If you are a regular reader of this blog (if not – welcome!), you know that I enjoy going to the theater. I am lucky enough that I not only live less than 3 hours from Broadway and have the disposable income to treat myself to a show fairly regularly, but that I also live close to the Williamstown Theater Festival (which has launched its fair number of future Broadway productions) and Proctors Theater (a regular stop for Broadway touring companies). There is really nothing that can replace the experience of live theater; even if it’s your local high school production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, seeing the performers up on that stage and sharing that experience with a roomful of people is just kind of magical. Live theater means that anything can happen and while things routinely run like clockwork, the threat of a flub or a missed spot always hangs over the production. The fact that these errors are few and far between only adds to the impressive accomplishment of all involved.
Of course, not everyone has the same easy access to high level theater productions as I do; for a lot of people, their main exposure to Broadway shows is by listening to original cast recordings of musicals that they will likely never see in production. While that is a first world problem, that still makes me sad; while soundtracks are all well and good, for me there is nothing like seeing the actors actually belting out the songs in the context of the larger story, with the lavish costumes and production designs enhancing the overall experience. As I’ve written before, I didn’t see my first musical on Broadway until a few years ago, but what got me hooked on the genre was watching a filmed production of Into the Woods on PBS. It wasn’t exactly the same experience that I would eventually have in the theater, but it was close enough to give me a taste of what live theater could be. I still will DVR episodes of Great Performances that are theater productions; it’s like finding a buried treasure in my TV listings. Sadly, these episodes are few and far between, so it is a consistent source of theater for those who are unable to access it in person. I’ve always thought that there had to be a better way to do this and last night I saw the first glimpse of a potential solution.
A new website called BroadwayHD launched that allows subscribers to stream a collection of previously recorded theater productions. That’s a nice starting point, but what they did last night was historic – for the first time ever, a Broadway production was live streamed so that people could watch it at home at the same time that people were watching it in the theater. For $10, I was able to watch recent Tony nominee She Loves Me on my couch in my pajamas. There was no way that I could pass that up. I don’t know that I would have had a lot of interest in seeing She Loves Me on Broadway, but the low price tag, comfort level, and sheer curiosity about how the live stream would work was enough to make me commit my Thursday evening.
There were a few early hiccups in the live stream experience, which I kind of expected as that seems to be the norm. The live feed kept crashing during the pre-show so I constantly had to refresh my browser and restart the feed. Thanks to Twitter, I knew that this wasn’t just an issue for me. I started to get nervous that this wasn’t going to be repaired by the time that the actual performance began, but they seemed to iron out whatever the problem was pretty quickly. I only missed about 30 seconds of the live feed because I had to refresh and that thankfully happened in-between songs. Plus She Loves Me isn’t all that complicated of a show to follow, so the momentary lapse didn’t impact my ability to know what was going on. After that, the live stream buffered only once and then it was smooth sailing for the remainder of the broadcast. So kudos to the BroadwayHD tech team for the overall experience; I’m sure the next time out, it will be executed relatively flawlessly.
She Loves Me is a revival of a 1963 musical which itself was an adaptation of a Hungarian play Parfumerie. The basic storyline of She Loves Me will be familiar to people who have seen the films The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime, or You’ve Got Mail, as all three movies are based on the same original play. She Loves Me is definitely something of a throwback to a certain kind of Broadway musical which is why it initially didn’t appeal to me enough to go see it live. My taste in musicals tends to run toward the more modern and the more edgy; think more Hamilton, Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, Rent, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch than Oklahoma, Cats, Hello Dolly or anything from the Disney Broadway machine. Even though the plot of secret pen pals who are in love with each other but loathe each other in person isn’t exactly my cup of tea, the stellar cast of Zachary Levi, Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski was definitely appealing. The cast’s performance during the Tony Awards was a little disjointed – in an attempt to service all the leads, several songs from different parts of the play were done, sans context – but I was pretty impressed with Krakowski’s splits and Levi’s vocals to move the show from a hard no on my list to a definite maybe. When I watched the live stream, my expectation were pretty low as to how much the musical would actually win me over; I figured I’d appreciate the talent but that the overall musical wouldn’t necessarily be for me.
That assessment was fairly accurate, though I enjoyed the old-fashioned story of She Loves Me more than I thought I would. I still thought that it was kind of hokey, but the strong performances were enough to push this into the win column for me. Because of the low risk on my part – $10 and two and half hours of my time – I think I was more open to the show. If I’d dropped $150+ on a ticket and a train, I may have been less charitable and have written this off as something simply not for me. When it was announce that the show was closing on July 10th, I assumed that I’d never see it.
I was pretty impressed with Zachary Levi, whose work I am not all that familiar with as I didn’t watch the series Chuck. He’s been in a lot of other stuff that I simply haven’t seen, but I’ve certainly been aware of his existence if not his body of work. Laura Benanti was more familiar to me in theory, as she was on both Go On and Supergirl, shows that I watched, but it wasn’t until about halfway through the production that I was able to place her as the same actress (thanks to IMDB). That’s also how I found out that Benanti had been on Sound of Music Live! (which I gleefully maligned). Had I put that last piece together, I would have realized that I’m not the biggest fan of Benanti’s voice; she’s definitely talented, but her sound just doesn’t appeal to me as much. I was a much bigger fan of how she pronounced the name “Novack” which for some reason made me chuckle every time she said it (which was a lot, as that was Levi’s character). The two of them had very good chemistry as the co-workers who are unaware that they are actually in love with each other. I knew all about Krakowski’s stage background, but she still was excellent as the unlucky in love Ilona. That lady can dance! The rest of the cast was excellent as well and the scenic design, for which they won the Tony, was spectacular too. The storyline isn’t anything that you haven’t seen a million times before – there is no doubt in the “will they or won’t they” department- and I don’t have a lot of patience with a premise that is based on a problem that could be resolved with one conversation, but it was still charming and sweet in its own way.
What I was most impressed with was the possibility that this live stream represented; BroadwayHD could open up the world of theater to a whole new group of people and that puts a smile on my face. It may be too early to tell, but I hope that the experiment with She Loves Me is successful enough for them to try it again. I’ll never stop going to see live theater, but this offers a more convenient and cost effective way to expand the number of shows that I could see. Honestly, this is what they should eventually do with Hamilton, though I assume that would be a ways off. Part of the reason that all parties were willing to participate in the live stream was because the show was set to close anyway; I’m not sure if the economics are such that other current shows would jump on this bandwagon until they were about to close too, which may limit the opportunities in the future. I don’t see BroadwayHD as a replacement for live theater, but rather a supplement. I perused their on demand selection of previously recorded stage performances and while there wasn’t a lot there right now that would justify me getting a subscription, I would definitely reconsider if they expanded their collection, especially if they incorporate some more recent shows. I missed seeing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Heathers, Next to Normal, and others before they closed on Broadway and I’d love to see them. So far I’ve been unlucky in seeing traveling productions, so a service like BroadwayHD would be a perfect solution to that problem. I’ll be keeping an eye on BroadwayHD for future live streams and to see what additional archival tapings that they are able to obtain.
Watching a Broadway show on a Thursday night without having to leave my apartment – what a wonderful world we’re living in.