3 Musical Thrillers to Get You Pumped for Halloween

Long, long gone are the days when musicals were nothing but happy, sappy sugar-coated pieces of theatre meant to distract from the harshness of the everyday world. We’re lucky enough to live in an age where almost anything can be turned into a musical. That includes…

American Psycho

Just appeared on Broadway last season, with music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening). It’s now closed in the wake of Hurricane Hamilton, but still a noteworthy piece of theatre and totally appropriate for the season. Yes, it’s based on that movie with Christian Bale based on that book by Bret Easton Ellis. The soundtrack is that dancy techno that I really don’t know anything about (house? electronic? I don’t know what the kids call it these days). It also brings the story into the present with lots of projection work, for which Finn Ross won the Drama Desk Award. Personal favourite song from the musical is the opening number “Selling Out”.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A classic, with oddly catchy tunes for such a dark story. Thank you Stephen Sondheim for gifting the world this spooky play. Another musical serial killer, this time set in 19th-century London and involving cannibalism – sort of. If you aren’t familiar with this one I suggest the 2001 concert version with Patti LuPone and and Neil Patrick Harris. I’d avoid the Tim Burton movie version with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter unless you’re drunk. It’s actually a great movie when you’re drunk. I’m a big fan of the 2005 revival cast album (again with Patti), as they made the score all folksy, but if you aren’t familiar with the music I’d suggest listening to the original first.

Jekyll and Hyde

One of Frank Wildhorn’s more memorable (i.e. not a flop) pieces, based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Yeah, another serial killer. Notice the theme. Anyway this one involves a split personality case and is hugely dramatized compared to the original source material. Honestly half the characters in the play don’t exist in the novella. But it’s cool, because we as musical theatre fans get another hooker with a heart of gold character to add to our list of favourite Mezzo Ladies Who Suck at Love. Also the guy playing Jekyll/Hyde needs a HUGE range of emotion, which David Hasselhoff can absolutely pull off. A professionally filmed version of the stage production can be found in full on YouTube.

Grease: LIVE and the Advent of TV Musicals

If you’re reading this, you’re probably like me and freaked out over Fox’s Grease: LIVE last Sunday. I get super excited whenever a new TV musical is produced. For those of us not living in New York City, and even more so not living in the United States, it can be really hard to find professional productions of our favourite shows. But even then, so many Americans, avid theatre enthusiasts like the rest of us, can’t afford to be exposed to these shows, either. This whole phenomenon is very close to my heart. But before I continue with this tangent, I want to particularly talk about Grease.

It was great, wasn’t it?! I mean, every single actor was totally on point in their dancing and singing, and that choreography was stunning. And honestly, can we please talk about Tommy Kail’s direction? He’s getting to be a big name around Broadway, having directed both Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Hamilton. Seriously, though; this was shot like a movie. It was really smooth.

The addition of the live audience was also a great choice, in my opinion. That particular element has gotten mixed feedback, but I thought it brought some of the authenticity of the theatre to the project.

I don’t really want to get into specifics, because you’ve probably heard it all before: how Aaron Tveit was as talented as ever, how Vanessa Hudgens blew us all away despite the recent death of her father, and all the other raves it’s been receiving (with good reason). But I mostly want to talk about the advent of televised musicals in general, and what they mean to us and to Broadway in general.

In case you haven’t heard, this is the fourth TV musical so far; before that, we had The Wiz Live back in December, Peter Pan the year before that, and The Sound of Music before that, all broadcasted by NBC. (NBC, if you recall, also did the TV show Smash a couple of years ago, so they are quite aware of us theatre nerds.) While NBC’s first two projects were a little underwhelming, the two most recent productions have been quite fantastic. It’s so amazing that we as an audience get to be exposed to these shows and these actors, as we so rarely get a taste of their talents normally.

When I was at BroadwayCon a few weeks ago, I actually went to a panel on the screening of musicals, which included producer Ken Davenport. He’s produced shows like Kinky Boots, The Visit, and the recent revival of Spring Awakening. He’s also the guy who made the Daddy Long Legs livestream happen last December.

This was the first time a New York musical was filmed and streamed online for free – ever. It was very well done and felt so intimate considering it was such a momentous occasion. Especially since it’s a smaller show Off-Broadway with only two cast members and a simple set, it worked really well. Davenport claims he wants to stream more shows like these in the future.

Most surprising was that this show was streamed during its run. This is extremely risky, considering that it might decrease ticket sales, since they were worried people wouldn’t want to see it live after having watched it on their laptops (this can go back to what I’ve said about bootlegs in the past). They did a survey of all those who tuned in after the broadcast, and they came up with some really cool results, which you can read here.

This all ties in to BroadwayHD, a Netflix-esque service that allows paying customers to stream Broadway shows that have come and gone. It started up in April 2014. From what I’ve heard so far, the available shows are somewhat limited, but its creators (also at the BroadwayCon panel) are working hard to continue adding shows to the service. It’s mostly plays as of right now, but it does have a couple of musicals, such as Gypsy, Jekyll and Hyde, and the 2010 Tony Award-winning Memphis. I definitely intend to check this out as soon as I can.

There are so many ways to watch live musicals from the comfort of your own home nowadays, and I think this is both a fascinating and important phenomenon in making theatre accessible to more audiences. From TV musicals to livestreams to BroadwayHD, the Broadway world just keeps getting bigger and better, allowing for more people to be exposed to live theatre.

In Defense of Bootlegs

GUEST POST: In Defense of Bootlegs originally appeared on NewMusicalTheatre.com on September 11, 2015.

Note: I wrote this article in response to a lot of blog posts and tweets bashing bootlegs last fall, and I wanted to put in my own two cents. NewMusicalTheatre.com was nice enough to publish my post. It’s one of my favourite theatre blogs; I definitely recommend you check them out!

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I do not in any way condone the filming of Broadway shows live onstage. But do I watch these bootlegs? Yes. I do. Moreover, I think the Broadway community as a whole often fails to mention the advantages of this practice. Bootlegs are not nearly as odious as certain articles make them out to be. These “dirty gems,” as one Broadway Tour article called them, can even be beneficial to the shows themselves.

I suppose it all comes down to exposure. One of the reasons why theatre is such a beloved art form is because it’s ephemeral. And the only way to properly experience this art form as it is meant to be experienced is in one single city. New York City. Its population – 8.34 million – is a lot of people. But that number isn’t even close to the number of theatre fans in the world. All those people want to see Broadway shows just as badly as the fans in New York. For many reasons, they can’t, and I find this extremely unfair. For the fans, of course, but also for the composers, playwrights, actors, and directors who miss out on all this exposure.

If there were a way for fans to watch a show that has come and gone on Broadway, to fall in love with the composer’s work or the director’s work or the actors’ work, wouldn’t they want to see a future show featuring these people and their art? I know I would. If you think about it, isn’t it better for a theatre fan to watch the cheap version of a show online (that in no way comes near the experience of seeing it live) than for them to not see it at all? If you look at it from an exposure-only perspective, the answer is clear.

One of the major arguments against bootlegs is that a person won’t want to pay to see a show live after having watched it online. Because they’ve already seen it in some way, the argument goes, we’re cheating all of the artists involved in a certain show out of their hard-earned money. I know firsthand that this is false.

First of all, seeing a musical or a play live is an incredible experience that is nothing like watching it from a shaky camera with lots of background noise. I know with certainty that I wouldn’t miss a beat in paying to see a professional production of my favourite musicals—especially if I’ve only ever watched it from one of these cameras. I will gladly pay to see it so that I can truly experience this show as it was meant to be. But I never would have fallen in love with these shows if I hadn’t seen the bootlegs first.

And what do I do when I fall in love with a musical? I buy the cast album. I order the merchandise online. I do everything short of actually seeing it (which I would do if I could), forking over as much money as I can to all the people who I’ve apparently stolen from when I clicked that lovely “play” button.

No particular production will last forever. They will disappear into the confines of the library of Lincoln Center, far from the reaches of us normal folk who could not afford a trip to New York at the right time. These productions deserve to live on, to be viewed by as many people as possible in as many places as possible. Besides, these shows are full of subtleties, and like I do with many good movies, I often want to see musicals I like over and over again until I know every line, every stage direction by heart. But for most people, doing so in a live setting is impossible.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of representation and diversity when it comes to musical theatre. As the years go on, we’re seeing more and more characters of colour, characters in the LGBT+ community, and characters of different income levels. But by restricting accessibility to Broadway shows, we are decreasing the diversity of Broadway audiences. We are making theatre available to only a certain elite: often rich, white, straight people.

Yes, it’s against the law. Yes, it’s morally wrong to film shows live. But to only focus on the negative aspects of this practice would be to only tell one half of the story. It would be to ignore what is really important here: that fans out there are sharing their love of theatre with the world. If it weren’t for those fans, I wouldn’t be one myself.