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.