On Thursday night, Tina Fey hosted One Night Only: The Best of Broadway, a fundraiser on NBC for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the organization that usually raises its charitable funds by having actors petition their audiences after a show with a cheery red bucket. This year, the bucket became a two-hour network special: Fey presided over a mishmash of taped testimonials, quasi-advertisements for a few of New York’s longer running shows, and some live-ish performances. Did it make logical sense that Patti LaBelle was there singing “The House I Live In”? No. Was it noticeable that most of the musicals actually on Broadway at the moment — anything by Disney, Moulin Rouge, West Side Story, Girl From the North Country, Six — sat it out? Yes. But New York magazine’s own Helen Shaw and Chris Murphy tried their darnedest to make sense out of what was there … and here is their story.
Helen Shaw: Hello Chris! I am watching a television channel for, possibly, the first time in ten years?
Chris Murphy: I am sorry that your first foray back into television will be whatever lies ahead of us.
HS: What are your expectations for this evening? Broadway magic? Holiday vibez?
CM: If this event doesn’t singlehandedly save the theater industry, I’ll be severely disappointed. Like the time I went to see If/Then for my 21st birthday and Idina Menzel was out sick.
HS: If you don’t watch television, you can go ten full years without hearing the words “Hyundai Holidays.” But I’m glad that we’re putting very reasonable expectations on these fine folks, who will be dancing live (not actually live) right out in the middle of the road, in front of their own theaters, for us. The show begins with … Jersey Boys?
CM: I can’t believe we’re starting with Jersey Boys. Has anyone thought of Jersey Boys in the last five years? I know it’s been Off Broadway but this seems like such a random choice to kick off the entire proceedings.
HS: Pretty baby, who is going to help you through the night? The answer is this show, full of extremely high singing.
CM: This is Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade-level performance, which is not a compliment. I don’t know. I expected something a little more exciting than the same Jersey Boys medley that we’ve seen since 2005?
HS: Didn’t you read Chris Bonanos’s very fine analysis of the death spiral New York City is heading into? Appropriate, then, to remind us we can all move to … Jersey.
CM: I am from Jersey! It has its moments.
HS: I am psyched for the next show, Still Affordable Parts of the Hudson Valley Girls. And now it’s NATHAN LANE with a word about Broadway Cares! “Thank you Tina, I loved you in The Crown.” Zingity.
CM: Okay, Nathan Lane did make me laugh with that The Crown joke. Wow, also he’s done 23 Broadway shows. That is pretty insane.
HS: Time to room rate Nathan Lane. I’m giving points for the cozy fire. Now he’s holding up the BCEFA red bucket, which gives me a pang.
CM: God, I miss those little red buckets.
HS: We now get some lovely close harmony work from the Ain’t Too Proud folks. Honestly, performing in front of their long rectangular marquee with the doors behind them, this looks a great deal like their actual set. This could work as a whole show. Food for thought.
CM: Kelly Clarkson singing “White Christmas” is sort of Broadway-ish? It’s definitely Broadway adjacent.
HS: White Christmas was on Broadway in 2008! I did not see it.
CM: Kelly sounds amazing as always but there is, simply put, nothing about this that is Broadway in any way for me. Like down to her vocal stylings and her dress and the piano and the microphone and the song choice.
HS: We can make the whole country care about Broadway if we erase … the … Broadway part of it.
CM: But look at this clip package! This is what I tuned in for, to see Mary Louise Parker by a fireplace! To see Sutton Foster with no makeup on talking about previews!
CM: Tina Fey feels like someone is making her do this at gunpoint to be honest. (As the Mean Girls ensemble sings “Stupid With Love,” which takes place in a math class.) Still confused as to what Mean Girls considers “music.”
HS: BURN. I mean the truth is I would see any of these shows right now. The line “I am filled with calcu-lust” would rock me in my seat. I would knock over other people’s drinks.
CM: I would buy one of those $45 double things of wine gladly.
HS: Erstwhile New York Mag theater critic Scott Brown once got a Diet Coke at a theater in the plastic sippy cup, and wandered, stunned, away from the bar. He looked like he’d been robbed. “It doesn’t cost that much on the space station,” he whispered.
CM: Okay we’ve gotten to the really sad montage: people recalling where they heard the news that Broadway was going dark. Brittney Mack from the cast of Six finding out she’s not gonna get her opening night — heartbreaking.
HS: Rob McClure talking about when they heard the dreaded words: “Leave everything where it is.” He tells us that Mrs. Doubtfire’s face is sitting in his dressing room …
CM: Wow, so now we’re just doing “Seasons of Love” even though there’s not a production of Rent running anywhere in NYC right now?
HS: I think that the way we engage with Broadway is through a thick lens of nostalgia, and for many of us, Rent is very, very important. I do not like it when people nod and smile at each other while singing, but other than that, I support this choice. But perhaps it would be nice to find out who these people are. Like aren’t we celebrating the actual humans who can sing like this?
CM: This is the essence of New York theater. Yes, I would love to know at least one of their names, but there is something nice about a bunch of strangers getting ready to stand in a line and sing “Seasons of Love.”
HS: Then a clip of Blair Underwood telling us about seeing Dreamgirls. Wandering around backstage with stars in his eyes. Why does this twist my little heart? Leslie Odom Jr. talks about seeing Rent; he writes about this in his autobiography! Buy it as a stocking stuffer.
CM: Kind of surprised Kristen Bell’s first show was Cats. I feel like she’s the type of person to be scared away by that.
HS: When I was a little girl, I did not get glasses for … too long. Like I was fully quite old and still utterly blind. My parents took me to see Cats (I was a big fan of the actual species of cat), and in the show, I was desperately terrified because everything was a blur until suddenly POW there was a woman with a headlight on her head in my face.
HS: Barbra Streisand is singing “People!” Barbra gets a stage, gets a big old orchestra. Wait, why are there people in a room? Ah! It’s the past. God, all those unmasked people are giving me the terrors.
CM: Loving this mini Barbra documentary. She deserves it honestly. Good use of the evening.
HS: Now she is doing a little ad for Broadway Cares, this is all very good. “If you love Broadway and want to support the people who are its lifeblood, please give what you can and donate today.” Smash this link right here.
HS: And now we’re doing “All That Jazz” It’s not working that great in the street because the camera is zooming around like it’s trying to make it exciting. Fosse-ish choreography works beautifully if you just plant a camera in one place and let the dancers ooze past it! I wonder where the people who actually do pro-shoots are tonight.
HS: I also wonder what the power struggles were like about who gets included. Are the big producers not playing? Where are our Wickeds? Our West Side Story’s? But here’s the cast of Jagged Little Pill! Lauren Patten singing “You Oughta Know” dead into the camera.
CM: Okay, I’ve been waiting to see this! And right now, I fully bought that. Her stillness! Her tone!
HS: Yes, accurate. Get the singer right next to the camera. Let her lungs come right through your screen. Other camera people take notes! This makes the case for coming and hearing this stuff in person. So far I would say Jagged Little Pill is treating this even the most seriously. Major lighting use … making their case for the Tonys. “We got nominated for 15 Tonys! Look at us!”
HS: Back to Tina, and we’re back to Ain’t Too Proud.
CM: I’m buying what they’re selling. Wonder how they were able to maneuver two performances and/or if any other shows will get the same treatment. I’m starting to feel bad for all the plays that simply … can’t do this. I would love to see Slave Play’s six-minute medley.
HS: If Laurie Metcalf isn’t standing on a median doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I’m out. Now Tina is talking about the “much-anticipated” musical Diana. Hm.
CM: This song is basically the whole fourth season of The Crown. I am sorry, but I feel like Diana wouldn’t have a pristine mix belt; I feel like she’d be a coloratura soprano, like a Cosette, but we don’t really write musicals for sopranos anymore.
HS: Another Mean Girls number, coincidentally written by our host and member of the NBC family!
CM: Again whoever this actress is has a lovely voice and I’ll never ever know who she is because this telecast refuses to let us know who the performers are. Shouldn’t they be dropping their venmo handles so I can support them?
CM: I will say this Mean Girls performance (And the Diana one) does make me think of a tweet I saw earlier today from Ryan Donovan: “I miss the voices of 1970s-era Broadway before BFA programs homogenized Broadway singing.” Points were made.
HS: Please welcome Brett Eldridge. What? He’s going to sing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ from Oklahoma!? DAMON DAUNNO ERASURE.
CM: I’m confused. Was Damon Daunno not tech-available for this? This guy is nice and all but why aren’t we sharing the “Oklahoma That Fucks”™ with the world right now? This seems like a missed opportunity to show how sexy Broadway can be.
HS: This plus the Kelly Clarkson performance makes me think they are trying to expand the target audience. And now we’re back to Chicago. I’m telling you, this is a very “tour-friendly” series of choices of shows. Nothing that doesn’t have a place at the Starlite in Kansas City.
CM: I feel like we never give Mama Morton her shine so I’m very happy that we are choosing a “When You’re Good to Mama” instead of a Roxie Hart song.
HS: And she’s great — but nameless, of course. (It’s NaTasha Yvette Wiliams, not that they tell you that.)
CM: A recurring theme! I have to say I’m having a hard time imagining any of the Real Housewives/reality TV people who’ve played this part delivering a performance of this caliber, no shade to Nene Leakes or Kandi Burrus or Wendy Williams.
HS: I’m noticing that it’s not that hard to shut down a city street and do a Broadway show. Maybe we could do bigger chunks? Instead of sending Mr. Shue to London to do the Grinch, we could just watch, I don’t know, Six?
CM: This telecast is making me think about all the shows I didn’t see because I was too “busy” or “poor.” If I knew then what I know now, I would have spent every last dime I had on seeing live theater.
HS: Man, they have got you where they want you … Cynicism aside, I think if they want to make the NBC audience think about Broadway as a place where real, awesome humans work, and that it would be good to plan a trip here when the crisis is over, I am all for it.
HS: Antonio Banderas is hustling for his production of A Chorus Line in Spain — I embrace that. He loves this show so deeply.
CM: God, A Chorus Line is a perfect show and “One” is a perfect musical theater song. It can’t be improved.
HS: WAIT. I just read this story about the Spanish production of A Chorus Line and now I’m banging my knife and fork on my table ONE ONE ONE ONE. And now here’s Patti LaBelle! See, I actually think this is a great idea—wonderful Broadway songs interpreted by great artists to remind us how the American musical lives in our bloodstream. I mean she’s singing “The House I Live In” which is from a revue. That counts!
CM: Another legendary singer singing something that is simply not musical theater. That green jacket is screaming Elphaba. Sing “Defying Gravity” next! Okay I take that back. Patti LaBelle is clearly a Glinda. That hoot.
HS: I used to have glassware in my house. But it is a righteous sacrifice. NINE MINUTES TO GO.
CM: How will it end? How could they possibly top Patti LaBelle’s high note? Okay, Lance Bass just said we’re headed for a roaring ’20s, which is the decade that followed the Spanish flu of 1918. I don’t hate that at all.
HS: And Jagged Little Pill gets the out. We happen to be in front of the Hamilton marquee, which you should think about, but we could definitely not swing a hello from Lin, which you should not think about. Here comes Lauren again. I am literally in my Ars Nova wool beanie believing that I look like Lauren Patten. I do not. I look like a cold old woman.
CM: You are absolutely the Lauren Patten of your apartment right now. It’s sad that I know the Macy’s parade so well that I know this is the exact same performance they did in the parade. Like down to the staging. And that’s okay!
CM: Hey this is theater; we’re on a budget. I’m singing along and actually falling in love with Elizabeth Stanley in real time right now. That’s the power of live theater.
HS: Man, these actors are touching more people than I have touched in six months. I’m welling up because there’s no applause, just singers staring out into darkness, in a street that should be full of people.
CM: Okay, I fully got chills. At that last beat. The silence. The marquee. God, 2020 is so messed up.
HS: Chris, that’s our kicker.