On Sunday night, Rosie O’Donnell hosted a star-spangled revue – from her garage. A live-streamed version of her talkshow, the evening benefited the Actors Fund, a support organization for the theater community. Had you ever wanted to see Marisa Tomei hula hoop or Darren Criss flaunt his quarantine beard or Billy Porter and Randy Rainbow show up wearing the same Barbra Streisand shirt, your laptop was the place to be.
Since the closing of theaters, on Broadway and around the world, theater artists have attempted new ways of making performance available. Formerly live shows have reappeared as downloads, lists of movie musicals have circulated, a few enterprising companies have explored teleconferencing possibilities. This special, less like a talkshow and more like an everything-must-go, lowest-prices-allowed-by-law version of the Tony awards, was one more experiment. Running for more than three and a half hours, it was fun and then it wasn’t and then it was and then it wasn’t. Ultimately, it raised more than $500,000 for a community of gig workers (not only actors) who might not be eligible for traditional unemployment benefits.
I watched the special in the same way that I typically watch the Tonys, on the couch with Twitter open, creating a virtual community of critics and fans. Like the Tonys, the evening leaned into self-congratulation so hard that it often fell over and the parade of famous faces went from exciting to exhausting fast. But the extravagant roster of talent – Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Lea Salonga, Gavin Creel (who told everyone that he had most likely contracted Covid-19 and then sang anyway) – spoke to people trying to do something good in a moment in which many of us feel too hopeless to even put on real pants. Besides, it may be the closest thing to the Tonys available this year.
With a production assist from the actor Erich Bergen, O’Donnell hosted, splitting the screen with a guest, or ceding it to a live performance or a pre-recorded video. Sometimes her audio went out, sometimes her guests had the mute button on. Sound delay was rampant, picture quality was iffy, the lighting mostly dismal. First Patti LuPone and then Audra McDonald and Will Swenson all performed Smile, which was briefly awkward. Matthew Morrison and Jordan Fisher both had live accompanists, which was more awkward, because either they room with their accompanists or they had failed to practice safe social distancing.
The special peeked into private worlds – LuPone’s basement, complete with jukebox and pinball machine; Idina Menzel’s kitchen; Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick’s sofa; Stephen Sondheim’s bathroom – most of them surprisingly frowsy and suburban, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s parlor the predictably glamorous exception. He and Sondheim both sang Happy Birthday to each other, though neither committed fully. Kelli O’Hara introduced her children, Kristin Chenoweth introduced her boyfriend, Gloria Estefan introduced her dogs and a plate of flan. “Oh my God,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, the following guest, said. “Flan and dogs and Estefans? This is the best show ever already.” Has he not seen Hamilton? Everyone dressed down except for Chita Rivera.
It was an evening of people trying hard and succeeding sometimes, as when Adrienne Warren, in a bubble bath and after several audio glitches, sang Simply the Best and pretended to jam on a miniature saxophone. But by the time Barry Manilow was muttering “It’s gotta end, it’s gotta end,” the hopeful sentiment addressed both the pandemic and the show, which was intimate and dumb and terribly produced and as a clumsy expression of tremendous goodwill, really very nice. And it was never (except maybe when O’Hara sang Take Me to the World) a substitute for live theater. But right now, what else do we have?