For decades, PBS has had an extra duty: It’s the main link many people have to what’s happening on Broadway and in concert halls, opera houses and more.
But lately, there’s been an added role: It’s been giving us what’s NOT happening there.
As the pandemic shut most things down, PBS kept going. It had music on rooftops, on porches, in vacant rooms and now – quite carefully – in standard concert settings.
That’s led by Luke Frazier and his American Pops Orchestra, who has rushed a dozen concerts, ranging from slim half-hours to an ambitious “Wicked” concert (shown here with Ariana Grande).
Coming next, on March 6, is the music of Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe. “Through 12 television shows, not a single case of COVID,” Frazier told the Television Critics Association.
He’s created events that wouldn’t have existed otherwise, often using Broadway and concert stars whose venues had closed. Other events have visited seasons finally re-opening, from the San Francisco Symphony to the Vienna Philharmonic, including:
— The Metropolitan Opera. “Great Performances at the Met” opens its season Feb. 6 with a blistering production of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the Met’s first production from a Black composer (Terence Blanchard, with words by Kasi Lemmons, from Charles Blow’s memoirs). It was during the long COVID break, said Met general manager Peter Gelb, that the decision was made to open the season with something “meaningful and relevant to a modern audience.” Even during Omicron, he said on Jan. 18, the show went on “without missing a single performance to date.”
— The Gershwin Award concert, via the Library of Congress. That will be May 17, with stars (not yet set) doing the music of Lionel Richie.
— Also in May, a documentary follow the launch of a “Company” revival, which opened (to sell-out crowds) on Dec. 9, two weeks after composer Stephen Sondheim’s death at 91. That will be part of PBS’ fifth “Broadway’s Best” series, said producer David Horn, with other announcements coming.
Any plan can face setbacks, especially with PBS’ long lead time. Horn also mentioned a special about Broadway re-opening, but that one was semi-outdated when it aired: By then (Jan. 18), about half of the shows had closed again, at least temporarily.
Problems will persist, acknowledged Paula Kerger, the PBS CEO. “It is very much going to be a bumpy ride, for some time to come …. It makes me want to double down even more, … documenting great work that’s being created.”
The bumps started in March of 2020, with the closing of Broadway theaters, plus concert halls and local theaters worldwide. PBS producers began to improvise.
For two years, they’ve done “National Memorial Day” and “Capitol Fourth” concerts, recording everything in advance: Some people sang on a rooftop overlooking the Capitol; others ranged from Nashville to an empty New York theater.
There have been solo concerts — ranging from New York City to a suburban theater and an Austrian opera house. And “best-of” specials, mostly using past performances from the Hollywood Bowl and the Tabernacle Choir. And Frazier’s concerts.
A self-described “very old soul” at 51, Frazier started with a concert filmed in August of 2020, with the music of Ella Fitzgerald. It was outdoors, with strings players masked. The latest (without masks) starts a series of Broadway-themed concerts; in the March 6 opener, powerhouse Broadway voices do the music of Lerner-and-Loewe’s “Camelot,” “Brigadoon,” “My Fair Lady” and more.
“The actual room we filmed ‘Lerner and Loewe’ in – right outside that wall is where we filmed the first show during the pandemic,” Frazier said.
Geographically, his concerts haven’t ranged far. Musically, they’ve covered decades of songs that almost vanished during the pandemic.