In my post on bootlegs a few weeks ago, I mentioned the National Theatre’s success in broadcasting theatre around the world through its program National Theatre Live (NT Live). This week, we're taking a closer look at the program.
NT Live began as an experiment to see how digital technology could allow a wider audience to enjoy National Theatre productions. The first broadcast took place in June 2009 with the live cinema screening of Phèdra starring Helen Mirren.
Over 60 productions later, NT Live has been broadcast on 2500 screens in 60 countries around the world, and viewed by over 5.5 million people. To date, NT Live has broadcast three musicals, FELA! (2011), The Threepenny Opera (2016), and Follies (2017).
The vast majority of broadcasts are from within the National Theatre in London, however beginning in 2013, NT Live has also broadcast select productions from the West End, including The Audience (coincidentally also starring Helen Mirren) and War Horse. In 2015, NT Live broadcast Of Mice and Men from the Longacre Theatre on Broadway.
Camera plots are specifically designed for each show, allowing the theatre and film director to ensure the most effective capture. Cameras are often placed right in the audience, and audience members are able to purchase tickets for filmed performances at a discounted rate.
Adjustments to various elements of each production are also made, including lighting and sound design, and wig and costume design.
If adjustments are being made to the production for the capture, is the film still a capture of a theatre production? In the 2009 National Theatre annual report, artistic director Nicholas Hytner noted, “…I am confident that we have pioneered a new genre: not quite live theatre, certainly not cinema, but an exciting approximation of the real thing whose potential reach is limitless.”
NT Live screenings are advertised as special events — a limited time chance to see a live capture of a National Theatre production. Cinemas located in the same timezone as London receive broadcasts in real time, while cinemas outside the timezone receive the same capture at a later time and/or date. Due to popular demand, “encore screenings” are also scheduled.
While some broadcasts are also available to schools for streaming in the UK through its On Demand program, most productions are not available to view or purchase after the cinema broadcasts. This is due to licensing, and contract negotiations.
At the time of its launch, NT Live was the only program for broadcasting live theatre in cinemas. As such, there has been significant research into its impact. In various reports, UK organization Nesta has found the following:
Nearly ten years after its launch, NT Live provides a great model for how filmed live theatre can co-exist with, and provide a new experience of, live theatre.
This week's blog title comes from Langston Hughe's poem "Note on Commercial Theatre," which is spoken by Brenda Braxton in the 1979 musical When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate. In researching last week’s blog post, History Has Its Eyes, I was fascinated by the biography of the musical's director, Vinnette Carroll, and decided to spotlight her incredible career in this week's post.
Carroll was one of the first African American women to direct on Broadway, and the West End. She was nominated three times for a Tony Award, and was the first (and regrettably, still the only), African American woman to be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Director. She was an Obie and Emmy Award winner, and celebrated in her lifetime as a driving force for theatre by, and about, African American people.
Over the course of her career, Vinnette Carroll created and wrote 16 musical plays, many of which were written with long-time collaborator Micki Grant. Carroll also collaborated with Alvin Ailey and Langston Hughes. Her work has been credited with launching the careers of actors such as Cicley Tyson, Clarence Williams III, James Earl Jones, Jennifer Holliday, Brenda Braxton, and Cleavant Derricks, among many others.
Born in New York in 1922, Carroll spent most of her childhood in Jamaica. She returned to New York City to attend high school and, thanks to her father’s thriving dental practice, enjoyed a rich cultural life attending theatre and receiving music lessons.
To satisfy her father, Carroll trained to be a psychologist. Shortly after leaving her PhD program at Columbia University in 1948, Carroll sought to pursue her true passion as an actor. She attended the New School and the Actors Studio, training with Erwin Piscator, Lee Strasberg, and Stella Adler.
Upon completion of her actor training in the early 1950s, Carroll found regular acting work, but was frustrated by the limited range of roles made available to her as an African American woman: maids, and roles that reinforced negative stereotypes of people of color. In response, Carroll created her own work and successfully toured a one woman show.
Carroll began teaching acting at the High School for the Performing Arts in 1955, a position she held for 11 years. During this time, Carroll developed a passion for directing.
In 1964, Carroll won an Emmy Award for the television production Beyond the Blues, a dramatization of works by African American poets.
In 1968, Carroll joined the New York State Council on the Arts as the new director for the Ghetto Arts Program. The Ghetto Arts Program (GAP) sought to provide collaborative theatre experiences for African American and Hispanic communities in New York, and establish a new repertory company that created new work.
In her capacity as director of GAP, Carroll founded the Urban Arts Corps (UAC). Within a few years Carroll left GAP and became the artistic director of the UAC. The UAC trained a troupe of actors from African American and Hispanic backgrounds, who wrote and performed original material. Later knowns the Urban Arts Theatre, the UAC worked in schools, colleges, and prisons to bring theatre, and theatre training, to minority audiences.
Throughout her 10 years with the Urban Arts Corps, Carroll directed over 50 productions. Musical highlights include But Never Jam Today, Don’t Bother Me I, I Can’t Cope, and Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, which first opened at the UAC in 1970, opened on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre in 1972. The musical earned Carroll a Tony nomination for Best Director of a Musical and played 1065 performances. It will be performed in 2018 as part of Encores! Off Center’s summer program.
Your Arms Too Short to Box with God transferred to Broadway in 1976, earning Carroll her second Tony nomination for Best Director. The musical was revived on Broadway in 1980, 1982, and 1996.
But Never Jam Today, was an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland featuring gospel and calypso-infused music. The musical adaptation began life as Alice, and after much re-working and several off- and off-off-Broadway runs opened on Broadway in 1979. It was a commercial flop and closed within a week of opening.
In 1984, living in Florida in “semi-retirement,” Carroll founded the Vinnette Carroll Repertory Company. The company was renamed the Metropolitan Diversity Theatre at Carroll's request in 2000 after she suffered a debilitating stroke. The theatre is now the home of Fort Lauderdale’s Cinema Paradiso.
Despite Carroll’s immense body of work, just one of her shows was filmed live for public distribution: When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate. The musical had a short run at the UAC in January 1979, before being presented as part of the Lincoln Center’s Black Theatre Festival in May of the same year. An hour-length version of the musical co-directed by Carroll was presented on PBS in June 1979. When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate was released on VHS in 1999, and on DVD in 2003. Sections of the musical are currently available on YouTube.
In the capture of When Hell Freezes Over I'll Skate, we get a mere glimpse of Carroll’s incredible talent as a writer and director. One wonders if Carroll had been born white, and a male, how much more of her work we could have continued to enjoy watching today.
In honor of Black History month, I wanted to highlight the filmed live musicals that feature predominantly black actors and/or creative teams. I post this entry with the awareness that Black History month, also known as African American History month in the United States, is a contentious entity.
Of the 100+ musicals currently in the database, less than 10 feature predominantly black casts and/or creative teams. It is interesting to note that nearly all of these musicals feature, or are about, the music of black artists.
I want to acknowledge the frustrating fact that the current catalogue of filmed live musicals is dominated by white creators and performers. It is my hope that more musicals with diverse casts and creative teams will not only be produced, but recorded for posterity.
We are watching.
When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate
When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate was a musical drama featuring the poetry of black poets. The show was directed by Vinnette Carroll, a multi-talented and highly influential actor, director, and writer who found success in both the UK and the United States.
When Hell Freezes Over I’ll Skate aired on Theater in America in 1979.
The musical drama was released on VHS in 1999, and on DVD in 2003.
Sophisticated Ladies was a revue celebrating the music of Duke Ellington.
In November 1982, Sophisticated Ladies became the first Broadway musical to air on pay TV. Due to sour contract negotiations, and fears the telecast would affect ticket sales, most of the Broadway cast did not appear in the telecast.
The revue was released on DVD in 2005, and is also available on DVD.com.
Set in a Harlem nightclub, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a musical revue featuring the music of stride pianist Fats Waller.
The Broadway production won the 1978 Tony Award for Best Musical, and went on to play 1604 performances before closing in 1982.
NBC aired a filmed live recording of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in June 1982. It is not officially available to view.
The Gospel at Colonus
The Gospel at Colonus is a re-telling of Sophocles’ Oepidus at Colonus through a pentecostal sermon.
The musical was filmed live during the American Music Theater Festival in 1985 and aired on PBS’ Great Performances. The cast included Morgan Freeman, Carl Lumbly, Robert Earl Jones, The Institutional Radio Choir, Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
The Gospel at Colonus was released on DVD in 2008.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe
Another musical revue, Smokey Joe’s Cafe celebrated the music of 60s rock n’ roll writers Leiber and Stoller.
The cast featured a predominantly African American cast, three of whom were nominated for a Tony Award for Featured Actor or Featured Actress in a Musical, including Victor Trent Cook, B.J. Crosby, and Brenda Braxton (DeLee Lively was also nominated).
The final performance of the five year run was taped by Broadway Television Network in January 2000, and aired on pay TV in September 2000.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe is available to view on DVD.
Loosely based on the life of rock musician Stew, Passing Strange is a rock musical about a young man who leaves his conservative Californian home to find “the real” in Europe.
Spike Lee filmed the Broadway production live in 2008, and released Passing Strange: The Movie in 2009 to much acclaim. The film was aired on PBS in 2010, and also released on DVD.
Passing Strange: The Movie is available to view on DVD and on Amazon.
FELA! is a biographical musical about the pioneering Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. The musical was directed by choreographer and director Bill T. Jones, and featured Sahr Ngaujah in the title role.
When FELA! opened in London in 2010, it became the first National Theatre musical production to be concurrently running on Broadway. The London production was filmed live for the National Theatre’s NT Live program, and broadcast in cinemas around the world.
FELA! is not currently available to view.
Memphis is an original musical about the power of music to overcome racial divides in 1950s America.
Despite lackluster reviews, the musical won 4 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and played on Broadway for three years.
Memphis was the first Broadway musical to be released in cinemas whilst playing on Broadway. It was subsequently released on Netflix, DVD, and Blu-Ray, and aired on PBS’ Great Performances.
Memphis is now available to stream on BroadwayHD and YouTube.
One of the most commonly cited reasons for not filming stage musicals and distributing them to the public is that the availability of filmed live versions will supposedly stop people from attending the theatre in person.
I thought it would be fun to take a look at the numbers and see if that is actually the case.
This week, we’re going to focus on Broadway.
Of the hundreds and hundreds of musicals to open on Broadway, only 24 have been legally filmed live and released to the public. Just 5 of the 24 captures were released or aired while the show was still running on Broadway: Sophisticated Ladies, The Will Rogers Follies, Victor/Victoria, Legally Blonde the Musical, and Memphis.
Additionally, live captures of another 2 musicals, She Loves Me, and Holiday Inn, were aired within two weeks of the show’s previously announced closing date.
That gives us a total of 7 Broadway musicals to have been filmed live and made available to the public while the show was still running on Broadway.
To get a sense of immediate effect on the box office, I looked at the Broadway League statistics on audience capacity for each show two weeks before, one week before, the week of, one week after, and two weeks after, the filmed live release date.
Sophisticated Ladies was the first Broadway musical to air live on national television whilst still running on Broadway. It aired on pay TV, at $15 per view, and was only available in cities where the musical would not be touring, or had already played. It was not made available in New York City. Unfortunately, we don’t have publicly available audience attendance data for Sophisticated Ladies on Broadway, so we can’t say how the television airing affected ticket sales.
The Will Rogers Follies and Victor/Victoria were both filmed for distribution on Japanese television. It’s not clear when The Will Rogers Follies aired on Japanese television, though one blog refers to a broadcast in 1995. Given the widely reported agreement between Japanese network WOWOW and the Broadway producers to air The Will Rogers Follies in Japan over three years (and release the musical on video), was made in 1991, it seems strange that the program was not aired for another four years.
Victor/Victoria was taped live and aired on Japanese television on December 23, 1995 (it did not air on American television until 2001, well after the Broadway production had closed). The ticket sales at the box office were strong in the weeks leading up to, and following the broadcast, though this may be due to the fact that Victor/Victoria had only opened two months before. It is also worth noting that the end of December is normally a high season for Broadway ticket sales. More research needs to be done to determine if there was a boost in ticket sales specifically from the Japanese market in the months, and years, following the broadcast.
In 2007, Legally Blonde: The Musical became the second Broadway musical to air on American television whilst playing on Broadway. It aired on MTV on October 13, 2007. Two weeks prior to the MTV broadcast, ticket sales were at 64% capacity. In the week before the broadcast, capacity rose to 79%, and in the week of the broadcast it rose again to 81%. Capacity stayed steady around 80% for a few more weeks before dipping again the following the month.
On April 28, 2011, Memphis became the first musical to be released in cinemas while also playing on Broadway. In an interesting precedent, the film was also made available in New York City. Capacity at the Shubert Theatre was at 86% two weeks before the release, and jumped to 98% the week before the release. During the week of the cinema release, capacity dropped back down to 87%, where they remained for the next few weeks.
She Loves Me and Holiday Inn were both streamed live on BroadwayHD in the final weeks of their Broadway runs. Audience capacity increased for both musicals in the week of the livestream, though it is difficult to say whether this was due to a normal end-of-run bump or the livestream.
For the five shows for which we have data, the filmed live release did not negatively affect capacity. For 4 of the 5 shows, capacity either increased in the week before the release of the filmed live version (presumably due to extra marketing), or increased after the release.
Although the Broadway production has not been filmed live, Phantom of the Opera provides an interesting case study. During its thirty year Broadway run, Phantom has benefited from a movie musical, a filmed live London production, and two livestreams of 30th anniversary events.
On October 2, 2011, Fathom Events livestreamed the 25th anniversary gala performance of The Phantom of the Opera from Royal Albert Hall in London to cinemas around the world. The Broadway production benefited from the livestream, with capacity at the Majestic Theatre rising from 73% two weeks before the livestream to 85% in the week of the release.
For the 30th anniversaries of both the West End and Broadway productions, the finale of each show was livestreamed on Facebook. In the week before the livestreams, the Majestic Theatre saw a rise in audience capacity of over 10%.
The movie version of The Phantom of the Opera also had a positive impact on box office sales at the Majestic Theatre. Capacity rose from 86% two weeks before the release, to 98% during the week of the release.
Nine other Broadway shows have had movie musical releases whilst still playing on Broadway, including Chicago, Hairspray, RENT, Mamma Mia!, The Producers, Rock of Ages, Cats, A Chorus Line, and Jersey Boys.
Hairspray, RENT, Rock of Ages, and Mamma Mia! were all already doing strong business before the movie version was released. Their capacity numbers remained consistent, or were slightly raised, during the week of the film release.
Chicago and Jersey Boys saw notable increases in audience numbers as a result of the movie releases, while Cats and A Chorus Line saw their capacities dip.
It would be interesting to delve further and see the impact of filmed live and movie versions on touring productions. Of the 20 currently touring Broadway productions, 9 are based on movie musicals, or have been adapted into movie musicals. It’s also worth noting that of the 10 longest running Broadway musicals, 9 have been adapted for, or are based on, movie musicals.
These limited numbers suggest that filmed live musicals, and movie musical versions, do not negatively affect box office. How would a filmed live release affect already sold-out shows like Dear Evan Hansen or Hamilton? The answer is, right now we don’t know.
What we do know, is that legally filming musicals and releasing them to the public makes those musicals available to potentially millions of people who may not have access to the 41 theaters in a 14 block radius in mid-Manhattan.
If only more Broadway shows were filmed live and distributed to the public for us to find out.
Surprise bonus post on the topic of MORE!
Missing BroadwayCon? Missed out on attending entirely? Fear not. Over the three magical days of BroadwayCon 2018, I live-tweeted 17 panels covering new shows, old shows, musicals on screen, criticism, and how to make Broadway more accessible. It was exhausting, and a lot of fun.
You can re-live the glory, or catch up, on each panel the full Twitter threads below!
While we're on the topic of more, I'm excited to share that people have started writing in to let me know the shows missing from the Filmed Live Musicals database! I'm continually updating the database as I learn more, so please feel free to get in touch and share your knowledge!
Check back in next week for a post on how filmed live musicals affects Broadway ticket sales!