by Matt Smith . . .
All was bright and buzzy in Duffy Square last weekend, as Playbill, in collaboration with the Broadway League, Times Square Alliance, and title sponsor, Prudential Financial, launched the ambitious Curtain Up! festival, in honor of Broadway and live theatre’s much-anticipated rebound.
Through panels, performances and even prize giveaways, the dynamic three-day theatrical extravaganza ignited both audiences and actors alike, filling the 18-month void brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and injecting the atmosphere with a new energy of hope, passion and excitement for what lies ahead.
We were there for it all, and below, we break down what we thought were the action-packed weekend’s most poignant statements and prominent moments:
“IT’S THE HEARTBEAT, THE CENTER…”
To kick off the event, opening emcees Norm Lewis and Michael Urie — soon to be seen in Chicken and Biscuits — joined a parade of New York power players in touting theatre’s grand return.
Emphasizing the myriad of ways in which Broadway is the lifeblood of the city, each of them championed its resurgence in the recent and upcoming months.
“Broadway is what makes Times Square and New York special and unique,” said Times Square Alliance President Tom Harris. “It is both the driver of the economy and our humanity. It challenges people to think differently, it reminds us that we’re not alone, that we evolve, and that each experience is singular and should be cherished.”
In encouraging theatergoers to purchase tickets, actor and event host Jelani Alladin spoke directly to the fans. “The theatre is about you,” he asserted. “It’s always been about you. It is for you. These stories are about you. And,” he adds, stating the art form is not dead, “going to a Broadway show — whether it’s your first one, your tenth, or even your fortieth — revives us… revives the human spirit, especially after such a dark period as this.”
“We depend on the arts. We depend on Broadway. It is the heart of our economy,” echoed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who popped in donning the mask he wore on the Senate floor the day the Save our Stages bill was passed. “We are back. We are back all the way. And for both New York and for Broadway, the best days are yet to come!” A more fittingly optimistic outlook we may never know!
BUILDING A BETTER BROADWAY
But with its great return comes a great responsibility, and a much-championed commitment to bring more representation on and offstage.
“We are indeed returning, but it won’t look or feel the same,” Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin promised when she took the mic. “More than a year after the national reckoning we experienced last summer, Broadway is changing, and we aim to bring broader inclusion and racial equity within our organization and within our community.”
To that end, officially proclaiming that Broadway’s re-opening includes no less than seven plays by Black writers, with four by Black women among them, certain panels throughout the weekend specifically addressed the Black experience on stage, and in TV and film, while, again, continuing to push for diversity and inclusion.
“I want to make sure that as performers, as we’re pressing and pushing the ball forward for diversity, that we aren’t forgetting about the people behind-the-scenes,” said Bryan Terrell Clark, of the upcoming Thoughts of a Colored Man. “We have to make sure that Broadway is also a diverse place for our crew, our ushers, our lighting operators, wig makers, costume designers.”
“We need more of that,” echoed the show’s playwright, Keenan Scott II. “We need more people of color in those positions of power to usher in and champion new voices.”
“You cannot feel welcome if you don’t feel seen,” said Douglas Lyons, scribe of Chicken and Biscuits. “We have to change the narrative in terms of the stories that are [being presented in the space if we want other people to come into the space.”
“We as Black people are not monoliths,” Scott accentuated, on the subject. “We are full-bodied, multi-layered human beings.”
“We’ve always been used to entertaining you without being asked for our input on how we think about it, how we feel about it, and about how it’s supported,” added Clark. “It’s not okay for us to just to be present, we actually have to have a seat at the table.”
To that end, the four featured playwrights rightfully aimed to fill each position across the board with an artist of color. “We made it a precedent at the sanctuary that the room would look like our play,” said Lyons, whose production, as a result, boasts the youngest Black director in Broadway history. “We’re bringing a new energy with these stories. You see us on the street, but you don’t see us in the doors. And I think this season you will see a lot more of us in the doors, on the stage.”
“I think people need to see folks like us up here on the stage making their way and succeeding,” said playwright Lynn Nottage, whose latest work, Clyde’s, will also debut on the Main Stem this season. “The more of us they see, the more emboldened people will be to step out and follow their dreams.”
But even with all this fanfare, panelists make it a point to ensure we recognize the foundation of the industry is far from equal, and – as we’re all aware – the work is far from done.
“Diversity and representation are different than equity,” Clark reiterated. “We’re talking about changing the fabric of the way these systems work.”
“To be Black and on Broadway is just like being Black in America,” lamented Pass Over playwright Antoniette Chiononye Nwandu, emphasizing that the fatigue is not erased amidst celebration. “There are so many feelings. The joy and the sadness. The pride and the pain.”
“We can’t stop working,” asserted Logan Browning, of the Netflix series Dear White People. “The truth is the moment you become complacent is the moment that you’ve failed.”
Still, they’re appreciative and excited, remaining hopeful that this landmark change can pave the way for a new theatrical future.
“I think this is a movement,” Lyons shared. “People are ready, you just have to open the door and give them a chance. This is the season for change, so pay attention. It could shift what the complete totality [of Broadway] looks like.”
But at the same time, “you can’t wait for people,” he warned. “They’re not going to give you permission for this space. You have to take it.” Detailing how he wrote Chicken and Biscuits backstage during his time as an actor in Beautiful, and had it commissioned for Broadway through a conversation on social media, he smiles, eyeing his fellow panelists and stating: “I think all of us in our own right have taken permission with our scripts and have been ready for this moment, ‘cause this moment is now. And it feels really, really good.”
“LET IT SING!”
Of course, no live celebration of Broadway would be complete without a few showtunes… and given the grandiosity of the event, you can bet the supply was plentful! Among the repertoire, Jessica Vosk gave us Thoroughly Modern Millie hit “Gimme Gimme” at the opening ceremony, while Brian Stokes Mitchell defiantly declared “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Joshua Henry sang of a hopeful “Tomorrow” (a song he also covered on his debut album, Grow) at Friday’s Variety Hour, while Saturday’s Variety Hour saw Sheeren Pinmentel and Bryce Pinkham sharing a selection of Irving Berlin classics — including a delicious duo of contrasting Berlin lullabies — to commemorate the beloved composer’s legacy and endurance in the musical theatre canon.
Friday’s eclectic Jimmy Awards Reunion Concert, featuring Broadway alum Josh Strobl, McKenzie Kurtz, and John Clay III, among others, as well as recent 2021 Jimmy Award winners, Bryson Battle and Elena Holder, in their official New York performance debuts, took the mainstage by storm; Saturday’s annual VIVA Broadway bash, featuring Bianca Marroquín, Janet Dacal, and Josh Segarra, was a true “Carnival del Barrio” in the fullest sense of the word. Songs and stories in both English and Spanish (the Spanish Temporadas de amor,featuring original Rent player Daphne Rubin-Vega, the moving tribute to the late Doreen Montalvo, the bilingual “Burn” and enlightening advice from Broadway regular Alma Cuervo among the many highlights) all had the audience on their feet alzando la bandera in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Meanwhile, the pop-up Playbill Piano Bar — allowing fans to belt, screlt, and mixto their heart’s desire alongside fellow Broadway fans — played host to everyone from Joe Iconis and Jason Robert Brown to Lauren Molina and Freestyle Love Supreme throughout the weekend.
It all culminated in a big, brassy, Broadway-fied finale, featuring a whopping 23 shows set to open or re-open in the coming months. Among the highlights, the Doubtfire kids asked, “What the Hell?” while our furry friends from The Lion King said “Hakuna Matata.” The cast of Girl from the North Country lamented “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” while perennial mainstays Dear Evan Hansen and The Phantom of the Opera switched things up with a quartet of Evans and Phantoms, respectively, singing newly arranged – and equally chilling – versions of “For Forever” and “The Music of the Night.” Peppered in were appearances by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, of Lackawanna Blues, as well as the aforementioned Nwandu and Scott, all of whom spoke to the awakening of Black voices on Broadway, while promoting their respective plays.
The event finished off where the shutdown started, in a full-circle moment with the ex-wives of Six, and a confetti-filled send-off that would rival the blast sent to signal a new year each December.
And why wouldn’t it… as we are indeed ushering in a new year as well. It’s a new dawn, a new day, and a new era for our industry, and as the events of this weekend solidified, it’s one we’re no doubt primed, ready and committed to take on. And so, with our mission in mind, we forge ahead, proudly and boldly affirmingthe mantra that has been so gloriously echoed throughout the weekend: “There’s no business like show business! Let’s go on with the show!”
Curtain Up!, produced by Playbill, in collaboration with The Broadway League, the Times Square Alliance and title sponsor Prudential Financial, was presented September 17-19th in New York’s Duffy Square. The event was sponsored in part by Lexus, Netflix and United Airlines, with additional support from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, among other organizations. For more information, visit www.playbill.com/curtainup.