Stream Heat: Netflix, Broadway Theatre, and Industrial Convergence
Peter C. Kunze / Eckerd College

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in American Son
Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale star in American Son on Broadway.

This past January, Netflix announced it would film Christopher Demos-Brown’s play American Son following its Broadway run. Kerry Washington, the production’s star, described the Netflix project as a “movie-play hybrid event.” [ ((Peter Libbey, “American Son Play Starring Kerry Washington Will Be Adapted by Netflix,” New York Times, January 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/theater/american-son-kerry-washington-netflix.html.))] More recently, producer Ryan Murphy revealed his Netflix deal would include adaptations of the Broadway musical The Prom and the 2018 revival of Mart Crawley’s The Boys in the Band that Murphy co-produced and that featured a star-studded cast including Matt Bomer, Robin De Jesús, Jim Parsons, and Andrew Rannells. (Whether these films would be shot in a theatre or a studio remains unclear.) Nevertheless, these projects demonstrate the streaming service’s ongoing flirtation with Broadway theatre, which previously included filmed-on-stage versions of the Nick Kroll-John Mulaney show, Oh, Hello; a Bruce Springsteen concert from his 14-month residency at the Walter Kerr Theatre; and John Leguizamo’s one-man show, Latin History for Morons.

The Wiz Live!
The Wiz Live! on NBC, starring Shanice Williams and Amber Riley.

To be fair, the venture into filming live theatre seems a natural extension of Netflix’s success with stand-up comedy specials, which depend on similar modes of production. The streaming service’s interest also continues the media industries’ longstanding strategy of poaching content and talent from the live entertainment industries. In her work on Broadway musicals and television, Kelly Kessler points to various reasons historically and more recently for television’s attraction to Broadway theatre. When television production largely originated from New York, Broadway provided highly skilled actors and dramatists prepared to work in the emerging medium. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Broadway in the Box: Television’s Infancy and the Cultural Cachet of the Great White Way,” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 25, no. 3 (2013): 352.))] More recently, musical episodes and live TV musicals capitalize on their status as event television, and viewers tune in to see it first, catch amusing errors, or participate in conversations on social media. [ ((Kelly Kessler, “Primetime Goes Hammerstein: The Musicalization of Primetime Fictional Television in the Post-Network Era,” The Journal of e-Media Studies, 4, no. 1. (2015): n.p.))] Today, Broadway provides streaming services the opportunity to film and distribute already packaged and produced shows while diversifying their offerings.

While we cannot assume the Broadway audience and the Netflix, Hulu, and/or Amazon Prime audience(s) are exactly the same, all of them heavily depend on a middle-class consumers base for their survival and expansion. The average Broadway customer, for example, has a household income exceeding $200,000 and annually attends five shows, where the average ticket price usually exceeds $100 each. [ ((Michael Paulson, “Not Just for Grown-Ups: The Broadway Audience Is Getting Younger,” New York Times, October 19, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/19/theater/broadway-league-theater-audience-demographics.html.))] Variety reported last year that the planned Netflix price increases scared away customers with lower incomes, which suggests the middle class remains their primary demographic. [ ((Janko Roettgers, “Netflix’s Latest Price Hike May Have Scared Away Low-Income Consumers,” Variety, August 28, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/netflix-low-income-price-hike-1202918302/.))] Only PBS provides broadcast viewers with regular access to the performing arts, so filmed theatre represents an opportunity to tap into that network’s demographic. It attracts or satisfies subscribers who seek out this form of middlebrow entertainment. And filming Broadway shows allows streaming services to avoid supporting development costs to purchase a fairly polished product.

Celia Keenan Bolger and Jeff Daniels in To Kill a Mockingbird
Despite top ticket prices of $497, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird took six months to recoup its investment.

Most interestingly, streaming services have been more attracted to the straight play than the musical. Broadway obviously works in a fundamentally different way than film and television, and musicals have been almost consistently popular there while musicals’ esteem on the big screen has wavered over time. Producing Broadway theatre remains a notoriously risky endeavor, and the majority of shows never recuperate their investments while on Broadway. For example, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird opened to rave reviews and high demand in December 2018, but it only recovered its capitalization in late April 2019. Straight plays are much cheaper to produce than musicals, as seen by the fact that the Broadway version of Newsies—the most modestly staged of Disney musicals—still took 41 weeks to recover its investment. Kyle Meikle rightly observes that musical adaptations exploit special effects and special affects to maximize their commercial appeal, leading to higher costs and (hopefully) higher payoffs. [ ((Kyle Meikle, Adaptations in the Franchise Era, 2001-16 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 142.))] Most Broadway shows (especially musicals) make their money either on the road, through licenses to amateur and regional theatre companies, or by selling the movie rights. American Son and similar plays provide a rich opportunity to streaming services because they do not have enough name recognition for a national tour or major motion picture without a major star at the helm, but the star power of Kerry Washington makes a filmed stage version a desirable acquisition for a streaming services like NetFlix, Amazon Prime, or the theatre-focused BroadwayHD.

Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson in King Lear
Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson star in a limited-run revival of King Lear.

Burn This, Tracy Letts and Annette Bening in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, or Glenda Jackson as the title character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, to maximize appeal with a familiar stage property. Brand new plays almost always need film, television, or stage stars to attract financial backers as well as committed and casual theatregoers. Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton with Laurie Metcalfe and John Lithgow is a good recent example. Since these stars often cannot commit an entire year (or the energy) to take the show on the road around the country, streaming services offer an easy payday for the creative team, a record of the performances and production, and an advertisement for the magic of live theatre (in a negotiated form, of course). As Elisabeth Vincentelli noted, “theater is distinguished by the uniqueness of the moment, [but] sometimes you just want to rewind that moment as soon as it’s over.” [ ((Elisabeth Vincentelli, “A Night at the Theater From Your Couch? No Apologies Needed.” New York Times, November 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/theater/theater-streaming-services-cennarium-broadwayhd.html.))]

Santino Fontana stars as Tootsie
Santino Fontana stars in the 2019 Broadway musical Tootsie, based on the 1982 film.

For years now, Broadway critics and fans alike have lamented the theatre’s dependence on Hollywood properties. [ ((Terry Teachout, “The Broadway Musical Crisis,” Commentary, July 2014, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-broadway-musical-crisis/))] In the last year alone, musical adaptations of Beetlejuice, King Kong, and Tootsie have made their way to the Great White Way, while stage versions of Mean Girls and Waitress continue to draw audiences. Disney Theatrical, which prefers to run three shows at a time, dominates the box office with The Lion King (in its 21st year), Aladdin (in its 5th), and Frozen (in its 2nd). Sony and Comcast maintain theatrical investments on Broadway via Columbia Live Stage and Universal Theatrical Group, respectively. Of course, the move of Hollywood properties to the stage dates to at least as far back as when Cole Porter adapted Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka into the 1955 musical Silk Stockings. Most of the Broadway shows from the Golden Age (arguably Oklahoma! in 1943 until the 1960s) were based on plays, short stories, novels, even memoirs. Musicalizing Hollywood films reflects the culture industries’ familiar risk management strategy of using pre-sold properties to guarantee audiences, at least at the outset. [ ((Peter Marks, “If It’s a Musical, It Was Probably a Movie,” New York Times, April 14, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/14/movies/if-it-s-a-musical-it-was-probably-a-movie.html.))] The dependence on Hollywood films may be less a matter of creative bankruptcy than a reflection of how movies have surpassed literature as the most popular storytelling medium. Television, on the other hand, remains a largely untapped resource for Broadway. As entertainment conglomerates acquire or revitalize properties, we might expect stage adaptations of musical series such as Glee, Smash, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or even shows that occasionally draw upon musical theatre conventions like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

Ryan Murphy announces The Prom
As part of his Netflix deal, Ryan Murphy announced an adaptation of the Broadway musical, The Prom.

But one also should note the representational politics behind these popular shows, both on and off the stage. Despite signs of improving diversity in recent years through the alternative casting practices of Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and Frozen, productions by, about, and starring white people comprise the bulk of Broadway theatre. The projects Ryan Murphy will produce—The Prom and The Boys in the Band—explore queer characters and themes, but still feature predominantly white casts. (In fairness, Murphy also produces Pose, a show that has promoted the talent of trans people of color.) The responsibility here rests on the industry collectively rather than one producer exclusively. Broadway, of course, is only one piece of the New York theatre scene. Off-Broadway (theatres for 100-499 audience members) and Off-Off Broadway (theatres for less than 99 audience members) often offer more diverse casts and creative teams as well as more challenging subject matter, but these productions often do not receive the buzz or possess the mainstream marketability to garner streaming services’ attention.

Despite the increasing excitement and promise between Broadway and the traditional media, scholars have paid limited attention to this revitalized relationship, though the tide is changing. For example, Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical, Kelly Kessler’s history of Broadway musicals and television, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Erica Moulton has written an illuminating series of articles for Playback that explore the formal conventions behind filmed theatre, including the Ivo van Hove adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network and the Spike Lee-directed film of the Antoinette Nwandu play Pass Over that Amazon Prime curiously distributed with minimal promotion. Recent SCMS presentations by Laura Felschow, Britta Hanson, and Jamie Hook represent a new generation of scholarship. Even Francis Ford Coppola has published a book championing a new medium he calls live cinema—”conceived as cinema and yet not losing the thrill of a living performance” [ ((Francis Ford Coppola, Live Cinema and Its Techniques (New York: Liveright, 2017), xiii.))]—that draws from filmic and theatrical modes of production and exhibition.

Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell star in Fosse Verdon
Broadway talent Thomas Kail and Steven Levenson co-created the FX miniseries, Fosse/Verdon.

The interdependence, even rivalry, between the film and theater industries date back to earliest days of Hollywood. Radio, television, and streaming extended and complicated these lifelines, and this interindustrial network of labor, narratives, and technologies remains as important now as it was when these respective media emerged. Tom Hooper is directing a film version of Cats after years of failed attempts by others, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are adapting West Side Story, and Disney has recruited Broadway talent Lin-Manuel Miranda, Justin Paul, and Benj Pasek for the remakes of its animated classics. On television, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and Dear Evan Hansen book writer Steven Levenson co-created Fosse/Verdon, the miniseries examining the turbulent creative and romantic relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and dancer Gwen Verdon, while an upcoming Lifetime movie about country music legends Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline is led by Broadway stars Jessie Mueller and Megan Hilty. These projects reveal the ongoing marketability of Broadway projects, the profit potential the film and television industries have found in appealing to theatre fans, and the movement of Broadway talent around the culture industries. Indeed theatre and live entertainment remain vital contributors to the operation and livelihood of what we insist on calling “media conglomerates.”

Image Credits:
1. Playbill
2. NPR
3. The New York Times
4. The Los Angeles Times
5. The Hollywood Reporter
6. Author’s Screenshot.
7. The Wall Street Journal

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There’s a Place for Us: Finding a Home for Theater in Media Studies
Peter C. Kunze / University of Texas at Austin


Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, and Jane Krakowski star in the Broadway revival of She Loves Me, which was recently streamed via BroadwayHD.

Last month, two noteworthy moments in media history took place–though we might not understand them as such. On June 12, Scott Rudin won Tony Awards as the producer of the Best Play (The Humans) and the Best Revival of a Play (A View from the Bridge) on top of his four other production nominations. Two weeks later, BroadwayHD, a NetFlix-like service offering recordings of Broadway shows, streamed She Loves Me live from Broadway for paying customers online. Rudin’s win highlights a career split between Broadway and Hollywood, where he has numerous productions to his credit (including the Oscar-winning Best Picture, No Country for Old Men) and a good deal more to come. (Next year alone, he has already announced three star-studded revivals: Nathan Lane and John Slattery in The Front Page, Sally Field in The Glass Menagerie, and Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!) BroadwayHD reveals a fascinating intersection between the theater and new media technologies, offering individuals who might never make it to New York City or even the nearest theater the opportunity to see a stage musical in real time with its Broadway cast. Taken together, these events reveal not only the crossroads of theater and media, but theater as media.

rudin

Scott Rudin stands behind playwright Stephen Karam as he accepts the Tony Award for The Humans, which Rudin produced.

My goal here is to argue for the greater inclusion of theater in the studying and teaching of media. Obviously, the theater is of great importance for scholars of early cinema, since much of the talent on stage and behind the scenes transitioned from the vaudeville or Broadway stages to the studios around New York City and later Los Angeles. Film theorists, from André Bazin and Sergei Eisenstein to Susan Sontag and Tom Gunning, have understood the phenomenon of film through and against theater. Since those early days of studio filmmaking, Hollywood pursued an active, albeit often tense, relationship with Broadway. Stars tried, with varying degree of success, to move between the stage and screen. The New York stage not only provided a testing ground for new talent, but a venue to work out new material. Not everyone welcomed this partnership, of course. Influential drama critic Brooks Atkinson lamented the Hollywood-bankrolled Broadway shows seemed better suited for the screen than the stage, since they were often less artistically daring and required numerous scene changes. [ ((Brooks Atkinson, “Hollywood Dough,” New York Times, November 10, 1935)) ] Indeed, Broadway’s flop often became Hollywood’s next spectacle.

brooks

Brooks Atkinson, the revered New York Times drama critic, feared Hollywood bankrolling Broadway would compromise the theater’s artistic integrity.

In the 1960s and 1970s, several musicals reversed the Broadway-to-Hollywood pathway, as Hollywood movies provided the source material for Broadway hits, including Carnival!; She Loves Me; Promises, Promises; and Sugar. The rock musicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Hair, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar) followed by the blockbuster spectacles of the 1980s (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables) proved that Broadway was not immune to the blockbuster mentality that took over Hollywood in the late 1970s. The turn of the 21st century saw more film-to-stage musicals, and then a full circle: the movie musical based on a stage musical based on a movie, including The Producers, Hairspray, and Nine (based on Fellini’s ). Furthermore, transmedia storytelling might be extended to the stage, especially as Disney expanded Beauty and the Beast for its Broadway adaptation in 1994 and fans of Harry Potter are currently flocking to see the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End of London. Today, companies such as Disney not only license their creative properties for merchandise, but also for amateur stage productions starring children. In an age of convergence and conglomeration, theater has a rightful place alongside film, television, and new media.

potter

The Harry Potter franchise hits the boards in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

A common assumption is that the essence of theater is its intimacy and immediacy–the sense that it is not mediated. Of course, in reality, the theater has long depended upon mediation. One could easily argue the body and the voice become media in live performance. Media technologies have also made their way into numerous productions, especially major Broadway shows. The 2005 production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White used animations projected on a curved screen in lieu of more traditional set designs, while a 2011 production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart projected a growing list of names of AIDS victims onto the stage to underscore the disease’s devastating impact. A cinematic-style rear projection in the recent West End production of Gypsy cues the audience that Mama Rose has hit the road, while The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime employs a complex lighting design and projections to represent the protagonist’s mind. We could even go back further to consider the controversial use of microphones, speakers, and pre-recorded sound in the theater in recent decades. In Broadway: The Golden Age, Jerry Orbach lamented, “Now miking in the theater not only changes the theater, but kind of destroys it. It’s not the same experience. It’s not live. Live is unmiked.” Media and media technologies have fundamentally changed what theater is and how one can and should experience it.

normalheart

The 2011 Broadway production of The Normal Heart projected the names of AIDS victims.

For example, the theater has long depended upon paratexts and ancillary products, like programs, playbills, and, more recently, merchandise. In 1957 and 1958, the Original Broadway Cast recording of My Fair Lady was the best-selling album in any genre in the United States, while The Sound of Music, Camelot, and Hello, Dolly! were the most popular in 1960, 1961, and 1964, respectively. (The soundtrack to West Side Story topped 1962 and 1963.) Last year, Hamilton had the most successful cast album debut in nearly 50 years, even making an appearance on Billboard’s Rap Album chart. [ ((Keith Caulfield, “Hamilton‘s Historic Chart Debut: By the Numbers,” Billboard, October 7, 2015, available at www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/6722015/hamilton-cast-album-billboard-200.)) ] Indeed the massive popularity of Hamilton far eclipses those who have been able to see it on stage, suggesting that the theater experience exists for many by way of these related media products, be it the album or the recently released companion book. Broadway fans not only sing their favorite showtunes and collect signed playbills at stage doors; they can buy the T-shirt, the DVD recording, the keychain, and the coffee mug. Furthermore, series such Fox’s Glee and the CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend make direct appeals to Broadway fans. Rachel Bloom, co-creator and star of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, considers herself an avowed Broadway fan, and many of the principals have backgrounds in musical theater. Attentive viewers also will notice several of the series’ original songs are passionate homages to canonical musicals like The Music Man, Company, Dreamgirls, and Les Misérables.


Donna Lynne Champlin from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend sings “After Everything I’ve Done For You,” a playful take on “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy.

Just as Hollywood’s profits are soaring, so, too, are Broadway’s. In both 2014 and 2015, Broadway grossed over $1.3 billion, [ ((Gordon Cox, “Broadway Box Office Rings in $1.35 Billion in 2015, Gets Record-Breaking Start to 2016,” Variety, January 4, 2016, available at variety.com/2016/legit/news/broadway-box-office-2015-records-1201671519/)) ] and with shows on the boards that are produced by either Hollywood producers or conglomerates like Disney or Warner Brothers, those of us interested in media industry studies will be well-served paying more attention to this effort at diversification. Granted, Broadway shows may not regularly yield the same profits as Hollywood films, but they can extend a franchise or brand and maintain the commercial viability of said entities. In some rare instances, however, Broadway shows and their national and international tours have grossed amounts that rival or even eclipse the biggest Hollywood blockbusters; in 2014, Deadline Hollywood reported Disney’s stage version of The Lion King had grossed $6.2 billion. [ ((Jeremy Gerard, “Hakuna Matata, Baby: Disney Claims Record $6.2 Billion Gross for Lion King,” Deadline Hollywood, September 22, 2014, available at deadline.com/2014/09/disney-lion-king-highest-grossing-show-at-6-2-billion-838482/)) ] This potential for high profits, however, has meant more members in a production team, bigger budgets, more revivals of proven properties, and higher ticket prices–news that Broadway denizens have regularly lambasted. This industrial transition will sound familiar for scholars of film and television.

lionking

Disney’s The Lion King has grossed over $6 billion since it opened in November 1997.

Admittedly, one reason that theater has received limited attention so far is that it is its own field: theater and performance studies. Rather than see this fact as a deterrent, we might embrace it as an opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary scholarship and collaboration. Greater consideration of performance might also push us to explore other aspects of conglomerates’ site-specific media endeavors, such as theme parks, film and music festivals, and awards shows. While I have privileged Broadway in this discussion, we could — and should — follow the lead of our colleagues in theater history and criticism by equally turning our attention to off-Broadway, touring, regional, and local productions. If the play’s the thing in which Hamlet catches the conscience of the king, theater might just prove to be another generative inroad to better understand the logics, practices, and products of the historical and contemporary cultural industries.

Photo Credits
1. Rudin wins for The HumansNew York Times
2. Brooks Atkinson – Theatrical Intelligence
3. Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildBBC
4. The Normal HeartNew York Times
5. The Lion KingNewYork.com