When I first started researching At the Drop of a Hat (1962), and its sequel At the Drop of Another Hat (1967), I wasn't expecting to need to dedicate a whole lot of time to it. It's just two white dudes singing comedy songs right?!
As I delved deeper into the comedic duo of Flanders and Swann, I became intrigued by their stories. Both were fascinating men who were immensely brilliant writers and, by all accounts, absolutely charming individuals.
As a young man, Michael Flanders had contracted polio and as a result became a wheelchair user. From what I can gather, Michael Flanders was the first actor in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway and in the West End. Writers of the day barely gave this fact a mention, and one author infuriatingly noted that maybe Flanders "could surely step out" of his chair. Flanders faced many difficulties as a performer in a wheelchair, and he was devastated that despite the fact he could perform, other wheelchair users were not permitted in the theatre. He became a passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, a cause his wife Claudia Cockburn also became involved in and was awarded an Order of the British Empire for her work.
Donald Swann was born in Wales, the child of a British national father born in Russia and a Muslim mother from southern Russia in what is now Turkmenistan. Swann was a conscientious objector in the war and as a result of his service with the Friends' Ambulance in became fascinated with the music and culture of Greece.
Through their revue At the Drop of a Hat, the duo performed not only in the West End and on Broadway, but across the United States, in Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.
The taping of their two shows in 1962 and 1967 also revealed history about concerns of filming live theatre, how performers should be remunerated for broadcasts, and the role of theatre on television.
Information about the filming of At the Drop of Another Hat was relatively easy to find. The show had been filmed at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York and was released on VHS. The footage is currently available on YouTube, under the erroneous title "The Only Flanders & Swann Video."
Watching the video, it struck me that Flanders sometimes seemed to be in a bad mood, and some of the audience members even appeared to be bored. I later learned that the studio taping took over 7 hours. Flanders and Swann were reportedly frustrated by the stops and starts to adjust lighting and angles, and the audience were likely exhausted.
I kept finding mention of At the Drop of a Hat being filmed, but couldn't find information on where or when. This lead me to one of my all time favorite pastimes, delving into the archives at the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The archive holds literally hundreds of boxes containing the papers of Alexander H. Cohen, the groundbreaking American producer who bought Flanders and Swann to Broadway. Due to space and COVID restrictions, and limited time to spend at the library, I was only able to access exactly 6 boxes per appointment, and I had to choose from the hundreds of boxes which 6 boxes might hold the answers to my questions.
I hit the jackpot in a folder labelled "Alexander H Cohen Papers, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, Theatre - At the Drop of a Hat Correspondence 1957." Letters exchanged between Cohen, Michael Flanders, and Flanders and Swann's agents at MCA, detailed that At the Drop of a Hat had been filmed with an invited audience at the BBC's Studio 4 in London. It was filmed as part of the Festival of the Performing Arts, a short-lived cultural television program sponsored by the New Jersey Standard Oil Company.
The program was only supposed to be aired in the US, but the BBC immediately wanted to air it in the UK. The letters detail Flanders and Swann's concerns over a UK release, which included worries about the impact on future ticket sales, and also proper renumeration for such a broadcast. British Equity had just emerged from a 7 month strike against ITV over payments based on potential audience size, and Flanders and Swann wanted to ensure they were properly compensated.
Although it has not been released since airing on either British or American television, truncated video footage of At the Drop of a Hat may still exist, as Donald Swann discusses watching it, with some trepidation, many years later in his autobiography.
I'm so glad that my research led me to the work of Flanders and Swann. While some of their comedy is a little dated, much of the music and witty songs are as delightful and fun as when they were first performed over seventy years ago.
You can learn more about At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat in the database!
In episode 20 of the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, host Luisa Lyons chats with Broadway on Demand CEO and President Sean Cercone.
Topics include theatre on public TV being a gateway to live theatre, how being a good son-in-law led to the creation of Broadway on Demand, how streaming can help authors and help shows build their brand, sport as a model for live-streaming, the importance of a theatre archive, and much more!
Sean Cercone is the CEO and President of Broadway Licensing and its family of companies, which includes Dramatists Play Service, Playscripts, Stageworks Productions, and Broadway on Demand. Together, these companies represent the world’s first 360º theatrical development, producing, publishing, and digital and traditional distribution outfit.
Between Broadway Licensing (musicals), Dramatists Play Service (non-musical plays), and Playscripts (educational productions), Cercone oversees the licensing of nearly 24,000 productions each year, working with more than 2,800 authors and managing over 6,725 titles. Stageworks Productions is dedicated to the development, production, and distribution of innovative live theatrical properties, focusing on cultivating stories that speak to the universal truths of humanity.
Broadway On Demand, launched in 2020, is the industry’s premiere entertainment streaming platform offering exclusive livestream theatrical events, a wide-ranging library of video on demand content, interactive engagements, and educational programming. In addition, Cercone created a unique licensing interface, ShowShareTM, which provides student, amateur, and professional productions the opportunity to stream their productions for global audiences. ShowShareTM proved instrumental in ensuring thousands of shows could go on even when the pandemic forced the cancellation of live performances around the world. Broadway On Demand has been honored with the 2021 Corporate Award by the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT).
The Filmed Live Musicals podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Amazon, Google, Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify, and more!
If you like what you hear, please make sure to subscribe and leave a review!
It is no secret that as a result of the pandemic, theatre companies have lost their most significant stream of revenue: ticket sales. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, while some theatres are streaming shows, others are responding to the COVID-19 shutdown by branching out into new areas, creating new streaming platforms, and selling virtual tickets to online content.
In May, TodayTix temporarily rebranded as TomorrowTix and launched a platform allowing theatre companies across the United States to sell tickets to online shows. As with the previous incarnation of the site, content is available by city, though it seems most virtual content is available across all cities.
At the time of writing, offerings include comedy and improv, concerts, drag shows, and two musical-esque productions, The Keep Going Song and A Killer Party.
The Keep Going Song is presented by the Actors Theatre of Louisville (who back in 1973 produced In Fashion). Described as “an intimate evening of storytelling through song,” the piece was written and performed by indie-folk duo Abigail and Shaun Bengson during lockdown. Ben Brantley gave The Keep Going Song the New York Times Critic’s Pick stamp of approval, and the music is truly extraordinary. You have until October 8 to stream it. Virtual tickets are available via TodayTix and directly from Actors Theatre of Louisville, on a sliding scale between $15 - $100 (not including fees).
A Killer Party is an episodic murder mystery musical directed by Broadway musical director Marc Bruni. The cast includes a slew of Broadway stars including Carolee Carmello, Jackie Burns, Jeremy Jordan, Laura Osnes, and Alex Newell. The music was composed by Jason Howland (who, among many other credits, did the arrangements on Jekyll and Hyde), with lyrics by Nathan Tysen, and book by Kait Karrigan. Rachel Axler, who worked on Veep, The Daily Show, and Parks and Recreation, is also credited as a writer. Composed and performed entirely during quarantine, A Killer Party is a laugh out loud, silly, and joyful spoof. It’s available via TodayTix and directly from A Killer Party Musical for $12.99, which provides access to all 9 episodes.
In late July, Playbill launched Social Selects, theatre-themed interactive online events that include tours of Broadway theatres and theatre sites in NYC, storytelling events, cooking, and wine-pairing. Events range in price from $9.99 - $21.99. Tickets for the HamilTour, which will visit Hamilton-related locations around NYC on October 7 and 14, are currently on sale.
And just a couple of weeks ago, Goldstar launched Stellar, a new monetized streaming platform. The site currently has nearly 50 productions, including concerts, comedy, and from-artist-living-room events.
Coming up we'll be taking a look at another innovation, drive-in theatre!
What are you watching? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter or Facebook!
There are so many musicals streaming online right now it's hard to keep up!
Today alone, the 8th of May, there are THREE filmed live musicals being made available for a limited time for free (not to mention all the musicals already available online)!
If you are so able, please consider making a donation to the institutions providing these streams, especially the independent theatres. Times are tough for everyone right now, and the theatre industry is facing an incredibly difficult time. Theatres rely on ticket sales to bring in income, and with the shutdown, many institutions are facing serious economic difficulty. If we can, let's give back to the places that give us so much joy.
Pieces of String
A new British musical set simultaneously in 1940 and the present day exploring LGBT themes, and the impact of secrets on generations. Free to watch from 10am - 11.59pm (GMT) on May 8 only at Mercury Theatre Colchester. If you miss the free screening, it's also available for a small fee from Digital Theatre.
The King and I
Bartlett Sher's gorgeous Lincoln Center revival starring Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe filmed live during its West End run at the London Palladium. Free watch party on May 8 at 8pm (EST) hosted BroadwayHD and Playbill. Only available in North America. Also available through a BroadwayHD subscription.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn's musical based on the book by P.G. Wodehouse. Will be available to stream for free from 2pm on May 8 for 48 hours on YouTube.
Royal Court Livestream
Missing being inside an actual theatre? This one is not a musical, but London's Royal Court theatre is live-streaming from within the empty auditorium on May 8th with Caretaker, a "durational installation" by Hester Chillingworth. 7.30pm GMT. Visit Royal Court for more info.
Still want MORE musicals?! You can visit the Filmed Live Musicals database and search for musicals to watch online! There are currently 75 musicals listed as available online, with more being added each week.
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.
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.