Luisa Lyons Examines the History of Filmed Musical Theater

Luisa Lyons is an actress, singer, vocal coach, and theater scholar with a particular interest in the history of recorded musical theater. As a teenager with the Sydney Schools' Singers ensemble she performed during the 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremonies and in many performances at the Sydney Opera House.  She has acted, sung, or coached in Australia, England, and the U.S., and has also written and directed her own devised work, including Last Post, Kaleidoscope - Opening Ceremony for the Oxfam Youth International Partnership and I Dreamed a Dream Cabaret. She is currently at work on a one woman show called First Lady, exploring the lives of women who were firsts in their fields. Because of her extensive background in musical theater, we asked her for a short history of  how musicals have been recorded and digitally distributed throughout the ages, and what it means for the future of filmed theater. 

1. What is the history of recorded theater leading up to now?

The history of filmed live musicals has always involved using recent innovations in technology to reach avid audiences. Filming live musicals for public distribution dates back to the beginning of sound in film. In the 1920's, studios used Broadway and the vaudeville circuit for ready-made and inexpensive content. Led by Warner Bros’ Vitaphone Varieties, the movie studios recorded short reels of stars performing their routines. These shorts were screened prior to silent features, and their popularity helped introduce audiences to theater stars and usher in the age of talking pictures. As talking pictures became more sophisticated, feature length talkies became the norm and the popularity of shorts faded.

After WWII, television sets became widely available. Like the cinema moguls before them, television producers turned to live theatre to fill the screens with ready-made, cheap to produce content. Programs such as Bell Telephone Hour (NBC, 1959-68), Tonight on Broadway (1948-50), and the Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55) featured excerpts from Broadway musicals. The excerpts were often filmed and broadcast live, though usually without the presence of a studio audience. Occasionally shows were filmed in their entirety, including Anything Goes (1954), Peter Pan (1955), Annie Get Your Gun (1957), Wonderful Town (1958), and Kiss Me Kate (1958).

As television studios matured and produced their own made-for-TV content throughout the 1960s, filmed live musicals once again faded in popularity. The one-shot camera angle, poor lighting, and poor recording technology made theatre on television appear boring and old-fashioned in comparison to the made-for-TV content. In the 1970's, television programs such as PBS’ Great Performances, and Live from Lincoln Center provided live theater content on television, however it was rare for musicals to be recorded.

The development of VHS and DVDs in the late 1980's and the 1990's, along with improvements in filming and recording techniques, allowed producers to tap into a niche market that wanted access to filmed live musicals at home. Prior to the development of VHS, only one musical was filmed every few years. After VHS became available, at least one musical a year was filmed and released.

As a direct result of innovations in digital technology over the past ten years, live musical theater became more widely available. Digital technology and robotic cameras have allowed producers to film musicals in a way that is appealing to modern audiences, who are used to dynamic film and television editing such as close-ups, a wider variety of camera angles, and rapid cuts between shots. In the early 2000s, Broadway Worldwide created Direct from Broadway, a pay-per-view program of Broadway productions, including Jekyll and Hyde, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and Sondheim’s Putting it Together. While the shows were initially only available via pay-per-view, they are now available on VHS and DVD.

The internet has provided a substantial platform for filmed live musicals. Youtube and smaller sites like BlueGobo have made filmed live musicals available for free online. Sometimes the legality of these videos is dubious. Many of the shows that had previously only been available on television, VHS, or DVD are now available to stream online through YouTube and sites like PBS Online. Some individual shows have attempted to widen their audience with live streams. The UK-based musical theater development company Perfect Pitch streamed From Up Here in 2011, and the show is now also available to stream on Digital Theatre.

As we saw in 2015, musical theater continues to provide a source of viable content for media outlets. Broadway HD was launched, Daddy Long Legs was the first Off-Broadway musical to stream live online, and the The Wiz Live! was a huge success, proving that there continues to be an audience for filmed live musicals.

My hope is that ongoing technological progress will continue to increase the viability of filmed live musicals.

 

2. How has recording technology impacted people's interest in live theater? Is there hard evidence for its impact on particular shows?

Better technology allows for more sophisticated recordings of live theater, creating a product that is appealing to a wide audience and encourages audiences to seek out more live theater.

During the same period that filmed live musicals were receiving a boost from VHS technology, producers such as Michael Brandman realized the importance of using cinematic techniques in filming live theater. In 1989, Brandman employed cinematic techniques in filming the Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical, Into the Woods, including close ups, different camera angles, and cuts between shots. The quality and popularity of this production is evidenced by sold-out events like the Into the Woods Original Cast Reunion in LA and NYC in 2014 and 2015.

In 2007 Legally Blonde: The Musical, was one of the first live musical productions to air on television whilst still playing on Broadway. MTV was only permitted to telecast the show six times over a six week period, with no further plays available. The producers hoped to generate public interest so that people would book to see the show in person. Two years later, Variety reported that the telecast had helped to boost the show’s ticket sales on tour.

While hard statistics for the impact of filmed live musicals are thin on the ground, evidence for the impact of recording technology in other areas of live performing arts provide solid incentive for musical theater to jump on board.

In 2006 The New York Metropolitan Opera launched The Met: Live in HD. Opera performances are recorded live, and simultaneously broadcast to cinemas around the world, or in delayed broadcasts where time differences are not suitable for simulcast. The broadcast usually includes interviews with cast, creatives, and backstage footage. The Met: Live in HD began in 98 cinemas in North America, and now plays in over 2000 venues across 70 countries around the world. The program is now also available online via a subscription service. The Met: Live in HD has been credited with reviving the company’s dwindling audience numbers, and drawing in the elusive younger market. According to reports in Variety, in-person attendance at the Met increased significantly following the launch of the broadcasts. 

In 2010 NESTA, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, released a report entitled “Beyond Live: Digital Innovation in the Performing Arts.” The report investigated the impact of two live screenings from the National Theatre and found that the screenings had “allowed the National to reach new audiences for theatre” and that cinema audiences had felt more of an emotional engagement with the play than live audiences had. The cinema audiences also reported they were more likely to visit the theater in the future.

In 2011, The Detroit Symphony Orchestra launched DSO Live, consisting of live webcasts of the orchestra’s performances which were made available for free online. Before the launch, in-person attendance at DSO performances was around 50% capacity. After the online content became available, ticket sales jumped to more than 90% capacity. The webcasts are directly credited for this improvement, and have allowed the DSO to expand their audience internationally, particularly in Europe. Like the National Theatre Live screenings, surveys have shown that audiences are more likely to attend a concert in person after viewing the online content, including audience members who had never before attended a concert.

In a heartening development, similar evidence can be found from the recent survey conducted by producer Ken Davenport following the live streaming of Daddy Long Legs. In 2015 Daddy Long Legs became the first off-Broadway musical to stream live online. Davenport reported that the reach of the live stream was equivalent to 2.7 years of sold-out houses in the theatre where the show was playing, the stream was viewed in 135 countries. Close to 100% of viewers said they wanted more streamed live theater content, and 82.2% of those said they were willing to pay for the content.

Based on this information, there is sufficient evidence to warrant further research and development of filming live musicals. Making filmed live content available on a variety of platforms, particularly online, will ensure a healthy future for musical theater. 

Goldstar CEO Jim McCarthy Brings Audiences New Ways to Connect With Broadway

Jim McCarthy is the co-founder and CEO of Goldstar, currently serving over 6,000,000 members as the the largest provider of half-price tickets to live entertainment. He is also the editor and main contributor to SellingOut.com and a curator and co-founder of TEDxBroadway. His latest project "Coffee with Goldstar" is a new chat series that allows audiences to connect with theater in yet another way, by joining Broadway stars in a live, unscripted chat online. His first guest was George Takei, who joined him last week to discuss his new musical Allegiance, and there are more guests to come. Given that Stagecloud is all about making theater affordable and accessible, we talked with McCarthy to learn more about this creative endeavor, and the ways Goldstar is bringing new opportunities to theatergoers everywhere.

STAGECLOUD: Goldstar recently brought Broadway audiences some unique ways to engage with George Takei's new musical Allegiance. Could you first tell our readers a little about the content of the show and why they should be excited about it?

JIM MCCARTHY: Allegiance is a musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. George himself was a small boy when his family were removed from their homes and forced to live in a prison camp during the entire war. Though the story of the show is fictional, the events and situations are drawn from the actual situation, and it’s very powerful and moving. (Here's the link with more info, https://www.goldstar.com/events/new-york-ny/lea-salonga-and-george-takei-in-new-broadway-musical-allegiance-tickets)

S: How did Coffee with Goldstar come to be? And how did Takei first get involved?

JM: We thought Goldstar members would enjoy getting behind the curtain of some of the shows and events that they see on Goldstar, and so we came up with a way to make that happen. George has been a friend of Goldstar’s for a few years, including when he gave his talk at TEDxBroadway in 2013 in which he talked about his dream of bringing Allegiance to Broadway. Now that’s not just a dream anymore, and we’ve been selling and promoting the show on Goldstar for the last few months, and our goal was to create another way for our members to find out about it and get interested in going.

S: What are your goals for this new level of interaction between audiences and artists?

JM: We hope this will help make it even easier for people to find out about and go to shows. The more people know about a great show, the more they’ll seek it out. We have to break out of the four walls of the venue and reach people where they are. That’s how we’ll keep growing the live entertainment business and making sure people don’t miss out on all the great things that are out there for them to do.

S:What are your plans for the future of Coffee with Goldstar?

JM: We hope to expand it, do it more often, for more and different kinds of shows. It may even go beyond interviews to some snippets of performances or musical numbers. Who knows? People love the interaction and sense of getting an inside look at the event. I have really high hopes for what’s possible here.

S: Lastly, since both our companies are interested in making theater more accessible to a wider audience, what are your opinions on digital theater streaming? And are there any other untapped ways you think technology could bring theater to more people? 

JM: I’m a big fan of breaking out of the four walls. Imagine, for example, if professional basketball’s business was limited to live competitions, tickets to live games. It would be a different and not as robust business. This isn’t a mystery anymore. These models exist, whether it’s NT Live or the Met or, as I said, professional sports. You don’t lose anything by making the product more widely available or giving people more than one way to participate. You gain, and you do that by growing your audience by orders of magnitude.


For more information on Jim McCarthy and Goldstar, and to receive discounted tickets to theater, sports, concerts, comedy, and other live events across the country, audiences can follow the link here. And stay tuned for the next Coffee with Goldstar when a new Broadway guest joins the conversation!

Ken Davenport on Producing for Broadway and the Future of Theater Streaming

Ken Davenport is a Broadway producer whose credits include Spring Awakening, The Visit, It’s Only a Play, Kinky Boots (Tony Award Winner), The Bridges of Madison County, Macbeth, Godspell, Chinglish, Oleanna starring Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles, Speed-the-Plow, Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America, Blithe Spirit starring Angela Lansbury (Broadway, West End and tour), and 13, as well as Altar Boyz, My First Time, The Awesome 80s Prom, Daddy Long Legs, and That Bachelorette Show Off-Broadway. He also runs several theatrical websites, including YourBroadwayGenius.com and DidHeLikeIt.com, and is one of the founders of TEDxBroadway. Combined, Ken’s productions have grossed more than $100 million worldwide and are being produced internationally in over 25 countries. He and Arti Ishak, Stagecloud’s Communications Director, recently discussed his unique upcoming productions, how he chooses what to produce, and how he views the future of digital streaming.

Arti Ishak: What got you into producing theater for a living?

Ken Davenport: Well, I started out as an actor, like so many people that jump to the other side of the business. And when I was in college at the Tisch School of the Arts, I was asked to be a production assistant on the My Fair Lady revival with Richard Chamberlain, and I just said yes. I had no idea what that would mean, frankly, what a production assistant actually did, and came to find out it means getting lunch and walking dogs in blizzards and doing all that kind of fun stuff. And I loved every second of it, and found a much greater affinity for what happens behinds the scenes of a Broadway show than what happens on the stage. So I started to pursue a career learning the business of Broadway and spent about 10 years as a company manager or general manager for shows, learning how they all worked and how they were put together, all the while developing and creating shows of my own until I started producing my own about 10 years ago.

AI: And how do you decide which shows to produce? What catches your eye when scripts come across your table?

KD: You have to…this is a very, very risky business, so producers for the most part produce what they love, something that really affects them or moves them. You have to love what you do because it requires so much work and so much effort and so much time. And, frankly, so rarely does it “pay off” that you better love what you do and are working on every single day, otherwise it would be a very miserable life. So I pick things that affect me and move me and that I would want to see. For example, I’m producing Spring Awakening on Broadway right now. I saw a production of it in Los Angeles, and it just spoke to me and touched me and moved me. And I thought, well, if I’m this affected by it, then a lot of other people will be as well, and I’m going to produce it.

AI: And can you talk to us a little bit more about your other projects that are opening this fall?

KD: So I have two big shows opening this fall. Spring Awakening, which is the Deaf West production and features a cast of hearing and non-hearing actors on stage, is very unique. It’s told through song and dance, but also through American Sign Language. It’s quite an extraordinary production, quite an event, and we open on Sunday [9/27]. And I have a two person musical called Daddy Long Legs based on the classic novel, which also inspired a movie with Fred Astaire, which is written by Paul Gordon and John Caird— who was famously the director of the original Les Mis.

AI: How did you come across this production? What made you decide to produce it?

KD: The production was started by Deaf West, and they’ve had two other productions that have gotten some significant acclaim and attracted people like me. One was Big River. That was done on Broadway several years ago at the Roundabout Theater. And then there was a production of Pippin, so I knew about their work and what they did. But when I saw Spring Awakening they just did it in a way that had never been done before, so I knew it would appeal to a wider audience.

AI: You mention on your website that your mission statement is to “Do shit other people don’t.” Can you talk about that a little bit?

KD: I’m a big believer in what stands out in this business from the crowd. Things that are unbelievably unique, different. So we try to do things that are very unique and different, because that’s the best way to get peoples’ attention, whether that’s an ad or a show. Spring Awakening is the perfect example of that. It’s very unique to see a show told through song and dance and text and American Sign Language. The uniqueness of [the show] makes people talk, but also it has an effect on the world. If you read the tweets about Spring Awakening right now, you’ll find a whole bunch which are “I’m inspired to learn American Sign Language” or “I”ve never been around so many people who are deaf before and communicated with them before.” It’s a whole different world, and it’s teaching a lot of people a lot of things which I think are very important.

AI: So that’s an amazing opportunity for a lot of performers who might not have otherwise had a chance to exist in a musical setting.

KD: Right, and it goes beyond that. We have a girl who is in a wheelchair in the production, and we just found out she is the first woman in a wheelchair to appear on Broadway. It’s never happened before.

AI: Here in Chicago, we have seen quite a rising trend of Pay-What-You-Can theater.  What are your thoughts on that type of structure for a sustainable income?

KD: It’s a wonderful press stunt, but it’s certainly not something that could sustain a commercial production. I’ve done it several times on shows of mine, as a way to get attention or a way to get bodies in and as a way to give back to the community. So I love it, and I’m always fascinated by it, because whatever you set the minimum at you always average much more than the minimum. So it shows that people do value it more than the dollar or whatever minimum is set. But you just can’t sustain it that way. A commercial theater can’t sustain it that way. A non-profit, if they’re getting enough grants and things? You sure can, and that’s fantastic. But I work specifically in the commercial and for profit-arena, so it just doesn’t work here on Broadway. We wish! We would love to make the ticket prices a whole lot cheaper. But real estate, advertising in New York City is very, very expensive. And they drive up the ticket price, [along with] theater just being a man-made craft that requires people to show up every day. It’s live entertainment, and people are expensive.

AI: You have a lot of education resources on your website in terms of how to produce shows effectively from a commercial standpoint. Obviously I can’t condense your role down into five minutes, but any top tips you can give to our readers into what it takes to produce?

KD: There is a real mystique about what we do as producers. A lot of people think we are in top hat and coat tails and lunching every day, that kind of old David Merrick world, and it’s not. I’m in jeans and sneakers right now, first of all, and producing is really like running any small business. It’s the same thing, and it requires a great deal of passion and desire to get something done that other people may give up on, but you won’t. So I tell people, if you want to produce, start producing. I don’t really care if it’s “I’m doing a reading of Romeo and Juliet in my dorm room with my suite mate,” or whether it’s “I want to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars and do a small storefront theater in Chicago,” or “I want to be a producer on a Broadway show, and can I call Ken Davenport and see if I can raise two hundred thousand dollars to be above the title on his show?”  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something. My first show was a small interactive show that was called The Awesome 80s Prom, and I did it Off-Broadway once a week. It ran for ten years and stayed me on my path to producing. It’s not what I want to be known for for the rest of my life, but it got me started.

AI: Just curious what your thoughts are for an online streaming service like Stagecloud. Since we are trying to adapt with technology these days and see what we can do to continue to make theater relevant. What are your thoughts on melding the two worlds and how to go forward from there?

KD: I certainly believe that streaming theater is going to be a big part of what we do to help bring the next audience of viewers to the live audience. Actually, I wrote a blog about how London was beating us here on Broadway by streaming or taping more and more shows. The National Theatre is doing it, and there have been some commercial productions as well. Les Mis did it, Love Never Dies, I think Phantom did it as well. And we are certainly lagging behind that on Broadway, because it’s very expensive to capture this stuff right now, and because we haven’t yet caught up with the understanding of how this affects our business. Unions are a little nervous. You know, I’m dealing with a couple other shows of my own that I’d love to capture. So it’s not the technology. The technology is there. We have to educate the people and realize it isn’t going to hurt our business—it’s only going to help our business.

AI: So you ultimately think that an online streaming service is best used to get people to attend live theater as opposed to a replacement?

KD: 
Yeah, and we’ve seen this time and time again on Broadway, you know, when movies started to be made about Broadway musicals again, people were freaking out that “Oh my gosh, if you release a Phantom movie now, Phantom will die at the box office. Oh my God, what about Rent? Oh my God, what about Hairspray, oh my God!” And every time, even if the movies have sucked, the Broadway box office has gone up. It happened every time. So we know it doesn’t cannibalize. If anything it only helps, and not only because people see it and think, “Oh I want to see that live.” It’s the advertising and marketing and press around those events, too. My god, do you know how much money was spent advertising the Hairspray movie or the Phantom movie or the Rent movie? That at the same time advertises the Broadway show on a national if not international scale that the Broadway show could never do. So it certainly helps.

 

For more information on Ken Davenport and his inspired contributions to Broadway, visit his website www.davenporttheatrical.com or read his blog at www.theproducersperspective.com.