What will be occupying your laptop or iPhone screen tonight: a reading of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man performed by Broadway actors from the comfort of their homes, a super-starry Stephen Sondheim birthday concert celebration, Metropolitan Opera telecast from a time when James Levine was still worshipped at Lincoln Center, a new play created specifically for Zoom, a professionally filmed performance of a Shakespeare play, an adaptation of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical starring Donny Osmond that you bought two decades ago on VHS, a puppetry class for children, or one of Seth Rudetsky’s countless star-worshipping interviews? Or are you sticking with Tiger King on Netflix?
Now let me get one thing straight: While I am extraordinarily grateful for the unending theater-related programming that theater companies and practitioners throughout the world have been supplying throughout the coronavirus shutdown, usually free of charge and/or for charitable fundraising purposes, it is not theater.
Let’s say it one more time: Streamed theater-oriented programming is not theater. And I doubt that the people who are making it consider it to be the equivalent of theater. But it’s better than nothing. And it’s a way for theaters to stay on the cultural radar and raise money for worthy causes.
At first, I thought of the streaming content as a sort of band-aid on a gushing wound. But now I have a better analogy: pornography. Again, I do not mean to denigrate the streaming content (or pornography for that matter), but that is essentially what it is: something to interest, soothe and/or excite people, but not the real thing. Theater is a close contact, personal, intimate, living and breathing experience. And just like pornography, streaming theater-related content is everywhere on the Internet right now – to the point of making one feel dizzy and overwhelmed.
When the shutdown began in earnest on March 12, I had just finished my review of the new musical Six (which was slated to open that night), and I was planning that night to attend a press performance of Tracy Letts’ new play The Minutes. Sixteen new Broadway shows were slated to open in the coming weeks in order to meet the deadline for Tony Awards eligibility. It’s now been more than two months since I attended a show or set foot in the theater district. This lack of theater in my life as of late has been draining, disorienting and depressing – all the more so by the lack of clarity as to when theater will return and whether it will ever be the same.
After approximately two decades of attending theater regularly as a theater critic, streaming theater-related programming has brought me back to where I started, as a teenager with an unquenchable desire to attend professional theater but limited opportunities to do so. At that time, I came to treasure commercially released filmed performances of such musicals as Pippin, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, and Crazy for You (an extraordinary recording by Great Performances on PBS of a 1999 production at Paper Mill Playhouse) – all of which can probably be found on YouTube today.
In college, and for years thereafter, I regularly visited the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at Lincoln Center, where I proceeded to view virtually every video recording available of Broadway musicals from the 1980s and 1990s. I stopped visiting only after I had viewed almost everything there was to see there. Watching videos of the original productions of Nine, La Cage aux Folles and Chess was not the equivalent of seeing them live, but I was grateful nonetheless.
But in recent years, I have become much less interested in watching filmed performances – even of Broadway shows I enjoyed so much that I attended them at least twice in person, including Newsies, She Loves Me, Falsettos and The King and I. To take a better example, I was in love with the 2001 Broadway revival of 42nd Street. I attended it again and again on $20 student tickets located in the front row of the orchestra. That said, a film recording of a recent London production of 42nd Street (virtually identical to the 2001 Broadway revival) was released a year ago and I still have not found the time or interest to watch it. Likewise, I try not to miss any productions of Shakespeare plays in New York, but I have yet to find the time to watch the countless video recordings put out by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Festival and Shakespeare’s Globe.
Streamed theatrical content during the coronavirus can essentially be divided into two categories: stage performances that were professionally filmed before the crisis occurred (such as the nightly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts) and new programming created from home, including play readings and original digital media projects (such as Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need to Talk About? and Bill Irwin’s In-Zoom). For those who can’t view the content live, it is usually streamed for another day or two.
Being a lawyer by day, I was interested in learning more about the legal issues raised by the streaming content relating to unions (does Actors’ Equity Association or SAG-AFTRA have jurisdiction over them?) and copyright (let it be known that a license to perform a musical live does not necessarily include the right to livestream it). I spoke to representatives of the Rattlestick Theatre (which sold a limited number of virtual tickets to The Siblings Play after it got was shut down), the Maltz Jupiter Theater (which made a last-minute video recording of its shuttered production of How to Succeed available to those who had previously purchased tickets), and Moliere in the Park (which presented a livestreamed version of The Misanthrope in place of a planned outdoor production). As a rule of thumb, most of the livestreamed play readings have been presented for fundraising purposes pursuant to an agreement with the Theatre Authority. Equity has also entered into streaming contracts with some theaters that require those theaters to pay their actors a salary in exchange for the right to sell virtual tickets (limited by the number of seats in the theater and the number of planned performances).
There have been some gems among the livestreams, especially the two-and-a-half-hour Sondheim concert. When technical difficulties caused an hour-long delay in the initial broadcast, Twitter exploded and musical theater fans went berserk. Although the delay was frustrating, it was somehow invigorating because it was a reminder of the unpredictability of presenting something live. Although physically apart, we were all brought together for a shared experience.
Compared to other theater critics, I was not much of a fan of Richard Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays or The Gabriels, finding them lacking in plot, tedious and gimmicky in the way that they were tied to major political events. But viewing What Do We Need to Talk About?, a play made to resemble the Zoom conversations that so many of us had been having with family and friends and coworkers, was cathartic. I also thought the Zoom format worked especially well for a play such as What Do We Need to Talk About?, which was essentially a character study devoid of plot or visuals and dependent on subdued character reactions.
The strangest thing I have seen to date had to be new commentary by Andrew Lloyd Webber on the 1990s filmed performance of Cats. I had thought that I could view Cats while listening to Lloyd Webber’s commentary, as one would listen to director commentary on a DVD. Perhaps I did something wrong, but instead what I found on YouTube was a link to watching Lloyd Webber watching Cats, full of long pauses while he watched the film (which I couldn’t see) and then random remarks.
More ambitious than the video recordings have been audio projects and podcasts, including Soundstage (in which Playwrights Horizons presents new audio plays by writers such as Robert O’Hara, Jordan Harrison, Qui Nguyen), Playing On Air’s Theatre for Your Pocket (with new work by Doug Wright, Rajiv Joseph, and Dominique Morisseau), Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors (with Christopher Sieber, Laura Benanti, and Ashley Park), and John Cameron Mitchell’s Anthem: Homunculus. I recently came upon Monotony the Musical, a new romantic relationships musical built in the form of successive podcasts. While it was nothing spectacular or memorable, it illustrated how digital technology gives theater writers the ability to cheaply produce and instantly distribute their work.
The livestreams will likely continue throughout the shutdown, and they will probably have an impact on the theater industry even after the shutdown ends. Perhaps virtual tickets will be sold for shows alongside in-house seats. Theater companies may decide to invest in recording more of their productions – especially if there is a chance that another shutdown may occur due to another outbreak. Livestreamed play readings might even continue to be presented. Or, perhaps unknown theater artists will decide that presenting their plays online will spark the interest necessary to get them produced live. Maybe theaters can even find a way to make the livestreamed programming economically viable in and of itself.
In conclusion, streaming theater-related content is doing exactly what it should – giving people a taste of the theater, but not serving as a substitute for the theater itself. It should make theatergoers eager and ready to return to the theater itself, once that is possible again. Until that day, you can have your choice of Bryan Cranston and Sally Fields in Love Letters, The Two Noble Kinsmen at Shakespeare’s Globe, A Streetcar Named Desire from the National Theatre at Home series…