7 Shows I Wish I Could Watch in My Living Room
I'm glad we can still see Hamilton and American Utopia, but there are other stage shows I miss.
Who could have guessed a year ago that we would be here — in the thick of a pandemic that has led state and local governments to prohibit mass gatherings, leaving theaters dark for the longest continuous period in American history? For a theater maniac like me, it has felt like going on a starvation diet. I have sustained myself on the recorded versions of Broadway shows like American Utopia, What the Constitution Means to Me, and (of course) Hamilton. But I like to think that had we only known what was in store for 2020, producers would have made a point to commit their shows to high-quality film with a plan to distribute through a streaming service. Recognizing that hindsight is 2020, I've made a list of 7 shows I wish I could stream from the comfort of my living room — only one of them was on Broadway. Here they are.
1. Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven
When I reviewed it last December, I wrote that Stephen Adly Guirgis's sprawling dramedy about the inhabitants of an Upper West Side women's shelter could easily provide the basis for a Netflix series. I still feel that way, and I think millions of Americans would agree with me if they could only see the Atlantic Theater Company production. Essentially a three-hour pilot episode, Halfway Bitches introduces us to a group of outcasts navigating the transitional space between exile and belonging. Guirgis and an all-star cast of New York stage performers find dramatic potential in every moment, so you never want to look away.
2. Cambodian Rock Band
Lauren Yee's gripping musical play follows an American woman who travels to her father's native Cambodia and discovers the story of his survival during that country's brutal genocide. Dad was in a psychedelic rock band in the '70s, making him a target for the Khmer Rouge and its bloody campaign to purge the country of intellectuals and artists. Yee breaks up scenes of interrogation and betrayal with songs performed by a live band. Part drama and part concert, Cambodian Rock Band would make an excellent and timely addition to any streaming roster: Just recently, the play's villain, Comrade Duch (portrayed in a disquieting performance by Francis Jue) died while serving a life sentence. There's never been a better time to reflect on the quietly heroic act of singing your own song in the face of totalitarianism.
3. Grand Horizons
Of the truncated 2020 Broadway season, this is the play I'd most like to see again. Bess Wohl's comedy is about a couple in their 70s. Married for half a century and newly relocated to a retirement community, they suddenly decide they want a divorce. Jane Alexander and James Cromwell deliver memorable performances as the couple in question, with stellar supporting performances by Michael Urie, Ben McKenzie, and Ashley Park as their adult sons and daughter-in-law. The eldest declares, "If you wanted to get divorced you should have done it after we went to college, like normal people." But is it ever too late to reevaluate your relationships and the things to which you are committing your limited time on Earth? Raising questions about codependency and the viability of a follow-your-bliss attitude in your golden years, Grand Horizons feels tailor-made for the year of COVID-19, and might have prompted some awkward yet necessary conversations in living rooms all over America. If you can't quarantine with the one you love, honey, quarantine with the one you're with.
Eboni Booth's off-Broadway playwriting debut was one of my favorite shows of 2020: It's about a Vermont big-box store and the people who work there. The central (but also the quietest) character is Emmie, whom Jules Latimer portrayed with beguiling furtiveness in the Atlantic Stage 2 production. It's a performance that would translate especially well to film. In a year in which we have relied so heavily on essential retail workers to maintain our lives under lockdown, Paris takes a hard look at the realities of this undercompensated and underappreciated line of work. Home viewers might also enjoy the surprisingly baroque incidental music by Phish's Trey Anastasio.
5. Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Will Arbery's Pulitzer finalist drama absolutely floored me when I saw it at Playwrights Horizons a year ago. It's about a circle of graduates from a small Catholic college in Wyoming, reuniting to celebrate the promotion of a beloved professor. All conservatives, their increasingly unhinged dialogue reveals the American right to be just as riven by conflict as any part of society (only one of them really likes Trump). Heroes has gotten a lot of love during the pandemic, with an online reading produced by Jeremy O. Harris and a recent digital production by Philadelphia's Wilma Theater. Still, I would love to see a film of the original off-Broadway production, especially if it was able to capture the tension between the stage and the audience. Some of the things said by the actors received howls of disapproval from the audience, which is the kind of thing that makes live theater feel truly alive.
6. Coal Country
Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's musical docu-drama tells the story of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster using the words of people who lived through it. What emerges is a story of corporate greed and community resilience. Steve Earle's live music infused the story with the sound of Appalachia, helping to create a play that was both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. This was one of the last things I saw before all the theaters shut down, and its run at the Public Theater was sadly cut short by several weeks. But these stories deserve to be heard far and wide, and a permanent presence on a streaming service would help achieve that. Since HBO already has a history of antagonizing big coal through John Oliver, this might make a particularly good fit for HBO Max.
I will readily admit to this guilty pleasure: The much-anticipated staging of the 1977 album from Meat Loaf and songwriter Jim Steinman finally made it to New York last year, and it was the camptastic highlight of my summer. Featuring all the songs from the album, and many more penned by Steinman over the years, Bat follows a band of eternal teenagers rebelling against authority in a postapocalyptic future. At least, I think that's what it's about. Part of me wants to see this again, if only to make sense out of Steinman's incomprehensible plot. As a book musical, Bat Out Of Hell definitely drops the ball on the book part. But the masterfully performed songs are likely to have even sober home viewers singing along. Also, Jay Scheib's staging is ridiculously grandiose. Even Bat's detractors have to admit — two out of three ain't bad.