Like Vaudeville and the other smaller-scale theater cultures that came before, Broadway is now in danger of becoming a touchstone of the past, in the sense that it may become a waning exhibit of the musical and theatrical roots of other media like televisions shows, movies, and, – gasp! – online video shows.
However, is Broadway really stuck on the road to becoming a museum piece? It may be that this isn’t necessarily the case, as the elements of musical theater itself may be what will save musicales from becoming historical artifacts in themselves.
Lights, Camera, Action!
The very first thing that musicals have going for them is the element of the live performance. In an age where people can easily edit their performances with multiple camera angles, multiple takes, and edited footage, a live performance brings to it a certain manic intensity that, when pulled off by professionals in musical theater, can elevate what most people normally see in YouTube footage to an in-your-face, visceral experience.
For example, it’s one thing to watch online and film versions of musicals like Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, or Rent, but it’s another thing to see it being performed right in front of you in full, non-auto-tuned singing and acting glory.
It’s probably because of how distant watching through a camera is. A camera affords you only one point of view – the camera’s. In that sense, you are only an observer of the highest passive order. Heck, you don’t even have to watch the musical in real time, really. You can pause the feed, even stop it, and watch it later.
It’s not the same when you experience the full impact of a live performance. There, you become an active observer, where you decide what the “camera angle” is by looking around as the stage play or musicale is happening. You can also choose to focus on set pieces, performances of secondary actors, or even “zoom in” on the performance of one lead actor, bereft of all the editing and mono-eye focus that a filmed version through a camera will give.
In a very real sense, watching a live performance is the immersion that many people now lack when they do watch musicals and movies online. It’s that ability to turn away that also makes the online experience distant and a distraction from really having fun in experiencing and watching a musical.