When COVID-19 shutdowns hit Macon, the “Broadway” of Middle Georgia pivoted to provide musical theater experiences to its audience online.

The Grand Opera House recorded a virtual tour of its historic site to share on social media and created a cabaret-style performance series called “Bite-Sized Broadway.”

“In this format, local artists would sing one or two songs for an audience and explain what they do normally in the community,” said Julia Rubens, who is Mercer University’s director of arts marketing. “I like this format because I think it’s hard to stay tuned for a whole hour-long live concert on social media. It’s easier to digest in bites.”

The Grand reached out to local community theater and drama programs and sent out an open call through social media and email. Rubens said scheduling the performances has been difficult, as social distancing guidelines changed rapidly during the onset of COVID-19. Some performers were recorded in person, while others were recorded virtually.

“The goal of our series is to reach Broadway lovers — to give them a taste of the theater when they can’t visit the stage and also to show a different side of Maconites who you may see every day,” Rubens said. “Your English teacher might also be able to belt through Elphaba in ‘Wicked.’ The neighbor kid next door might be training for Broadway summer intensives.”

Macon resident and Mercer alumnus McKinley Starks is the accompanist for the Bite-Sized Broadway series, which started rolling out the recorded performances on April 5. On piano, he accompanied the in-person recordings and recorded his own performances as part of this series. 

Starks majored in voice at the Townsend School of Music. In addition to his involvement with Bite-Sized Broadway, he also gives his own solo virtual concerts on Facebook Live on Saturdays. The experience of performing to a virtual audience has been strange, he said.

“It is really difficult,” Starks said. “It’s just you in the living room by yourself. … It’s nice that we can do it and reach out to people who are not able to go out and do anything, but it’s hard for the performer.”

But he said recording his accompaniments and own performances, which include songs from the musicals “Company,” “Wicked” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” at The Grand Opera House was an amazing experience. He previously performed at the historic venue when he was in Mercer’s production of “Oklahoma!” in 2016. 

“Looking out and seeing all the lights and the gilded architecture. … It’s just gorgeous,” Starks said. “It’s fun to be back up there.”

Rubens said The Grand Opera House has been a favorite gathering place for Maconites for over a century. Located downtown, The Grand is traditionally the only Macon venue that hosts Broadway tours.

“Generations have grown up and blossomed on our stage. Events that bring our city together and that we rely on, like the Nutcracker of Middle Georgia or Macon Civic Club, enjoy a special relationship with our historic hall,” she said. “During the pandemic, we’ve continued to be that comforting presence that can be relied on.”

Starks said the performance series hopefully will bring entertainment and connection to Middle Georgia.

“People are going to see people from the community that they know,” he said. “It’s gonna give a little source of normalcy.”

Rubens said any vocalists, karaoke lovers or show tunes fanatics interested in performing can email her at rubens_ja@mercer.edu for more information. Bite-Sized Broadway videos can be viewed on The Grand Opera House’s Facebook page.

 

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