Written by Bridin Clements

Over the last three years, the theatre community and the TV and Film communities have been exploring ways to merge these art forms.  We’ve watched it happen.  We saw the widespread excitement for one of the first live telecast musicals, NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! in 2013. We watched and critiqued Peter Pan Live! and The Wiz Live!, hopeful that with each television special would discover new ways of sharing the theatre experience.  This fall, producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley launched Broadway HD, a new online streaming service hoping to become “the Netflix of Broadway.”  The Met has actually been working on this for years now, with the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD celebrating their tenth anniversary season of movie-theater transmissions.  In December, Ken Davenport tried something new, making Daddy Long Legs the first show on or Off-Broadway to ever live stream a full performance, free of charge on any computer or mobile device.

And then last Sunday, FOX blew us all away.

Live broadcasts are not new.  Awards shows, political debates and sporting events all share similar concepts.  These types of shows have the infrastructure of both a theatrical show and a TV/Film shoot.  You may have Stage Managers calling Lighting and Scenic Cues, and at the same time Assistant Directors calling Cameras.  This type of production necessitates more resources than a theatrical show does on it’s own, and most aspects are fully rehearsed prior to the actual performance, and take place in a single location (theater, stadium, etc).  

What is new is adapting this to theatrical content. Grease: Live continued this exploration of adapting live theatre for television. However they tried a different approach; this production did not try to put a theatre stage on screen. It combined elements of live performance with elements of television, creating this hybrid.

One of the things that made this one stand out was the crowd.

A live audience; what a key part of the theatrical experience.  For the spectators, the performers, the crew– nothing matches the exhilaration of having real people in the room, watching and reacting.  It’s undeniably a part of the ‘magic’ of theatre. Grease: Live found a way to use the audience as a tool. The 650-person audience doubled as the crowd in the gym. They were an element of the production. We, viewing on TV, could see and hear the audience’s reactions. When we watch a live football game, we are keyed in to the crowd; we want to see the excitement of being there, it’s a part of the viewing experience. Why should that be any different in watching a musical?

Each step along the way has been necessary for us as an industry to explore what works (and what doesn’t) in translating the live theatrical experience to the screen.  

We hope these broadcasts are the beginning of something very exciting.  With the technology at our fingertips, there is this potential to share our art form with more people than ever before.  We clearly have a ways to go, and it is risk-taking productions like this one that push us forward.  

There is something special about 99 people sitting together in a theatre watching, listening, and responding to a play. Now we can reach thousands, millions of people, but how do we maintain the connection?  It rained on Sunday, so the production adjusted to their indoor version.  The umbrellas became a part of the choreography.  12.2 million viewers tuned in, watching this theatrical production from all over the world.  Now that’s a new kind of theatrical magic.

Did we miss anything? Do you have ideas on the potential of digital media for the theatre industry? Leave a comment below and tell us what you think.