Need your stage musical fix? What to watch online

Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason in “Into the Woods.”

Hey. I hope you’re doing well right now. We’re fine. A big thank you to our heroes right now: medical workers, service workers, essential workers. I salute you.

SO, I’ve had a few people reach out to me asking what musicals to watch online as we sequester in our homes. So I’ve made a list. I’m focusing this on filmed live stage performances vs. film adaptations, which are a niche category. Note that many of these require a BroadwayHD subscription.

  • Into the Woods – Original Broadway Cast: My first Sondheim and still one of my favorites. And this cast — which includes Bernadette Peters as the Witch, the luminescent Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife (who won the Tony that year over Patti LuPone even though the Baker’s Wife is a supporting role but WE WON’T GO THERE); Chip Zien as the Baker, Danielle Ferland as Little Red and Kim Crosby as Cinderella — is one of the best ensemble casts in the history of ever. Sometimes these filmed theatrical things seem a bit lifeless, but the energy here is infectious. The cast, which reunited for a few days to film this telecast (the show had been running a few years at that point and most of the cast had moved on to other things), radiates joy in playing together again, and the audience is here for it.
  • Kinky Boots. If you’re looking for a joy machine of a musical with some feels, check out this production direct from the West End (in fact, a lot of filmed stage selections are from the UK – probably because they have looser regulations around actor unions and such to film and release these things). Based on the 2005 British film, the musical, with a score by Cyndi Lauper, is pure energy from beginning to end. I saw and reviewed the Chicago tryout in 2012 and knew it was a hit then. Side story: I also made a point to see the very first public performance of Kinky Boots when it was trying out here, and during intermission, a short, frazzled woman in a beige duster bumped into me, coughed into my face, and said “Sorry.” And I looked down and realized it was Ms. Lauper herself, sans makeup and looking, well, like someone who’d been up all hours getting a multi-million dollar musical on its feet. And, a few days later, I got a cold. Yes, Cyndi Lauper gave me her cold. Which I know sounds horrifying these days given all that’s happening, but you have to understand, this was 2012 and things were much different than. Oh, and in this filmed production, our Lola, Matt Henry, is every inch as glorious as the original Lola, Miss Billy Porter.
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’. Broadway musical revues are hit and miss. But this Fats Waller revue is one of the very best, and lucky for us, the original cast reunited in 1982 to film this in front of a live audience. You CANNOT better Nell Carter singing “Cash for Your Trash” or Ken Page (Oogie Boogie in Nightmare before Christmas) singing “Your Feet’s too Big.” And, of course, there’s the legend who is André DeShields,
  • Ruthless. It’s a niche group who know and love Ruthless — the campy musical that combines all the best (and worst) parts of shows that exploit mother/daughter relationships. Think Gypsy, The Bad Seed, Mame (let’s face it, Mame was a mother to her daughter Patrick). And a big dose of All About Eve. There’s a whole lotta backstabbing while belting. For some, this musical is a bit much, but for me it ticks all my boxes. And the score is effervescent pastiche. This is a filming of a scrappy 2018 West End production which ran for a hot second. Usually Brits struggle with broad American musical comedy, but this cast, which is mostly Brits (aside from American Kim Maresca who is flawless as the Stepford wife-like mother who harbors an inner secret) leans into the challenge with sometimes uneven but always outlandish results. Including Jason Gardiner, who for many may be too much as the Mame-like Sylvia St. Croix.  But he makes bold choices and owns them. Also, no one plays a lush better than Tracie Bennett — a high compliment coming from me.
  • Sweeney Todd (1981). Please don’t confuse this with the Tim Burton movie. In fact, if you’ve only seen the Tim Burton version, you haven’t really seen Sweeney Todd, IMHO. This is a filmed production of the first national tour based on the original, epic Hal Prince Broadway production. Here we have the great Angela Lansbury recreating her Tony-winning performance, and she’s joined by the iconic George Hearn, who played Sweeney on Broadway replacing the original Sweeney, Len Cariou. Be warned, it’s a rough recording with questionable sound quality – it was filmed for TV in 1981. And Lansbury, bless her soul, is not modulating her performance for film — she’s playing to the BACK ROW of the Dorthy Chandler Pavilion, thankyouverymuch. The Joanna, played by Betsy Joslyn, is an oddball creature with interesting vocal ticks – most likely due to her being ill during the performance.  But she’s never boring and my favorite Joanna to date. And, fun fact, the Beggar Woman, Sara Woods, is a replacement for the original tour Beggar Woman (Angelina Réaux) who broke BOTH HER ANKLES in a horrible barber chair/trapdoor situation early in the tour and was unable to walk for a year. So, this tour seemed plagued with issues, but the documentation of this production is essential viewing.
  • Victor/Victoria. Sure. The 1982 movie starring Julie Andrews is iconic. But this 1995 stage adaptation has several delights, namely Rachel York as deranged blonde chorus girl Norma Cassidy. Some may say York is just giving us cheap Lesley Ann Warren, but I feel York takes the mold and runs with it. It’s broad musical comedy at its very best. The production is delicious to look at, and I’m a fan of Rob Marshall’s choreography (as we all know, he went on to direct and choreograph the movies Chicago and Mary Poppins Returns, etc.). It’s also the last major role Andrews had before she famously lost her voice.
  • The Magic Show. A friend alerted me to this anomaly, and, well, wow. Cue SNL’s Stefon: This show has everything: Doug Henning, magic fountains, an evil impresario, a Stephen Schwartz score; Didi Conn wearing a backpack, Anita Morris’s backbends, lions.
    • Where to watch: Well, it was on Amazon Prime last month, but it’s no longer there. Let’s campaign!
  • Falsettos. When I first heard this score in my teens, I’d zero interest. Did not get it; did not care. And I loved William Finn. But I eventually grew up and it started making sense. When I saw this production on Broadway in 2016, it all clicked together. It’s an atypical love story for the ages. Quirky as all get out with a first and second act that seem like like separate plays (because they kind of were but I won’t get into all that here), but this cast and this production — despite the set that’s literally a shower curtain and foam blocks — grips at your heartstrings. And I’m convinced Stephanie J Block’s Tony for The Cher Show was really for this performance. She’s flaw. less.
  • Cats. No, not the Tom Hooper nightmare. This is the 1998 straight-to-VHS version. Unlike the rest of these selections, they filmed this in a closed studio and overdubbed the vocals. Which is…fine. But here we get all the original staging (including Gillian Lynne ‘s jazzercisy movements) and creative design, which is a joy for someone whose first Broadway musical was Cats. Also: West End stage royalty Elaine Paige gives us a “Memory” for the ages.
  • Shrek the Musical. I’m including this because it’s a wonderfully filmed version of a show that has some great moments — and a great cast. Particularly the beloved Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona. Also, it’s one of the only filmed stage musicals in the Netflix library at the moment. The score by by Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (lyrics) is jaunty and witty. Stick around for Christopher Sieber’s scene-stealing moments as Lord Farquaad.
  • Sunday in the Park with George. You can’t talk about filmed musical performances and not mention Sunday. Again, a flawless cast in the original Pulitzer-prize winning production. And director James Lapine, who helmed a lot of what I’ve recommended above, makes it all hang together beautifully. Not more need be said.

What are you watching right now? Comment below. Also, consider donating to The Actors Fund, which supports all professionals who make their living in the performing arts – including stage managers, production designers, writers, etc. Times like this reinforce the importance of the arts to connect us and make us whole.

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