C. Austin Hill
- OnStage Ohio Columnist
Tonight I did something really remarkable. I saw a Broadway show!! I know what you are thinking, over 13 million people did that this past season. And you are right…but tonight, I made history…I watched a Broadway show, performed live, from my living room in Youngstown, Ohio. And I may or may not have been wearing pants.
Of course I’m talking about the live-streamed performance of She Loves Me on BroadwayHD.com. This event was a make or break moment for the website, which up until now has carried films of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows available by monthly subscription. I joined the day they launched, mostly out of curiosity, but never became a subscriber…I had already seen most of what was available, and had no interest in the rest. Sure, David Hasselhoff’s Jekyll and Hyde was neat, but I saw it decades ago. But wait, BroadwayHD told us, there’s more on the way. They were right.
Streaming She Loves Me was a difficult endeavor. The website and Studio 54 had to negotiate with Actor’s Equity and the Screen Actor’s Guild (is it a stage play or a film?), and with all of the other stakeholders in the production, and there was a nagging question of whether the technology was up to the challenge. I must say that for me, it worked pretty well.
I have seen reports that many viewers, especially those using AppleTV and ROKU had some very serious issues ranging from billing problems to outright failure, but that wasn’t the case for us. We streamed straight from our computer, ran via HDMI to our TV and had a beautiful HD picture throughout. We did experience some spotty audio, but I don’t know whether that was a problem on our end or theirs—and, frankly, I’ve had worse audio experiences in live theatres. I was able to log in without issue, and for $9.99 My wife and I enjoyed a lovely evening.
The show itself was charming, clever, and very well performed. I didn’t know much about the story going in, but as a fan of the 1940 film Shop Around the Corner, I quickly caught on. The musical is an adaptation, as is the afore-mentioned film (and the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail as well as the Judy Garland musical In the Good old Summertime (1949)), of the play Parfumerie by Hungarian playwright Miklós László. If you have seen any of these you know the story already…boy and girl meet through anonymous letters and fall in love, then meet in the workplace and can’t stand each other. Inevitably, they fall in love in real life. It’s a cute story, and in the case of She Loves Me, delightful. The cast was excellent, of course, with beautiful voices and excellent performances all around.
What I found particularly noteworthy about this streaming experience, though, was the fact that it felt very like we were in the room. Once I got the stream set up and was fairly sure it would work, I found that I had the same type of butterflies I get when I sit in an auditorium before a show—I could almost feel the energy in the room. This surprised me. As a life-long theatre person, I have always privileged live performance. Thought I love filmed stage productions, they are always lacking that connection to the event, as though losing the ephemerality of the moment—the precise phenomenological moment of theatre-making. This was somehow different, and I am not sure I understand why. It might be because it was REALLY live…I was watching at precisely the moment that Laura Benanti’s ice cream fell in her lap. I heard the audience respond, and I saw her respond, and it felt like I was in the “room where it happened” (sorry not sorry).
That’s not to say that the experience was perfect. As with all other filmed theatre, I really wish that the editors would learn to zoom out. I love close-ups, but a stage play is made to be seen from a distance. Directors carefully plat their mise-en-scene for a larger point of view…and film editors need to learn to respect that—particularly in large group numbers (like the song "Twelve Days to Christmas" near the end of the show). Yes, we like to see them sweat—but I’d prefer to see the choreography if it’s all the same to you.
I am interested in seeing the figures from this experiment, if they are released to the public—I want to know how many tuned in, how many had problems, and how many were left as satisfied as I am. I’d love to know the financial numbers—was there a profit? I do not foresee any negative impact on ticket sales—the show is closing in 10 days anyway, and if anything, this may drive people to the theatre to see it live.
In the end, for this reviewer, it was an excellent evening of (what felt like) live theatre. I am delighted to have been able to see this show before it closed, and certainly would not have had it not been streamed. I’m looking forward to BroadwayHD’s next live-stream from Broadway—and I would gladly pay to do this again.