In a theater-less season – no Broadway, no summer-stock musicals, nothing — we need a break.
Fortunately, PBS is trying. In a five-Friday stretch, it will give us Broadway-style reruns.
That includes two musicals (“She Loves Me” (shown here) 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 sharing romantic letters.
That was a 1937 Hungarian play and a 1940 movie (“The Shop Around the Corner”). It led to more movies – the 1949 “In the Good Old Summertime” and the 1998 “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 it with their speciality – “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, Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski.
– “Present Laughter” (July 31): Noel Coward created this 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, insisting on an affair with the semi-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, Jeremy McCarter, who was a drama critic for New York magazine at the time, wrote in “Hamilton” (2016, Grand Central Publishing). It 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 “Ado” in Central Park; he suggested an all-black cast. “I went, ‘fantastic,’” Oscar Eustes, 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” ro a role.
– “The King and I” (Aug. 21). Long before current troubles, Americans have had divisive times. They also had Oscar Hammerstein; from “Showboat” to “South Pacific” he viewed ethnic divisions.
“Hammerstein embraced such values as fellowship, tolerance and faith,” Maslon said, believing “that hope was better than despair, that love was better than hate.”
Linked with Richard Rodgers, he had the skill that “allowed his sermons to be given in glorious songs.”
In this case, he had the story of the 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; Kelli O’Hara – who has been nominated seven times – won a Tony as Anna.