Covid has had a drastic effect on musical theater with seats sitting empty and props redundant as dust gathered on disused stages. Theaters were shuttered from New York’s Broadway to London’s West End, affecting everyone from actors and directors to theater and hospitality staff.
Since March 2020, the Actors Fund has provided $21 million in emergency financial assistance to more than 16,000 people working in performing arts and entertainment across America.
Yet the pandemic also introduced new opportunities for digital creativity. Long-time crowd favorite Hamilton was streamed on the Disney+ platform while actresses Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski came together for Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday to sing ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ on Zoom.
But now that lockdowns have been lifted and society begins to reopen, what does the future hold for musical theater?
1. The Age Of Streaming
When theaters were forced to shut, the bigger shows that had the means were able to pivot quickly. The blockbuster hit Hamilton being one of them.
‘I was like, how are we going to get through a year and a half?’ reflects Jeffrey Seller, the producer of Hamilton, in a recent interview with McKinsey. ‘Frankly, that was the moment that I collaborated with Bob Iger of Disney and my partners at Hamilton.’
No one could have predicted the success of the show when it was streamed on Disney+ as a live-capture movie. The platform experienced what is now termed the ‘Hamilton’ bump, as subscribers increased by 74%.
Whereas an in-person ticket for a premium seat cost nearly $1,000 in 2016, suddenly a whole family could watch the entire musical on Disney+ for the price of a $6.99 subscription fee. It offered a glimpse into a potential future where musicals at home become the norm, being picked up and streamed by platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+.
But it’s not all positive. Although Hamilton was able to compensate for its losses during the pandemic, there are concerns about the effect the move to digitalization might have on other industry workers. Streaming services are also likely to focus heavily on blockbusters, potentially leaving smaller productions out in the cold.
“Long-running productions will be filmed by well-known directors and big-name stars will take on the roles,” predicts Eli Noam, professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School and the school’s Garrett Professor of Public Policy & Business Responsibility.
“This means bigger production budgets and fewer jobs, as staging will no longer happen every night.”
2. From Tourists To Local Audiences
Alongside a shift to streaming, low tourism numbers during the pandemic have also hit theater hard.
According to The Broadway League, a trade association, tourists made up nearly 70% of musical theater audiences worldwide before the pandemic. Keen to watch traditional, long-running productions like Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, they’re also often willing to spend more on tickets.
And as tourism’s recovery is still unclear, it could be years before pre-pandemic tourist audiences find their way back to places like Broadway and the West End. If that’s the case, it’s more likely that city theaters will need to market to a more local audience to boost recovery.
“Long-running productions will struggle to sell tickets because they rely on a constant flow of visitors,” says David Reece (pictured right), deputy CEO of cultural consulting company Baker Richards. “There’s only so many times someone who lives in the local area will see The Lion King or Aladdin.”
To engage local audiences, there could be more leeway for traditional productions to give way to less well-known, grassroots musicals, especially if blockbuster productions pivot towards streaming and aren’t shown every night. That could mean shorter-running shows and newer content. It could also mean a boost for diversity in the industry.
3. New Space For Grassroots Productions
Eli (pictured below, right), who is also the director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, a research center focusing on management and policy issues in communications, internet, and media, thinks there will be two contradictory consequences of a shift to streaming that could impact grassroots productions.
“The first is that streaming will disproportionately promote blockbuster musicals and crowd out grassroots musicals. On the other hand, you could have a long-tail impact on smaller productions that could appeal to niche audiences,” he says.
Fewer blockbuster productions and more streaming might not be a bad thing. Whereas streaming will most likely only distribute blockbuster musicals, new audiences who view them may develop a taste for the genre and be encouraged to visit their regional theaters.
A poll conducted by Morning Consult, a market research firm, discovered that a fifth of 2,200 US adults surveyed watched Hamilton on Disney+. Within that group, around 75% said that they would be interested in going to a live show after viewing Hamilton online.
If new audiences can be attracted to the in-person theater experience, especially to see a grassroots musical, that could help counter streaming services’ preference for bigger productions, and push consumers through the doors of smaller, often more affordable shows.
©duha127 / iStock
4. Technology & Accessibility
Due to the prices of musical theater tickets, those in less affluent communities are unlikely to be able to afford the in-person experience.
“The musical theater industry is commercially driven,” says David of Baker Richards. “The price of tickets has gone up quite substantially over the last ten years, way ahead of inflation—that’s because those who can afford the in-theater experience continue to buy tickets.”
Although streaming promises musical theater access to a wider audience than an in-person production does, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the musical theater industry will become more accessible.
As a profit-making business, musical productions will continue to have high ticket prices. This may lead to a two-tier experience, where the more affluent are able to enjoy in-person theater and everyone else opts for streaming.
Eli is also skeptical about the influence of streaming on accessibility, not only because of the potential two-tier experience but also because of the musical genre itself.
“It’s not just the price keeping audiences away,” he says. “It’s also the content, the themes, and the style of music. It’s a taste issue. Hopefully, a greater openness online may mean that there will be more niche products.”
Musical theater, like much of the world post-pandemic, looks likely to be consumed in a hybrid way, with some audiences experiencing shows in-person and others online. And although the in-person experience may offer a superior sensory experience than streaming does, the world is rapidly evolving with technology.
“The technology of immersion, in terms of virtual and augmented reality, may enable a future where the online becomes a superior sensory experience,” thinks Eli from Columbia. “Through these two mediums, you could move around onstage or above it, and the music would be better quality.”
The world of virtual reality is closer than people think. Already on Broadway, John Gore and MelodyVR have partnered to create the At The Tonys Be More Chill VR Experience, where viewers are toured around the Tony Awards suite at Sofitel New York before watching scenes from the Be More Chill musical, in the comfort of their own homes.
The future of musical theater is likely to involve more streaming, and marketing will need to shift towards new audiences in cities temporarily bereft of tourists.
For theater to thrive again, it’s also going to be a balancing act between greater use of technology and ensuring that prioritized blockbuster shows don’t crowd out smaller, grassroots productions, so often the breeding ground for future star talent.
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