In Praise of Digital Theatre Recordings
With the advances in technology changing every area of our lives, it was only a matter of time before theatre audiences would benefit from the developments, and live theatre would become widely available to people all over the world. Whilst the NT Live program, set up in June 2009, has been at the forefront of these developments, beaming sold-out productions to the far reaches of the globe, this week will see a Broadway first as the Roundabout Theatre Company's multi-Tony nominated revival of She Loves Me is shown in a live stream on Broadway HD on 30 June at 8pm.
Currently running on Broadway at the iconic Studio 54, the production celebrates 50 years of the Roundabout Theatre Company, one of New York's foremost non-profit theatre companies with an exceptional track record for musical revivals. Directed by Scott Ellis who previously directed the RTC's 1994 production, the revival stars Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi and Jane Krakowski, who all received Tony Award nominations for their roles. The 1963 musical features a book by Joe Masteroff with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and was last revived in the West End in 1994 in a production which starred Ruthie Henshall.
Whilst this production received a set of fantastic notices and multiple Tony nominations (winning the award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for David Rockwell's gorgeous set), it was always slated as a limited run, and like all RTC shows are programmed as part of a wider season. The production has boasted strong grosses, particularly since the Tony Awards telecast, and now audiences all over the world are able to watch it from the comfort of their own homes.
Live streams of Broadway productions are certainly rare, but this unique event could hopefully open up access and thirst for Producers who want to tap into a wider international market. The Lincoln Center have a history of filming and distributing their work via PBS, including their Tony Award revival of South Pacific, and more recently Act One, but this event still feels unique for a Broadway house, particularly as the show is still running.
When Broadway HD launched last year, many were sceptical at the need for such a service, which pitches itself as a Netflix type platform where subscribers have access to their online streaming service. For She Loves Me, users are asked to reserve a live-stream pass at $9.99, or alternatively purchase an annual subscription. It was then later announced that the live-stream would be available to watch on demand for seven days after the event, and will be included in the Broadway HD library and 'rentable' for non-annual subscribers for $7.99.
Broadway HD currently boasts a number of titles such as the London revival of Gypsy, which was aired on BBC TV over the 2015 Christmas period, and popular musicals such as Billy Elliot, which have also been released on commercial DVD. She Loves Me marks an exclusive change in the market, and has made theatre-goers sit up and take listen to the service that otherwise felt like a good idea, but not one that would fully work in practice.
In the UK a similar service has been available for theatre fans for a number of years, Digital Theatre, which “works in partnership with Britain's leading theatre companies to capture live performance authentically onscreen”. Their diverse library contains a mixture of new writing, revivals and Shakespeare, many of which will no doubt be vital teaching tools for teachers who want to bring live theatre to the classrooms, with many titles aimed at those that regularly feature on exam syllabuses. If only more producers would open up to the idea of filming live productions, their database could grow and become a vital source for theatre academics and fans around the world, with productions preserved to be admired for years to come.
Producer Ken Davenport last year also staged an off-Broadway first as he presented a live-stream of his production of musical Daddy Long Legs, which was available for audiences around the world to enjoy for free. The first attempt of its kind, it drew audiences from over 135 different countries including Brazil, Senegal, Denmark and Bulgaria, expanding beyond the venue's intimate 149 seater house to become a truly global event. Inspired by his own wedding, Davenport wished the event would be the “first of many”, saying that “The digital distribution of theatrical content is one of the biggest audience development tools that we're not using in the industry.”
The UK lags far behind in digital preservation of theatre, and it's something that threatens not only theatre researchers, academics and educators, but those looking to theatre as a sign of socio-cultural development. The V&A archives attempts to collect a range of theatre productions in their National Video Archive of Performance, which is available primarily for research purposes. The collection currently houses around 15 musical productions, ranging from the Almeida's American Psycho to recordings of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Billy Elliot, and whilst it attempts to give a smattering of material that represents musical theatre history, it is obviously nowhere near complete.
By contrast, the New York Public Library's National Video Archive of Performance houses the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, which has “preserved live theatrical productions and documented the creative contributions of distinguished artists and legendary figures of the theatre”. It currently houses over 4000 recordings of productions spanning Broadway, off-Broadway and beyond that are all available for individuals with research interests. Scanning their recent acquisitions shows that recent productions including Lazarus, Allegiance, King Charles III, Something Rotten!, Bright Star have all been added, in what is becoming a comprehensive record of the Broadway season for generations to come.
It was announced last week that the world's current most popular musical Hamilton would be recorded complete with the full original cast, not only for the theatre archives, but for release in various different capacities in the future. Producers would perhaps be unwise to release a full recording of the show whilst it's still the hottest ticket in town, and it's surely going to be a number of years until the recording is commercially released, but fans of the show can celebrate the fact that is has been recorded professionally, with the aim for it to be enjoyed in the future.
Whilst technology has also helped the industry, it has also presented numerous challenges, mostly by the way of bootleg audio and visual recordings. We're all just one Google search away from finding a shaky and grainy video of our favourite Elphaba or similar, and it's this risk that has unsettled producers and made them suspicious of recording devices. Take a look outside the Palace Theatre before a performance of Harry Potter and see the lines of people undergoing bag searches. I'd hazard a guess to say that these militant efforts are as much about trying to restrict video equipment getting into the auditorium as much as it is about safety – and the show's high profile nature is basically a challenge for those who enjoy recording and trading in illegally recorded materials.
There will always be those who argue that theatre is ephemeral, and recording adds another layer of direction to be interpreted, but I for one can only salute the efforts of Broadway HD and Digital Theatre. As much as theatre is to be enjoyed and appreciated in the moment, having a high quality digital record available for years to come is a vital and necessary part of theatre development. I for one can't wait to see Laura Benanti sing of the wonders of “Vanilla Ice Cream” in full high definition and be reminded of that incredible production. Sign me up!
The live stream of Roundabout Theatre Company's She Loves Me takes place on 30 June 2016 at 8pm.