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A COVID-19 'A Capitol Fourth' on PBS
July 3, 2020  | By Mike Hughes

For four decades, A Capitol Fourth has had a cozy place in holiday plans.

It was a choice – a traffic-free, mosquito-free way to catch music and fireworks on the 4th of July, with some great moments from classical and Broadway stars. Some years, it was PBS' most-watched show.

And now? Suddenly, it's gone from being an option from many choices to very few.

With cities canceling fireworks, PBS gets a fresh focus.

"So many people have called, wanting to be part of this," Michael Colbert, the producer of A Capitol Fourth(Saturday, July 4, 8:00 p.m. ET), said by phone. "We have 15 new performances – the most we've ever had."

His shows – the National Memorial Day Concert and the Fourth – represent a new phase in social-distance music. The first phase was quite primitive.

"I've done some things since this (COVID shutdown) started," Kelli O'Hara said by phone. "I've done Zoom, in my living room, up against a wall. But this was different."

How different? Well, it started with the location. "They found a studio, 15 minutes from my home." She did her make-up in one room then walked in "sort of all nervous…. They had these beautiful candles set up."

A small crew (masked and distanced) was there.

O'Hara did James Taylor's powerful Fire and Rain for the Memorial Day concert, then a cheerier song (If I Loved You, from Carousel) for the Fourth.

Also, Trace Adkins and Renee Fleming did songs for both shows. Each was flown to Washington and filmed on a rooftop. "It was really cool and inspiring," Adkins said by phone. "You could look down at the city and the Capitol…. It was surreal, too" with so little activity in sight.

Still, that much effort may have been unnecessary: Adkins and Fleming were superb, but so were people in simpler settings. Some of the best Memorial Day moments had CeCe Winans in an empty church or O'Hara among the candles.

And this time? "We had Brian Stokes Mitchell in an empty theater," singing Impossible Dream, Colbert said. Chrissy Metz (This Is Us) sang the Oscar-nominated I'm Standing With You as a tribute to workers. The Temptations celebrated their 60th year – 20 years more than A Capitol Fourth.

Colbert was about 12 back in 1981 when the first Fourth was produced by his father, the late Jerry Colbert. "I remember standing there, holding my dad's script and Diet Coke, and watching Pearl Bailey singing the National Anthem. I'm still that kid, looking up there in awe."

Like his dad, he's fond of the big voices that emerge from the gospel genre (for this Fourth, Yolanda Adams), classical (Fleming), and Broadway. Colbert has Mandy Gonzalez from Hamilton, Mitchell, with four Tony nominations (winning for the Kiss Me Kate revival), and O'Hara with seven nominations (winning for the King and I revival).

She was last on Broadway a year ago but also acts in TV series – most recently as a regular on Masters of Sex, and 13 Reasons Why – and performs concerts. It's a busy life, or was, until "all of the things I do stopped."

Now there's no Broadway, no concerts; TV production has shut down, including an upcoming project with HBO. O'Hara's husband, Greg Naughton (the son of actor James Naughton), is also a singer, meaning both have had "a lot of quality family time" lately.

They have a daughter, 6, and a son, 11 – who used to sit with her behind the Capitol Fourth stage, watching the fireworks. "It was our secret place," she said. "I remember thinking how lucky I was."

Now, like many of us, they'll simply be watching it on TV.

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