With the unfortunate year we have all had the entertainment we can get from our screens has become more prominent for us all - but what does that mean for musical theatre? There has always been a strong relationship between the theatre curtain and the silver screen, but if this year without the option of live musicals has proved anything, it's that there may be a new way forward.
I’ve always loved musicals – sure, I’m not one of those fanatics who can recite the lyrics to every song or list all the characters from the latest West End hit, but I’ve always enjoyed it when I’ve had the chance to experience it. The issue for me is that it isn’t really that accessible; living quite far away from London, it’s rare that I have the time or the money to make the trip down to soak up the atmosphere of the bustling theatres of the city. Of course, this isn’t even an option now with the damning hands of COVID grinding a tragic halt to the industry and seeing many lose not only their jobs but also their passion. However, the show must go on, and it has.
I think the recent recording of ‘Hamilton’ that has made its way onto the Disney streaming service is a great example here. For years I’ve been hearing rave reviews about the fabulous new play but was never really able to get myself to watch; and had it not become available to stream I possibly never would have. However, with the availability of the musical now I was able to enjoy it from the comfort of my own home. I think for theatre this is a great chance to reach out to a wider audience who may never before have experienced the highs and lows of live drama and give them a taste of the magical world of the stage. There is of course the argument that maybe once people have seen it on streaming platforms, they may feel no need to buy expensive tickets to see them live, but for me the point of theatre is not so much the story, it is the atmosphere. After all, that is the magic of being live; you could go and watch the same play 15 times and it would be subtly different every single time. This is why I don’t think streaming is actually a threat to theatre at all; whilst watching ‘Hamilton’ gave me the whole story, the live crowd noises gave me just a taste of the atmosphere that left me desperate to experience it myself. Furthermore; having heard the rave reviews of 'Hamilton' then seen myself just how good it is, I am now desperate to watch some of the other shows that have been popular in the past few years and I think others will be too. By giving people an easily accessible taste of what musical theatre has to offer, the industry can not only generate another source of income, but also capture fans with the magic that hopefully sees sell-out shows upon re-opening.
Whilst not a new avenue by any stretch, I think theatre stands to gain so much from the storylines that become popular on our screens. Think how many series, films and documentaries even have become so prevalent to our society in lockdown. People who find themselves at home have been relying on these for entertainment and thus the engagement in some of the storylines has been phenomenal. I really think theatre can take advantage of this. Whilst live shows have been off the cards, writers and producers alike have been able to watch on as tigers and chess players take the world by storm; so what better way to bring punters back than to tell them their favourite stories in the magical musical format? Of course I’m not saying there should be a Joe Exotic musical; and I’m certainly not guaranteeing that basing a musical off of a successful show or film will bring success. There are so many moving parts that need to come together from the lighting, the music writing, the staging and the acting. However, if these parts do work well, as we have seen in the past with the likes of 'Legally Blonde', this could be a gold mine for musical theatre. Fans of the film or series will be ecstatic to see one of their favourites in a stage form; others will be curious to see how the film has been interpreted on stage, whilst some musical fans may be excited to see how a popular script has been put into song. Whatever the reason though, basing a musical off of a popular film is sure to bring in fans who may not have found themselves in the auditorium otherwise. Of course, this relationship works two ways and we have also seen musicals adapted for the screen, or even written with the screen in mind, and this is a bonus too. Whilst it may seem that Hollywood can swoop in and snatch popular theatre stories and project them to the masses for profit, you could also argue this is again likely to drive fans back to theatres to see the story in its true and original form.
Another noteworthy point is the great music that gets exposed to us all when musicals are pushed to the masses. It seems a recent thing but thinking back over the years there are a few examples of when music from musical films or theatre has dominated the charts. The most recent that spring to mind are the soundtracks from 'The Greatest Showman', 'Moana' and 'Hamilton'; three great musicals with great music. I have a feeling that music from the theatre or silver screen will become even more dominant in the charts in the future; the songs offer something very different from the rest of the Top 40. First of all, the writing is inspirational; not only are the songs filled with great motifs, melody and instrumentation, but the lyrics are so unique; they tell us part of a story. I think this is one of the main reasons people engage with the music so much; whilst a catchy chart track can be great, a musical theatre song can transport you into a story, take you back to the theatre and engage you with the characters. In today’s age, escapism is such a key mechanism for a lot of us, and what better way to escape than to immerse yourself in five minutes of a story full of our favourite characters? This is surely likely to drive people to theatres in the same way people go to a concert - to hear their favourite songs performed live, and not only that but to see it in its purest form as part of the production.
So should musical theatre pursue its courtship with the screen further? Absolutely. As I said before I’d love to be able to make my way to the theatre more but reality stipulates otherwise; especially in the last year. This means that had it not been for the streaming of 'Hamilton' I simply never would have been able to see it, and with all the hype surrounding it I’d have really felt like I was missing out. I really believe that with a year of lost action to make up for and with everyone unable to attend theatres at the minute, the whole industry can really gain by pushing its relationship with technology and giving the masses more of a taste of what is on offer.