On Tuesday, January 18, PBS’s Great Performances will pull back the curtain on the New York theater community’s attempt to welcome back audiences to the Great White Way after the longest industry-wide shut down in history. In the documentary Reopening: The Broadway Revival, an A-list cast of theater favorites — including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Kristin Chenoweth, Sara Bareilles, Andrew Rannells, Aaron Tveit, Lea Salonga, and Adrienne Warren — provides exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the reopenings of a handful of shows, including Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, Aladdin, Come From Away, and TINA – The Tina Turner Musical. Three-time Emmy-winning entertainment journalist from Spectrum News NY1 Frank DiLella is an executive producer on the film and also serves as host. In the documentary, DiLella connects with actor Michael James Scott, who stars as the outrageous and always fabulous blue genie in Disney’s Aladdin. DiLella recently checked in with Scott in honor of the film’s debut to reminisce about being part of this historic moment.
We got to follow you around during some major moments as you were helping to reopen Broadway. What was the most memorable moment for you?
There are two moments that stand out to me. One: the moment when you all were in the theatre with me when I saw The Lion King when Broadway officially reopened. You were there, and that was an electrifying and thrilling time. And the second moment was when my family flew in to see me in Aladdin and the show had to temporarily close down [because of breakthrough COVID cases in the company].
More on those moments in a bit, but I want to go back to the beginning. We see in the documentary that you and your Aladdin company basically went through the process of putting up a new musical once the show got the green light to reopen.
Obviously I’ve put up shows before and have been through rehearsal processes before. But I’ve never done it where an entire company was coming back from essentially a year-and-a-half break. So to come back in that way was mind-blowing. And also the uncertainty of everything was the biggest difference.
Adrienne Warren, who won the Tony for creating the role of Tina in The Tina Turner Musical, talks in the documentary about how she had trouble remembering her role once she stepped back into the rehearsal room. Adrienne played Tina for years and had multiple versions of the role in her head, from workshops to her performance in London to Broadway. Did you experience the same thing?
It was kind of the same for me. I’ve been blessed to have played the Genie all around the world. And for each of those productions, certain things are different from the West End to Australia to L.A. to Broadway. And we were doing a slightly new version when we came back. So your mind does play tricks on you, trying to remember little things because there were so many versions. And I had to depend on the work I did in the past to get myself prepared with the show for the reopening.
September 14 was a big day for the Broadway community: Wicked, Hamilton, Chicago, and The Lion King all returned to The Great White Way. As you mentioned, we followed you as you attended the Lion King reopening with some theater friends. What was it like being in the audience on that night?
That back-to-Broadway night was so magical. And I was so honored to have been there at TheLion King. I feel like I took for granted — pre-pandemic — being able to go to a Broadway show. And for a year and a half, we couldn’t do that. So that night for me was the most monumental time. I was sitting with one of my best friends and I felt like we were back in time and I was witnessing my first Broadway show.
What were the days like leading up to your big reopening night?
Those days were pretty epic in terms of physically and mentally trying to stay on it. And physically, there were challenging things to make sure my body was back in shape to play the Genie eight times a week. We came back to an eight-show-a-week schedule. So I had to make sure I was mentally and physically prepared to take on the role I was hired to play.
In the documentary, you share with us that your family has never seen you play the Genie in Aladdin.
It makes me emotional thinking about this. My family has sacrificed so much for me to do what I love to do. I’m a “hashtag theater nerd” for life. So the idea of them getting to be there for me with this role — being a man of color in this business — and them seeing their young son of color getting to be able to be at the forefront of a company with a giant entity that is Disney on Broadway is literally the American Dream.
You flew your whole family out to NYC to see your show right around your reopening — and then something happened…
I got them all out here, and unfortunately, the show had to close down for a little bit to get things under control. And that’s real life. But I’m telling you, my family was so incredible. We had a barbecue outside on my terrace. I brought so many members of my family together — and we hadn’t seen each other in a while. It was a beautiful weekend of catching up and connecting, and they were so supportive of the situation. And they were lifting me up to make it OK that I couldn’t do the show.
In the documentary, we see you go through this very unfortunate experience, and yet you remain optimistic and you even find comedy in the situation. How do you go there, especially during these uncertain times?
Listen: If you can’t laugh at something within your world, then I think it’s going to be a long road. I grew up with lots of laughter in my home and I find that laughter helps me get through life.
Has your family been back to see you?
Not yet, but I’m going to bring them back in the spring. And we’re going to do an even bigger family reunion. And for some of my family members, it will be the first time they see a Broadway show. I can’t wait.
The good news is, that was just a brief pause for Aladdin: Your show is back up and running and going strong. And most recently you helped start a new social media trend: #BroadwayIsOpen!
Broadway is open! We are doing Aladdin eight times a week. In the last few weeks, it was a tough time for our community because of the surge in COVID cases. Shows had to close down and reopen. But we’ve come a long way in this pandemic, and I’m thankful for the science. But at the end of the day, we want to make sure people know Broadway is open. And so we came up with the hashtag, #BroadwayIsOpen. And so last week we decided to announce this hashtag and surprise our audience at the curtain call with a little performance of “New York, New York” and thank them for being there and supporting live theater. And also asking for their help — to post on social media #BroadwayIsOpen!
Great Performances— Reopening: The Broadway Revivalpremieres Tuesday, January 18, at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/gperf, and the PBS Video app as part of #PBSForTheArts. The film will also encore on Friday, January 21, at 10 p.m. on PBS.
The film is directed by Cody Williams; Stu Weiss, Frank DiLella, and Williams are executive producers; Dudley Beene is co-executive producer. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell is series producer and David Horn is executive producer.
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