“Lady Day” Plays Final Performance

Extensions Upon Extensions, and Wins for Audra McDonald

microphoneOn October 5, 2014, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill played it final performance at the Circle in the Square Theatre. It began performances on March 25, 2014, with its official opening night on April 13, 2014. Originally intending to play for only a limited 10-week engagement, the show continually extended until it ending up running for 193 performances in all. The play with music starred Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday, and was essentially a bio-play in which McDonald recounted the highs and the lows of Billie Holiday’s life and career. The play received two 2014 Tony Award nominations, winning them both – McDonald took home the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play, and Steve Canyon Kennedy won for Best Sound Design of a Play. This event actually let Audra McDonald make Tony Award history, as she became the first woman to win the awards for all four acting categories: Best Lead Actress in a Musical, Best Lead Actress in a Play, Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, and Best Supporting Actress in a Play. Furthermore, McDonald now holds the most Tony Award wins for any actor in the competitive categories.

Breaking the House Box Office Record

In the week ending September 21, 2014, the show grossed $696,922 for the eight performances, which broke the Circle in the Square Theatre’s box office record for weekly gross. That means it brought in more ticket sales than any production in the theatre’s history in one week. The show recouped its capitalization of $2.6 million in early August, so these continually high sales helped the producers to reap in a significant profit. In the show’s final week ending October 5, 2014, that record got broken for a second time, as fans flocked to catch the show in its last performances. That week, the show grossed $762,599, which represented 105.49% of its gross potential. That was also the first week that the show broke 100% gross potential. Before the Tony Awards, the show was bringing in around 60 to 75 percent of its gross potential, but as the awards season began gearing up, those numbers rose to the 80 percent range. However it wasn’t until the last weeks of the run that the show began to hit record-breaking figures. Nevertheless, recoupment was certain for this show by the end of summer, as its modest budget or $2.6 million allowed for quickly entering profit-making territory.

Creative Team and Storyline

The show was directed by Lonny Price, who was behind such shows as 110 in the Shade, Master Harold and the Boys, and Urban Cowboy.Actress singer Audra McDonald red carpet event black dress It was written by Lanie Robertson, for whom this is the first Broadway credit. In addition to Tony Award winning sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, the show had lighting design by Robert Wierzel, costume design by ESosa, scenic design by James Noone, and music arrangements and orchestrations by Tim Weil. The story is set in 1959 as Billie Holiday sings one of her final public appearances at the Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Audra McDonald performs alongside pianist Shelton Becton playing Holiday’s accompanist Jimmy Powers, along with a dog named Roxie who plays Holiday’s dog Pepi. She sings some of Holiday’s beloved tunes including “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Baby Doll,” “Foolin’ Myself,” “God Bless the Child,” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” Overall, she goes into the sadder elements of Holiday’s life, while doing justice to her magnificent voice.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” Opens on Broadway

The Circle in the Square Theatre is one of Broadway’s more intimate venues, allowing the audience to get up close and personal with the performer in front of them.  In the case of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which opened on April 13, 2014, the star is five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, and the personal story is that of the timeless and beloved jazz singer Billie Holiday.  According to the largely positive critical response, this play with music is an engaging and compelling piece, in which McDonald guides her crowd through the journey of Holiday’s life – both musical and personal.  The play is written by Lanie Robertson, directed by Lonny Price, and the music was arranged and orchestrated by Tim Weil.

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The play was first produced at New York’s Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in 1986, and this is its Broadway premiere.  This bio-show recounts the songs that made Billie Holiday famous, as well as the tales that made her notorious.  Specifically, she was an alcoholic and heroin addict, who only found balance and solace through the deep bounty of her singing voice.  The fictional set-up is meant to recreate one of Holiday’s final performances, at a small, intimate bar in Philadelphia.  Fortunately, the Circle in the Square Theatre is able to recreate this venue better than many other Broadway houses might.  Still, The New York Times critiqued the show for its lack of believability, for Holiday often performed in a dark room with a spotlight so she could not see her own audience, and she would have never divulged such a personal tale as McDonald does in this portrayal.

This show follows in the tradition of biographical shows based off the lives of now deceased performers, delving into their tragedy as well as their timeless beauty.  For instance, End of the Rainbow, also a bio-play with music, ran on Broadway in the spring of 2012, with Tracie Bennett portraying Judy Garland with all her force and folly, including her timeless hits such as “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”  Furthermore, the spring of 2013 saw Nathan Lane playing the 1930s burlesque performer Chauncey in The Nance, exploring the ups and the downs of his life.  Time and again, producers rely on the familiarity of historical figures recreated by modern-day performers, banking on the double name recognition to move tickets.

Lady Day and Emerson’s Bar and Grill is just hanging on at the box office.  As it is only playing seven performances a week in a theatre with only 682 seats, the show already faces difficulty in competing with the other shows in terms of weekly grosses.  Even so, its weekly figures have been fairly low.  In the week ending April 13, 2014, the show grossed $366,156, which was only 58.73% of its gross potential.  This is about how well the show has been doing since it began previews.  It is scheduled to close on August 10, 2014.