Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
Broadway, recognized around the world as perhaps the pinnacle of live entertainment, has a new peak: the live digital capture. Digital capture, also known as live capture, is the industry term referring to the recording of a stage production, ideally in front of a live audience in the theater. It’s not a film adaptation or movie but rather a hybrid of the stage production recorded in real-time with multiple cameras, sometimes over multiple days.
As a Broadway producer and in running a Broadway live capture streaming service, I’m already attuned to live captures as a hybrid art form. What’s exciting to me is that this trend is starting to enter the mainstream.
HBO, Netflix and Amazon have acquired Broadway shows starring Bruce Springsteen, David Byrne, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Will Ferrell, Mike Tyson and John Leguizamo, among others. These big names are not usually associated with Broadway and have a much broader fan base. They do limited engagements that typically sell out, win Tonys and bring global attention to Broadway. Then they go back to making music, television or film, which increases the value of the digital capture because it documented a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event.
But isn’t every Broadway show a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event? The performance will never be exactly the same and the audience will never be exactly the same, so every performance could be considered a once-in-a-lifetime event. PBS and the BBC share this belief and have included live captures in their arts and culture programming for close to fifty years.
So why aren’t all Broadway shows available for streaming?
A digital capture of a Broadway show is expensive and invasive, and it has complicated rights issues, but the biggest hurdle has been the producers of the Broadway production. In my experience, their resistance to a digital capture is the timing of the digital release, otherwise known as the cannibalization of the box office. The cannibalization fear is that the ticket sales to the live stage version might be compromised if there was a digital version of the show available at the same time at a lower price. Based on my experience, the average price of a single ticket to a Broadway musical — depending on the show and the day — is about $125, while the average price to a streaming service is far lower than that, typically at about $10-$15 per month to watch its entire library of shows.
Digital capture as an art form is well illustrated by Hamilton appearing on Disney+. Hamilton was scheduled for an in-cinema release, but due to the pandemic, it was released on July 3, 2020, and it is reported that Disney+ app downloads spiked 72 percent over the weekend the live capture was released on the platform. The results from a TodayTix poll of Hamilton showed that “of the respondents that watched Hamilton on Disney+ and had not seen the live stage show, 39% are now more likely to buy a ticket” to the stage show.
As tickets to the stage productions for Hamilton go on sale in Australia, the U.K. and Broadway tours, I believe we can put to rest the fear that after viewing the digital version of a Broadway show, customers will not buy a ticket to the live stage show.
The Golden Globe nominations for the Hamilton digital capture have brought new attention to this art form and set an example of what a well-done capture can do, including competing with Hollywood movies. Hamilton’s accolades also validate the value of the original stage cast. Many film adaptations have used movie stars to replace stage cast members, but they can often fall short. This may be due to the fact that the stage actors have developed and inhabited their characters over numerous productions, giving depth to performances that can’t be matched or duplicated.
The producers of Diana: The Musical and the Tony-nominated Come From Away have taken heed and included the stage actors in their upcoming digital captures. The Diana musical, which will feature the Broadway cast, will start streaming on Netflix on October 1, and the opening night for live stage performances is November 17. The Tony-nominated musical Come From Away has just announced that the digital capture will be available on Apple TV+ in September 2021, 20 years after 9/11. These simultaneous streaming and live performance models will likely be examined closely by Broadway insiders as they weigh the risk/rewards of this business strategy.
Digital captures are making Broadway more accessible by bringing down the barriers of economics and geography. They also eliminate risk by allowing consumers a chance to sample the show before buying a higher-priced ticket to the stage show. They give Broadway theater actors and the show itself greater recognition by allowing a wider audience to view the work. Live Broadway stage shows are more likely to be licensed and produced in additional markets if they have a digital capture.
As digital capture becomes more commonplace in the Broadway industry, I believe we can expect this hybrid art form to become even more innovative and celebrated. Audiences are also becoming familiar with digital capture and are making requests on social media for shows that they want to see. The pandemic has brought a renewed appreciation for live stage shows and an understanding of the value of digital capture.