Broadway Live on Netflix and Audible and…

Todrick Hall grew up in the small town of Plainview, Tex., many miles from a legitimate theater. But at age 10, he saw three live performances that changed his life: Cats, Jekyll & Hyde and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor
Dreamcoat. And he’s now convinced they led to his career as a Broadway performer. But they may also have had something to do with his appearance on television as a contestant on “American Idol,” because the “live performances” he saw as a child were not on a stage—they were on his TV screen.
“It was the live aspect that interested me,” Hall recalled. “I thought it was so cool how the scenery would move and nobody was moving it.”

I spoke to Hall in 2011,  when he was a member of the ensemble in the then-current Broadway musical “Memphis,”  which had agreed to what was then considered an experiment.  A camera crew had taped five live performances of the show at Broadway’s Shubert Theater, in order to create a picture-perfect movie version of the show, which was presented on screens in more than 500 movie theaters across the United States,

“I was very supportive of it,” Hall told me then. “Some people in the company were very ‘anti.’ They were of the old-school idea that musicals should remain on the stage.”

Much has happened in the last eight years. Todrick Hall himself has gone from TV watcher, ensemble member and American Idol contestant to “YouTube sensation,” which no doubt helped lift him into starring roles on Broadway in Kinky Boots and Waitress. And taping live Broadway shows for the screen is no longer seen as an experiment. It’s a routine practice, and it’s moved from movie theaters to home computers.

Life is not all that’s gone online in a major way. So has theater.

Thoughts about this remarkable cultural shift were sparked with the news this week of the death of Betty Corwin, at the age of 98. Forty-nine years ago,  Corwin did something truly unprecedented. She created the Theater on Film and Tape Archive, housed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. The idea behind TOFT, as it’s called by those in the know, was to preserve productions for posterity, and for researchers. It took her masterful diplomatic skills to convince all parties involved that the archiving would be of benefit, not harm.

There are now more than 8,000 recordings, including, as her Times appreciation/obituary points out, “every play in August Wilson’s 20th-century cycle, starting with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in 1985; the 1978 New York Shakespeare Festival production of “The Taming of the Shrew,” starring Meryl Streep and Raul Julia; the original Broadway production of “Angels in America,” recorded in 1994; and the 1988 Lincoln Center Theater production of “Waiting for Godot,” starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin.” One can view them on monitors roughly the size of desktop computers.

TOFT remains limited to scholars and researchers  (although the definition encompasses anybody from students to actors) But, as the technology has improved, so has the incentive to monetize the recording of live theater..

Netflix, which began in 1998 as an online DVD rental service, introduced streaming services in 2007, and first produced original online programming (“House of Cards”) in 2013, now offers a steady, well, stream of shows that originated on Broadway.  And the trend on Netflix seems clear.

Look at the Broadway titles currently available on Netflix. Four of them –  Cabaret (1972) The Phantom of the Opera (2004),  Mamma Mia (2008) and Jersey Boys (2014) – are movie adaptations of the original stage musicals. But four others (most of them more recent) were recorded directly from the Broadway stage – “Shrek” (2013), “Oh, Hello” (2017) and both “Springsteen on Broadway” and “Latin History for Morons” (2018.)  And more are on the way – “American Son” is coming to Netflix on November 1. (More Broadway-to-Netflix news: Jason Robert Brown’s 2008 musical “13” will be adapted as a family film by original co-book writer Robert Horn, Tony-winner for Tootsie)

BroadwayHD, which was launched in 2015 as an online subscription service, was the first (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) to live stream a Broadway show. In 2016. It streamed the revival of “She Loves Me” in real time.

It’s unclear whether live-streaming of theater will take off. But recording of live theater for future playback is without question increasing, and taking an odd and potential consequential turn. Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon that is the world’s largest producer and seller of “audiobooks,” has invested in theater in a major way. Yesterday, it announced that it will record “Sea Wall/A Life,” which is running through September 29th on Broadway’s Hudson Theater starring with Jake Gyllenhaal & Tom Sturridge, and turn it into what it calls “an Audible original production.” Audible has taken over the Off-Broadway MinettaLane Theater, and commissions plays (all of them so far solo shows) that are presented on stage, and subsequently sold as audiobooks. It has also created a $5 million “Emerging Playwrights Fund”   to develop original “one- and two-person audio plays driven by language and voice….”

One can argue that the effort to distribute recordings of live theater is nothing new; it goes back to the invention of film and radio. As early as 1900, Sarah Bernhardt’s stage performance as Hamlet was immortalized on film (which was recently projected during the Broadway production of Theresa Rebeck’s play “Bernhardt/Hamlet“) Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway turn in the same role was taped, transferred to film, and shown in some 1,000 movie theaters throughout the nation.

Television has also frequently turned its cameras to the stage: In 1948, a program called “Tonight on Broadway” began broadcasting live 30-minute excerpts directly from Broadway stages, offering TV viewers black-and-white glimpses of such shows as “Mister Roberts” with Henry Fonda and “The Heiress” with Wendy Hiller and Basil Rathbone. This was the precursor to such television series as “American Playhouse” and the long-running “Great Performances,” both on PBS.

But the new turn, represented by Audible’s specification for its commissions, prompts a new question to add to the many that the issue already provokes: Will the streaming of theater change the actual content of what we see and hear not just on recordings, but on the stage?

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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