Broadway’s biggest spotlight will be on the 73rd annual Tony Awards on Sunday, held at New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall.
The reality though is that even people who love the theater may only get to a handful of shows each year. They either can’t visit the Big Apple very often, a touring company hasn’t come to their own hometowns, or they simply cannot afford the average price of a single Broadway ticket, roughly $125 for a musical.
The husband and wife producer/filmmaker team of Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley — each with multiple Tonys — aims to bring Broadway to audiences instead, via the subscription-based BroadwayHD service they launched four years ago. Think of it as a streaming substitute for the Great White Way.
For $8.99 a month or $99.99 a year (after a 7-day free trial), you can watch more than 300 full-length on-demand productions, ranging from venerable musicals such as “42nd Street” and “The King and I” to Shakespeare. You can watch via the web, on your phone or tablet, and through Apple TV, Roku or Chromecast.
Beyond the Broadway stage, shows were captured in off-Broadway theaters, as well as venues in London’s West End.
Lane and Comley see BroadwayHD.com as a streaming aggregator for theater content. But streamed shows have turned up elsewhere, notably on Netflix, which offers, for example, “Springsteen on Broadway,” and “Shrek the Musical.”
Broadway itself has been experiencing a boom of late, with record-breaking box-office sales approaching $2 billion last year. Crowds have been lured by popular shows like “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hanson,” “Wicked, “The Lion King” and “The Book of Mormon,” among others.
Before you get your hopes up though, none of the aforementioned mega-hits are in the BroadwayHD catalog, nor are other first-run Broadway productions. In some cases, you can see earlier productions of shows currently on the Broadway stage, including “Oklahoma” (a 1999 version with Hugh Jackman) and “Kiss Me Kate” (from 2003).
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If you search for a classic show such as “West Side Story,” what you get instead is a 1985 documentary of “The Making of `West Side Story’” featuring its legendary composer Leonard Bernstein.
You won’t find much when it comes to decades old classics, assuming even decent archival footage of such material exists.
“We focus on things that are either closing, or limited runs and celebrity driven,” Comley says.
She adds that the challenge with many of the biggest shows isn’t so much about obtaining the rights to them, but rather how it relates to the potential timing of their release.
“A lot of the producers of the live stage version believe there is a possibility of cannibalization of the live ticket sales,” she says, adding some major shows get turned into movies.
Still, Comley believes that capturing performances for later viewing is additive to the business and will become standard procedure in the marketing toolkit for a show, just like the audio cast recording of a musical.
Meanwhile, if a live tour of a show that might otherwise be offered on BroadwayHD goes to a particular city, the site has the ability to “geo-block” the performance so that it cannot be viewed in that area during its run.
The Tony’s connection
Not surprisingly, BroadwayHD is marketing its connections to the 2019 Tony nominees.
For example, you can watch Kelli O’Hara, who is currently nominated for “Kiss Me Kate,” in “The King and I,” for which she won a previous Tony. Or watch “Hadestown” nominee Eva Noblezada, in an earlier performance of “Miss Saigon.”
There’s an available concert with Stephanie J. Block, and you can also watch her starring role in “Falsettos.” The actress is now up for a Tony as the lead in “The Cher Show.”
You’ll also find a section of the site devoted to Tony nominees through the years, where you’ll find shows like “She Loves You,” Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” and “An American in Paris.”
Other available productions include “Phantom of the Opera,” “Gypsy,” “Billy Elliot,” “Cats,” and “Les Miserables.” Cirque du Soleil is also available.
“When you see one of our shows, you’ll see the audience there, you’ll hear them applauding, shrieking, coughing,” Lane says. And when “you see the actors on stage, it’s not sanitized. They’re sweating on stage and huffing and puffing at the end of a number and we want you to feel part of that.”
Indeed, the production values on some of the shows I watched — notably “42nd Street” — were very high. The show, which features a cast with more than 50 actors, was filmed in 4K, utilizing eight cameras at three performances at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the West End.
I did encounter one snag watching BroadwayHD fare on Apple TV. I was unable to fast-forward to a particular point in a show, a known bug the company is working to fix. The issue didn’t surface when I watched on my iPhone or computer.
And I didn’t generally have any trouble finding stuff I wanted to watch either, but even at that I kept thinking about a list of shows I wish were available. Comley herself summed it up best: “We all want `Hamilton.’”
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