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PBS is Letting Us Bring Broadway Home
July 24, 2020  | By Mike Hughes  | 1 comment

In a theater-less season – no Broadway, no summer-stock musicals, nothing – we need a break.

Fortunately, PBS is trying. For a five-Friday stretch, it will give us Broadway-style reruns.

That includes two musicals (She Loves Me and The King and I), two plays (Present Laughter and Much Ado About Nothing), and a making-of film (In The Heights). It's sort of a history of theater – from Shakespeare to Miranda. Here's a rundown, with shows at 9 p.m. (check local listings):

SHE LOVES ME: (July 24). This story keeps bouncing through the romantic-comedy universe: Two people bicker at work, unaware that they're anonymously exchanging romantic letters.

The story started with a 1937 Hungarian play (Parfumerie) and 1940 movie (The Shop Around the Corner). It led to more films – 1949's In the Good Old Summertime and 1998's You've Got Mail.

And it led to a 1963 musical. Just before they did Fiddler on the Roof, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick filled She Loves Me with their specialty – "melodious, charming, Broadway music," Laurence Maslon wrote in Broadway (Bulfinch, 2004).

She Loves Me didn't create hit songs, but it provided a "closely integrated, melody-drenched score," Stanley Green wrote in Broadway Musicals (1996, Hal Leonard Corporation). It was revived in 1993 and then in this 2016 production, which won a Tony for its clever sets and had seven more nominations, including all three stars – Zachary Levi (top), Laura Benanti (top), and Jane Krakowski.

PRESENT LAUGHTER (July 31): Noël Coward created this show in 1939 with, as he once wrote, "the sensible object of providing me with a bravura part."

It's had that effect for many actors in London (including Coward, Albert Finney, and Peter O'Toole) and six Broadway productions (including Kevin Kline, who won a Tony).

This version has Kline as a self-centered actor, Kate Burton as his estranged wife, Kristin Nielsen as his secretary, and Cobie Smulders as a producer's wife, who is insisting on an affair with the somewhat-reluctant actor.

IN THE HEIGHTS: CHASING BROADWAY DREAMS (Aug. 7): Before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda created In The Heights, portraying the vibrant life in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood.

It was revolutionary, said Jeremy McCarter, who was a drama critic for New York magazine at the time. McCarter wrote in Hamilton (2016, Grand Central Publishing) that In The Heights made "the leap that virtually nobody else had made – using hip-hop to tell a story that had nothing to do with hip-hop."

Others agreed; Heights was nominated for 13 Tonys and won four, including best musical and score. It was supposed to reach movie theaters this summer, then was delayed a year by COVID. In the meantime, we can see Hamilton on Disney+ and this making-of film on PBS.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Aug. 14): Kenny Leon was known for directing revivals of tough dramas. He won a Tony for A Raisin in the Sun and was nominated for Fences. Then he was asked to do Much Ado in Central Park; he suggested an all-Black cast. "I went, 'fantastic,'" Oskar Eustis, The Public Theater's artistic director, told the Television Critics Association last year, "not realizing we had never done an all-Black Shakespeare in the Park before, which kind of astounded me."

The setting is modern-day Georgia, and the emphasis is on humor. "It's a hilarious play," said Margaret Odette, who plays Hero, the bride-to-be and the subject of gossip.

The tone lets actors go big, said Grantham Coleman, who plays the gossipy Benedick. "This was the first time I got to bring all of myself" to a role.
THE KING AND I (Aug. 21): Long before our current troubles, Americans have had divisive times. They also had Oscar Hammerstein II; from Show Boat to South Pacific, he viewed ethnic divisions.

"Hammerstein embraced such values as fellowship, tolerance, and faith," Maslon wrote, believing "that hope was better than despair, that love was better than hate."

Linked with Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein had the skill that "allowed his sermons to be given in glorious songs."

In this case, he had the story of a real-life Englishwoman who, in the 1860s, taught the children of the King of Siam. That became a musical with such songs as "Hello, Young Lovers," "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance?"

Yul Brynner did 4,625 performances on Broadway, and beyond, Green wrote, and "by the sheer force of his personality…managed to switch the dramatic spotlight from Anna to the King."

For this production, that balance has shifted: Ken Watanabe made his Broadway debut as the King, and Kelli O'Hara – who has been nominated seven times – won a Tony as Anna.

What an extraordinary opportunity to bring some of the best of Broadway to our living rooms.

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Maggie McManus
You left out the UK made-for-TV "She Loves Me" from 1979 starring Robin Ellis of "Poldark" and Gemma Craven. It aired in the US as an installment of PBS' "Great Performances" in December, and was repeated over and over throughout the Christmas season. It was amazing, and a whole new audience fell in love with it. Local theatre companies started staging it (I saw it at a "dessert theatre" in Hopewell, NJ), and bit by bit the swell of interest led it back to Broadway.
Jul 25, 2020   |  Reply
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