May 12, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Premiering tonight on PBS is a joyous gala titled Great Performances: Celebrating 50 Years of Broadway’s Best. I was fortunate to have been invited to the live 90-minute taping at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theatre in March, and I can report without equivocation that this is one to DVR and save for repeated viewings. Here in one package are featured the most exceptional talents in today’s musical theatre, along with some of the legendary men and women from Broadway’s Golden Age, all for your sheer unadulterated pleasure. As for the music itself, Stephen Schwartz, John Kander & Fred Ebb, Fats Waller, Stephen Sondheim, Duke Ellington, Andrew Lloyd Webber, are just some of the composers represented.
Written by Dave Boone, a back-to-back Emmy Award winner for writing the 2010 and 2011 Tony Awards, the evening flowed effortlessly with choice banter and perfect structure. This tribute to fifty years of Great Performances, as essential a series as exists today, is broken down by decades and serves as a love letter to Broadway. Hosted by two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster, it easily could be called “Showstoppers” and be true to its name. Directed and choreographed by Tony winner Warren Carlyle, with Patrick Vaccariallo as music director, it has been put together by people who know Broadway, which makes for all the difference in the world.
If you tune in for the legends, you won’t be disappointed. It’s thrilling to see a ninety-year-old Chita Rivera tantalizing once again with “All That Jazz” from Chicago, a reminder that she remains the one and only Velma Kelly, having created the role two decades before the 1996 revival, currently the longest running American musical in Broadway history. Donna McKechnie, forever and always Cassie in A Chorus Line, sings the first portion of “The Music and the Mirror,” then graciously cedes the stage to Robyn Hurder, currently featured in A Beautiful Noise, who dances the number superbly. Andre De Shields gives a rendition of “So You Wanted To See The Wizard” as only he can perform it, having introduced the song in the title role of The Wiz some forty-eight years ago. And though younger than this trio, Brian Stokes Mitchell certainly qualifies as a legend by now. Singing “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime, he once again brought his Coalhouse Walker Jr. back to vivid life.
Every number could be considered a highlight, but there are a few that need to be singled out. The most genuinely exhilarating entry was Corbin Bleu, who absolutely killed with “That’s How You Jazz” from Jelly’s Last Jam. He’s someone I’ve had my eye on since 2011, when I saw him play Seaweed in Hairspray at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. But at Lincoln Center, his singing and dancing received one of the biggest ovations of the night, proving himself a natural to play Jelly Roll Morton if and when this show is revived (and it should be). Here’s a short clip:
Corbin Bleu performs "That's How You Jazz" | Great Performances | PBS
Corbin Bleu performs "That's How You Jazz," an exhilarating tap number from "Jelly's Last Jam" as part of Great…
Rob McClure, so creatively funny in everything from Chaplin to Avenue Q to Something Rotten to Mrs. Doubtfire, performed a specially crafted four-minute medley of Broadway hits, a funky list song naming as many of the last twenty years of musicals as could be squeezed in. Considering the limited rehearsal these kinds of shows have, this one is positively amazing. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a sneak of it in its entirety:
Rob McClure's Broadway Medley of Musicals 2003-2023 | Great Performances | PBS
♪♪ Twenty years of musicals ♪♪ ♪♪ Some famous, some forgotten ♪♪ ♪♪ Some beautiful, some Next to Normal. Others…
The complexity of an original piece of material such as this one was counter-balanced by the beauty and simplicity of Sara Bareilles singing “She Used to Be Mine” from her hit musical Waitress. She was then joined on stage by Jessie Mueller, who created the leading role in Waitress, to sing “Will You Still Love Me” from Beautiful, the Carole King musical bio for which Mueller won a Tony. Also profoundly moving and sung was Norm Lewis’s “Music of the Night,” bringing back memories of his Phantom of the Opera, one of the chosen few to stalk Broadway during that show’s historic (and now completed) thirty-five year run. He was matched by Vanessa Williams reprising the title character she played on Broadway, singing the title song from Kiss of the Spider Woman, enveloping the audience in a web of enticement.
Not to be left solely to hosting and introducing songs, Sutton Foster burst out late in the evening with two big numbers. Singing “Being Alive,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, with power and authenticity, then enlivening a dance-a-thon to the music of her many Broadway appearances in shows like Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein, Shrek the Musical and Anything Goes.
Let me leave it as a surprise what some of this vast array of performers have in store. But if you’re a fan of Shoshana Bean, Raúl Esparza, James Monroe Iglehart, Ledisi, Patina Miller, Mamie Parris, Solea Pfeiffer, Britton Smith and Jessica Vosk, then you’re in for many a treat.
Directed for television by David Horn, the Executive Producer for Great Performances, its to his and his team’s lasting credit that Broadway remains a vital part of PBS’s mission to showcase the arts. I won’t turn this is into a pledge drive, but today more than ever, we need PBS in our lives to bring some semblance of beauty to our often chaotic world. Tune in!
Great Performances: Celebrating 50 Years of Broadway’s Best premieres Friday, May 12 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/broadwayonpbs and the PBS App.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.