Broadway adjourns, but the 'Sing Street' band plays on

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Broadway adjourns, but the 'Sing Street' band plays on
Brenock O'Connor, center, in a scene from "Sing Street" at New York Theater Workshop in Manhattan on Dec. 6, 2019. The cast is to offer "Sing Street: Grounded — At Home With the Broadway Cast" on the show’s Facebook page on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “Explode the computer with energy, you beautiful people,” director Rebecca Taichman said.

It was an afternoon in mid-April and Taichman, scarf-swathed and sitting in what looked like her New York bedroom, was rehearsing the cast of “Sing Street,” the Broadway musical that would have opened on April 19. Adapted from John Carney’s 2016 movie about ’80s Dublin youths who form a New Romantics band, it celebrates pop music as therapeutic and liberating. Now, in pandemic times, the “Sing Street” band plays on, virtually.

“Sing Street” — like most of Broadway’s spring slate — is a show in suspension, its original cast album, released last Tuesday, an artifact of a run that never began. But Thursday, the cast will offer “Sing Street: Grounded — At Home With the Broadway Cast” on the show’s Facebook page.

A benefit that will solicit donations for the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the half-hour compendium testifies to the desire to keep a deferred show going, even when the cast and crew have scattered to four states and across the Atlantic Ocean. It will remain on the site through May 4. Your computer probably won’t explode.

How does a 2 1/2-hour show become a half-hour event? Deliberately, haltingly, with technical difficulties, aesthetic stop-starts and excellent, mostly compatible intentions. A musical that hasn’t opened yet can’t coast on audience goodwill and has to take more care with what material it puts online. It has to entertain unfamiliar viewers and provide a creative outlet for its actors, using cobbled-together technology that almost no one has expertise in.

“It’s very stressful, because it’s a stressful time to do anything,” Brenock O’Connor, one of the musical’s stars, said from London.

On March 26, when “Sing Street” would have performed its first preview, producers arranged a Zoom party. “‘Party’ is sort of an overstatement because we all just sat there, putting on brave faces, but knowing that we were all hurting inside,” O’Connor said.

Some of the actors started to chat about finding material to cover together — maybe an ’80s pop song or two. Then someone (no one remembers exactly who) came up with a crazy idea: Put “Sing Street” online. “Initially, what we intended to do was run the whole show and do it live,” Gary Clark, who composed the music with Carney, said.

That “whole show” plan evaporated almost immediately. Dance sequences were a no-go and a set was impossible. The cast doubles as the band, and several actors don’t have access to the instruments they play onstage.

Besides, as Gus Halper, another lead actor explained, putting the stage production on Zoom felt wrong. “So much of the challenge of getting the musical on its feet was trying to find the magic of the film in a way that felt unique to theater,” he said, speaking from his mother’s Massachusetts home. “This is the same challenge, just in reverse.”

The cast decided to perform most of the songs — including a new one, “Love and Stars” — with just enough narrative padding to give them context.

“This is going to be a very truncated kind of version of the experience,” Barbara Broccoli, a lead producer, explained. “Nothing will replace watching the show in the theater.”

A live performance, the producers quickly discovered, was also not an option. With O’Connor in England, his castmate Zara Devlin in Northern Ireland and most everyone else in the United States, audio and video delays were an issue. “They did a test with everyone trying to play on Zoom and it was just all over the place,” Clark said.

Clark and the producers — with help from video production company Smuggler, creative agency Droga5 and filmmaker Henry-Alex Rubin — figured out some workarounds, like a backing track and a move to combine Zoom with other platforms. But they accepted that they would have to record each performer’s audio in advance, sync it and then synchronize the picture — “putting everything back into the groove,” Clark said. When asked if an observer would really notice the split-second discrepancies, he replied: “It would sound like a train wreck.”

The producers sent care packages — Apple AirPods, microphones, hard drives, hand props — to the cast. These were all loaners, except for the AirPods. (“That would be gross,” a press agent told me.) In April, proper rehearsals began, working around different time zones, tricky living situations, an actor’s melted computer, Devlin’s intermittent internet connection. A tentative run date emerged and then faded as work continued.

In mid-March, before theaters shut down, I sat in on a “Sing Street” run-through. I had been working on an article — one that seems extremely quaint now — tracking how an off-Broadway show, which needed significant design and dramaturgical work, would leap to Broadway in just two months.

And then, a month later, I sat in on another run-through. On my laptop, in 10 windows, the cast rehearsed the new ballad, “Love and Stars,” and the climactic number, “Go Now,” a song about leaving an old life behind and escaping into a new one. If the housebound performers noticed the paradox, they didn’t let on.

Stage choreography, they found, worked differently. Devlin discovered that even little motions, like touching her face, read big. But the mood was largely buoyant. “I got so into it my hat fell off,” one performer said after stumbling through “Go Now.” O’Connor had described looking into his camera and pretending to see his co-stars as “a real mind melter,” but he seemed to manage all right.

Though Taichman uses technology sparingly in her stage work, she has adjusted to the new reality. “My next show is going to be called, ‘Zoom: A Love Story,’” she joked. She had encouraged the actors to embrace reality, too, leaving their bedrooms and basements undisguised. “The more we were honest about people being in separate spaces, the more it worked,” she said.

The livestream — homespun, though a lot fancier than much Zoom-driven content — works, she thinks. The characters of “Sing Street,” she said, “take these incredibly difficult circumstances and they refuse to bend to them; they rise above and they force their voices to be heard, they find expression in a world that’s really conspiring against expression.” She sees these actors as doing the same.

Broccoli added, “It’s been really moving to see the dedication of these kids, who are dealing with their own individual responses to this crisis.” She still hopes to bring “Sing Street” to Broadway, though she doesn’t know when Broadway will reopen.

In the meantime, this livestream, which isn’t really live, fulfills a lot of functions: as a fundraiser, a teaser, a way to maintain momentum and keep a young cast feeling energized and occupied. O’Connor, who had described rehearsals to me as a bulwark against insanity, characterized the performance as “a brilliant call of not giving up.”

Halper, his co-star, put it like this: “It may be a small thing. But I think a small thing is better than nothing.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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