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Live-Streamed Broadway Shows? The Tech Was Easy, But Oh The Drama!

For services like BroadwayHD, building the platform was the first hurdle. Now it’s time to convince stage purists that live theater belongs on your phone.

Live-Streamed Broadway Shows? The Tech Was Easy, But Oh The Drama!
Betsy Wolfe and Tracie Thoms performing in Falsettos [Photo: Joan Marcus]

On a clear night two summers ago at Broadway’s Studio 54 theater in Manhattan, the husband-and-wife producing duo of Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley earned a curious accolade. No, it wasn’t a Tony Award. They already have nine of those between them. It was a certificate from Guinness World Records, which recognized the pair for the first live stream of a Broadway show.

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Lane and Comley, along with the Roundabout Theatre Company, live-streamed the hit revival of the musical She Loves Me for their digital media company BroadwayHD, which operates a Netflix-like streaming platform aimed specifically at theater lovers. As a technical achievement, it was barely a blip–online streaming has been around for many years–but for a century-old industry whose audience footprint is limited to 40-odd venues in midtown Manhattan, it was a moment of enormous promise. Here was a global digital medium that could bring real-time Broadway shows directly to people’s computers and mobile devices all around the world.

Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley pose with Guinness World Records Certificate Achieved by BroadwayHD for the first Broadway show (She Loves Me) to be live-streamed on April 21, 2017, in New York City.

“I’ve always wanted to do this, to share Broadway with the world,” says Lane, who is 66 and has four decades of theater-producing experience under his belt. He says Broadway is ripe for a streaming revolution thanks to a confluence of technical innovation, shifting media habits among theater fans, and rapid cultural changes within the community itself. In October 2015, he and Comely launched BroadwayHD with a library of about 100 plays and musicals, and today that number is more than double. The subscription-based service offers unlimited access to theater-related content for $8.99 a month, or less than one-tenth the average price of a Broadway ticket.

Certainly, you could make the argument that Broadway has no financial incentive to make shows available on streaming platforms. By broad measures, the industry has never been healthier: Audiences bought 13.3 million tickets last season to the tune of $1.4 billion, the highest season on record.

Scratch the surface, though, and that picture of perfect health cracks at the seams. In reality, much of Broadway’s success comes from a handful of breakout hits, while the majority of shows never turn a profit. Long-running favorites like The Lion King or Wicked may consistently attract tourists, but that doesn’t help the houses that either struggle to fill seats or aren’t reaching their full potential. Of the 32 or 33 shows listed the boards during a typical week, some may not even bring in half of their earning capacity.

Streaming could fill in those gaps, the argument goes, by either helping to promote shows while they’re still running or offering producers a new revenue stream that exists long after the show is closed. Easier access to shows could also help democratize Broadway’s stubbornly homogenous audience–last season, 77% of ticket buyers were white, and most had an income of over $75,000 a year.

To hear Lane pitch the idea, live-streamed theater–and BroadwayHD, in particular–has the potential to usher in a new era of live entertainment. Imagine being able to access all the hottest Broadway shows of the season without ever leaving the house. “If you can’t get here, get to BroadwayHD,” he tells me, his voice flush with salesmanship.

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But Lane’s enthusiasm for streaming belies an undercurrent of anxiety and even hostility in the broader Broadway community, which can be resistant to change, skeptical of technology, and downright militant about preserving the purity of the live-theater experience. The promise of live-streaming has actually been a topic of discussion for more than a decade in theater circles. It’s already an accepted practice in prominent London venues like the National Theatre, where shows are broadcast live to hundreds of cinemas. But on Broadway, producers have been more cautious about embracing the concept.

“I will say that it’s moved a lot slower than honestly I thought it would,” says Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, the industry’s trade association. “When I first got to the League 11 years ago, I thought this was full of opportunity, and I learned pretty quickly that a lot of our members believe that you just don’t capture the magic of what goes on in the theater, on stage with the audience, on film.”

That was a prevailing belief, St. Martin says, among nearly all the top Broadway producers, even up until recently. Theater is special. It’s not meant to be consumed on a screen because it’s fundamentally better than anything you’ll ever see on your computer, or your TV, or even in your local multiplex. In recent years, as filming techniques and streaming technology have improved, St. Martin says she’s seen more willingness among some producers to experiment, but characterizes it as “cautious optimism.”

Meanwhile, audiences can be equally snobby about filmed theater. Haven’t we all seen an amazing musical number stripped of its magic in a cheaply captured performance on our televisions? Even at the Tony Awards, which the Broadway League coproduces every year, the season’s best work often doesn’t hold up once it’s televised. “One of our biggest challenges is having the musical numbers on screen come off as great as they do in the theater,” St. Martin says of the awards ceremony.

For BroadwayHD, this remains a core hurdle: How do you convince hardcore theater lovers and practitioners that a filmed performance can do justice to a live show?

Lane has a pretty plausible answer. He says it starts with understanding that there is a right way and a wrong way to capture live theater on film. He’s not just a theater producer but a multimedia disciplinarian with years of live performance-capture experience. Done properly, he says a typical capture will include more than a dozen cameras, a direct sound linkup, and carefully arranged angles that recreate the live-theater experience. “We’re not just throwing up a camera in the back,” Lane says. “It’s important to keep the quality of the production intact.”

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And granted, the finished product may not be as good as seeing it live, but Lane contends it’s the next best thing. He likens it to watching the Super Bowl on TV with your sports buddies, as opposed to actually going to the game yourself. “There’s a certain real-time authenticity about it,” he tells me. “You see those actors really working up there. You see the sweat pouring off them. It’s not sanitized like in the movies–you can watch She Loves Me, and see Jane Krakowski do this amazing split.”

Live From New York . . . Sort Of

While aesthetics remain a concern for Broadway’s streaming revolution, they may not even be the biggest hurdle. Broadway producers have long been wary about attempts to film their shows while they’re still running. The fear, of course, is that any broadcast of the performance will disincentivize audiences from seeing the real thing–the cannibalization effect. Even after a show closes on Broadway, touring producers will sometimes object to deals that allow a show to be shot and broadcast while it’s still on the road, and shows can tour for years.

Those restrictions are evident when you scroll through BroadwayHD’s library. Much of its content is made up of older productions, some shot on camera years ago. Others are more recent shows that had limited runs on Broadway and did not have a life beyond that. You won’t find Hamilton or Book of Mormon or any currently running hot ticket. She Loves Me, for instance, ran for only 20 weeks in 2016, and BroadwayHD live-streamed the show after it had nearly concluded its run. By that point, there was little to lose in terms of ticket sales.

Lane concedes that the “low-hanging fruit” for BroadwayHD content has been limited-run shows with star power and Tony recognition, at least for now. But he has bigger ambitions. He says it’s his dream to stream a Broadway show live on opening night, to make shows available instantly to audiences who either can’t make it to New York to see a show live or can’t afford a pricey Broadway ticket. “What I see BroadwayHD doing is opening a gateway to a younger audience,” he says. “It’s affordable and accessible.”

But that would mean convincing anxious theater producers to take a leap of faith in an already risky environment. Just 21% of Broadway shows ever recoup their investments, according to one much-cited study from the producer Ken Davenport. And not everyone thinks the producing community is ready to gamble on an unproven distribution model where streaming exists side by side with live performances.

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“There’s no way,” says Andrew C. Wilk, the executive producer of the long-running PBS program Live from Lincoln Center. “It takes $10-15-20 million to get a show up and running on Broadway. To all of a sudden turn around and say, ‘Geez, I’m going to stream this, or I’m going to broadcast it for free’? They’re incredibly frightened about what that can do to box-office receipts.”

Wilk is only the second executive producer in Live from Lincoln Centers 43-year history. He says part of his mission when he took the reins of the program in 2012 was to find new outlets for the performances, including streaming opportunities on PBS and other services. Last year, Live from Lincoln Center partnered with BroadwayHD on a streaming deal for LCT’s revival of Broadway’s Falsettos–a deal Wilk says offered the production an opportunity to attract a wider audience. “They’ve been a great new partner for us,” he says of BroadwayHD.

Still, Falsettos was shot over its closing week and, like She Loves Me, had little to lose. While Wilk says he’d love to see producers experiment more with streaming shows earlier in their runs, he understands their skittishness when such huge sums of money are at stake.

And it’s not just producers who are skittish. Theater is an insular business, and that can breed a kind of protectionist culture within its creative classes, too, particularly actors, who are used to seeing filmed performances as either a threat to their livelihoods or low-quality products that cheapen the work they do on stage.

One person who has been working to change this perception is Francis Jue, a veteran Broadway actor who, when I spoke with him in September, was heading up the New Media Committee at the Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents stage actors. “We’ve been spearheading efforts, not just to accommodate, but to encourage the use of new media, to stream live theater, to promote live theater, to expand the outreach of live theater,” Jue says.

Part of that outreach involves convincing actors–theater purists they may be–that distribution on streaming platforms offers value both as a promotional vehicle and a revenue source. Jue says it’s a much easier sell these days as streaming TV services like Netflix become the dominant means of accessing content. He says Equity actors are rapidly coming around. “I definitely see more of an opening up,” Jue says.

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It shows in the statistics: As of early December, Actors’ Equity says it did 14 full-broadcast streams in 2017. That may not sound like a lot, but consider that it only did two such streams in 2015.

Falsettos [Photo: Joan Marcus]

Who Gets Paid?

Jue’s interest in promoting live theater through online media began around the time of the 2003 Broadway musicians’ strike, when he was performing in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. At the time, producers were seeking to reduce the minimum size requirements for Broadway orchestras, a move that sparked fierce outrage in the theater industry and evoked a show of solidarity from the stage unions, including Actors’ Equity.

Francis Jue [Photo: Francis Jue/Wikimedia Commons]
Nearly every Broadway musical shut down. Jue, who was the Equity deputy of his show, participated in the negotiations, which included seeking new ways to expand promotional opportunities through the internet, or what was then called “new media.” He says he was one of a handful of people who helped negotiate the first minimum payment standards for actors whose work is distributed online.

Even now, ensuring actors are paid for that work remains a prime concern for the union. Some Equity contracts allow shows to be streamed under the standard allowance, while others require special agreements. Actors are compensated for streaming content via upfront payment and additional profits–a model that dates back to deals used for television. “Additional work requires additional pay,” Jue says. “Our contracts on Broadway are paying us to maintain the show on Broadway, so the additional work of creating new content distributed in a new medium is additional work.”

All of which touches on yet another tension point. Back at the Broadway League, Charlotte St. Martin agrees that cost and pricing issues are important, but she sees the equation somewhat differently. The League negotiates contracts with 14 different labor unions, and Actors’ Equity is just one of them. Musicians, set designers, choreographers–they all want to get paid, and St. Martin says that can be cost prohibitive for streaming outlets looking to distribute Broadway content. “They’re going to have to make it more affordable,” she says.

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Netflix Takes The Stage

BroadwayHD declined to share any financial data or key metrics like its subscriber count or user growth, aside from saying subscribers have tripled this year. Lane says the company is not relying on outside VC money and that his personal startup costs were “astronomical,” though he declined to share specifics. He says BroadwayHD has a staff of about 20 people.

Scalability may prove to be a hurdle for the platform, but Lane has faith in the global appetite for theater-related content. To his point, TV networks have been on this bandwagon for years with “event” telecasts like NBC’s Sound of Music and Fox’s Grease Live, while movie producers, taking a cue from the success of last year’s La La Land, are expected to produce more musicals in the coming years.   

Still, if Lane needed any more proof that he is onto something with the idea for a theater-aimed streaming platform, he got it last year when Netflix itself got in on the act, adding live-captured Broadway shows like Oh, Hello and Disney’s Newsies in recent months–though for Reed Hastings and his $81 billion company, it’s hard to imagine theater-related content ever becoming more than a niche offering. 

Key to the long-term success of BroadwayHD, or any service that wants to stream theater content, is money. Can producers be convinced that streaming a show early in its run will not cannibalize ticket sales? Lane goes a step further. He says streaming a show will actually boost the box office, and he says the world of TV and movies has already provided us with plenty of test cases. For instance, when the musical Legally Blonde–which Lane produced–was filmed and aired on MTV in 2007, ticket sales in New York “popped,” he says, and the touring production benefited, too. “It branded the show so well, that it actually did much better on the road,” Lane says.  

Movie versions of musicals, like the Renée Zellweger-led Chicago in 2002, have also been known to help ticket sales at the theater. However, the benefits are more dubious when the movie version bombs, like Rock of Ages did in 2013. St. Martin says there are a range of opinions on the topic, and everyone seems to agree that more research needs to be done.

But time is a rare commodity in entertainment. Streaming media has already disrupted music, movies, and television. One advantage the theater industry has is that it can see it coming. At Actors’ Equity, Francis Jue says the theater business needs to be prepared. He sees live theater and streaming video as becoming interdependent “siblings” of sorts, as new platforms emerge and distribution outlets evolve. “I think the industry is seeing great benefits by investing in this kind of business model,” he says.

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Lane says the argument is more straightforward: Today, every theatergoer is armed with a smartphone, and therefore a potential bootlegger. And every internet user has access to an unlimited repository of pirated content. To resist streaming theater is to bury your head in the sand. “It’s inevitable no matter what,” Lane says. “You want to see a full-length version of Legally Blonde? Go to YouTube. You want to see Hamilton shot by someone’s navel, with their iPhone? You’re going to get poor quality and lousy sound, but it’s out there.”

Of course, the idea that unlimited free content is there for the taking is not exactly a revelation, but it is especially urgent for an industry that needs to attract younger eyeballs. The average Broadway theatergoer is pushing 44 years old, and shows that buck that trend do so by embracing new modes of consumption, not resisting them. Consider last season’s Dear Evan Hansen, which took home the Tony for best musical. It became a monster hit with younger audiences not just because of its storyline about an awkward high schooler who becomes a social media sensation, but because teens could discover the music on YouTube, post fan-made videos, and engage with the show in a way that would not have been possible a decade ago.

For pro-streaming evangelists like Lane, this might be the most compelling argument of all. At a time when mobile devices monopolize our every waking hour, unplugging for a live-theater experience has never been more vital, but streaming media can aid that cause by making Broadway more accessible, and ultimately preserving it for the next generation. Lose sight of that, and the show’s over. “If you want to put your best foot forward, we’re the future,” Lane says. “And the future is here.”

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About the author

Christopher Zara is a news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine.

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