What It Takes For Broadway to be Released to Theaters

Note: This pitch was accepted by a pop culture outlet back in February 2020 when Broadway was running and the filmed Broadway production of Hamilton was slated for a 2021 theatrical release. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the piece was canceled and the circumstances for Hamilton changed. The piece here is published unaltered.

Fans of musical theatre rejoiced when it was announced that the hip-hop Broadway musical, based on the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, will finally have a big-screen release in October 2021. It will feature most of the original Broadway cast members, including the composer and book writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson; Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler; Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr; and Tony Award nominees Christopher Jackson as George Washington.

Hamilton was a hit with Broadway goers and critics in 2015, well-known for the soundtrack, a diverse cast playing the Founding Fathers, and dialogue about how effectively its artistic license represented a slice of American history and politics. Now that it’s reaching the big screen, the dialogue will be more accessible.

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What does it take to try for a Hamilton ticket?

Hamilton is one of the infamous inaccessible shows with expensive tickets. If you don’t have the hundreds of dollars to spare, free app digital lotteries for $10 tickets are competitive. (I played it for the last three years and haven’t been lucky yet.)

Why did it take so long for Hamilton to make it to the big screen?

The competition for distribution had plenty to do with it. After it was filmed in 2016 at the Richard Rogers Theater with a majority of the original cast, the rights to Hamilton underwent a bidding process. The $75 million-dollar purchase by Disney secured its theatrical release.

What is the process of filming a theatre show called?

The act of filming a stage production is called “live capture,” in that it preserves a production as it is by filming it from multiple camera angles. In the case of Hamilton, live-captures may combine footage of the production across multiple days and setup shots recorded without the audience present. They’re not to be confused with filmed concert productions of musicals, like Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary.

Why do producers avoid filming their shows?

If a filmed version is released during the run of a show, there’s a concern that Bonnie Comley, the founder of the BroadwayHD theatre streaming service, calls the “cannibalization of live ticket sales.” This fear goes like this: If a currently running production is screened outside of the theatre, people will buy fewer tickets to see the theatre in-person. Comley’s counterpoint pitch against the “cannibalization” assumption is that released live-captures act as an advertisement for live productions, not as drainer of ticket sales.

Then what about after a production has ended its run? If it can barely make a profit in the theatre, why can’t it just film itself for public distribution? Even for shows that see an end in sight, the production must shell out the money themselves for the camera setup. Ray Nutt, CEO of Fathom Events, gives a rough estimate of the cost: “For a good quality [live-captured] production you’re looking at anywhere from $2 million to $4 million.” Although he noted the numbers will vary with theater producers.

Hamilton’s impending movie release is an interesting case. It has been running for about four years on Broadway and there’s not yet an end in sight as of now. It could be still running on Broadway when the live capture is released in 2021. If that happens, let’s wonder if there’s data on its ticket sales.

If filmed, where do shows go?

There are live-captured productions that date back to the broadcast of the 1976 Pacific Overtures, a 1981 Pippin, and a 1982 tour production of Sweeney Todd. Some productions like Newsies and Bandstand are licensed, distributed, and promoted by Fathom Events screenings. Some find themselves televised on PBS. Some find themselves on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Video, or BroadwayHD.

The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts also has preserved and documented theatre productions since the 1970s. But of course, you must be privileged to reside in New York and have research purposes to access the lab. And if you do, you can’t screen productions that are currently running (perhaps related to the cannibalization fear). Some productions, like the original Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel, require special permission for reasons that could include copyrighted scenic designs.

What would motivate producers to release live-capture for public consumption?

There is the desire to preserve the ephemeral experience of theatre that would benefit low-income people and later generations who couldn’t access the production.

But theatre is inherently a money-making business as it is for the film industry. There typically has to be a profitable interest around shows. Disney Theatrical Group President Thomas Schumacher resisted the idea of live capturing the Broadway production of Newsies until he saw the 2014 live-captured West End production of Billy Elliot The Musical.

Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway is an example of a popular musical receiving a theatrical release. Likely, the 2017 production of Allegiance, often marketed as “George Takei’s Allegiance” for Fathom Events screenings would not have garnered some marketing attention if the Star Trek name “George Takei” wasn’t attached to the project.

What more is being done for live-capture?

Nutt says, “We’re in active discussions with producers of stage plays and musicals and we’re looking forward to bringing more of this content to movie theaters later this year. These events are a way to bring the best of Broadway or the West End [theatre scenes] to communities who may not otherwise have the opportunity to see it. It can also be an effective way for producers to market and promote their content, especially if they have a Broadway run or tour planned.”

Other than offering a repertoire of other licensed filmed productions, BroadwayHD also sponsors live capture for productions like Kinky Boots, An American in Paris The Musical, and 42nd Street: The Musical. According to Comley, BroadwayHD is experimenting with live-capturing shows that don’t have longevity on stage, such as productions created by artists from marginalized communities.

Theater doesn’t have the permanency of film, so cameras can only do so much to replicate a live experience. But live capture can offer multiple angles of theater.

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