Though the Public Theater doesn’t have complete records going back to its first year of operation—1954, when Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Workshop; it became the Public in 1967—annual celebrations have been the norm. This year is no different, despite the pandemic that has brought the city that never sleeps to a hyper-alert standstill. “Just because we are hobbled by this medical crisis doesn’t mean we’re allowed to put down our mission,” Oskar Eustis, the Public’s beloved artistic director, tells AIR MAIL. The gala is titled We Are One Public, and it’s not situated in one room but in many. Hosted by Jesse Tyler Ferguson (of Modern Family fame), it takes place on Monday, June 1*, streaming for free at eight P.M. (Eastern Time) to theater lovers the world over.
“This gorgeous celebration will reaffirm that the Public Theater is here to bring people together, make the lonely feel less lonely, comfort the hurt, inspire the tired, and remind us all that the theater is creating and binding the community,” says Eustis. “I won’t say, ‘We will be back,’ because we are here now, working with what we’ve got, making our gala free so that as many people as possible can take pleasure, and hope, from our gathering.”
A key phrase is “what we’ve got,” and it’s thrilling. Antonio Banderas, Glenn Close, Elvis Costello, Claire Danes, Anne Hathaway, John Leguizamo, Audra McDonald, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kelli O’Hara, David Hyde Pierce, Sting, Meryl Streep, and so many more—they’ve all been part of the Public’s family of actors over the decades, and they’re taking part in conversations and performances that nod to Public Theater history. When it comes to groundbreaking, Zeitgeist-defining, award-winning musical theater, the Public is second to none. Here are just five of those shows: Hair (1967), A Chorus Line (1975), Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk (1995), Fun Home (2013), Hamilton (2015). And we’ve yet to mention Shakespeare in the Park!
The gala will take a moment to honor the philanthropists and longtime Public supporters Audrey and Zygi Wilf. The artistic honoree is Sam Waterston, gruff Jack McCoy to so many of us but the melancholy Dane to those who saw him as Hamlet at the Delacorte Theater in 1975. Waterston’s been in 13 Public productions since 1963. Post-show, there’s a livestreaming dance party, free and open to all on YouTube. Bring in ’da noise, bring in ’da fun. —Laura Jacobs
*Note: In light of the national protests the gala has been postponed.