As Broadway and local stages remained closed over the past year of the pandemic, it was television that kept the spirit of theater alive. Watching a taped version of a stage performance doesn’t replace the excitement and personal connection that comes with seeing works in person — but some of this year’s top variety special (pre-recorded) contenders are pretty outstanding substitutes.
The film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” was never going to be an Oscar contender, due to Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rules that recorded stage productions are not eligible for consideration. When Disney decided to drop a planned theatrical release for “Hamilton” and instead premiere it on Disney Plus over Independence Day weekend last year — in a move to both bolster the streaming service’s content offerings and also take advantage of audiences stuck at home during quarantine — it opened the door for Emmy consideration.
Per Emmy rules, “Hamilton” can’t compete as a TV movie, as programs adapted from a medium other than TV are eligible for the variety special categories. The main actors in “Hamilton” can compete in the limited series/TV movie categories, however, which is why Miranda (as Alexander Hamilton) and Leslie Odom Jr. (as Aaron Burr) are contenders.
But “Hamilton” is just one of the stage events aiming for Emmy attention this year. Amazon Prime Video’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” is a timely, stirring show starring and created by Heidi Schreck. In the play, Schreck recounts the essays she wrote in high school about the power of the Constitution, and the scholarships she won based on those uplifting takes. But, as she learned as an adult, the Constitution wasn’t created to protect all Americans. At a time when reproductive rights and access to the ballot for millions of citizens are once again under assault, it’s an important watch.
For us nostalgia-minded Gen Xers, there’s the HBO concert film “David Byrne’s American Utopia” — a rousing, gleeful reimagining of some of Byrne and the Talking Heads’ biggest hits, stripped down and performed on stage by a merry band of performers. It was definitely a joyous distraction when it premiered last fall during the closing days of the 2020 election. And then there are the auspices: Besides coming from Byrne, the film was directed by Spike Lee.
And speaking of superstar helmers, Frank Oz did a masterful job turning Derek DelGaudio’s indescribable “In & Of Itself” into a must-see TV event that had everyone talking when it debuted on Hulu back in January.
Oz tells me it was DelGaudio, whose autobiographical search for self-discovery is at the heart of “In & Of Itself,” who pushed to film the show. But turning a stage play that relies so much on illusion, sleight of hand and personal connection into a film was not easy.
“The process really is like a blind man with a cane trying to walk down the street with all these obstacles,” he says. “It was going down a dark alley, thinking that’s a good idea, hitting a brick wall, then going back going down another dark alley, hitting a brick wall and seeing some light. Derek and I both did not want to do a recording of the show that was really just a historical piece. We had to make it come alive a different way. So, although there are tricks, we just went bit by bit, honest impulse to honest impulse.”
This year, when it comes to the variety special (pre-recorded) competition, the play’s the thing.