What do the filmed live musicals Kinky Boots, The King and I, An American in Paris, and Spongebob the Musical all have in common?
If the title of this post didn't already give it away for you, these musicals were all major Broadway productions that were filmed in the UK.
Why are Broadway musicals being filmed in the West End?
There’s nothing wrong with filming shows in the UK, the standard of performance is the same, and there is a rich history of across-the-pond theatrical collaboration. But it is a loss to Broadway history that the original productions, and often the performers that created the roles, are not being captured on film for posterity.
Of the nearly 200 musicals currently in the database (there are approximately 200 more waiting to be added!), only 30 were filmed on Broadway. When you think of the hundreds of musicals that have played on Broadway, that is a tiny percentage of captures.
“But what about TOFT?!” I hear people cry (the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive has come up in almost every single episode of the Filmed Live Musicals podcast to date). Founded in 1970 by the visionary Betty Corwin, TOFT at the New York Public Library is a treasure trove of live theatre captures. Plays and musicals in New York (and further afield) are filmed and made available for “anyone with a New York Public Library card” to view for free at the library. Before you get too excited, you can’t just stroll in and watch every show. You need to make an appointment, and you must have a valid research reason in order to watch. You can’t watch anything currently playing on Broadway, and you only get one viewing.
Limits in funding mean that not *every* show is able to be recorded, and strict licensing and contractual agreements mean the library is not permitted to release the films commercially, or for viewing beyond the restrictions mentioned above. If TOFT were to attempt to change the viewing restrictions currently in place, every contract for every show would be need to be re-negotiated. You would need to find funding to fairly compensate all the performers, creatives, and license holders in the new negotiations, and answer a myriad of questions such as where to stream, for how long, to whom, and how to prevent bootlegging.
So while TOFT is an absolutely amazing resource for folks in New York City, its vast catalog is unlikely to be available to the general public, or for streaming, any time soon.
The issues for why TOFT can’t just stream their catalog carry over to why we simply don’t see more Broadway musicals filmed live: the cost of filming, and complex contract agreements.
It costs millions to mount a Broadway show, and very few Broadway shows recoup, let alone make a profit. According to Broadway producer Ken Davenport, just 1 in 5 Broadway shows recoup their investment. The cost of filming a Broadway show is also in the millions, though specific numbers are not always published.
Just as it is difficult for Broadway shows to recoup, the same can be said of the cost for filming them. As discussed with Tony nominee and founder of Streaming Musicals Paul Gordon on the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, most filmed live musicals need to be made available on a variety of platforms over a long period of time just to cover the costs of filming.
It took until November 2020 for SAG/AFRTRA (the union that covers film and television actors) and Actors' Equity Association (AEA - the union that covers theatre actors) to come to an agreement over who should have control of contracts for streaming theatre. Under the new rules, streams are only allowed on restricted platforms, and viewership cannot exceed “200% of the size of the theater’s house for the contractual run of the production,” or 300% if the theatre has less than 350 seats. Where the streams can be viewed is also limited. Platforms that include “widespread streaming to the general public," such as Disney Plus, Netflix, or HBO, are not permitted.
Katrina Michaels, an AEA Principal Delegate, recently noted that at the end of 2020 Equity also "released new media contracts which both allow the use of archival footage as well as new remote streamed production, and so adds new streams of income for theatres and artists".
Despite these recent changes, there is still a strong belief in the American theatre industry that theatre simply does not belong on screen. Meanwhile, the UK has been enjoying government funded live theatre captures for over a decade. Along with subsidies for filming, lower production costs, and a far simpler union structure, the UK is appealing to Broadway producers seeking to film stage shows.
In the case of The SpongeBob Musical, Nickelodeon flew the entire original cast and crew to the UK, and set up at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth for two days to film the show. The national tour (which was controversially a non-union contract) was performing at the time of filming, why not film the tour, or as in the case of Newsies, bring the original leads in and film a tour performance? Probably something to do with those contracts again!
Just last month, NBC took their production of The Grinch Live to London. Although four of the leads were cast from the United States, the ensemble were all British actors. While there was very little chatter about the show at all, there was even less commentary on the fact that high profile work was being carried out across the pond whilst American actors lost their health insurance and went into month 9 of seeing zero theatre work.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, independent companies are stepping up to the plate to ensure the show goes on. In the UK, companies such as Southwark Playhouse, Wise Children, Chichester Festival Theatre, Adam Lenson Productions, and Lambert Jackson Productions have streamed live theatre with and without live audiences. And in the US, independent theatres such as Prima Theatre, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Actors Theatre of Louisville, have worked hard to ensure artists can continue to work, and audiences are entertained.
The US is overdue for a shift in the belief that theatre should be filmed. We need to make it easier to navigate contract agreements, and lower the cost of filming. Unless companies with deeply lined pockets like NBC or Netflix are willing to invest in preserving Broadway performances and making them accessible to the general public -- as in the case of Diana which will be released by Netflix this year -- it is unlikely we will see new releases of Broadway musicals filmed live on Broadway.