Show and tell: Taking theatre out of the theatre

Televised versions of live showings can't capture the magic of theatre, argues James Daly. Image credit: mxmstryo

I don’t know if any other theatre nerds found it as agonising as I did when everyone started singing Les Misérables songs after the release of the 2012 all-star cast movie version of the classic 1985 musical, but it was a tough time. This was our thing, our songs and characters that we held so dearly. Yet the musical was being appropriated by people who may never even have set foot in a theatre, let alone heard every existing Les Mis cast recording, instead having experienced only the extremely questionable film soundtrack. The silver lining of this whole event is that you can now use an obscure Les Mis reference in daily conversation without people thinking you’re a French revolutionary, ballad-obsessed freak.

Whilst there hasn’t been a film adaptation of any major musicals for a while, the new norm appears to be NBC’s one night only, televised screenings of live versions of shows, which fall somewhere between a movie and a recorded stage version. The first hit in this format was The Sound of Music Live! which starred Carrie Underwood as Maria. It went down so well that NBC have since programmed Grease Live!, Peter Pan Live!, The Wiz Live!, and, coming later this year, Hairspray Live! (the overly enthusiastic Live! of course being totally necessary to convey the sheer excitement surrounding the event). Enjoyable as these one-off productions are, it does make you wonder whether they signal an end of certain shows’ theatrical careers; after watching them, people may well have had their Sound of Music or Grease dosage and would probably refrain from going to a theatrical production of the same show any time soon. 18.62 million people tuned into The Sound of Music Live!, which is more than enough people to keep a show running for years on Broadway. Of course, I love the idea of musicals reaching as many people as possible, but these live broadcasts on national television remove the isolated magic of watching a performance in a theatre where you have the thrill of knowing you are one of the only people seeing that spectacle at that time. Now the experience of shows designed to fill huge New York auditoriums is on a par with watching The X Factor or Downton Abbey.

A similarly recent and popular custom is the screening in nationwide cinemas of particularly highly acclaimed plays, such as The Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which gave thousands more people the opportunity to see Gillian Anderson’s stand-out performance, or the upcoming The Audience with Helen Mirren. Now, this is what we need. Going to the theatre is expensive, and let’s not even get started on the cost of train tickets to and from London. But by bringing these performances to local screens for a third of the price, the people involved are doing wonders for increasing access into theatre as well as building interest in contemporary culture. On the contrary, the one night, Live! adaptations give people a glimpse of a world of theatre that doesn’t actually exist in an overly lavish format, distancing audiences from the raw nature of the performance which is what makes a theatre trip so special, something cinema screenings at least attempt to emulate.

By no means should theatre be exclusive or elite but it does have a dignified distinction from popular culture and the mass media that is being threatened by wonderfully accessible but ultimately reductive adaptations. Having said this, at the end of the day* the dream of theatre is to reach out to as many people as possible and so it doesn’t really matter if that involves tweaking the environment in which it’s seen or the form it takes. There’s just a little part of me that wishes the magic of theatre could stay our little secret…

*An example of a Les Mis reference in daily use, as made acceptable by the 2012 film, thank you Tom Hooper.

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