Laura Benanti is a Tony-winning actress, but she still thinks of herself as a theater kid.
So when her mother, who is a voice teacher, started telling her about student shows being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Benanti could imagine the upset.
She stepped out onto the porch and posted a short video on Twitter, inviting students to share songs from shows that might never happen. And share they did.
Her offer has now been viewed more than 3 million times, and thousands of students (well, often it’s their parents or their teachers, most using the hashtag #SunshineSongs) have responded by posting footage of rehearsals and performances from shows that have been postponed or canceled.
The project — a rare river of uplift in a moment of global distress — has been followed by a string of other efforts to find new platforms for performers whose productions have been silenced.
Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the programming director at the cabaret club Feinstein’s/54 Below (also closed) invited college musical theater seniors on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to share their showcase performances, which ordinarily would be seen at this time of year by agents and other industry professionals.
“I was thinking, is there any thing I could do for college students and people about to try to start careers in this horribly uncertain moment,” she said. “I thought it would be great if we could see showcases online.”
And the playwrights Lily Houghton and Matt Minnicino, along with the actress Ali Stoner, invited writers and performers to share on Instagram (@theatrewithouttheater) excerpts from productions that had been halted. They are posted each night at 7:30 EDT.
“This is the time of each evening you would normally go to a show and be part of the theater community, so if we could hit that time slot we could give people’s souls a little bit of the extra nutrition they desired,” Minnicino said.
Most of their efforts are focused on Off Broadway work that might be lost as a result of the shutdown — they have posted songs from “Darling Grenadine” and “Unknown Soldier,” two musicals whose runs were cut short. But they have an expansive and evolving mission; among the first posts was a scene from Nicholas Podany, the actor who had been playing Albus Potter in the Broadway production of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
The efforts to highlight canceled performances are a sliver of a larger migration of live performance to online platforms, at a time when many countries have shuttered theaters to help prevent the spread of disease. People are sharing recommendations for movie musicals; theaters and theater artists are exploring ways to share filmed versions of stage productions; BroadwayWorld is posting a series of “living room concerts”; the 24 Hour Plays, an organization that holds events in which theater is created quickly, planned on Tuesday night to post a series of “viral monologues;” while the Actors Fund, a charity for entertainment workers in need, said it would raise money with daily videos, hosted by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, featuring theater stars singing from their homes.
Benanti, who is practicing social distancing in New Jersey with her husband, their child, and her mother, said she had been stunned, in a good way, by the surge of sharing of videos of young performers.
“I had no idea it was going to take off in this way, but I’m really gratified that it has, because they’ve gone from extreme disappointment to performing in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt and other Broadway luminaries,” she said, referring to celebrities who have become part of the online audience. “And I’m also grateful we are communing in this way during a time of social distancing and great anxiety.”
The respondents seem to be coming from everywhere — performing every type of show, at every age. Mary Ann Bruegman, a 21-year-old senior at Wayne State College in Nebraska, was scheduled to perform next week as Kate in a production of “The Pirates of Penzance,” as well as part of a chamber choir whose spring concert was to include a “Hamilton” medley. Both events are postponed — although she has no idea if they will ever happen — so she posted a video her mother shot of an abbreviated version of the choir’s “Hamilton” number.
“I’ve loved watching other people’s videos — it just spreads positivity and takes your mind off the craziness of the world,” she said. “So I thought I’ll post ours and tag the people, and within half an hour it blew up. Surreal is the best word for it — we’re a small-town college in Nebraska, doing what we love, and I wanted to share some joy, and although not everybody has nice things to say, it’s nice to see the people that are enjoying it — that’s why I do it.”
The participants are taking a very broad view of the exercise — one shared video of a young stagehand moving a chair in a living room, while another triumphantly shared a rendition of a key speech from “King Lear.”
Edith Salvatore of San Francisco posted video of her 9-year-old triplets running through their songs for what was to have been a 200-child elementary school production of “Crazy for You.” Salvatore, a high school Spanish teacher, is a big Benanti fan — she has an alert set up to notify her when Benanti tweets — and had been following her effort.
“I saw it, and thought it was a great idea, and then I was in the backyard with my kids bouncing on the trampoline, and they were saying they were sad rehearsals had been canceled,” she said. “So I said, ‘We should record it, so we can hear it once’.”
Allison Stroud, who teaches elementary and middle school theater at the private NSU University School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said her students were distraught on Friday when they learned that their production of “Anything Goes,” which had been scheduled to open that night, was postponed. The production features 34 students, ages 12 to 14; Stroud said she had chosen the show because this year she had a number of students who were particularly good tap dancers.
“The lead, playing Reno, was devastated, obviously — honestly, it felt like a death, because you’ve put so much heart and soul into it, and some of the kids have come to rehearsal every single day since January, so it’s kind of a big blow,” she said. But she said the Twitter feed was helpful. “It’s so inspiring because it shows the arts aren’t dead, and in this time right now, with everything going on, we need something — it’s great to get onto Twitter and see these kids pouring their hearts out and being authentic.”
Benanti, who won her Tony Award in 2008 for “Gypsy” and last starred in a revival of “My Fair Lady,” said she has been trying to watch and comment on as many of the posts as she can.
“It’s struck me how sincere and open hearted and committed these kids are,” she said. “Their unabashed love of creating something — we’re gobbling it up. It’s what we need right now.”