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Producer Brian Moreland waited well over a year for a Broadway theater to open up for his production of Charles Randolph-Wright’s 2000 dramedy Blue. It didn’t happen. Moreland, a producer on recent Broadway productions The Sound Inside starring Mary-Louise Parker, Sea Wall/A Life starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge, and the shutdown-interrupted American Buffalo with Laurence J. Fishburne, Sam Rockwell and Darren Criss, had gotten off to a promising start with Blue, assembling a cast and a director that represented decades of achievement – African-American achievement – in TV and on the stage: Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad would direct, Tony and Emmy winner Leslie Uggams would make her long-anticipated return to the Broadway stage, and Emmy winner Lynn Whitfield, a veteran actress enjoying new popularity on TV’s How To Get Away With Murder, would co-star.
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John Legend was so intrigued he jumped aboard as a producer. Eventually, Brandon Micheal Hall, of TV’s God Friended Me, would join the cast.
And then, nothing. The wait for a Broadway house dragged on, until finally Moreland, his co-producers Ron Simons, Mike Jackson, Legend and Eric Falkenstein, along with director and cast, made a decision that was as intriguing as it was risky: The production would bypass Broadway and play Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. Moreland’s goal was not only to get his project on stage, but to take Broadway to Harlem – in ways both symbolic and literal: He intended to urge the Broadway community to add the Apollo to the roster of officially recognized Broadway venues, opening productions there to Tony Award eligibility.
The play, with music by Nona Hendryx and lyrics by Randolph-Wright, was set to begin previews on April 27, with an opening night of May 10. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, another story of how the coronavirus shutdown interrupted, at the least, a dream, and one that in this case represented a hope to literally expand the boundaries of Broadway.
Moreland spoke with Deadline recently about Blue, the difficulties in getting to Broadway, the shutdown and the devastating impact COVID-19 is taking on communities of color.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
DEADLINE: Let’s start pre-corona. You were looking for a Broadway home for Blue. How did you land at the Apollo?
BRIAN MORELAND: Blue came into existence because I’d been working on another show, and I realized that being new to the community, I didn’t necessarily want to develop a new show immediately. I wanted to work with people that had things to say that fit the narrative of things I feel passionate about — universal stories about family and love and neighborhood. I was chatting with [playwright] Charles Randolph-Wright [director, Motown the Musical] and he said to me, “You know, I really, really hope that something can happen for me one day on Broadway as a playwright.” And I said, “Well, whatever happened to Blue?”
I’d seen Blue at the Pasadena Playhouse, directed by Sheldon Epps, with Phylicia Rashad in the cast along with Diahann Carroll, and it was absolutely amazing and brought me to tears. I said I would love to revive that show, and he said, OK, you can have it. So I called Phylicia and she said she would be honored to direct it. And it really all came together very, very quickly in terms of lining up Charles and Phylicia, and Leslie said yes immediately and Lynn said yes immediately, and so we went on our theater hunt.
After about a year, the powers that be said, “Wait a little longer,” and we said, “You know what? We can go someplace else.” And the Apollo was born. I was having a wonderful conversation with Phylicia about what was happening and what this process was and what our options were as waited for a Broadway house to become available. We toyed with the idea of going out of town, but the show had already been on the regional circuit and it was really ready for Broadway. It didn’t need development in that regard. And she said, “Well, what about the Apollo?” I thought about it and I said, “OK, let’s do it. Let me give Lynn and Leslie a call and see what they think,” and she said, “I’ve already done that and Lynn and Leslie said ‘Yes.’ ” [Laughs]
And so we set out to do the Apollo.
DEADLINE: Was there any disappointment in it not being a Broadway show?
MORELAND: Well, in the spirit of full transparency, yes, there was disappointment. It was very challenging to think that a show of this calibre, with the history that every single person in this cast has….We had Leslie Uggams and Lynn Whitfield, and Phylicia Rashad directing. We had a Tony Award-winning creative team led by [set designer] David Rockwell and [costume designer] Toni-Leslie James. These are legends. Usually that would trigger a house, but it didn’t for us. It was heartbreaking, and of course you ask yourself, “Why?”
DEADLINE: Often it has to do with finding the right sized venue for a production. Did that enter into it?
MORELAND: I think the best way to respond to that is, No, it didn’t enter into it. There were shows that were booked and unbooked and there were shows that did not have a commitment and there were shows that were not funded. I can’t speculate on why and how because I just get more emotional about it. It’s just heartbreaking that these particular artists weren’t going to be eligible for the same statue that so many of their colleagues are. Not that we do theater for statues, but it is heartbreaking when something is worthy of being a contender for such an acclaimed thing.
DEADLINE: Was race involved? Did anyone tell you that you’d have too limited an audience, which is heard so often?
MORELAND: We do hear that often, and it’s troubling to me. It’s troubling to me that I’m one of six African-American producers for Broadway. It’s troubling to me that when people of color are in a show, it’s automatically assumed that the only people who will want to see them and support them are other people of color. In this case the people of color are African American. Black people. Let’s just be blunt, we’re talking about black people. And it’s a bad generalization simply because this particular show broke box office records in 2001 at the Roundabout Theatre Company, which, if we’re just looking at the color breakdown of the average subscriber, is white. This show has been supported by white people for a very, very, very long time.
DEADLINE: And this show is led by a primarily female cast…
MORELAND: Which is so funny because Leslie Uggams got her start at the age of 9 at the Apollo. I had very intimate, long conversations with Leslie about going to the Apollo and one of the things that was so interesting about this particular move is that her entire career began on that stage and she had two transfers come from that theater. She was lauded in the New York Times as “Uptown Girl Comes Downtown.” So she had seen this trajectory where you have to go back uptown to essentially prove something and then hope to come back downtown to Broadway. And that just doesn’t make sense to me. She’s a Tony Award-winning and an Emmy Award-winning actress. It’s just amazing.
DEADLINE: I get the downside with regard to the Tonys, which is considerable, but the novelty of a Broadway-type show playing the Apollo was bound to get attention.
MORELAND: Yes. It was interesting because a lot of my community members, other producer colleagues, were very much in support of going to the Apollo and said, “Oh my god that’s brilliant, Broadway needs another theater. We need another house. But how can you make that model work? It’s a large house in a primarily black community.” And I’d have to have this conversation and say the Apollo has a diverse audience depending on what’s actually in the theater. It’s for all people. So there was a lot of attention on how it was going to happen. Are you going to sell 1,500 seats? Well, of course not — we’d close the third balcony. Would the Apollo support that? Yes, they’d support that. The Apollo wants to be a part of the Broadway community and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be.
DEADLINE: When did you start hearing about the coronavirus?
MORELAND: In February. We were due to begin rehearsals March 30, and in February we were having our production meetings. When the coronavirus was starting to happen outside of New York I said, “You know there’s a chance that we could be shut down,” and at that time the reaction was, “No, that’s not going to happen.” And I’d say, “If this virus is moving as fast as it is and jumping from country to country to country, we’ll be shut down.”
At the end of February, as we moved into March and the cases were starting to come into New York State, we were thinking, “OK, if they shut us down and we have to postpone, do we have time in everyone’s calendar to do the show?” And immediately everyone said, “Yes.” The cast, the design team, they all said, “Yes.” We went back to the Apollo and they said, “Yes.” When the shutdown happened we were in a good position because the only thing that was really out for us were our costumes, which were being designed, and of course our set.
DEADLINE: What if this shutdown goes into September or October or November? Will you be able to keep everyone together?
MORELAND: The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that I think it depends upon the landscape of what’s happening in the rest of the world. If it happens in September I know that we can move forward with our plan in terms of cast availability, in terms of the design team and the Apollo’s schedule. If it gets later it’s just a question of what’s happening with the rest of the world. But we’re ready. We’re ready to go.
Now the number one question I’m getting is if the landscape changes and a Broadway theater becomes available, will we make the jump? But I’d be more interested in the Tony administration looking at the Apollo Theater and extending the brand versus us just abandoning the community of Harlem that’s been looking so forward to this production.
DEADLINE: Opening up Harlem to the Broadway community is genuinely new, at least to our era. That must compound your disappointment.
MORELAND: I got more and more excited every single day when the people in the community of Harlem were coming forward to offer their support, their service, their business, their contacts, their everything. The shutdown was and is a very crushing thought to me. I tend to be a very two-feet-on-the-ground person, but emotionally this crushes my heart, should this pandemic continue and we are unable to carry on with the plan at the Apollo Theater. I am sad for what could happen to the community of Harlem if some other producer doesn’t come in and bring this art back to Harlem. That theater has been there since 1913.
DEADLINE: The virus is disproportionately hitting black and brown communities very, very hard. What role might that play in opening Blue at the Apollo?
MORELAND: The damage that this virus is wreaking on the African-American community is harsh. It’s always in crisis that you see the flaws in society. I’m concerned that institutions like the Apollo, like the Classical Theatre of Harlem, like the Billie Holiday Theater in Brooklyn, organizations like Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, it they don’t receive funding in times like this, they’ll close. They will close. And for many new African-American playwrights, male and female, those institutions have been homes for their new work. Other playwrights will rebound, but people of color will not rebound in the same way. The opportunities are not the same.
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