As the Tony Awards have already recognized, Audra McDonald is stunning in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which re-creates a late-1950s performance by Billie Holiday at a small Philadelphia club. Thursday (Dec. 18) afternoon in the former Café Brasil, an audience of about 50 – some privately invited, some paid actors – got to see McDonald and a three-piece band re-create the show’s Broadway magic for an upcoming HBO special.
Two other tapings this week will be combined for the TV special, to air in 2015.
Prop cocktails were already in place on the small tables in front of the stage when the audience entered. Artificial smoke further set the saloon mood. The Broadway production of the play, originally written for off-Broadway in 1987 by Lanie Roberston, was staged earlier this year at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
HBO and the special’s producers looked at several possibilities for recording the show — which also features Broadway-cast originals Shelton Becton on piano, George Farmer on bass and Clayton Craddock on drums – including a studio soundstage.
No doubt Louisiana tax credits also played a role, but “vibe” was why they chose a small, shuttered Frenchmen Street nightclub.
“We were pitched doing this in studios,” said Allen Newman, executive producer. “We were pitched doing this in New York. And Lonny Price the director and Audra and I and Lanie all agreed we needed to find the right vibe. We needed to find Emerson’s Bar & Grill. And we needed something funky, and we needed something that could be Philadelphia circa 1959. We decided that this was the place.
“This had the right vibe.”
Funky it is. The Café Brasil bar was incorporated into the otherwise built-from-scratch floor-to-ceiling set. Sound-deadening, light-blocking blankets were hung over the exterior walls. The afternoon shooting schedule was picked to bypass some of the entertainment district’s busy street life, but some interaction was unavoidable. (As were the show’s production trucks, parked along Chartres.)
“Circa 1959, there were people,” Newman said. “There were cars. That ambiance can still exist. The things we needed to avoid were trucks going by, Harleys with that huge sound. You don’t want that. The general sounds of the neighborhood were logical for what we’re doing.
“Audra summed it up best. She was on stage with us a few days ago when she had just come into the venue to work. She said that this venue is perfect because this is the kind of environment that Billie would’ve played at the end, a very small club, and this would’ve been the neighborhood that she would’ve enjoyed before and after the show.
“The room has a presence, and it impacts what Audra does, and it impacts how it looks, and it impacts the overall feel.”
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