‘The Show Must Go On[line]’: Revisiting childhood favorites in musical theater during the pandemic

April 19, 2020, 5:06 p.m.

I sit in front of my computer, passively scrolling through my Google news feed. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken over the internet, and rightly so: These are unprecedented times. But as often with difficult moments, the generosity of people around the world is brought into the limelight. In the arts sector, musicians and actors continue to share their performances online, and it is making an impact. This generosity is brightening the days of people stuck at home or people that feel helpless in the face of change. For a person like me, a free orchestra-level seat in a historic production of “The Phantom of the Opera” was all it took to make my day.

The first time I watched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s groundbreaking musical was many years ago. I remember feeling like the luckiest girl in the world that day. Watching the show from the highest balcony, I savored the music and tried to take in as much of the scene as I could see with my weak eyesight. Even now, I still look forward to the next time I can feel my heart ache with every crack of the Phantom’s desperate voice in “Past the Point of No Return,” every glorious moment when the overlapping cacophony of voices melds into resolute unison, every exquisitely aligned note in the duet “All I Ask of You.”

Knowing that I would not see the musical again for many years, even decades, I was ecstatic when I found out that it would be streamed online. “The Shows Must Go On” is a series on Youtube led by Webber that streams one of his acclaimed musicals every Friday. For 48 hours, people all around the world can experience the magic of a musical from their own homes. All they need is internet connection and a device, diminishing the gap between people who can afford tickets to watch expensive musicals and those who simply cannot. The series is targeted at people staying at home during the pandemic, and it supports “The Actors Fund: COVID-19 Emergency Relief” to aid artists impacted by the disrupted entertainment and performing arts industry. It also encourages viewers to donate to other organizations supporting actors during these difficult times, including “Acting for Others” and “Actors Benevolent Fund.”

Most recently, the series included the 25th Anniversary edition of ‘The Phantom of the Opera,” performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011 starring Ramin Karimloo, Sierra Boggess and Hadley Fraser. The performance was breathtaking and beautifully filmed. For me, it was the first time I was able to see the actors’ expressions and artistic nuances in addition to their unforgettably beautiful voices. Captions were included to help viewers comprehend the storyline, something I always wished live musicals could include. This version of the musical, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, boasted impressive stage effects including fire and sparks (and of course, the chandelier and the self-playing piano). As expected of this talented cast, the singing was everything I could have imagined and better. Boggess played the role of Christine with confidence, elevating the role as an equal to the Phantom’s. During the final, emotionally packed scene, the Phantom sings an endearing “I love you,” showcasing Karimloo’s unwavering yet delicate singing technique (and jerking a few more tears out of my already-watery eyes). To top the show at the end, Webber is joined onstage by the original London cast for a big reunion. To the audience’s delight, Sarah Brightman — the original actor for the role of Christine — gives a stirring interpretation of the signature song of the musical, “The Phantom of the Opera.” Through unending applause and cheering, the performance closes with fireworks and confetti as the cast waves goodbye.

For music lovers, now is a time to both lament the condition of the world and to celebrate the generosity demonstrated by the arts. In addition to “The Shows Must Go On,” countless other groups have been offering free streaming services that keep people at home while supporting various groups in need during this crisis. Disney on Broadway this past Friday hosted its 25th anniversary concert in support of the Broadway Cares’ COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund. As excerpts from world-renown shows like “The Lion King” and “Newsies” were streamed, messages from those watching on Youtube were shown live on screen, giving the show a homey feel. In between performances, performers were video-called live from their homes in conversation with the emcee Ryan McCartan in support of the fund. While acknowledging their unpredictable lives as actors stuck at home, Disney on Broadway gave advice to performers all around the world to persist despite cancelled performances and diminished opportunities.

One of the people interviewed was Boggess (who was also in the Disney concert). She reminds her fellow artists that “there’s no place to ‘do what we do,’ and yet, in each of us as artists, we feel pulled to still do the work and still practice our craft.” Indeed, this is a message that resonates widely within the artistic community. Even as the pandemic prevents in-person contact, performers continue to practice their craft and stream concerts on Youtube, Instagram and Twitter. McCartan agrees with this sentiment, adding that “this thing that’s so naturally isolating is still bringing us together in its own kind of way.” 

Other organizations providing free at-home streams of invaluable musical experiences include The Berliner Philharmoniker through its Digital Concert Hall, the Bolshoi Ballet, The Metropolitan Opera, and Cirque du Soleil with their 60-Minute Specials. Shows are generally only online for a few hours or days, allowing the performances to be shared yet remain special in the memories of those who have experienced it.

Although a live performance can never be replicated, these live streams illustrate how lucky we are in the face of a pandemic: Nowadays, we are able to use our technology both to save lives in medical settings and to watch priceless renditions of our favorite performances online. It allows performers to share a joy for their craft in a much more accessible way, widening audiences and deepening people’s relationships with the arts. Even through difficult times, the arts still shine as a way to make each day we live better than the last.

Contact Jocelyn Chen at joceyln8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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