Whether you’ve seen one Broadway show or simply more than you can count, I’m sure the thought has crossed your mind that it would be great to be able to purchase a recorded copy of a Broadway play to watch from the comfort of your living room. As it turns out, certain Broadway productions are recorded and are then released for purchase like Rent and Memphis the Musical. Other Broadway productions are recorded and then broadcast on PBS. Yet, there are a whole host of Broadway shows that are only able to be viewed on the stage. The question then becomes, “Why are some shows available for purchase and not others?”
Since the mid-1980s, it has been a standard practice for all Broadway productions to be videotaped for archival reference purposes. This practice was put into place to combat the loss of outstanding performances to the ages. These videos are then kept in the library at Lincoln Center and are only available to scholars for research purposes and can only be viewed at Lincoln Center.
So why are scholars the only individuals granted exclusive access to such recordings? The most obvious reason being these recorded Broadway productions are not considered for commercial release and allowing public access to view Broadway shows would essentially dent the sales of the Broadway production. A fair slice of the viewing public would say, “Why spend the money to go to the theatre when I can watch it at home as often as I’d like for a fraction of the cost?”
The issue of rights also comes into play. Marcus Geduld, an artistic director for the Folding Chair Classical Theatre in NYC, shared on Quora, “Live performance rights and video rights are two totally separate deals. Think of it this way: someone (or some corporation) owns Sweeney Todd. Now that it’s been made into a Tim Burton film, theatres around the world may be less inclined to produce it. That’s not always the case, but it certainly can be. Some theatre producer in Ohio might think, “I’d love to mount that show, but I’m not going to bother. People won’t come, because they’ve already seen the movie.” Which means the rights-holders won’t get any money from that producer.”
A spokesperson for the Actors Equity Association (AEA), Maria Somma, shares that all shows wishing to be recorded for broadcast in its entirety must first be evaluated separately, and “all the terms and conditions must be negotiated on an individual basis.” If the producers of a production decide to broadcast a production, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and/or The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) become involved along with AEA in order to draw up the specific contracts for the rehearsals, filming, and broadcasting. If a DVD results from the broadcast, it is typically SAG or AFTRA that takes over with the negotiations. Since the contract process is long and complex, it is often rare that producers make the determination to record, broadcast, and release a DVD to the general public.
The musicals that have been broadcast have done so on PBS via Great Performances or Live from Lincoln Center. Most of the performances shown as a part of Great Performances eventually become available for purchase. This is primarily due to the fact that many productions broadcast as a part of the series were recorded in England, thus exempting them from American union broadcasting rules and allowing for DVDs to be created for individual purchase. Meanwhile, those productions that are a part of Live from Lincoln Center do not become available for purchase because according to them, “the shows that they have broadcast (such as The Light in the Piazza and Contact) were cleared for television broadcast only, and the “arrangements with the artists, guilds, and unions prohibit us from making them available in any other form.”
Ultimately, the decision not to release Broadway shows commercially for sale boils down to trying to preserve the tradition of the theatre. Commercial release of shows would most certainly slowly erode Broadway attendance and sales gradually overtime until theatre productions ceased to exist. Therefore, keeping what is created on the stage for viewing only on the stage (to the general public) ensures that the theatre business thrives and that we don’t rob future generations of the unique experience of viewing Broadway productions on the stage.
Author: Diamond Grant