Keep your eye on the asterisk.
Theatergoers excited by the lavish and creative ads for "Shuffle Along" should look carefully at the small print.
The show, one of the most fiercely anticipated of the season, doesn't even open until April 21. But it is impossible to ignore the buzz-making promotion for what promises to be an innovative adventure -- subtitled "Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed."
The A-list creative team includes director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover and, based on the complete title, this new-old musical will both honor the Eubie Blake/Noble Sissle landmark black musical and put it in context.
But about that asterisk. While the cast looks extraordinary, with top billing for Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry, there is a cautionary little mark after her name on the Telecharge website.
The catch is that McDonald will not perform for three months this summer. In other words, the blazing talent with the record six Tonys will leave the show June 20 -- two weeks after the June 5 Tony telecast -- and not return until Sept. 27.
This is no surprise to careful observers -- I mean really careful observers. In September, a statement came out from her personal representative that "a pre-existing commitment" would take her away until long after the summer tourists are gone.
But nobody -- I mean really, really nobody -- will say what she will be doing. I'm sure her many loving fans wish her nothing but happiness, but hope she won't be taping a pilot that will take her away from the theater forever. The show's press agent and her own publicist tell me that they're sorry but they can't even whisper anything more about what may be an unprecedented, or at least highly unusual, high-profile hiatus from a major project.
Her summer replacement has reportedly not yet been determined. Since McDonald's absence was announced so early, refunds will not be offered.
WHAT ABOUT THEATER ON DEMAND?
Two Broadway producers have begun an on-demand streaming service they hope will become a Netflix or Hulu for theater lovers. Called BroadwayHD, the service launched late last month with a catalog of 120 stage-to-digital plays, musicals and a few documentaries. (A single viewing costs $7.99. Subscriptions are $14.99 a month, $169.99 a year.)
The slogan on the website says, "If you can't get to Broadway, get to BroadwayHD." This is a more than a little disingenuous because most of the present offerings are West End productions taped for the BBC.
I guess "If you can't get to London, get to BroadwayHD" didn't quite sing. Still, the aggregate already has a massive selection of delicious British work -- Daniel Craig in "Copenhagen," Derek Jacobi in "Hamlet," Juliet Stevenson in "A Doll's House" -- to tempt us away from whatever's left of our leisure time.
So far, the Broadway library is slim-to-pathetic. We can see the 2010 Tony-winning "Memphis," David Hasselhoff in the 2001 TV movie of Frank Wildhorn's "Jekyll & Hyde," Carol Burnett in the 1999 Sondheim revue, "Putting It Together," the terrific 1981 Duke Ellington musical, "Sophisticated Ladies" and the disappointing "Romeo & Juliet" that starred Orlando Bloom in 2013.
If producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley succeed in their plans, however, there will be more current Broadway offerings. In negotiation are the rights for HBO's taping of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," the 2014 play-with-music for which Audra McDonald, as Billie Holiday, got her sixth Tony. (Anyone see a theme here?) Also, more than 50 shows from WNET are waiting in the wings while the rights are all cleared.
It's no surprise that Broadway, with its strict union and copyright rules, is more complicated than the London projects. According to Comley, West End productions are "two-thirds less expensive for them to do." Streaming of the cinema tapings of National Theatre shows would be far more complicated but not impossible someday.
Lane, whose own how-to documentary called "Let's Put On a Show!" is already up for streaming, reassures the commercial theater that "we'll never replace live Broadway theater. We don't want to replace it, even if we could."
But he says the potential of national and global streaming is "like television in the early years. It's a new frontier."
INSTAGRAM MEETS BUZZFEED MEETS PINTEREST
Really, that's how Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League, is describing a new family-friendly website called bwayzone.com. According to the press material, this is "a new online resource for families who love Broadway"-- an interactive place for videos, photos, quizzes and other content to share.
Also, The Broadway League has hooked up with the Society of London Theatre to cross-promote theater here and there. They even have a bwayzone email sweepstakes for lucky Londoners to travel to Broadway and a lucky American family to take a theater trip to London: bwayzone.com/sweepstakes and officiallondontheatre.co.uk. Hey, if everyone takes digital videos, maybe they can be streamed on BroadwayHD.
Remember when Broadway tickets used to be sold from a pushcart? No, neither do I.