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Present Laughter
Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus Present Laughter

PBS is now streaming plays from its Great Performances series for free

The revered performing arts series cracks open its vault

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Aren't we lucky to have Thirteen? The PBS channel WNET, one of New York City's most cherished cultural resources, has already provided online access to past broadcasts of its first-rate series Great Performances to its subscribers. But now the station known locally as Thirteen is cracking open its vault to offer free access, through May 27, to five Great Performances versions of major theatrical productions.  

“In these unprecedented times, we hope you and your loved ones are staying safe and healthy," WNET writes on its page. "All of us at Great Performances are dedicated to carrying on our legacy of bringing the best of the performing arts to you.”

You don't have to be a New Yorker to take advantage of this offer, but you do have to live in the United States. Here are the five shows that you can watch for the next two months:

    • Much Ado About Nothing: This delightful 2019 Shakespeare in the Park staging of the Bard's tart-tongued romcom stars Orange Is the New Black's radiant Danielle Brooks and an adorably goofy Grantham Coleman as two too-witty longtime enemies whose friends plot to get them together. Director Kenny Leon's all-black production is powered by strong women of color. (This one is available through June 7.)
    • Present Laughter: Kevin Kline pops bon mots like bonbons as an egotistical actor in this splendid 2017 Broadway revival of Noël Coward's witty 1939 comedy, directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel. Kline deservedly won his third Tony Award for this performance; the marvelous party of a supporting cast includes Cobie Smulders, Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen and Reg Rogers.

    • Harold Prince: The Director’s Life: Few people have had as enormous an impact on Broadway history as the late Hal Prince, who produced or directed shows including West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Sweeney Todd and The Phantom of the Opera. This documentary tribute includes archival footage as well as interviews with Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Angela Lansbury and many more.

    • Red: John Logan’s biographical two-hander about the abstract expressionist painter Marc Rothko won a 2010 Tony Award for Best Play. The writing is a little blocky, with plenty of heavy talk about art and commerce, but Alfred Molina is excellent (as usual) as the raging artist; in this recording of the 2018 West End revival, Alfred Enoch plays Rothko’s bullied young assistant and foil (a role for which Eddie Redmayne won an Olivier and a Tony).

    • The Sound of Music: You know the story: Stern dad falls for governess, kids learn music, Nazis rise, sixteen goes on seventeen. Even if the smash Julie Andrews film version is one of your favorite things, you might enjoy this 2015 live U.K. broadcast of the stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1959 musical, which differs from the movie in several ways. The cast includes Kara Tointon, Julian Ovenden, and British musical-theater stalwart Maria Friedman as the Mother Abbess.

Much Ado About Nothing // Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus

In addition to these theater events, WNET is also offering access—also for free, but only through April 13—to four Great Performance episodes that focus on classical music: Two episodes of Now Hear This (The Riddle of Bach and Vivaldi: Something Completely Different), The Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood, and The Cleveland Orchestra Centennial Celebration. 

These are all in addition to the free programs that the station already offers through its All Arts division, such as King Lear (with James Earl Jones and Raul Julia) and the ballets Romeo and Juliet, Balanchine's Jewels at the Mariinsky Theatre and Alexander Ekman's "A Swan Lake".

And if you enjoy all this free Great Performance programming, here's a useful little little secret: For as little as $5 a month, you can join WNET's Passport program and gain access to the station's much wider library of past Great Performances telecasts, including the superb Broadway play Indecent, the Royal Shakespeare Company's star-packed gala Shakespeare Live! and the musicals 42nd StreetKinky BootsShe Loves MeAn American in Paris, The King and I and Holiday Inn. That's less than you would pay to see some of these same shows on BroadwayHD. And if you have the means to donate more than $5, by all means donate more: Public television is supported, after all, by viewers like you.

RECOMMENDED: Our daily list of the best theater, opera and dance to stream online

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Red // Photograph: Courtesy Johan Persson

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