Keeping audiences engaged has been one of the big challenges of the last few months and while there are tentative steps towards reopening, the restrictions of social distancing in particular weigh heavy on an industry that has been one of the hardest hit by the 2020 pandemic. Musical theatre has arguably been the most inventive in recent weeks staging revivals and new work with the promise of more to come. Now the Theatre Café in London is playing its part in the bid to keep musical theatre alive with the launch of its Theatre Channel.
With 10 episodes planned for release between October and April, the Theatre Channel will stage a series of musical numbers in each edition, filmed as stand-alone music videos featuring a variety of well-known and up-and-coming artists. Speaking at the launch event at the Theatre Café, producer Adam Blanshay promised the series would broaden its West End focus with plenty of surprises including themed episodes, a special festive edition, stars from Broadway, Bollywood and the international musical theatre community, with hopes to include a chapter entirely devoted to new writing.
Filmed on location at the Theatre Café in St Martin’s Lane, choreographer Bill Deamer and Conductor-Composer Michael England take creative control of the episodes using every aspect of the space to stage the numbers which are pre-recorded in a downstairs studio and then filmed across a single day. “If we’re going to do this,” Deamer states, “we’re going to do this properly… [to] show what musical theatre people can do.” With the viability of the industry called into question, each episode will cost £12 to stream as many times as the viewer wishes and while free streaming was a boon during lockdown, “we can’t devalue what we do” England insists.
And the results are there on screen with a preview of Episode One demonstrating the care and ingenuity that has gone into staging seven separate performances in each edition that pay tribute to their original show in design and arrangement, but also stand alone. It was important, England continues, that the contributors sang something they had never tried before (even in cabaret) and while rights agreements occasionally forced a change of direction, The Theatre Channel is already offering some unexpected performances.
Jodie Steele sings Heaven on their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar – a song usually performed by a male actor in the role of Judas. While the spectacular concert revival at Regent’s Park has influenced the inclusion of this number and Ricardo Alfonso’s Judas is hard to match, it is interesting to hear a strong female voice perform this song as Steele struts around a rooftop gantry in black leather.
Other highlights include Carrie Hope Fletcher and Oliver Ormson in Suddenly Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors, Tarinn Callender with a Top of the Pops-style On Broadway and a superbly acidic Ladies Who Lunch from Jenna Russell, inspired by the recent version of Company. Further performers in Episode One include Matt Henry and Lucie Jones, as well as the introduction of the Cafe 4 – Alyn Hawke, Emily Langham, Sadie-Jean Shirley and Alex Woodward – early career performers with experience in Follies, Hairspray and City of Angels, who will appear in each episode. They open this one with a choreographed version of Coffee in a Cardboard Cup before popping-up in several performances with the other artists to add depth and power to the vocal.
As the industry finds new ways to reach its audience, this series, designed specifically to be streamed at home, will employ around 100 people all of whom will be paid for their involvement, and hopes to reach a global audience. The Theatre Café is a place for community and solidarity; the launch of the Theatre Channel is proof that musical theatre is adapting quickly and is already back to doing what it does best – providing a ray of hope in difficult times.
Episode One of Theatre Channel is £12 and available to purchase from www.thetheatrecafe.co.uk/channe