Broadway insiders are quietly betting on streaming musicals
NEW YORK — This would seem like a strange moment to worry about Broadway’s future.
The oldest entertainment business in the United States is thriving. Thanks to shows such as “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Be More Chill,” “Hamilton” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” young people are flocking to Broadway’s 40 theaters in numbers they haven’t in decades. A record 14.8 million tickets were sold in the 2018-2019 season that ended in May. Box office receipts topped $1.8 billion, also a record.
Yet as the industry prepares to anoint a new set of hits at the Tony Awards on Sunday, a growing chorus is wondering if Broadway might be leaving money on the table — or even orchestrating its own demise — by turning a blind eye to the 21st-century platform of streaming.
So a few of them are doing something about it.
Bonnie Comley and Stewart Lane are dyed-in-the-wool Broadway producers — she has three Tony wins; he’s the rare producer to win best musical in four different decades. They’re most recently known for the 2014 best musical winner “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
The two are also the founders of BroadwayHD, the first major dedicated streaming service for live theater. Essentially, Comley and Lane are seeking to bring Broadway into the next decade, whether it wants to go there or not.
“I think there are a lot of Broadway fans who can’t be at an 8 o’clock curtain, and we need to find a way to bring the show to them,” Comley said.
“Netflix and Hulu and everyone else have aggregated movies and TV shows,” said Lane, Comley’s husband and producing partner. “We think it’s worth gathering a different kind of entertainment in one place.”
The two — she, 59, the silver-tongued entrepreneur, he, 67, the courtly Broadway throwback — were in their Midtown office on a recent weekday afternoon. Around them were the trappings of the old-school theater producer: photos with the late George H.W. Bush when he came to their hit “The Will Rogers Follies” in the early 1990s and shots on the set of “Damn Yankees” with former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and former New York mayor and Yankees superfan Rudy Giuliani.
After creating the service six years ago, Comley and Lane have recently been ramping it up. For a monthly price of $8.99, BroadwayHD now offers more than 300 shows and 750 hours of programming, available on a variety of digital platforms including Roku and Google Play. As many as 10 new shows are being added each month. It all would seem to add up a tantalizing option for the millions of Broadway fans on their way to and from New York, or those who will never make a visit in the first place.
Comley and Lane’s model is to foot the bill for many of its productions, then make their money on subscription fees. They say the company is a godsend for a terrestrial industry — both a marketing tool for faraway audiences and a viable business.
There are questions, though, about whether it will work. And some in the industry wonder whether it should work.
At issue is a pair of broader questions facing legacy entertainment companies: Should an industry that has prospered by hewing to tradition be hurtled into the future? And what will happen when it arrives there?
The Washington Post talked to 13 high-ranking theater professionals about BroadwayHD and streaming generally. The majority of them see great opportunity, even an imperative. Without the ability to reach audiences where they live, these supporters say, Broadway will soon become stagnant, bypassed in an era of mobile entertainment. It will also become vulnerable to low-grade homemade videos that demean the product.
But a smaller group, nearly all of whom declined to speak on the record, say, essentially: If it ain’t broke, don’t disrupt it. Live events are a holy grail for entertainment companies in a disposable, time-shifted world — one reason Broadway keeps shattering records. Why, they ask, would anyone who has this risk eroding it for a few extra dollars?
Broadway can be insular, operating sometime as much as a set of cottage industries as a billion-dollar business. As a result, producers are often reluctant adapt to technological change. They believe audiences will come for the same reason they always have: showmanship.
And they have long worried audiences won’t come if they feel they can get the same product elsewhere. It’s one reason Broadway has traditionally resisted movies of hits that are still going strong (it’s why a “Hamilton” movie is at least a generation away).
Some Silicon Valley players have begun dipping their toes. Netflix bought rights to “Springsteen on Broadway,” which it streamed immediately after the phenomenon closed. Amazon and iTunes are among the services that offer distribution deals for producers who wish to record and sell their shows online. Amazon-owned Audible has been producing and streaming off-Broadway shows. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
There have also been one-night-only streams to movie theaters by outfits such as London’s National Theatre – it recently did just that with a new stage adaptation of the classic film “All About Eve.”
But the most concentrated digital effort comes from BroadwayHD.
Subscribers can access unlimited viewings of its catalog of shows, shot on stage in New York, London and elsewhere. Among the productions in its library are classics, such as a spiffy new version of “42nd Street.” There are also productions of shows that were recently on Broadway, including “Memphis” and “The King and I.”
But the service does not, at least for now, come with many current Broadway hits. On offer are productions of several titles currently in revival on Broadway (“Kiss Me, Kate” and the Tony-favored “Oklahoma!”) and a few more on a national tour (“Miss Saigon,” “Cats”) but the general vibe is of the catalog kind. The lone offering of a current Broadway show is the terminally running “Phantom of the Opera.” And many productions are from West End or other non-Broadway stagings, where producers tend to keep a looser grip.
Broadway HD has a catch-22 to make Yossarian jealous. To increase viewership, it must attract new shows and the top producers who control them. But top producers are reluctant to offer new shows without increased viewership.
Because there are so few new shows available on-demand, there is also no way to test the theory of whether streaming helps or hurts Broadway box office.
“I think we realize this is not an easy fight. There are people who are used to a certain way of doing things,” Lane said. “But all our research says that the more we offer a show on BroadwayHD, the more people will come see it when it’s playing.”
“We look at it like sports: Just because a team is playing at a stadium doesn’t mean millions of people won’t watch it on TV,” Comley said. “They’ll come to some games and then watch the others.”
Skeptics say the analogy is inexact; each of a baseball team’s 81 home games is different from one another in a way each Broadway performance is not.
James Corden, who is hosting the Tonys on CBS on Sunday, said he sees the potential – to a point.
“The more people live digitally, the more we’re going to seek out live experiences. So a marriage of these two worlds seems like a great idea,” said Corden, who as the maestro overseeing the viral “Carpool Karaoke” knows well the power of digital media to bolster a legacy brand.
Corden said he liked what England’s National Theatre has done with movie theaters – as it did with his show “One Man, Two Guvnors” – but wondered if 24-7 availability on devices might be a bridge too far.
“I’m not sure that’s the way to think about it. But select cinemas across the country on the same night? That’s amazing. I don’t see a downside,” he said.
Bob Cohen, the outgoing executive vice president of stage productions at Fox, says he believes the industry ignores streaming at its peril.
“If you’re not understanding how millennials consume entertainment, you’re not going to make money selling it,” said Cohen, who also was behind the “All About Eve” movie theater viewings, which he says have been profitable. “And that’s a mistake for Broadway. Look at the music business. It was behind and it got slaughtered.”
He is far from the only theater veteran bullish on new platforms.
“Streaming, I believe, will be the new cast album,” said Ken Davenport, the longtime producer of Broadway hits such as “Kinky Boots” and “The Visit” and author of the newly released book “Broadway Investing 101.”
Davenport was referring to the once-rare, now-common practice of releasing collections of songs to stoke interest in a new show. “It’s become essential in getting people to know your show long before they’ve seen it. I think streaming will one day be that important,” he said.
Davenport was the first to live-stream a New York show – the off-Broadway musical “Daddy Long Legs” in late 2015, which garnered 150,000 viewings – and believes the platform’s potential is vast. The math, he says, is simple. In an age when video flies around the globe with the speed of a Road Runner GIF, limiting your business to a few blocks in midtown Manhattan is folly.
The current box office numbers, he and others note, will be short-lived. Without a broader reach, the business will either cap out or continue to be subject to uncontrollable external factors such as New York tourism levels.
Challenges to streaming await, though, and not just from skeptical producers. Audiences are not accustomed to watching theater on a screen. Stage shows on TV can feel static, a pale imitator of the real deal.
And there are the finances. Filming the shows isn’t cheap, particularly on unionized Broadway. That could require a lot of $9 subscriptions to make the service solvent.
Lane and Comley declined to offer subscriber numbers or whether they are profitable. They said they are open to other models, such as an ad-driven service, to increase revenues and subsidize the costs of production.
“It’s a challenged space right now, no question,” Davenport said. “And one reason it’s challenged is that all of us in the business, including the unions, don’t yet understand how much money this is going to net. And that makes everyone try to take higher rates.”
But the producer said the marketing upside to streaming was just too high – and the danger of ignoring it simply too great.
“We’re going to reach corners of the globe we’ve never been able to reach before,” Davenport said. “The next time a family thinks vacation, Broadway will be part of the conversation; the next time a local tour comes to Seoul, South Korea, or Omsk, Russia, kids will want to see it.”
Comley says the trade-offs are worth it.
“We will lose some people,” she said. “But we will gain a lot more.”