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See Broadway Shows While the Theaters Stay Closed
July 4, 2020  | By David Hinckley

Check this out for an unintended consequence of the coronavirus pandemic: Streaming television may help rescue the theater.

PBS.org, the public broadcaster's paid streaming service, regularly posts full-length recordings of classic Broadway shows – and during the pandemic, some of them available free for limited windows.

Amazon Prime includes taped theatrical productions among its many offerings.

But the most concentrated source for great stage shows these days is the streaming service BroadwayHD, which offers tapes of stage productions alongside classic film versions of shows like Gypsy and The Glass Menagerie.

All this comes to mind because the splashiest Broadway show to hit television in a long time, with all due respect to the ambitious live shows NBC and Fox have been staging the last few years, arrived Friday.

Hamilton, a filmed version of the Broadway megahit with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original 2016 cast, can now be seen on Disney+, the streaming service that already has lapped up millions of subscriptions thanks to fare like vintage Disney and Marvel.

It costs $6.99 a month to subscribe to Disney+, which is at least $493.01 less than the $500-$2,000 a ticket that it has cost theatergoers to see Hamilton on the actual Broadway.

BroadwayHD is a little more expensive, at $8.99 a month, but it's a happy place for theater fans at a time when Broadway has shut off the lights until 2021, and thousands of other theaters have reluctantly followed suit.

While BroadwayHD doesn't offer every Broadway or West End show, almost any fan can find a fistful of old or new favorites.

The selection reflects the range of shows found in theaters everywhere, from family-friendly spectacles like The Sound of Music and Cats to dark Shakespearean tragedies like Macbeth and Hamlet. Pippin is here, and so are Death of a SalesmanKinky Boots, and An American in Paris.

The shows come from a wide variety of sources. Driving Miss Daisy with Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones comes from a 2013 Australian stage production. Gypsy is the 1962 film with Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell, and Long Day's Journey Into Night is the 2017 revival with Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek at the Geffen Playhouse.

Viewers will quickly note that many of the best-known shows here are from revival versions. The Oklahoma here is the 2018 stage revival that stirred considerable controversy for its reworking of the 1943 original.

Few of the productions predate this century, though there are a few, like the 1966 version of Death of A Salesman. That was originally released as a made-for-TV movie, but it has the DNA of a Broadway show because it stars the lead actors from the original 1949 Broadway production, Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock.

Ian McKellen's 2008 King Lear also was produced as a television film.

Two productions are good random examples of what BroadwayHD offers.

42nd Street, which opened in New York in 1980, is featured here in a 2015 revival from the West End in London.

It has the same tongue-in-cheek goofball spirit and the same oversized melodrama as the original. It also comes with a few changes.

For starters, it has a larger cast and more Busby Berkeley-style choreography. For one number, more than two dozen chorines do a synchronized dance under a huge angled mirror, so the audience sees their moves from above, just the way they in 1930s Berkeley films.

This version also adds songs, including "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." Both are appropriate to the time frame and feel of the show. Both also feel a little shoehorned in.

Fans of the Broadway original will miss Jerry Orbach as world-weary director Julian Marsh, but Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer and Bonnie Langford as Dorothy Brock ensure that the whole escapist evening remains great fun.

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty was also filmed in the West End, in 2002, though it's the same autobiographical show Stritch debuted in New York on Broadway and off. As a result, no one who saw it anywhere will find any surprises. That's a good thing, because Stritch gives an amazingly energetic performance for someone who had just turned 77.

She had quite the career and she also had quite the drinking habit, two subjects that become constant reference points in At Liberty.

It should be acknowledged that nothing on a TV screen, even a large and expensive TV screen, fully captures the magic of an in-person live performance.

But it's not bad. The cameras give you a better seat than you could probably afford in person, and you can eat and drink while you're watching.

You're not quite in the room where it happened. But you're only once removed.

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