Fun Home comes to your home, thanks to Victory Gardens Theater
Here’s how the Tony-winning musical will soon be available to stream
Cast members McKinley Carter (from left), Preetish Chakraborty, Stella Rose Hoyt, Leo Gonzalez, and Rob Lindley in Victory Gardens Theater’s 2017 production of Fun Home. Photograph: Liz Lauren
On sale at noon today, $20 will get you a ticket to stream a full-length performance of Fun Home, the Tony Award–winning musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, adapted from the graphic-novel memoir by Alison Bechdel. The recording captures the 2017 production at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, directed by Gary Griffin. And as far as I and anyone I’ve asked can tell, it will mark the first time that the 2014 show—which won five Tonys in all and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama—will be available on video in full.
How did it come to pass that this archival recording of a much-admired musical in a production from two seasons ago would be made publicly accessible?
“I did not realize the work it would take,” Erica Daniels told me in a phone call Thursday afternoon. “And I didn’t have any concept of the expense. I’ll just be really candid, I think I presented it to the board, like, ‘It’s gonna be a couple thousand dollars.’ That is not the case.”
Daniels, Victory Gardens’ executive director, looked to the possibility of streaming a past production when the Covid-19 pandemic led to the shutdown of theaters last month, forcing the cancellation of two VG productions this spring, Dhaba on Devon Avenue and Right to Be Forgotten.
“If we were going to stream some content in this moment, and invest the money and the time in putting it together, Fun Home seemed like the right show,” Daniels says. “It has an international following, and it’s the type of show people do watch over and over—at Victory Gardens, we saw some of these young people come back four times during the run. So my hope was, you know, people would want to see it again, or want to see this production if they had seen a different production and get a new experience.”
It helped that Daniels had a high-quality archival recording of this production. Fun Home was filmed at Victory Gardens by HMS Media, the Des Plaines-based multimedia company that specializes in live performance. HMS regularly shoots Broadway shows as well as Chicago theater and dance, producing TV spots, online clips, and full-length broadcast specials.
“HMS does fantastic work, but they’re a bit beyond my regular budget for video,” Daniels says. “it’s not a normal thing, except they happened to do this show because my videographer that I had on retainer for that year, his wife went into labor. HMS saved the day in that moment.”
And Daniels credits HMS co-founders Scott Silberstein and Matt Hoffman with making the streaming project feasible as well. “They are such heroes that they have gone back in—with no compensation, because they're just so excited it’s happening, and they are such lovers of arts and institutions—Matt and Scott have gone back and re-edited the footage, to best show off the production for people viewing it in their homes. I hope this gets them lots of business, because they’ve gone above and beyond, truly.”
But unlike, say, the Neo-Futurists, who already create all their own material and only had to navigate the technical aspects of taking it online, Daniels had to get buy-in from a number of parties in order to put this archival video up for public viewing: the writers, Tesori and Kron; the publishing house that controls licensing rights for performance; Griffin, the director; the actors and designers whose work and likenesses would be broadcast. And then there were the various unions representing them, including Actors’ Equity Association, United Scenic Artists, and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society—all of which have had to navigate new waters nimbly over the last weeks as theaters across the country look to stream various types of content while live performance is off the table.
“Jeanine had seen the production live here, so I went to her and Lisa first,” Daniels says, “because I had heard that if they might advocate for you it might, at least—the publishing house might pay attention to it more quickly. Jeanine responded within seconds that they would advocate for us.”
The contractors employed on VG’s production were all in as well. “The actors all called back, Gary called back, the union designers—it was all very fast,” Daniels tells me. “And then it was a process of negotiating with the unions. The Equity office in Chicago has been really great in trying to figure out how to get work for their members during this time. We knew they had been working on various streaming contracts as replacements for shows that had been cancelled, which this was, so we got that permission—there are some differences based on the specific ask that you’re making, but they’ve been going through those asks as quickly as possible.”
Daniels locked down the necessary permissions from USA and SDC as well, all within a few days—and then realized she had yet to approach Concord Theatricals, which through its Samuel French imprint licenses the performance rights for Fun Home, and which, much like the theatrical unions, has had to tread some uncharted territory recently in terms of what a “performance” is when it comes to, say, screening a video of a production that took place two-and-a-half years ago.
Those rights took a few weeks to finalize before Victory Gardens was able to announce the streaming “revival.” And like other theaters that have negotiated streaming runs in recent weeks, including Theater Wit, the terms of Fun Home’s return are tied to those of the theater’s Equity contract tier and its house size.
For Victory Gardens, that means a two-week “run” from May 12 to 24, with six performances a week at 259 seats—er, links—available per performance, for a total of 3,108 tickets available to purchase. Unlike some other theaters’ streaming plans, though, you won’t be tied to a set curtain time for viewing; if you purchase a ticket, you’ll receive emailed instructions a few days before the streaming window starts on how to access the Vimeo stream for a one-time viewing whenever works for you—within that window.
The show’s actors will be paid for two weeks’ work, along with contributions to their health insurance and pensions, and VG pays a percentage of the box office to Concord just as it would for a normal production. And there is the possibility that the digital run could be extended, though that all depends on how ticket sales go.
“My hope is we come close to break-even,” Daniels says. “Hopefully people who haven’t experienced a show at Victory Gardens will watch it, and potentially think about coming back live when we can come back, or making a donation for the effort.
“You’re not necessarily making big money, but it’s a way to keep art out there and keep people remembering about Chicago theater and who we are as a community,” she adds. “We haven’t been as vocal yet as, like, the restaurant industry has in this moment. We’re starting to get more vocal, but I think this is a way to get it out there, how important it is that art will survive.”
More to stream
This weekend holds two pieces of appointment viewing for fans of the composer Stephen Sondheim, who recently turned 90.
On Sunday at 7pm Central time, go to Broadway.com’s YouTube channel for Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration. It’s free to tune in, with donations accepted for ASTEP (Artists Striving To End Poverty), and features a truly mind-boggling lineup of talent, I mean look at this:
On Saturday at 7pm Central time, Porchlight Music Theatre kicks off Sondheim @ 90 Roundtable, a virtual discussion series hosted by Porchlight artistic director Michael Weber and guests doing deep-dives on the master’s musicals. First up: West Side Story, featuring Weber in conversation with Gary Griffin (Olivier Award-winning director of Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures as well as the production of Fun Home you read about at the top of this email), Mark Hoebee (producing artistic director of Paper Mill Playhouse) and Diana Martinez (director at McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage). The series will continue every Saturday evening, presumably until we’re out of quarantine or they run out of Sondheim shows, and who knows which will happen first.
Also new on my radar:
Verböten. Photograph: Michael Brosilow
The House Theatre of Chicago is offering a remote-viewing experience of Verböten, its new punk-rock musical by Brett Neveu and Jason Narducy. This show opened in January and was one of my favorite shows of 2020 so far (read my review at the Sun-Times), and had extended its run before being cut short last month. The video capture here was also done by HMS Media, so it should be a solid experience. Streaming tickets are available now through May 4 on a pay-what-you-can basis starting at $15, netting you a one-time-use password good for one week from purchase; a $99 ticket purchase will get you a view of the show plus access to a live-Zoomed “closing party” on Saturday, May 2, hosted by Broadway actor Michael Cerveris in discussion with Narducy and Verböten director Nathan Allen.
The experimentally-minded Theatre Y is taking to video with a series of solo performances, filmed in quarantine by each of the company’s ensemble members, all taken from texts by András Visky, the Hungarian-Romanian playwright with whom Theatre Y has been closely associated since its founding 15 years ago. The first piece is up now, with the second due to be released tonight; more will follow each Friday evening through July 24.