Porchlight Music Theatre was all set to hold its 25th-anniversary gala at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on March 23.
The performers had been hired, and stage and screen star Joel Grey, recipient of the Porchlight's 2020 ICON Award for his major impact on American musical theater, had agreed to fly in for the festivities, the first time that had happened in the 20-year history of the award, which had only been given to a living artist (Hal Prince) once before.
Tickets were selling for $350-$500 with table sponsorships at $5,000-$10,000. Then the coronavirus pandemic shut down everything.
Faced with the necessity of pivoting quickly, Porchlight decided to treat the obstacle as an opportunity. Instead of a one-night gala at a hotel, the theater is having a three-night virtual celebration Aug. 21-23. Instead of costing $350-$500 per person, “PorchlightPalooza” (as it's being called) is free to anyone who wants to watch, though it is a fundraiser, so there will be breaks to solicit donations.
“We decided to expand to three nights because it allowed us to tell viewers more about Porchlight and to offer a lot more entertainment,” said Michael Weber, the theater's artistic director. “It's different from when people are at a sit-down affair and want to get on with their evening.”
The first thing the theater did after switching to online was to contact Grey to find out if he was still willing to participate.
“We promised to figure out a way for him to do it virtually, and he immediately agreed,” Weber said. “We also reached out to some of his celebrity friends to see if they'd like to contribute, and congratulatory videos poured in from Chita Rivera, Kristin Chenoweth, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Raul Esparza, and others. That's another reason we decided to spread the event over the weekend in 'smaller bites.'”
Other than that, the format is in many ways similar to what it would have been for the live event. The centerpiece, on Sunday evening, remains an interview with Grey about his career, conducted by Bill Kurtis who, with his wife Donna LaPietra, co-chairs the gala committee with Rick and Deann Bayless. The conversation is via Zoom and has been prerecorded, but people have sent in videos of questions that Grey answers as he would if the session were live.
“We prerecorded this and everything else because we wanted to make sure there weren't any technical foul-ups, as there often are with virtual technology,” Weber said. “But, except for a few clips, the entertainment is being recorded live at our theater with social distancing. We're deliberately creating new material no one has ever seen before.”
Sunday's entertainment focuses on Grey and the presentation of the ICON Award with stellar singers such as Bethany Thomas and Cory Goodrich, as well as dancers Erica Evans, Joey Stone, and more.
Bill Kurtis Productions has made a video about Grey that is being shown. Other videos and photos punctuate the interview, too.
“It's jam-packed with content but we tried to keep it—and the other programs--to 60 minutes or less.” Weber said. “We don't want to wear out people's attention spans.”
Saturday, Aug. 22, showcases Porchlight's commitment to emerging artists -- many of whom have gone on to Broadway, film, and TV -- and nurturing young audiences. It includes the presentation of the Luminary Award to Elaine Cohen and Arlen D. Rubin. The spotlight is on the New Faces Sing Broadway series, with performances by hosts of those shows, most of whom are familiar to Court Theatre audiences: E Faye Butler, James Earl Jones II, Heidi Kettenring, Matt Crowle, Gene Weygandt.
PorchlightPalooza kicks off Aug. 21 with a tribute to Porchlight's 25 years of making musical theater presented by the four co-chairs. Weber has reassembled the casts from past hits, who perform medleys from those shows that were taped live at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, the company's home since 2017. The shows are “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Pal Joey,” “Sophisticated Ladies,” “Ragtime,” and “In The Heights.”
There's a raffle featuring four prizes: a private tour of the Bayless' garden with drinks and snacks, a private tour of the 65-acre grounds of Kurtis and LaPietra's home in Mattawa with lunch and wine, a Caribbean vacation for two, and a Chicago staycation.
If you're wondering how the two couples got involved with Porchlight, Weber said they started out a fans who attended the musicals, so it was only natural to “reach out” to them.
The Aug. 21-23 programs with be broadcast at 7 pm on Porchlight's Facebook page, YouTube Live, and event page. They will remain online after the initial dates. For more information, go to www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.