04/16/2014 01:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" Breaks Broadway Barrier and Breathes New Life Into Cautionary Tale

Director, Lonny Price, Shares Creative Process Behind Immersive Theatrical Experience About the Life of Billie Holiday

Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

If you stopped a theater director or producer on the street right now and asked them where to find innovation in theater today, they wouldn't direct you to Broadway. No, they'd point you downtown, with recommendations for Off-Broadway shows, now often in higher demand than the big belles of the Great White Way.

That match was lit in 2011 by "Sleep No More," the experiential alternative to Shakespeare's Macbeth, which quickly set ablaze a new immersive theater trend that doesn't just play to the audience, but makes them players among it.

Several shows have helped establish this trend, with rave reviews from critics and fans alike, including "Queen of the Night," and "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812." Also, a major player on the list here is "Here Lies Love," the fantastic musical biography of the life of Imelda Marcos, by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, now back at The Public Theater due to popular demand.

Popular demand is critical here, as theater otherwise struggles to remain relevant. It's especially true among younger audiences, seeking something different than their parents. What exactly, is still to be determined, but will probably be done so by design - as their tastes and wallets become more refined. Note that tickets to any of the shows mentioned in this piece cost $100 or more, with "Queen of the Night" offering tickets upwards of $350 (with dinner).

Forging ahead, the immersive theater trend finally made its Broadway debut this past Sunday, with the opening of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" at the Circle In The Square Theater. The website describes, "You're invited to spend an evening filled with personal tales of difficult choices, bad breaks, worse men and some of the most glorious songs ever written."

Led by Broadway and Lincoln Center royalty, specifically Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday under the direction of Lonny Price, "Lady Day...*" invites audience members to an intimate evening inside a cabaret, as McDonald brings Ms. Holiday back to life, through story and song, all the while mingling among attendees.

Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

About having to develop this rapport, Price said, "It's very risky to be up there and that close to the audience, and to relate to them." "[Audra's] having to look at people who are frightened by the intimacy -- to be that close, and she's so raw and so emotional -- some people, as in life, don't want to be very close to feeling. She's up there in their face, crying, and laughing, and drinking. It's a very visceral experience."

However, just as the audience both craves and fears the intimacy of the experience of immersive theater, Price pointed out that it is the same for McDonald. "What intrigues Audra the most is something that scares her," noting that she is a "true artist". "I don't use that word lightly. There are great actresses and there are great singers, but Audra's a great American artist, to me in my mind, as Billie Holiday was."

"I'm always astonished at her bravery. When it's about truth, there's nothing she won't do," said Price. "She has no vanity."

Price himself admits to being a fan of immersive theater, but seemed surprised to realize that this production, written by Lanie Robertson, is the first Broadway production in this current trend.

"One could say that Cabaret, the original revival, put tables in there and certainly tried to, I think, as I remember, try to make that a Cabaret space," Price said, although he agreed that the difference is that attendees remain audience members rather than full-time participants in the story.

This trend also enables producers to tell stories in a very different way than ever before. Such as the Russian dinner theater experience of "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," enjoyed as they performed an expanded sliver of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Similarly, audience members become stars of the Marcos' propaganda machine in "Here Lies Love," being filmed and projected on walls around the theater. Getting caught up in the excitement, the production uses that emotion to help the audience understand the political circumstances, eventually showing the similarities to the Filipinos who elected the Marcos' in the first place.

In "Lady Day..." audience members have come to see Billie Holiday perform at a club, with a psychic-like knowledge of her impending death, four months later.

As Price said, "I think Lanie's great success in this is that the story comes out of the behavior. She says very early on in the play, 'I'm not able to sing these songs unless I feel a certain way'. Billie really was that. If she didn't want to sing 'God Bless The Child,' she didn't sing it and they wouldn't pay her. But she sang what she felt. So what the play does is get her to an emotional place by reliving certain moments of her life that prepare her to sing these iconic songs."

Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

This level of insight onto Holiday's life is one often taken for granted, as Charles Isherwood said in his The New York Times review of the play, "The play's conceit is, frankly, artificial and a bit hoary," stating that the show is a forced way of conveying Holiday's life story, who herself was "a victim of severe stage nerves" and that of her trials and tribulations, "we hear much (too much) of this sorry story during the show."

However, this reflects a major challenge for Price and Robertson, as it's often assumed that the facts of Holiday's life are well known, however, that may no longer be true. "It's amazing that her story has not translated for some reason to a lot of people under the age of 50, which I was surprised at," said Price, which is a key to the success of immersive shows in providing the right level of source material, be it explaining the life of Billie Holiday, or of Imelda Marcos, and may dictate the response to "Lady Day..." by younger audiences.

"In a way, you could say this is about defending Billie. There are a lot of rumors about who she was and how she behaved... She was a liability at a certain point," said Price. "To me, Audra's on the stand, pleading Billie's case to say, this is who she was." Price admits that some liberties were necessary to tell the story, but, that it all remains truthful to the facts, including that she was "raped at ten, [a] prostitute by probably fourteen or fifteen, and all the things that happened to her, really happened."

However, Price doesn't see "Lady Day..." as just a story about Billie Holiday, "but a story of African Americans and how we treated them at the first half of the last century... It just so happened to be Billie's story but I think it's larger than that," said Price. "It's also about celebrity and how we celebrate people and then as we watch them crash and burn, we don't help them, and then we martyr them"

While immersion is the current trend, it appears that through shows like "Lady Day..." "Queen of The Night," "Sleep No More," and others having a major -- and likely lasting, impact -- it may satisfy demand from younger generations and continue it's spread to more Broadway theaters. On this, Price quipped, "I agree with you. I don't think we are serving that population at all, or [if we are,] very rarely. If the theater's going to have any chance of surviving, at least in this way, we obviously need to lower the demographic. Otherwise we're going to be playing to corpses, who don't pay for their tickets -- which is a problem."

*"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" was first produced Off-Broadway in 1986 but this is its first staging as immersive theater; note, this post refers only to "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" and not "Lady Day" produced Off-Broadway, starring Dee Dee Bridgewater, in 2013.