In the digital age, Broadway remains inaccessible


Victoria Smith

“Hamilton,” which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2015, was professionally filmed and released on Disney+ in 2020. The blockbuster musical broke box office records in its first year on Broadway.

It is no surprise to anyone that knows me, or has overheard me talking, or seen me loitering around the Vuk that I am a fan of Broadway musicals. In fact, some argue I am too much of a fan. But despite my never-ending opinions and expertise on Broadway musicals, I have only stepped foot on Broadway once; during my senior year of high school, 50 students from Arizona, myself included, flew to New York to see “Wicked.”
“But Victoria,” you ask, “how does such a devoted fan only travel to Broadway once in her 21 years of living?” Well, dear reader, it’s quite simple — my middle-class family did not have anywhere near the extra money to indulge their overly-excitable daughter on a trip to New York. They took me to touring productions and I was an avid listener of cast recordings instead. When my Spotify playlists were not enough, I even turned to slightly less legal methods of consumption: bootleg recordings. From YouTube “slime tutorials” to Google Drive links distributed over Tumblr DMs, I have seen many more shows than my financial situation would have ever allowed.
This, however, is not an article about the complex understandings of bootlegs and distributing illegal recordings. It is quite the opposite, because my favorite method of watching the shows young Victoria only dreamed of watching is professional recordings. Affectionately called “pro-shots” or “pro-records,” these are the gold standard of musical distribution. I mean, everyone and their mother watched “Hamilton” when it premiered on Disney+. When you look back at Broadway history, many important musical staples have a filmed version. Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, may he rest in peace, gifted generations to come with recordings of “Sunday in the Park with George” and “Company.”
The PBS series “Great Performances” has been living up to the name for decades, providing audiences from Pennsylvania to Arizona with high quality musicals to enjoy from their living room couches. I would never have realized the beauty that is the 2016 revival of “Falsettos” without watching it on PBS. During the pandemic and theatrical shutdown, these recordings became the lifeblood of the theatre industry. We relied on them; we loved them.
If these recordings are so beloved, why are there not more of them? The answer is far more complicated than it really needs to be. It all comes down to the economics of Broadway. When a musical comes to Broadway, the producers are worried about one thing and one thing only: making back their money with enough profit to roll over into the next investment. The shows that live are the shows that sell tickets, become tourist attractions and surpass expectations. Do we need to keep seeing “The Lion King?” Probably not. But will it survive, most likely.
There is a great concern that if a show gets recorded and distributed from coast to coast, no one will see it live. This is an absolutely false notion. As an avid consumer of live theatre, if I had the opportunity to see a show live on Broadway, I would not care if I had seen or heard or been in that show 700 times. I would go see it anyway. I own the “Phantom of the Opera” pro-recording on iTunes and can watch at the drop of a hat, but don’t think I haven’t considered finding a way to see it before it closes on Broadway next year.
Personal preference aside, this premise truly makes no sense in the game of Broadway. Audiences want to see productions, plots and people they know. A middle-class family from Oklahoma is not gonna go see some new, deeply personal musical from an up-and-coming playwright if they have never heard the songs, seen the actors or experienced it in some way. “The Lion King” sells because the tourists know exactly what to expect.
By having professional recordings regularly released, you encourage people to drop $400 on something they can trust. Professional recordings also introduce a new generation of theatre lovers and makers to the joys of live performances, especially live performances on Broadway. Let the films serve as an introduction to the world of professional theatre. How do I know I’m supposed to love Stephanie J. Block if I have never seen her command a stage in the flesh?
As a theatre-maker myself, there is one argument against professional recordings that tends to hit a little harder than the rest. To film a piece of theatre is to make it eternal. And while the attention-seeker in me loves that idea, it also terrifies me. Don’t get me wrong, I am beyond grateful that I can watch a preserved performance of Bernadette Peters singing her heart out to a young Mandy Patinkin.
On the other hand, a show is not supposed to be immortalized. One performance, one interpretation, one decent night of theatre is not supposed to be able to be replayed over and over again. Rather, every night a show goes up, it is different. An actor takes a breath at the beginning of a line one night and at the end of the line the next. An audience reacts with laughter and applause at a joke on Sunday but on Thursday, you hear boos and gasps. That is the beauty of theatre — it evolves. Every time a new director lays hands on a script, it enters a brand new life, sometimes unrecognizable to an audience familiar with the original.
This here, this idea of temporality, is what will make Broadway live beyond professional recordings. We can watch the filmed version of some random Saturday night over and over again. But we also want to see Sunday and Monday and the Saturday after that too. Not only will we purchase the film, but we will purchase tickets ad infinitum when we fall in love. Once we get a taste, we will forever crave more. And theatre lives to sing “one day more” — Les Mis joke, anyone?
Broadway is an extremely classist presentation of theatre. If you are lucky and have the funds to buy a ticket or enter a lottery, you can see the show. This is not what the theatre industry needs. In Ancient Greece, performances of drama were mandatory religious festivals with audiences including the poorest citizens to the highest officials. It is an art form for everyone. If we want the joys of theatre to continue to be shared from generation to generation, it needs to be accessible. Don’t worry, the rich will still pay their $200 to sip their themed cocktails and enjoy a night at the theater. But the rest of us, desperate for that connection we can only get by viewing a play or musical, deserve to enjoy the show just as much — from the orchestra, mezzanine or La-Z-Boy.