Over the last three years, watching NBC produce “live” musical theater, first with The Sound of Music, then Peter Pan, and most recently with The Wiz, it seemed there was something missing from the live aspect of the broadcasts. Live performances of any kind are preferable to recorded ones largely due to the energy an audience brings, and to the risk factor; of not knowing for sure if there will be any glitches or if the actors will improvise. A whole cottage industry of video publishing “bloopers” and “out takes” arose out of theater being pre-recorded instead of staged live. So even though I was told I was watching live theater, the NBC shows have never felt as though they were live.
Last night (January 31, 2016) as I watched Fox (Paramount) television’s inaugural entry into this genre, my reservations about the NBC broadcasts were almost instantly confirmed. Fox had a live audience. They reacted to the drama, applauded at the end of songs, and added a truly live theater ambiance to my home viewing of the show. The acting space was also decidedly a stage; the director made no pretense of disguising it as anything else. Set pieces slid in and out (as they did for NBC’s The Wiz) and some scenes were cleverly staged to begin on the show’s set, and transition through a door onto a runway stage in front of an audience of veterans and then back again. Commercial breaks were preceded by glimpses backstage and invitations to see more of the backstage activity on Facebook. This production wasn’t just a television show; a serious effort was made to make it an unabashedly theater experience, complete with visible stagecraft you just don’t ever see in film or prerecorded shows.
The whole social media presence added to the live event ambiance. People were congratulating individual actors and posting real-time reviews on Facebook and Twitter as the show went along. You just can’t do that with prerecorded shows. Stage actors are used to getting congratulatory messages in their dressing rooms from appreciative fans from the audience in the theater after a performance, and traditionally, messages have been sent to actors and authors following a successful opening. With this show, this opportunity was a afforded to the over 12 million who watched across the country and over seas. What does all of this excitement tell us about the state of live theater and live music?
I couldn’t help but notice that people were enjoying the truly live theater experience they were getting. No matter how good our technology gets, no matter how high the quality of video and audio in our homes or on our mobile devices, there is no escaping the truth that live performing arts–music, theater, and dance–is as much a social event as it is an artistic one. People enjoy going to the theater or concert hall with other people. They enjoy meeting people there, and sharing their applause with each other as well as with the performers. The “buzz” of excitement that precedes almost any live performance is unmistakably part of what makes a night at the theater or concert hall special and exciting. This is all the more so at venues where pre-concert dining is accommodated, such as outdoor concerts, dinner-theater, or pops concerts enjoyed from tables of friends sharing a meal and a bottle of wine.
People love to talk about live theater and music events after the performance too. Whereas pre-concert conversations may be about a variety of topics, nearly everyone on the way out is talking about the performance they just saw and heard. I have at times been fascinated by the length of such conversations with my wife during rides home from concerts. I cannot say I have ever had a conversation that detailed and lengthy about a recorded performance. I think one reason is that at home, their are too many distractions, and too few ways in which the experience grabs me, engulfs me, consumes me to make it unlikely I will allow my attention to wander elsewhere. I am not merely looking at a screen with sound coming out of it, I am looking at a stage full of people who are bringing the sound to my ears, looking through, over or between others similarly engaged, and am swept along when others near me begin to applaud a musician, chuckle at a funny line from a play, or gasp at a scary surprise in a play. Hearing audiences hundreds or thousands of miles away and visible to me only through a distantly placed camera is just not the same. If there is anything encouraging to be gained from that “Grease Live” production, it is that the public, even after all these years of consuming recorded art, still craves and enjoys live plays and concerts. For all you educators, let us not stop bringing our students to live performances, and reminding them that there is more to music than what comes through an ear bud.