Just as Thomas Jefferson sang in the musical “Hamilton,” fans of Broadway in Philadelphia may be wondering: “What’d I Miss?”
Here’s a partial list: touring productions of “Les Miserables,” “My Fair Lady,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Pretty Woman,” and a revival of “1776,” as well as concerts by Broadway stars Kristin Chenoweth and Audra McDonald.
These, and more, are all productions that the Kimmel Center had scheduled to come through Philadelphia, but have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Kimmel Center’s stages have been dark since March, generating no income at all for the performing arts campus. Eighty percent of its staff has been furloughed. They don’t know when they will be able to turn the stage lights back on again.
This weekend the Kimmel Center joins 16 other performing arts centers across the country, that are in the same leaky COVID-19 boat, to collectively present a one-time-only, online concert by Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in the original Broadway cast of “Hamilton.”
“This allows people to get back involved, to see Broadway and an amazing performer, and to see what we’re missing,” said Fran Egler, senior director of programming at the Kimmel. “Reminding people what a live performance can be.”
The concert by Jackson — who had also been in the original casts of “In the Heights” and “The Lion King” — will be streamed live from a small off-Broadway theater in New York. It will feature a full band, shot with a multi-camera production.
“Our goal from the beginning was how to do this safely,” said Jackson. “We found ways to be far from one another, to interact. The band is masked up. The stage plot is spread out.”
The concert will feature ways for viewers to be able to remotely interact with Jackson. He will respond to comments. Viewers will have to buy a ticket for the concert, for a donation of $40 or more. Funds raised will be used to help keep afloat the 17 arts centers during the pandemic shutdown.
“Performing arts centers don’t just put on shows,” said Jackson during a Zoom news conference. “They employ a tremendous number of people. They support organizations that work outside the four walls of the center. The children’s lives that become impacted — to give them safe haven and engage them in a craft. For decades it’s been super important.”
Jackson grew up in the small town of Cairo, Illinois, which he described as an “artistic desert.” The nearest cultural center was 2 ½ hours away. He said he did not benefit as a kid from cultural programs like those the Kimmel offers. But since becoming a professional performer he has traveled to arts centers all over the country.
“The work that is being done, the grantwriters, the planners, the educators, the camps that get run, the dance programs, the Shakespeare experiences,” he said. “It’s not hard to see how valuable those centers are. It’s not hard to see the impact they have.”
For his concert on Saturday, Jackson will sing songs from shows he has been in, as well as songs by one of his great influences, Harry Belafonte.
Since the pandemic shutdown, Jackson has been going deep into the Belafonte repertoire, reading and re-reading Belafonte’s 2011 book, “My Song.”
“I’ve read his memoir now one-and-a-half times during this quarantine,” said Jackson. “Really spending a lot of time with his music, really spending a lot of time understanding his activism and understanding why he chose the songs that he chose.”
Belafonte was known not just for singing popular calypso songs and acting in movies, but also for his lifelong activism for civil rights. He was often by the side Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and later was involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
The Saturday evening concert will be live and, to a certain degree, unpredictable. Jackson has not said exactly what he will be singing, nor with whom he will be singing: he has hinted that there will be surprise guests. He will be leaning into the fact that he has not performed in front of an audience in several months.
“I’ve been telling the folks we’re performing with that you don’t have to do anything but feel it,” he said. “Theater is what gives all of us a license to feel what we’re feeling in the moment, and not apologize for it.”
While speaking to reporters, Jackson also reflected on the protests against police brutality and for racial justice that have been going on since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and how the national discussion has changed over the last few months.
“As a Black man, I’m surprised the things that have been talked about for decades have finally seen a different kind of reception. I’m super-inspired by that,” he said. “I’m hopeful and tired and angry and frustrated… and I’m hopeful. This whole range of emotions is going on and normally we have different places to express that. But now it’s in my crib. Now it’s my home.”
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