It’s been almost a year since the lights went out on Broadway. It goes without saying that New York City’s arts and culture sector has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic — but this past fall, we glimpsed a welcomed glimmer of the Theatre District’s greatness when Ace Hotel New York hosted a socially distanced dinner series called Broadway @ Breslin.
The weekly, sold out evenings involved diners in a make-shift courtyard watching the best in musical theater perform from an open window above. Emceed by yours truly, the shows featured star-class talent like Tony-nominee Max von Essen (Broadway’s An American in Paris and Evita), belter Alysha Umphress (Broadway’s On The Town, American Idiot and On A Clear Day… with Harry Connick, Jr.) and more.
When I’m not moonlighting as an outdoor dinner theater host, you can find me weekly on New York’s Spectrum News NY1 — where I host the station’s entertainment/theater-based news magazine program, ON STAGE. It was truly a pleasure to get to call up some of my most talented pals and invite them to be a part of this inaugural performance experience. I recently re-connected with Max and Alysha to reflect on participating in Broadway @ Breslin at Ace Hotel, and to talk about how they’re staying creative and optimistic during this extended intermission.
FRANK DiLELLA: Theaters have been dark in New York City for almost a year now — as a New York based performer, how do you even process that?
ALYSHA UMPHRESS: I think every week, month, day is different. There are sometimes where I’m just kind of like, this is what it is and, you know, I’ve had a lot to keep me busy during the pandemic. But sometimes — this week for instance – I get a bit frustrated. It’s frustrating when you see Australia and you see parts of Asia with shows and tours that are up and running as if nothing happened, and we’re just still flailing.
FD: Aside from performing at the Ace, how else have you been staying creative during this time?
MAX VON ESSEN: It’s a little tough for me to kind of get a fire under my butt and do my own things. But I have managed. I did my own solo show at Birdland with no audience, just me and Billy Stritch. I’ve done Cameos for people to raise money for The Actors Fund. I took part in a digital, streaming version of the musical Meet Me in St. Louis” for [The New York based not-for-profit theater] The Irish Rep that we all filmed alone in our homes.
AU: Since June, I’ve been lucky to be performing pretty steadily. I did a couple of musicals that we filmed and produced on Zoom; also Zoom benefits and concert work.
And in the moment you don’t know what’s going to happen. The sounds of the city, people just stopping along the sidewalk.
I was never a part of a theatrical experience quite like that.Max von Essen
FD: What was it like getting to perform for a New York City audience for the first time in a long time when you did Broadway @ Breslin?
MVE: It was definitely a highlight of this very strange and difficult time. I would put it in probably the top five memories of this whole pandemic, just because it was so unique. And to have a live audience for the first time in so long — I will never forget it. It was amazing.
AU: It didn’t really hit me until I was leaning out the window at Ace that I was like “WOW! I haven’t performed in New York City since January of 2020.” It all sort of hit me like a ton of bricks. It was really special. It was so much cooler than I had anticipated.
FD: Let’s talk about the set-up: you were both singing to a crowd from a window above, to respect the rules of social distancing.
MVE: Aside from it being unique, the takeaway was just how much I miss the connection with an audience. Like, there’s nothing that replicates that feeling, that relationship between a live audience and you. And in the moment you don’t know what’s going to happen. The sounds of the city, people just stopping along the sidewalk. I was never a part of a theatrical experience quite like that. It was so unique and so exciting. And it’s the kind of thing that I want more of.
FD: Talk about the process of performing for diners.
AU: Well, you go upstairs to one of the hotel rooms, it’s on the second floor of Ace Hotel and it overlooks the street, which is where they have all the tables. And I was hooked to a rope — just in case. I think if I ever did it again, I probably wouldn’t need the rope, but it was good just for safety. The rope was anchored to a coat rack that was in the wall. They had sound set up in the room. I had my piano player, Trevor, who was just to the left of me playing — and then the room next door is the green room. So for all intents and purposes, it worked!
FD: Max – was it emotional singing from the window?
MVE: There were a couple of times where I really got lost in the music. There is one song that I sing a lot — I do a kind of more romantic version of the song “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” from Evita. And I was just sitting on the ledge of a window, looking up at the sky and the city lights and the stars. It had been raining and then suddenly the whole sky cleared up and there was no more rain and it was just so surreal. And at that moment, with my mom there in the audience — who I have not gotten a chance to perform for in a very long time — it did move me.
FD: What’s been the most challenging thing you’ve experienced as an artist during the shutdown?
MVE: I’m such a born and bred New Yorker and I love my city. I live right in the theater district. I see the theaters closed. I see the businesses closing because they rely on Broadway and tourists. For me, as an artist, seeing people around me suffer and seeing my city suffer, you know… it’s hard to see that day in and day out.
AU: I think on a personal level, artists take in so much from people around us and connections with other people. And I think not having that has been really frustrating. We’ve been so isolated, and I think that’s why singing at Broadway @ Breslin was so special.
It didn’t really hit me until I was leaning out the window . . . I haven’t performed in New York City since January of 2020. It all sort of hit me like a ton of bricks. It was really special.– Alysha Umphress
FD: Dr. Fauci recently went on the record saying Broadway may be able to come back in the fall. what’s the one thing you’re looking forward to the most once Broadway is back up and running?
MVE: Just thinking of that first note of the overture, or the first lyric or the first entrance of a performer. I mean — the thrill that I’m going to feel — I’m going to be emotional. I know I’m going to be crying. I mean I’m crying just thinking about it because it’s that important to us.
AU: That first moment when we’re in the theater and the orchestra starts playing, when the lights go to half and just… I can’t imagine what the reaction and the applause and just the energy will be like in the theater! I mean, I’m just counting down the seconds. Whether it’s a straight play or a musical — I’ll see anything. Honestly, I can’t wait.
Like Alysha and Max, I cannot wait to be back in a theater. I keep thinking about what I’m looking forward to the most – is it the orchestra warming up? Or the house lights going to half? My answer changes daily. All I know is that I am going to be a blubbering mess once it actually happens. Broadway is my passion – I moved to the city nearly 20 years ago for the theater, and I’ve dedicated my life to covering the incredible artists who make up the city’s theater community.
Broadway is the beating heart of NYC, and I’m eager to see it alive and thriving again. Until then, I’m grateful for small things — like songs from the second story window.
Ace Hotel | September 22, 2023
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