Slightly later than originally planned, the fifth episode in The Theatre Channel dropped today, making it the first instalment of 2021. Following episodes themed around the holidays, musicals horrors and rock musicals, this one focuses on the golden age of Broadway with classics from West Side Story, Cabaret and Gypsy all among the shows featured. As with the other episodes this series I got to talk to the creative team behind the series as well as one of this episodes stars, Marisha Wallace, for an insight into the making of it in challenging circumstances.
You get the sense that the creative team behind The Theatre Channel are having a secret competition with themselves, always trying to one up the last episode, ensuring the next one is even bigger and better. A hard ask considering how amazing the first four episodes in the series have been. Sure enough, episode five starts with a bang with a spectacular Freddie Fox giving us his best Emcee from Cabaret for a performance of both 'Willkommen' and 'Money' from the show. Oozing charisma, styled to the nines and making love to the camera, he ensures this episode starts on such a ridiculously high standard that dropping below it throughout is not an option.
The series' very own recurring cast members the Cafe Four get bigger parts in this episode. As well as coming together for a brilliant 'Coffee Break' from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, members Alyn Hawke and Emily Langham get an additional duet, singing 'Put On A Happy Face' from Bye Bye Birdie. Matching the established names they appear alongside throughout the series, the four of them prove what talents they each are and will doubtlessly be names theatre fans become familiar with in the not too distant future.
Gary Wilmot always brings something special to his performances so him getting behind 'Luck Be A Lady' from Guys & Dolls was always going to be a triumph. Mazz Murray delivers an exceptional 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' from Gypsy. Ensuring she is doing more than simply singing the song, she plays the role and treats this performance as if it is straight out of the show. Producer Adam Blanshay went directly to Stephen Sondheim for approval of this song choice. He commented in the post show Q&A that he had originally planned for Mazz to sing 'Rose's Turn' but Sondheim commented that number didn't work as well as a freestanding number and benefits fron the build up of the full show, so another iconic number from the show was chosen instead.
As always with this series, the use of space for performances is as creative and innovative as it gets. Originally the brief for the series was to film every performance at The Theatre Cafe premises, utilising every nook and cranny. Previous episodes have seen sequences on the roof and the basement. The cafe still gets transformed for performances this episode, but in a bid to get bigger with each episode, they have moved outside now. Freddie Fox ends up on stage in the Duke of Yorks Theatre and previous episode saw a performance in Trafalgar Square. Part of this is due to the International success of this series. What started as a love letter to theatre has also become a love letter to London itself, so the plan is to continue expanding that world to show all that London has to offer in future episodes.
If you have seen Bonnie Langford perform, you know there is none quite like her. If she's out of this world at the best of times, imagine a Bonnie Langford who hasn't had many chances to perform in the last 12 months - I call this iteration Super Bonnie. In a sequence that can only be described as sheer genius, Bonnie sings and dances around The Theatre Cafe, acknowledging her career in shows. Performing 'I Get A Kick Out Of You', the song starts with her sat at the 9 to 5 table, poses near posters of shows she has previously performed in, before giving a picture of her 9 to 5 character on the wall a tap. This performance reads like a pure tribute to the industry, as if she is singing to the notion of theatre itself. All with Bonnie's legendary moves, her joyous personality bounces off the screen to create the feelgood moment of the episode.
The final performance of the night comes from the incomparable Marisha Wallace. Since coming to London from America with the plan to cover Amber Riley in Dreamgirls for a few days, she has settled and now made it her home. We should all be thankful for that because what a talent she is. Her performance moves the action away to a new location for The Theatre Channel as she stands on the roof of the National Theatre for a beautiful rendition of the West Side Story classic 'Somewhere' - described by the creative team as an anthem for the industry.
An emotional song becomes even more moving as it becomes clear Marisha is singing about theatre itself. In the post show Q&A, she talked about making her album with a concept to inspire people in a dark time to give them a sense of hope. She released 'Tomorrow' from Annie as a single and wanted a song that answered what happens after tomorrow - so 'Somewhere' seemed like the perfect choice. The lyric "There's a place for us" has greater meaning now - be it knowing that everybody in the industry will have a place when this storm passes as well as acknowledging the growing diversity in theatre. Marisha talked about the fact that a black actress can sing 'Somewhere' on the National Theatre should give everyone hope. and said "Everyone who has ever felt other should know they have a place" and that "Dreams can come true.. even in a pandemic".
I asked Marisha what it was like singing to a camera without connecting to an audience. After revealing that passers by had actually gathered to watch her perform this, but commented on how difficult it has been performing without an audience over the past year - the weirdest of which was performing to an audience of screens at the Royal Variety Performance late last year. While it has been weird transitioning to this new (hopefully temporary) normal, she wanted to connect to the audience via the camera so they could understand the way she wanted to interpret this song. Marisha said she envisioned herself as the angel of music calling out to people.
This episode was delayed due to the changing guidelines of the Government and the need of director Bill Deamer to self-isolate. Blanshay said he had to ensure health and safety was the number one priority and that challenges over 1 metre distance increasing to two metres posed challenges for a space as small as The Theatre Cafe. The creative team commented that this was by far the toughest episode to make but were thankful they had worked together for a few episodes already so knew how each other worked. With an episode focusing on the golden age of Broadway, the exclusion of Rodgers & Hammerstein might seem like a strange choice. Was it an oversight? Adam Blanshay wanted to clear up that this was a deliberate decision as there will be a whiole episode devoted to their works later in this series.
The show was rehearsed via Zoom with all camera direction planned via there too. Bill Deamer said "Choreographically this episode was a nightmare" but ultimately the payoff was there. Both Adam Blanshay and Bill Deamer have a connection to West Side Story so Marisha's performance of 'Somewhere' felt very poignant and meant a lot to them. Deamer commented that it is important they have musical theatre on screen at the moment, while it can't be performed on stage talked about the great relevance these episodes can have. Marisha added that having theatre on screen can help create accessibility and that she had never been able to go to a Broadway show before she stepped foot on the stage herself (Look out for an article related to accessibility on here next week).
The Theatre Channel has been a remarkable series so far with four flawless episodes. It's safe to say episode five is the best yet. By upping the ante, the team have created something spectacular. The fact this episode comes after theatres were forced to close for a third time in a year and that we are in our third lockdown has led to performances even more exceptional than usual. Gorgeous production, smart editing and a series of incredible performances by some of the West Ends finest leads to half an hour of complete perfection.
The series will be continuing this year though a release date and information regarding episode six has yet to be announced. Sadly Bill Deamer will be leaving the series to focus on a new project but the legacy he has created with Adam Blanshay and musical supervisor Michael England will continue, and this series is sure to carry on going from strength to strength. Stay tuned to the end of the episode for a behind the scenes look at the series with Deamer as well as a conversation with Marisha Wallace about the performance and featuring a beautiful and inspirational speech from her.
Episodes 1 to 5 of The Theatre Channel are available to stream from http://www.thetheatrecafe.co.uk/channel