Broadway via broadband: streamed musicals

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

With people consuming more television than ever before, and live performances being put on hold, Aoife Rooney examines what this means for the accessibility and experience of musical theatre.

The concept of attending musicals and plays in person has become somewhat of a pipedream post Covid-19.

Earlier in the year, when spending an extended period at home was seen as a novelty rather than a sentence, people turned their attention to the arts and filled their days with movies, television, and the general consumption of media otherwise reserved for weekends. Due to the recent change from the serialisation of television shows, from episodes being released weekly to the drop of an entire season, combined with the audience’s pick of subscription viewing services, there has never been an easier way to consume entertainment. This accessibility was not always available, especially regarding traditionally live performances such as musicals, plays and concerts.

During the past six months musicals have thoroughly felt the effects of closures of theatres, leaving many musicals not only postponed until 2021, but some runs cancelled altogether. In New York, all Broadway theatres are closed until January of next year, and many, including Mean Girls and The Lion King, will return next year when it is safe to do so. However, some productions, including Frozen and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, have been cancelled altogether.

On the heels of many productions not returning, and upcoming musicals being cancelled before ever beginning, many fans are missing out on the opportunity to see shows live. This begs the question: should musicals and plays be made available online for viewing? There are both drawbacks and benefits associated with each option, with funding being an overarching issue in both camps. A good example would be the Broadway production of The Lion King.

The musical is celebrating its 22nd year on Broadway in November and is currently on hiatus due to Covid-19. The musical sits as the third longest running musical in Broadway history, citing over 8,500 performances over two decades. This is emblematic of the musical’s popularity and ability to endure the test of time, not feigning in popularity yet. There are many logistical issues associated with the transfer of mode of consumption of this performance going from live to ‘as-live’. Theatre and musicals are designed in such a way as to cater to a live audience. Especially in recent years, props and sets have become increasingly interactive with the audience to further pull the viewer into the world of the production. There are aspects of production that are impossible to replicate. Whether it be the bass you feel in your feet that slowly makes its way up to your stomach, as Scar attempts to weasel his way into his so-called birthright, or the heat of the Saharan sun on your cheeks, there is a lived experience that comes included in the price of the ticket.

This factor also lends well to the fact that the way in which sets are constructed. The lighting and how actors project and cater to all ends of the theatre, musical productions are very much created with the audience in mind, and care is taken in an attempt to accommodate the viewing experience. While this could arguably be altered for a filmed musical, these are factors that, when taken away, alter the idea of what a musical is supposed to be.

There is also a major issue with the cross-over between streaming services and live performances from a financial point of view. Successful musicals that have seen record demand in the past few years, such as Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, also brought with them very high ticket prices. For example, when Hamilton had its run in Chicago performing for over 1,300 people over 171 weeks, ticket prices have been reported to be as much as one thousand dollars. With audience members spending that much money to see shows, the production is able to put more money into tech, costumes, sets and casting, all of which make a show more spectacular.

There are many other comparable examples, but it shows that if a musical like The Lion King, which has been proved to be consistently successful for over two decades, the price that would need to be paid by streaming services such as Netflix or Disney+ could be exponential. This contrasts with a film that has a six-week run in cinemas worldwide, or a streaming service paying a flat fee for a film released exclusively on said service; the potential for further revenue, short of a sequel, ends there. The same cannot be said for The Lion King. Over the course of its production, there have been so many different actors given the opportunity to play these roles, providing jobs in the arts industry, and also doing a lot for the tourism industry, with many people travelling to cities such as London and New York with musical and theatre tickets already booked. This has positive ripple effects for restaurants, bars and hotels, something that would be remiss if people were watching from home.

Despite all of this, the one redeeming aspect of musicals being put on streaming services is that it makes an aspect of arts and culture that many fans cannot afford, more easily available to enjoy. The location and price of tickets (a standard ticket to The Lion King typically comes to over €120) are often barriers in consumption of musicals, which is problematic. In seeing the positive reception Hamilton has received after being streamed on Disney+, there is clearly a demand for the distribution of theatre to those facing these barriers.

I believe that musicals, like movies, film, television, and music, are meant to be enjoyed universally. And if the more widespread distribution of various musicals means that more people get to enjoy a universal experience, the cost of a lower production value is a small price to pay, along with your streaming subscription. The streaming of musicals online has brought with it a positive change for those who otherwise would not have access to the show, but it is still very important to support the theatres that are making the production possible, to ensure that they are able to return to in-person performances at some point in the future, where the intended form of viewing can be enjoyed by fans.