The blockbusterification of Broadway
If you stream a play, is it really a play?
You'll soon be able to watch Bruce Springsteen perform his one-man Broadway show from the comfort of your living room, for the price of a subscription to Netflix, the streaming service announced recently. And rumor has it, Hamilton might be next.
This is a shame. While widespread access to Hamilton and Springsteen on Broadway is undoubtedly a good thing for anyone who can't afford to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to see those shows, it's also a potentially perilous development for the theater.
Despite a legacy stretching back to antiquity, the theater is not assured to be a popular art form in the future. With movies, TV, music, video games, and so on all fighting for attention, how do you keep audiences interested in make believe on stage?
The Guardian's theater critic Lyn Gardner has argued that screening plays — through Britain's National Theater Live program, in her case — encourages theatergoing by expanding access to the best the stage has to offer. She has likened the hysteria around it to conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who fretted in the early 20th century that radio would stop anyone from coming to concert halls.
Yet in practice, there are consequences when Broadway beams into Main Street. As Gardner admits, small regional playhouses in England are already deferring to screening larger productions from London. One touring company told Gardner: "We still have lots of amateur shows, and one-man shows like speakers, but theater/dance/classical music have all gone now and been replaced with the live screenings from National Theater, Royal Opera House, etc."
There's also the related question of cannibalization. If audiences can just stream something online, why would they spend the extra money and effort to see it live? For an example you don't need to look further than Hamilton. Its sellers don't want a tape of a 2016 original cast performance to "play in theaters, or stream, until 2020 or 2021 ... giving the show at least two more years during which it can only be seen on stage," The Wall Street Journal reports. Perhaps the biggest hits will continue to draw crowds, but eventually this will sap ticket sales and hurt the industry.
But the most concerning problem of all is that streaming a play is simply no substitute for the experience of seeing it in person. After all, no actor, however magnetic on screen, can replicate the experience and tension of a live performance. And, of course, most Americans don't live in New York; if they're going to see live acting, it will be at a local playhouse or arts center.
Regional theater often gets a bad rap — to be fair, plenty of the productions are hokey, more B-movie than blockbuster. Still, there is something about the shoestring charm of a local production that is mesmerizing, the magic of how it all falls together when the lights go down and you don't notice the smudge of foundation, the over-exaggerated lipstick, the cat-ears-being-used-as-wolf-ears, until the curtain call.
Even in larger metropolitan areas, there is always the chance that you'll end up at a production of Footloose and realize that the minister is played by, uh, the guy who scans your groceries at Safeway? And he can sing? And while regional theater season always has its Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfs and Thoroughly Modern Millies, you could also find yourself as one of the first audiences to see a show like Angels in America or Beauty and the Beast, before it makes it big.
Importantly, it is at these local playhouses that so many Americans fall in love with theater in the first place. The first musical I can remember going to was an early-2000s production of Fiddler on the Roof on a school field trip. It was put on by a beloved semi-professional local theater that taught children's acting classes in the summer, and our entire school of 80 students filled up a good portion of the seats. Even as a child I knew the notes were off key, that Tevye was wearing a fake beard and what suspiciously looked like a recycled Peter Pan costume. But that wasn't the point — the point was I was hearing "If I Were a Rich Man" for the first time. All the specifics melted away.
When it comes to digitizing Broadway performances, there is still an adherence to that sacred experience of sitting in one place, looking head-on at a stage, and absorbing what happens before you. A person familiar with the Hamilton recording being shopped to studios relayed to the Journal that the footage, made over two nights, is an "exact replica of the Broadway production, including an intermission," which makes the prospect of it actually being published in such a raw, unedited form on a platform like Netflix bizarrely — and I think kind of beautifully — avant-garde. Can you hear the coughs and shuffles of the audience? Will you also reach for your phone, or get a snack, during the intermission, as if you were there? At the end, do you hear the applause of a ghost audience offscreen when the actors take their bows?
This brings me to my last fear. If live audiences shrink and screenings of plays somehow become cash cows for playhouses, then they'll start to produce with an eye towards the screen. That filmed performance of Hamilton was likely not directed with the consideration that it might end up in living rooms. Yet a recent production of Hamlet starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which was shown in 87 percent of the theaters in the U.K., was. While the show received middling reviews during its run, "it works wonderfully filmed for cinema screens," one critic wrote.
Eventually, inevitably, these productions stop simply being recordings and start existing as movies. It leads you to wonder: At what point will the biggest shows on Broadway be because of Netflix, and not the other way around?
Netflix has already killed the video store. Now it is time to ask ourselves if the theater will be next.