Last Sunday afternoon, after Broadway performer Ali Stroker tore through a rendition of “Be a Lion,” from “The Wiz,” host and piano accompanist Seth Rudetsky responded with a cry of “Brava!”
At that moment, the pair were 60 miles apart, in two different parts of New York state. Their split-screen, live-streamed performance was different from the pre-pandemic modus operandi of Rudetsky’s trademark blend of concert and conversation, but Stroker wore an expression of delight at the electricity they nonetheless managed to generate.
“I don’t think I’ve ever sung like that in my living room,” exclaimed Stroker, the first wheelchair-using actor to win a Tony Award, honored for her portrayal of Ado Annie in the edgy 2019 revival of “Oklahoma!”
“The thing that’s so crazy about what we’re doing is, I always thought that in order to get to a place where you feel like you’re really performing, you had to be in a theater, you had to be on a stage, you had to be, like, in the environment,” she added. “But, I don’t know, this feels so good today.”
Rudetsky nodded, looking gratified, and replied, “I love that it’s rethinking what performance is.”
Those of us in the audience have done a bit of that as well in the 13 months since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered playhouses and concert halls. What has helped me feel connected to theater has not necessarily been the streaming versions of full productions, whether new or drawn from the archives; they often lose so much in translation that it adds salt to the wound.
But smaller online showcases such as Rudetsky’s “The Seth Concert Series” remind me of what I miss about theater without trying to fully replicate the experience. These theater-adjacent performances amount to hors d’oeuvres, not a full meal, but I find them curiously satisfying.
Not everyone does, of course. A few weeks before Stroker’s appearance, Rudetsky’s guest had been the curmudgeonly actress-singer-comedian Jackie Hoffman. After she belted out a show tune from her home in Manhattan there was … complete silence. “And the crowd goes wild,’' Hoffman said sardonically.
The crowd actually was going wild, but the only way to tell was by reading the comments in the online chat room. For host, performers, and audience alike, this brave new world has taken some adjusting to. “I’ll see the comments come up, and it’s as if we’re getting applause,” Rudetsky told me in a telephone interview. “But it’s definitely weird.”
Yet he embraces the much wider audience he’s been able to build for his series since he and producer Mark Cortale moved it online early in the pandemic, once it became clear live performance would not be possible. “I get to do theater and be with these incredible artists,” Rudetsky said. “We’re able to bring Broadway around the world. I feel a responsibility to the artists out there, and the artist-lovers, who were totally set afloat.”
That’s appreciated by this bereft theatergoer. I was part of Rudetsky’s audience when he and Cortale launched the live stage version of the series a decade ago, in Provincetown (known as Broadway @ The Art House, it has since branched out widely), and I’m part of it now. The Sunday afternoons I spent at matinees in Boston theaters before the pandemic are now devoted to watching Rudetsky and his far-flung guests, an array of Broadway singers with whom he alternately converses and performs.
“It’s always had that we’re-in-my-living-room feel. Now we actually are,” Rudetsky said of his series. “If anything, it’s been a benefit. I don’t have to leave the night before, get there, and tech all day. I can do the show with my dog lying next to me.” Only half-jokingly, he added, “I don’t know how I’m going to go back.”
The creativity within the theater industry, national and local, has badly needed outlets in the past year, and it has found them by traveling down multiple avenues. It never fails to lift my spirits when I visit YouTube and watch the exuberant cast reunions of “Kinky Boots’' (singing “Raise You Up’”) or “Hairspray” (singing “Can’t Stop the Beat.”) In both videos, filmed during the pandemic, the performers sing and dance their hearts out from their homes or backyards, and I find it moving that performers whose livelihoods have been completely upended are still capable of transmitting so much joy to the rest of us.
In Boston, the illustrious actress-singers Leigh Barrett and Yewande Odetoyinbo have given cabaret-style performances, presented online by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. The gifted Erica Spyres is slated to follow suit April 22-25. Boston Playwrights’ Theatre is presenting a Zoom edition of the Boston Theater Marathon, 50 ten-minute plays, all by New England dramatists, through May 28.
Nationally, the gravel-voiced Patrick Page — a commanding Hades in Broadway’s “Hadestown” — stars in “All the Devils Are Here,” a new streaming solo show about Shakespeare’s villains, presented under the auspices of the Washington, D.C.,-based Shakespeare Theatre Company. Speaking of Washington, in the past year I often sought and found catharsis in Randy Rainbow’s ferociously funny marriage of musical theater and political satire on YouTube.
A sense of excitement has been building recently in theater circles in Boston, on Broadway, and elsewhere as the COVID-19 vaccines bring the day of returning to the stage a bit closer. That optimism is captured in a new compilation video of stars like Kelli O’Hara, Danny Burstein, Lesli Margherita, and Rob McClure receiving their shots while the expectant/exultant “Something’s Coming,” from “West Side Story,” plays on the soundtrack, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Another Sondheim song has provided one of the most memorable moments in “The Seth Concert Series.” Brian Stokes Mitchell (”Ragtime,” “Man of La Mancha”) was nothing short of virtuosic recently as he sang the warp-speed, tongue-twisting “Getting Married Today,” from “Company,” performing all of the vocal parts: the psychologically disintegrating bride, the oblivious groom, the grandly judgmental Church Lady.
Rudetsky has always had a way of bringing out the best in his guests, and the physical distance imposed by online performances hasn’t diminished that. He is possessed of a very big personality and an encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater, both of which come through on his stints as the afternoon host on Sirius/XM’s satellite radio’s “On Broadway” channel. He has been a pianist on numerous Broadway shows, including “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables,” and “Ragtime,” and he co-wrote and costarred in “Disaster!,” a musical parody of 1970s disaster flicks that had a short run on Broadway in 2016.
“I’ve been a working Broadway professional of over 20 years, and I’m also a fan,” he says of his guests. “They feel like they’re speaking to one of their own and a fan of their work.”
Yet he manages to convey his admiration for the talented folks who perform musical theater without gushing. While Rudetsky’s interviews would never be mistaken for journalism, he takes his guests through fast-paced conversations about their careers that have a spontaneity and insight often lacking in celebrity interviews.
Digital technology has made it possible for Rudetsky to accompany his guests on piano in real time, even when Lea Salonga (“Miss Saigon”) performed last summer from the Philippines. On April 18, Rudetsky’s guests will be Broadway singer-actress Stephanie J. Block (”The Cher Show”) and her husband, Sebastian Arcelus (”Madam Secretary”), performing from their home in Los Angeles.
Rudetsky, meanwhile, will be at home, pursuing the same overall goal he’s had for the past 10 years of hosting and collaborating with Broadway’s best, whether in-person or online: “I want the audience to be as obsessed as I am with them.”