMELESSLY GORGEOUS 

by Pearl Cleage

THE THANKSGIVING PLAY 

by Larissa FastHorse

WATCH ON THE RHINE 

by Lillian Hellman

THE OHIO STATE MURDERS 

by Adrienne Kennedy

DEAR ELIZABETH 

by Sarah Ruhl 

THE BALTIMORE WALTZ 

by Paula Vogel 

THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG 

by Wendy Wasserstein

COMING SPRING 2021


TodayTix is Spotlight on Plays exclusive ticketing partner. 

The Actors Fund envisions a world in which individuals contributing to our country’s cultural vibrancy are supported, valued and economically secure.

Mission: The Actors Fund fosters stability and resiliency, and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.

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CASTING A NEW MOLD FOR CAST ALBUMS

For decades, Original Broadway Cast Albums were beloved companions to the theatergoing experience. You could enjoy the music and lyrics to a Broadway show before you ever saw it, or you could relive the memories of the show long after the curtain went down. It was both merchandise and a marketing tool—a memory and an experience in and of itself. A cast recording could help fuel the run of a Broadway show and ensure its popularity in touring, licensing, and beyond for years to come. But new technologies and the ability to share and engage with Broadway scores easier than ever through streaming and social networks are making it possible for cast recordings to be something they’ve rarely been before: the engine that drives a show to the Broadway stage. 

As early as the 1930s, there were attempts to record the scores to Broadway shows. But technology made distributing those recordings in any reasonable way something of a challenge. And although there were cast recordings in the early ‘40s, like many things in musical theatre, it was Oklahoma! that really pushed cast albums in a new direction and introduced the format we are used to today—much, if not all, of the score recorded by the original cast as it was performed on stage. 

The next decade made that format the industry standard. Theatre historian and Broadway producer Jennifer Tepper said, “In this decade, a small handful of shows were recorded in the manner we understand today. This lent a permanence to the musical theatre as an art form, and changed the way the public viewed shows.” And that continues today. As theatre historian Laurence Maslon writes in the introduction to his wonderful book on Broadway cast albums “Broadway to Main Street”, “Hamilton can be seen by only 1,319 people a night on Broadway—which is about 10,000 people a week; the week the cast album was released digitally, it was downloaded by 50,000 people. More than a million people (and counting) have now listened to Hamilton in a private space. For enthusiasts of show music, the living room, to paraphrase one of Miranda’s lyrics, that’s the room where it happens.”

But what if a cast album isn’t the beginning of a theatergoer’s experience or a reminder of a show they’ve already seen? What if the cast album is the very engine of what gets a show to Broadway in the first place? This is precisely what happened with the Broadway run of the Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz musical Be More Chill.

Will Roland and cast of Be More Chill Maria Baranova)

Be More Chill is a musical based on the Ned Vizzini book of the same name. It made its world premiere at Two River Theatre in New Jersey in June of 2015. Iconis remembers the days following that production well. “When the show closed at Two River, it was dead. We got a dismissive Times review and I couldn’t get any producer or theater (non-profit, regional, whatever) interested in the show.” But the head of the board of Two River Theatre, Bob Rechnitz, refused to let that be the end of the show. He teamed with the theatre and Ghostlight Records to make a cast album of the show. Ghostlight Founder, Kurt Deutsch, recalls the journey of album.

“We recorded Be More Chill after the production in New Jersey. It sat around for a good year before people really started discovering it. And we started noticing how people started doing fan art around some of the songs. And it became this very popular trending thing on tumblr. And we saw animatics happen. And lyric videos. And people started to create their own universe around Be More Chill.”

Iconis noticed something was happening as well, “It literally just happened. I think it was a perfect storm of things—Spotify algorithms and timing (musical theater really came to the forefront of the culture in 2017 in a way it just wasn’t years earlier) but more than anything, it was just people (young people, specifically) connecting to the score. The algorithms wouldn’t have worked in our favor had people not listened to and got into the show.”

And suddenly, the show was back alive. “The viral popularity is what got Jerry Goehring to pull the trigger and take a chance on doing the show in a commercial summer run. And that summer run was such a wild box office success that we got to go to Broadway,” said Iconis.

And Tepper agrees, “Be More Chill would never have gotten to Broadway without its album.”

And Be More Chill continues to find success in productions across the globe. “We have conversations about the show in international markets that feel like conversations you’d have for a show that ran on Broadway for years and won a million Tonys,” said Iconis. “Because Be More Chill‘s popularity really exploded online, it still feels very present, very contemporary, very active.”

Alex Brightman in Beetlejuice The Musical

And it’s not the only show to see its cast album fundamentally alter the course of its Broadway journey. The musical Beetlejuice opened in April of 2019. But it struggled to find the toehold necessary to becoming a bonafide Broadway success story. 

But as the run progressed, something started to happen. Deutsch recalls seeing fans reacting to the show in a real way on social media channels. “You saw tons of tiktok engagement with Beetlejuice. You saw people recording themselves singing ‘Dead Mom’ and ‘Say My Name’. And all of these fans from all over the world who weren’t able to see the Broadway show were living vicariously through the cast album and then found each other.”

Yes, they were finding each other on new social media platforms, but crucially they were engaging with each other in a tradition that’s as old as Broadway itself—singing the songs from the show together. And as this community of people found each other they did something even more crucial—bought tickets. And Beetlejuice found its footing as a Broadway staple.  

The musical Six was a runaway hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in 2017—a power pop musical about the six wives of Henry VIII. It was such a success that professional producers came on board to launch a UK tour and eventually a West End run. In between the tour and the West End debut, the writers Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss had an idea of what to do in the subsequent months. “Essentially, if Six is the live Beyoncé concert,” said Marlow, “we wanted to make the Beyoncé album that she’s touring. So we think of it less as a cast recording of the musical, but more as a part of the whole conceptual package.”

Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss

And the success of that album fueled the West End run, and got the show heard around the globe. By the time Six debuted in Chicago, people were flocking to the production—already deeply familiar with its score, despite its lack of a Broadway production. Marlow remembers the fan fervor, “People were flying in from across the country in homemade costumes and singing along to all the words and stuff, which was completely wild! From that point the producers were like, ‘Yep, this show could work in New York’”. And on February 13, Six debuted on Broadway with throngs of existing fans from around the world already in thrall—all before ever playing a single performance on Broadway. 

So what’s next for the Broadway cast album and its potential to fuel Broadway runs? Will a pre-Broadway cast recording become standard practice?

Despite some successes in developing this new model, Tepper has doubts. “I don’t think it will become the norm for shows that didn’t have major New York runs to create albums that go viral, leading to a major New York run within five years. But it’s certainly more of a possibility in the world we live in now than it was in the world where music wasn’t distributed online immediately.”

And whether or not the cast album comes long before a Broadway run or is released after the show debuts, the power of the cast album is undeniable. “At the end of the day, it’s your calling card,” says Deutsch. “It’s your marketing tool. It’s what makes a musical a musical. It’s what makes it sing. And it’s what’s gonna live on forever once your show is done.” 


Ryan Cunningham is a Jonathan Larson Award winner and a Drama Desk and Mac Award-nominated lyricist, bookwriter and playwright. His Off-Broadway musical written with Joshua Salzman, I Love You Because, has played both nationally and internationally in five different languages. Also with Salzman, he has written the musicals Next Thing You Know, The Legend of New York, and Michael Collins. He is a Creative Director at the Broadway advertising agency AKA and teaches at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two sons. 

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All The World’s Her Stage (…and Backstage)

Beverly Jenkins is not afraid of a cut show. That’s a performance where there are more actors calling out than there are understudies or swings to replace them, and it requires a last-minute reconfiguration of everything from blocking to costuming to the placement of props.

For many people, this would be terrifying, but for Jenkins, who’s been a Broadway stage manager since the early 90s, it’s an opportunity.

“It’s a challenge I actually enjoy,” she says. “I know it’s a crazy thing to enjoy. It’s not something you wish for, but if you need to make it happen and you have the right people, you can make it happen.”

Case in point: At one performance of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale The Musical, she only had one Black actress available, even though there was a scene that required two. “I had to decide,” she recalls. “‘Do I have one Black female on stage, or do I have a Black female and a Black male in that other track?’ I’d planned for that, because you have to plan for that, even if it never happens. So I made the decision to have a Black male on stage, because otherwise it would have thrown some things off [to just have one person]. I spoke to some people; we made a few changes, and it worked. No problem.”

That solution indicates what a distinct style of stage management Jenkins has developed over her career, which includes landmark productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk; the original Miss Saigon; and her current gig as the production stage manager for Hadestown.

The cast and crew of Hadestown

Crucially, she sees a cut show as a chance to connect. “It’s a community event,” she says. “You check with wardrobe, and they’ll make adjustments. The music department and the dance captains are involved. I always reach out to the director or the AD to make sure my choices are okay. And I take the personal trip to tell people what’s happening. I get a couple of extra steps in on my FitBit, and I’m good. I want to make sure I’m personally letting people know what’s going on before they step on stage.”

Those steps — up and down stairs, into the green room, into the wings — set Jenkins apart “Beverly runs a building, and she doesn’t have to open her computer to do it,” says Michael Rico Cohen, a fellow stage manager who has worked alongside her on A Bronx Tale The Musical, Amazing Grace, and Fully Committed.

“She is the person-to-person contact. She’s the problem solver. She’s the empathy master.”

Or to borrow a phrase Jenkins uses to describe herself, she’s a mom of many. “I’m fine with the tech,” she says. “It’s all good. I’m very calm, and I can call a cue just as well as the next person, but I believe my speciality is about being hands-on with the people. I put a lot of thought and care into everyone — not just the actors, but everyone — coming into that theatre.”

On every show, then, a big part of her job is figuring out exactly what this particular group of people needs. For instance, on Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, the 1996 dance musical that uses tap to trace Black history in the United States, Jenkins worked with performers who were more familiar with the dance world than with Broadway. “Sorry Equity, but I had to bend the rules for this group of young men,” she says. “I had to assess the rules and see what they needed. Like, ‘I know this is half hour, and if you’re not here at half hour, then I need you to call me and tell me how far away you are. And as Iong as I know you’re coming, you get a five-minute grace period.’ And that’s something I still do, the five-minute grace period.”

On Noise/Funk, she also turned her office into an occasional daycare center, so that parents in the company could bring their children with them when there were no other options. She recalls, “I had Barney tapes. I had a playpen. I was like, ‘You’re not going to be forced to miss work because you’re doing the right thing with your child.’ I have to get my show up, no matter what. I have to figure out how to get the best show on stage today. And on that show, watching kids was part of it.”

For Amazing Grace, the 2015 Broadway musical that explores how the British slave trade inspired the titular hymn, Jenkins knew her job required extra compassion. She says, “Amazing Grace was important to me because of what was happening on stage. How hard is it that the first time you see Black people on stage, they are stuffed in a crate, and then they get pulled out, thrown on the ground, and shot in the back? So when the actors come off stage, how can they not carry that off stage? How do we make sure that these people are not carrying the feelings of trauma off stage with them?

“We had company morale-building events. We had t-shirt day. We made sure the dressing rooms were mixed, and that we weren’t keeping the Puritans over here and the Africans over here. It was good to see everyone put thought into how to make this a harmonious backstage area and still tell that particular story.”

It no doubt helped that Jenkins herself was spearheading the backstage culture. “She is wildly good at creating fellowship and community,” says Rachel Chavkin, the director of Hadestown.

“She exudes exuberance, but also doesn’t beat around the bush when she’s got a problem to work through. And she’s not precious, because she’s focused on problem-solving at every turn.”

Jenkins asserts that small touches help a company avoid bigger problems, particularly when they’re together for a lengthy run. That’s one reasons she runs a “turkey hand” contest for Thanksgiving, getting everyone in the building to trace their hand on construction paper and then turn it into a decorated turkey drawing. “And believe me, there are prizes, honey,” she says.

Cohen confirms, “There’s nobody that loves a turkey hand competition more than Beverly Jenkins. But it’s more than just turkey hands or door decorating contests or the Father’s Day barbecue. She’s a master of the casual-but-meaningful interaction. It creates a camaraderie and an immediate trust. It’s these little things that really make the building a happy place over a period of years. All of those things are just as important — and sometimes more — than announcing what we’re doing in understudy rehearsal on Friday.”


Mark Blankenship is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper and the host of The Showtune Countdown on iHeartRadio Broadway.

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Cover Story Long Form

Looking Back to Look Ahead: How Nostalgia is Baked Into Broadway

Nostalgia has always been a powerful force in the theater – and right now, it’s stronger than ever.

With shows on Broadway and around the country unlikely to resume until the current pandemic’s final phases of reopening, fans and professionals alike find themselves missing almost everything about going to the theater. The sound of a live orchestra tuning up for an overture. The feeling of an audience-wide belly laugh. The hush that falls over a crowd at a dramatic moment. Pretty soon fans might start to miss the bathroom lines at intermission.

Nostalgia is evident, too, in the ad hoc streaming offerings that theater people have produced during the current lockdown. Original casts have reconvened online for readings of shows like “Significant Other,” while Seth Rudetsky’s ongoing variety show “Stars in the House” regularly hosts reunions of TV and film actors. Even playwright Richard Nelson’s just-written “What Do We Need to Talk About?” was performed over Zoom in conversation with the past, bringing together a familiar cast of actors reprising characters they’d portrayed in the four previous shows that comprise Nelson’s Apple Family Play.

“What Do We Need to Talk About?”

“We’re all streaming content that is based in reminding us what it was like to go to the theater,” says Elizabeth Wollman, the Baruch College theater professor whose books include “The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, From ‘Hair’ to ‘Hedwig.’” “One of the reasons that I thought the new Apple Family play worked so beautifully is because it did exactly what those plays do in the theater.”

All of this is just the latest evolution of the way in which nostalgia has always had a presence theater. It’s baked into the form itself. “Theater is defined by legend, because each performance is once in a lifetime,” says Laurence Maslon, the New York University Tisch School of the Arts professor and the author of “Broadway: The American Musical.” Either you were in the house at “Gypsy” the night that Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone out of an audience member’s hand, or you weren’t.

The memory of a night at theater is more than just the show itself. It’s where you were, who you were with, what you did before and after the performance, and all the sense memories associated with those things. “It’s coming out of the subway and smelling the salty pretzels and getting a drink at Joe Allen,” Maslon says of the Broadway experience.

Joe Allen Restaurant in NYC

It’s no accident, then, that theater has always celebrated its history — its groundbreaking productions and talents — more than TV or film: The impulse rises from the effort to preserve what we can of an impermanent form, and it’s part of why we return so often to classic plays and musicals.

“People want musical art to be timeless, and it isn’t,” notes Raymond Knapp, the UCLA musicology professor whose books include “The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity.” “The impulse to revive is very, very strong. It’s partly based on nostalgia, and it’s also based on the notion that music transcends time.”

Revivals and even new works can draw on nostalgia on both a national level and a personal one. “The idea of doing a revival of ‘The King and I’ or ‘My Fair Lady,’ those tap into a national, theatrical, Broadway-musical sense of nostalgia,” notes Stacy Wolf, the Princeton University professor and author of the book “Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical.” “Broadway can be nostalgic in wanting to revive classics like those that have this aura of Americana, or sometimes, like ‘Jersey Boys,’ a show can speak to individual theatergoers or generations of fans and to their personal feelings of nostalgia for the music they grew up with.”

Adrienne Warren and the cast of Tina! The Tina Turner Musical (photo by Manuel Harlan)

For some critics and scholars, nostalgia raises red flags. Commercial producers and nonprofit theaters alike sometimes ignore new work to return again and again to established sellers like “The Sound of Music” and “Death of a Salesman,” and many new musicals draw on popular song catalogs – The Four Seasons (“Jersey Boys”), ABBA (“Mamma Mia!”), Tina Turner (“Tina”) – rather than original scores. “I get nervous about the word nostalgia, because executives often lean too heavily on it, or it’s their own personal nostalgia that clouds their decision making,” says Ashley Lee, the theater reporter at the Los Angeles Times.

But don’t dismiss nostalgia entirely, warns Chris Jones, the longtime theater critic at the Chicago Tribune. “Nostalgia is a powerful force in why people go to the theater, and some of my most glorious moments in the theater have been really driven by nostalgia either for me or the people around me,” he explains. “I remember being at the opening night of ‘Mamma Mia!’ in London, and the audience on this wave of joy remembering their youths. Or when I was at a press performance of ‘Jersey Boys’ on Broadway where I would say, of all the tens of thousands of shows I’ve seen in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience so excited.”

Mamma Mia
Mamma Mia!

Right now, looking to the past can also provide clues to what Broadway and the theater business will look like in the coming months, when they finally reopen. Many point to the post-9/11 popularity of good-time shows like “Mamma Mia!” and “The Producers” as an indicator that in the wake of the coronavirus, audiences and producers will similarly gravitate to escapist fare.

But looking further back suggests that the future might not be all frivolity. Maslon notes that during the Depression, Broadway was a place not just for crowd-pleasing baubles like “Anything Goes” but also for socially consciousness works like “The Cradle Will Rock.” “There was this bifurcation where Broadway was either escapist or very engaged,” he says. “It actually forced theatermakers to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to be very much in vogue and at the forefront.”


Gordon Cox is a theater journalist and the host of Variety’s Stagecraft podcast.