Why TV Musicals Can Never Replace the Real Thing

Anthony J. Piccione

Over the past few years, classic Broadway musicals being broadcast on television have become a brand new phenomenon, one which is only becoming more and more prevalent. It started in 2013 with NBC’s broadcast of The Sound of Music, followed by 2014’s broadcast of Peter Pan and 2015’s broadcast of The Wiz, with a broadcast of Hairspray expected later this year in 2016. After seeing NBC’s success with TV musicals, Fox decided to air a live broadcast of Grease, and it is looking more and more likely that others will soon start to continue this trend, as well.

To be clear, I do understand the appeal of these TV musicals. I recognize that there are some families who don’t have the same access to not just Broadway theatre, but even community or regional theatre, and this might be the closest they ever get to seeing some of these classic shows. Furthermore, if bringing shows straight to someone’s living rooms in this way helps to expand the overall appeal of theatre in the modern era, then I’m all for it.

Grease Live!

Grease Live!

Having said that, I think we should also be weary of this increasingly popular trend, and make sure that it does not get to a point where it fully replaces the experience that many of still treasure dearly of seeing live performances by actually going to the theater.

This is largely why I got into theatre in the first place. To this day, I still consider the excitement and spectacle that comes with seeing a show play out on stage right before your eyes, as opposed to on your TV screen, to be a very special and unique experience that still remains an important part of my life. I suspect that I’m not alone when I feel that way, as well. Indeed, if it weren’t something that meant much to those of us who are involved in those shows, why not try going into the film industry, instead?

So why should this potentially slippery slope of televised theatre becoming more popular than live theatre be something that we are willing to accept? Oh, and if you think this possibility is overblown, just keep in mind that of any brand new shows that have had any noticeable impact or influence on culture over the past year or so, only Hamilton and its hip-hop inspired soundtrack could arguably make that claim, and it could be argued that not as many people have even heard of that one show as the televised broadcasts that I speak of.

I could go on all day about why live performance is such a unique art form, and why I prefer it to film or television any day of the week. (Stay tuned next week, if you want to hear more about that.) For now, I will just say that the performing arts are not just a medium for storytelling, although it does often excel at that when at its best. It is also an opportunity to experience such stories – and the performers who bring them to life – in person, and in ways that aren’t necessarily possible outside of theatre. If we are taking this art and trying to confine it to the small screen OR the silver screen, we risk the possibility of theatre becoming something that is more similar to other art forms – such as film and television – in which those unique ways I speak of are not possible.

Plus, for those of us who are involved directly in the production of these shows at the community level, let’s be honest: Many of us reading this blog do have a vested interest in making sure that live theatre – whether it is at the community or professional level – is not considered to be obsolete, as a result of this trend. There’s been talk about the outrage there would be if someday, jobs typically performed by humans – such as waiters or people operating the register – were someday done by machines, thus leading to more unemployed workers. If there is ever a day where televised theatre fully surpasses live theatre in terms of culturally relevance, that could very well lead to more artists in the theatre community who struggle to find a place to practice their craft. Shouldn’t such a possibility lead to similar outrage in the theatre community?

Again, I do understand why these televised broadcasts of theatrical shows can be a good thing, and I am personally not calling for getting rid of them altogether. However, I think now is a good opportunity to offer up a simple solution to the problem of not enough people having access to live theatre, which is perhaps the best reason I can think of for doing these broadcasts:

 Boost arts funding now.

Do this, and more local theatre organizations will be able to not only keep their doors open across the nation, but they will also be able to put on bigger and better shows, lower ticket prices for them and perhaps even set up better marketing campaigns for them. All of those things would likely lead to a dramatic increase in the size of audiences of live theatrical shows, and would ultimately lead to the expansion of the popularity and culturally relevance of live theatre, likely surpassing that of the current televised theatrical productions that we are now seeing more of.

So the next time you see NBC or Fox or any other TV station air a broadcast of your favorite musical, I encourage you to go ahead and watch it. They especially make good entertainment that the entire family can enjoy. But then again, so does the real thing. For the sake of theatre itself, I hope that I’m simply overreacting, and that this isn’t the beginning of something that leads to the decline of audiences of live theatre, as I fear that a big part of what truly makes this art form so special would be lost. 

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Student, playwright, actor, poet and blogger currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).