With live performances upended, stars are innovating alternatives

Peter Marks

THE WASHINGTON POST – Like so many of us, Josh Groban discovered that his voice sounds particularly excellent in the shower. Setting aside the fact that his baritone also reverberates in heavenly fashion in garages, living rooms, backyards, Broadway theatres and Yankee Stadium, he decided that throughout the pandemic, he would regale his fans with “shower songs” – numbers he put on YouTube direct from his bathroom in Los Angeles.

Sending out his music in so private-yet-public a manner – songs such as You’ll Never Walk Alone, Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World – illuminated for him freshly the communicative demands on an entertainer working under surreal restrictions. “It has all the pressure of knowing people are watching without the instant gratification,” he wryly observed, during a recent interview via Zoom. “It’s an odd thing to know how good I am, talking to nothing.”

At a time of enforced isolation, singers used to the feedback of an audience are compelled to improvise mightily, live-streaming from empty halls, recording from sanitised studios or soundproofed basements, their songs performed in one town and perhaps mastered by engineers half a country away. These efforts may have no greater resonance than during the holiday season, when families traditionally gather but are now urged to remain apart. And entertainers scramble for digital ways to bring them together.

“We’re all trying to connect,” Groban said. “And as listeners, they are trying to connect, too. I thought if there ever was a time to do a full festive season concert, now is the time.”

The result is the first holiday concert the 39-year-old Groban has ever assembled – delivered not from the shower but an actual studio. “It’s lean and mean, and we play our faces off,” he said of the event premiering on December 19, via JoshGroban.com/Livestream. It is the final piece of a three-part concert series he launched in October with an evening of Broadway songs and continued in November with a show built around his latest album, Harmony. Viewers pay a package price of USD65 and can watch all three events anytime.

Josh Groban’s first holiday concert premieres online on December 19. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Seizing a thoroughly atypical moment to console audiences with reminders of normality is on the minds of many singers these days. Some, like Groban, were on tour when COVID-19 shut down live performance, from community theatre all the way to Lincoln Center; others were in the midst of the traditional recording process for their latest record releases. All say they have had to shuffle and adjust and improvise to make the music they live for – and on.

“If you had told me on October 1, ‘You’re going to make a festive season album this year,’ I would have said you were crazy,” averred Liz Callaway, the actress and singer, of the 10-song holiday album, Comfort and Joy, that she recorded in the space of three weeks this fall in the home of her Westchester County, New York, neighbour, guitarist/producer Peter Calo, and released early this month.

Ordinarily, she said in a phone interview, a seasonal offering of this type would have been completed over the summer. But nothing about making art during a global pandemic is ordinary.

She casually mentioned to her husband, Dan Foster, that she had the thought to make an intimate album that was “like a cozy fire”; he urged her to press on. Even the way in which she selected the songs was charming: She went on social media to ask for recommended numbers. She received more than 1,000 replies.

“They were hungry to give their suggestions – and they were hungry for music,” she said, adding that some of the crowdsourced choices made it onto the finished product. “This album became this miraculous experience. It ended up being an incredible gift to myself.”

The COVID-19 crisis played particular havoc with the performative plans of Norm Lewis, the in-demand actor-singer whose Broadway experience spans The Little Mermaid, The Phantom of the Opera and Porgy and Bess, as well as the role of Harold Hill in the Kennedy Center’s 2019 concert revival of The Music Man. Last month, his live Kennedy Center Opera House concert, with a small audience onstage, had to be cancelled after a member of his creative team tested positive for the coronavirus.

“It was a chance to be in front of people, so I was very, very disappointed for that reason, but understandably you’ve got to be safe,” Lewis said. He’s going ahead with a streaming version of his annual holiday concert, directed by Richard Jay-Alexander and performed at the New York cabaret Feinstein’s/54 Below. It will be viewable live tomorrow and available on demand through New Year’s Eve.

A role in a revival of 42nd Street in Chicago, and a live concert at Carnegie Hall, were among the gigs that the virus scuttled for Lewis, who shifted to delivering online benefit performances and master singing classes. The substitutions keep him somewhat busy – “I’ve been cooking more than ever,” he noted. But there’s a hole in his life where acting or singing in front of living, breathing customers used to be. “To be onstage and have that live reaction from the audience…” he said, wistfully.

John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony Award playing Frankie Valli in the mega Broadway hit Jersey Boys and re-created the role in director Clint Eastwood’s 2014 movie version, has capitalised on that experience in a career as a concert singer. But the prospect, as he put it in an interview, of “doing something from my kitchen” did not appeal to him. So he waited for a relaxing of shutdown limitations to stream a series of concerts from a studio in Las Vegas, two blocks off the Strip.

The success of those events led to a plan for a live stream on New Year’s Eve in Feinstein’s at Vitello’s in Los Angeles, where Young lives. California has just gone back to stay-at-home orders, so the performance safety protocols are in a bit of flux, but Young said he’s still aiming for a production at 8pm Eastern time on December 31. Injecting a performance with a festive exuberance does not, for him, require a live audience. “I have played to cameras before,” he said, pointing to the experience singing in the Jersey Boys movie, which, like the musical, tells the story of the 1960s group the Four Seasons.

“Clint Eastwood doesn’t fill a stage with extras; he CGI’s them in later,” Young explained, referring to the computer-generated imagery used in movies. “The difference between performing for the stage and the camera: Onstage, you play to the back row. On camera, you play the front row.

“Digital viewing gives you that front-row seat, although when I sat in the onstage seating for Groban’s performance in the 2016 Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Groban stopped and delivered one of his songs inches from where I was sitting. There is something joyfully effortless in the impression Groban conveys when he sings – not at all, of course, the way he perceives his exertions. I dive into these songs with all my heart,” he said, but added that his favourite part of performing is when he gets to meet and talk to fans.”

Then again, the response to his “shower songs” series demonstrated for him the way the meaning of volume on social media differs from that in a room filled with huzzahs. “I didn’t know what to expect from them, to not hear applause,” he said of the YouTube videos. “But the delayed reaction from 85 countries… and then it lives forever.”

“The Internet,” he concluded, “giveth and taketh away.”