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BWW Interview: Daniel Thomas of 'MOONBEAMS' SUBSCRIPTION SERIES at 42nd Street Moon Delivers the Joy of Musical Theatre Right to Your Own Home

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42nd Street Moon's Executive Director discusses the delightful new virtual series which begins September 28th

BWW Interview: Daniel Thomas of 'MOONBEAMS' SUBSCRIPTION SERIES  at 42nd Street Moon Delivers the Joy of Musical Theatre Right to Your Own Home
Daniel Thomas, Executive Director of 42nd Street Moon

42nd Street Moon, San Francisco's venerable theatre company dedicated to celebrating and preserving the art of the American musical, is about to launch a paid virtual subscription series called MoonBeams. Consisting of five very different and highly entertaining shows, the series will run from September 28th to November 26th, 2020. Highlights include Michael Patrick Gaffney's funny and touching The Oldest Living Cater Waiter, Moon's popular Broadway Flipped evening where favorite Moon performers get the chance to sing songs from roles they would otherwise never get the chance to play, and a final show to kick off the holiday season, Home (literally) for the Holidays. Subscriptions, single stream tickets and additional information are available at www.42ndstmoon.org/moonbeams.

I recently caught up with Daniel Thomas, who shares Executive Director duties at Moon with Daren A.C. Carollo, to learn a more about the series and check in on how he and Moon are weathering the myriad, concurrent challenges that just seem to keep piling on in 2020. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What's been the most challenging part of the past several months for you personally?

Like for a lot of people, it's adapting to a new way of operating. My wife and I are both fortunate that we've been able to work at home and continue doing our jobs, but our son has started kindergarten and is doing that online. He's missing out on the social aspect, but he's getting the learning. He's adapted very well, but it also requires one of us being in there monitoring, so we're juggling and we trade off. We keep commenting that it's funny - we're working from home, we're not producing shows, and yet it feels like we're working more hours than ever. It's been a challenge, but we're very fortunate that it's worked for our family relatively smoothly.

Once it became clear that in-person performances would not be an option for the foreseeable future, how did 42nd Street Moon go about programming its first-ever virtual subscription series?

We've been doing a lot of free virtual events over the last five months, and so we were able to get our feet wet with learning the technology, developing an audience for that [online content], and finding what kind of programming worked. As it became clear that we needed to do something more, that was also revenue-generating, we started to look at what was out there and we were actually fortunate in that two of the pieces came to us pretty easily. Oldest Living Cater Waiter [was something] Michael Patrick Gaffney did in our theater last summer and we had already done a nice multi-camera, really high-quality archival video of that. He said "If you want to use that, please do. I'd love to put it out there and help you guys out." That was a no-brainer because it is such a great piece and he's so well known and loved by our audiences. And it's already done! [laughs]

And then Richard Glazier, who is leading off our series [with From Broadway to Hollywood] is an amazing pianist and great story teller, and he's got all of these anecdotes and memorabilia and film clips from the golden age of Broadway and Hollywood musicals. He approached us and said, "Hey, I just put together this event for a group in Southern California and I'd love to do something similar in the Bay Area. I know your audiences are a pretty good fit for what I do. Would you guys be interested?" He has a full studio set up in his home, and he's got a grand piano. We brought in some of our performers to do some songs with him, but he basically self-produced it, with our input. Again it was like a gift, in that it was pretty much done as far as we were concerned and something that our audiences would really take a shine to.

The other three were built out of what we had been doing in our Friday night cabaret series. As people were performing live on Friday nights, that was fine, but of course on Zoom you have your pros and cons. A lot of people started producing videos for their songs because they couldn't be there on a Friday night or just felt more comfortable doing it that way. We had some really well-done pieces, with costumes and lighting and bits of story lines, not just standing there and singing songs. So we said, "How can we package this and produce something at this level more consistently?"

The first one, Broadway Flipped, is a cabaret event that we'd already done for two years with great success, and people had a lot of fun with it. We were planning to do it this fall anyway so that was a pretty easy pivot. Home (Literally) for the Holidays is an old-school variety show. All generations seem to like that kind of evening of music and warmth and joy. We've always wanted to do one, but haven't had the chance because we're in the middle of production and we've got a lot of other things on our plate.

And then there's A Distant Dinner Party with Jess and Jaron. We had a couple of our actors approach us and say, "We have this concept for a show. We want to do a dinner party, but we can only do it during Zoom. The theme of it is, 'I miss people. How can we still connect as family and friends while remaining socially distanced?'" So they're hosting a virtual dinner party and the doorbell rings, and this person comes onto the screen and they do a scene and work into a song. It's got a fun kind of vaudeville feel to it in the way that people are coming in and out, doing their bits and interacting with each other.

So I feel like we've got five pretty distinct performances, and not just five cabaret evenings.

You often provide music direction for Moon. Are you doing that for any of these shows?

Yes, I will, for the holiday show and Broadway Flipped.

How does the music all come together when you're working in a distanced fashion? I've spoken with several performers who say things like, "I don't know how it all works. I just record my part, send it in and somebody works some magic."

What it involves is making sure that the musicians create the accompaniments just as if they were doing it onstage. I'm doing some of it and we also have some other musicians involved as well, but it's like "OK, here's a recording to work with, to practice, and then send me back what you've got." It's kind of a back and forth, and then once that's done, we get it to the singer and they work with it and then I do some online coaching with them. Some of our singers have the technology and facility to record their vocal on their own and get it to us for working into the video part of it. Some of them we will need to go work with directly, following all the health protocols. I'd say about half of it is in line with what a vocal or a musical director would traditionally do, just different logistically, and then the other half is a lot more technology-oriented than we might normally do.

It's kind of fun because it's a lot closer to film and TV in how it works. You have a lot more control over the finished product, but at the same time you do miss the interaction with the audience, that live element. So there's a trade-off. And some of our performers, and people in general, have some Zoom fatigue. A lot of the reason why some of the actors were doing videos and stuff live-ish is just that "I'm tired of staring at a screen. I'm tired of singing and giving this giant performance for this little 14" screen on my desk and not knowing what the reaction is on the other side." For stage actors, that's totally understandable.

For me, one of the chief pleasures of going to see a show at Moon has always been the intimacy of the performance - the Gateway is a small theater, the voices are largely unmiked, etc. How do you hope to recreate a similar sense of intimacy with a virtual presentation?

We've tried to focus on the personalities of the performers, especially in the ones that have more of a script. We're playing very much to their strengths and making sure they're selecting the material that's gonna work for them. From the standpoint of the video part of it, I think the challenge is to make sure we're striking that balance in utilizing the camera technology so it doesn't feel like it's a full-on music video kind of production, but we also don't want it to be just a talking head or a singing head on screen for three minutes each time. So that I think is a challenge, to find that balance between the intimacy and the direct contact that our audiences enjoy at the Gateway, but without it becoming too much of the same sort of thing. Some of the actors have requested that we film them onstage down there just so it gives them more of a [feeling of performing live]. So we'll have some people doing it from their homes, some people will have a "location shot" that ties in with their song, and some of 'em will be doing it in the theater. We'll have a good variety.

As a performer, I can't imagine sitting in say, my tiny kitchen room and belting out a song, you know?

Uh-huh. I love that Keith Pinto and Alison Ewing in one of our first Friday nights were like, "We don't want to just sit here and sing." So they started doing choreography, not just with themselves, but with the camera. They'd do something and then you'd see the camera start to move and one of them had reached over and grabbed the camera to shift it over while they were singing. They had it all mapped out and I thought it was so clever how they just jumped in, in week one, and were like "Yep, let's just embrace it. Let's figure out how to make this fun."

As part of the Tuesday Talks Over the Moon series, you and Daren have led some online discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Any particular insights that you've gained from those discussions?

Everybody has so much to learn. The phrase that's come up several times is "You don't what you don't know." Obviously, we've always strived to work towards diversity and equity - in our programming and casting, and who's working behind the table and who's working in our office. About a year ago, we started to meet informally to have conversations about that. And then with George Floyd and all of the things that happened more recently, it really highlighted the need for us to formalize that structure. So we have a 22-person council that's meeting every other week to look at each aspect of the organization and where Moon was, where we are, and where we hope to be, and map out a plan for that.

As a white male, I know that I have been the beneficiary of a flawed system, and I don't want my son to operate in that same system. Everybody out there trying to make a better life for themselves or pursue their passion, I don't want them to work in that system, either. I want to do everything I can to build a new system and be an ally towards that. And it's fascinating to continue to learn and to listen. We're on step 3 of a thousand-mile journey, but we have to keep moving forward.

Looking ahead to 2021, what does Moon have planned?

Our last announced plan was to start up again in February. This was a couple months ago that we made that decision and we were very clear that we are not cancelling anything that we have announced. Obviously, we will reschedule [if necessary], but we are not cancelling any of our shows. Our current plan is that we'll be doing A Little Night Music, Scottsboro Boys, A Grand Night for Singing, and The Pajama Game, and that all would run from February to June of 2021. Other shows we had [previously] announced, including Merrily We Roll Along, Mame and Wonderful Town, will slot into the following season, as we can get that rolling. So - that's our plan. But of course we have contingency plan A and contingency plan B, [etc.] If it looks like it won't be February, say it's going to be May, we now have the bones in place that we can pick up and shift, if we feel like that's what needs to happen.

Obviously, the health and safety of our artists and our audiences is going to be the determining factor, and what the City & State and Actors' Equity tell us what we should or shouldn't do. But again, I think the important thing is we will do all the shows we announced sometime, somehow. And if it does turn out that it's not February and it's pushed out further, we're hoping the experience we gain from doing the Moonbeams series this fall will allow us to continue to explore and develop [our plan].

I had really been looking forward to the 2 major initiatives Moon had announced for the year - the Sondheim Sweep and Back-to-Back. Will those still happen at some point?

Yes. We originally said we'd finish the Sondheim Sweep in 2030 and maybe it'll be 2032, but we're gonna get there. We've also talked about, especially with the Sondheim project, could some of the ones that we weren't [originally] looking at a full production of, maybe doing a concert or a reading, could those translate virtually? Something that we don't have the permission to do yet, but would be a fascinating thing to explore [virtually] is Evening Primrose, the television piece he wrote from the 60's. Why couldn't we just produce that virtually? It's already written to be on camera.

Between the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, the ongoing fight for racial justice, and the fires, we've all been through a lot this year. Where are you personally finding hope?

To bring it back to my son, the younger people seem to respond with more resilience and optimism. It's like, "OK, we're gonna put our heads down and move forward. We're gonna take this time to improve on the things that need improving and we're gonna come out of this feeling better." It can get real easy for people to feel defeated and overwhelmed because these things just seem to keep on piling up on top of each other. But then - especially like when we have our DEI meetings or we have production meetings for the virtual shows, we see people demonstrating real excitement about the opportunities.

Our board has often said, "When we're shut down, when things can feel bleak and we're in an existential crisis, we need to look at this as an opportunity for growth and forward movement." If we can focus on those opportunities and capitalize on them, when the fog does lift, when Brigadoon reappears [laughs], we'll all be better and stronger and able to create art that's better for everyone.


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From This Author Jim Munson