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.