Fandom from Afar

I saw my first Broadway musical when I was seven. It was Annie Get Your Gun with Bernadette Peters. In preparation for this event, my parents bought the cast album, and my sister and I listened to it constantly. We acted it out. We forced our friends to listen to it and act it out. By the time we actually saw the show, we had every number memorized. For the next ten years, that set the model for my engagement with Broadway musicals. I would discover and devour cast albums, and then hope that whatever show I loved most would still be playing during my family’s annual trip to New York City. In high school, we started getting season tickets to our local Broadway Across America series, which absolutely exploded my horizons: now I could see five or six musicals a year, many of them at least relatively fresh from Broadway.

I discovered new musicals through several sources: tracking down the songs I liked best off of a couple Broadway compilation CDs my mom had in her car; through the songs from my voice teachers or choir teachers would choose for us to sing; whatever show we were doing at drama camp that summer; and finally, in the waning days of my youthful fandom, on the internet. This led to a somewhat eclectic musical education. I could sing you all of Wildhorn’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, but had never heard South Pacific; I knew of Judy Kuhn, but not Patti LuPone.

Once I started spending time in musical theater-related corners of the internet, I realized that experiencing musicals in this way wasn’t unique— and that in fact, I was among the lucky few, because even though I lived all the way in Oregon, I was in a city big enough to get Broadway tours, and I had been to New York and had gotten to see shows there. The people I met who actually lived there were like another species, a blessed class I could only dream of belonging to. They could go see any show they wanted. They had seen shows that had come and gone before I even knew they existed! They were clearly the real chosen people.

But the extent of the difference between New Yorkers’ engagement with musicals and my own growing up was not something I really thought about until very recently, when I finally got around to reading Jack Viertel’s The Secret Life of the American Musical. At one point, Viertel speculates about the enduring success of two musicals he believes to be potentially fatally flawed, structurally: Wicked and RENT. He is particularly intrigued by the fact that the former was not only a hit in spite of critical disdain, but that the collective esteem for it seems only to have risen since its debut. And I’ve speculated with many friends and classmates about why we loved RENT so much when we were thirteen and feel so ambivalent about it now.

Considering this question has led me to two conclusions: first, about how long-distance audience engagement is essentially different from in-person engagement; and second, what producers ought to realize about that.

 

1: In Your Own Little Corner

When trying to work out out the appeal of Wicked, Viertel writes: “It’s easy to see why critical opinion was so cranky. […] The show isn’t ten minutes old yet, and we’ve already been in three decades and three different locations; we hardly have any idea why. Or where. Or when. The design is abstract enough to keep us guessing, and not necessarily in a good way. […] And yet, despite all this plot material (endemic to big-novel adaptations) and Wicked’s occasional foray into explaining the sources of The Wizard of Oz (it is, after all, a prequel), audiences remain enchanted much of the time, and happy to be tolerant of the rest. Part of the reason, I believe, is that it has an I Want moment so big and powerful, and a want that is so universal and recognizable, that are audiences are willing, even eager, to struggle with a lot” (70).

There are many shows whose fans have buoyed them in spite of tepid or negative critical responses, and many others whose Broadway lives were short, but who somehow live on in the canon with a persistence out of proportion with their critical or commercial success. It’s probably pointless to try and generalize about why this might be— every such show probably has its own specific reasons. But there is one possibility I suspect many of them share, and it’s related to Viertel’s theory about a hook that keeps audiences willing to struggle through a show’s difficult patches.

When listening to a cast recording, many of the pitfalls that Viertel hints at in Wicked are avoided. The book, often the weakest part of a musical, is more or less gone. Only the basic outlines of the show’s structure are apparent: if act two drags on, or act one rushes by too quickly, a listener can’t really tell. And the listener has the leisure to encounter a show at their own pace. If something is confusing, they can stop and think about it— or even better, look up an answer. After all, if you’re just listening to a recording, some degree of confusion is an expectation, not an unpleasant surprise. If things are moving too slowly, they can pause and come back later, refreshed. And the hook to induce them to do so doesn’t even have to be quite as strong or as powerful as Wicked’s, because they are encountering the show in a format that allows for some patience.

This can work in both directions, of course. I think of my own experience listening to Parade for the first time, where I became so overwhelmingly emotional at one of the early numbers, I had to stop and step away. Live, I think I would have spent the rest of the act distracted and trying to recover; listening to it, I was able to take a break, and then return in a frame of mind to give the rest of the songs their due. On the other hand, I was bored by The Light in the Piazza on my first couple of listens, unable to engage with it with the focus and intimacy that show demands until I saw it performed.

But on the whole, long distance fans experience their favorite musicals in a way that many writers probably fantasize about: slowly, carefully, and often intensively. While many theatergoers play a recording over and over again after the fact, for fans across the country, this is their primary or only form of engagement with musicals that they love. And it is a careful, close process that may work to the particular benefit of shows that have strong— or at least appealing— scores and shaky structures.

Plus, listeners who have little to no expectation of ever actually seeing the musical will likely use their imagination to fill in the gaps between album and completed story— and in the process, may well happily fill in gaps in the story itself that live viewers find too boring or distracting in the moment. And a long distance fan is, for good or ill, unencumbered by staging. They are free to imagine the best possible version that they can.

It also poises a listener to experience the live show differently. This certainly is not limited to long distance fans: plenty of New Yorkers, or frequent theatergoers, like to listen to a score before they see the show. But I suspect the sense of anticipation is rarely the same, the months or years that can pass before a fan has the chance to travel to New York, or a touring company comes through. (Then again, these days, maybe Hamilton is helping New Yorkers understand the feeling.) By the time they’re seeing the show, they already love it. Of course a shockingly weak book or a bad performance can leave a fan coming away disappointed, but the advantage going in is on the side of coming away happy and impressed.

 

2: The World Is Wide Enough

I was never much of a bootleg watcher when I was a teenage musical fan, but I remember a handful of them: a recording of the San Francisco premier of Wicked, and another of Norbert Leo Butz and Sheri Rene Scott in The Last Five Years. Both of these shows were long closed (or in the case of the former, long altered) by the time I watched these recordings, but of course there were plenty of bootlegs of currently running Broadway shows.

Theatre professions tend to be horrified by the idea of bootlegs, with good reason: it seems like a recipe for having their direction and choreography and designs stolen by other productions, and of course, it feels like a certain recipe for lost ticket sales. The former is a legitimate fear, and one that could be ameliorated if production streams and recordings were offered legally; but this doesn’t tend to happen because, I suspect, of fears of the latter.

Opera and classical theatre are way ahead of Broadway in this respect: The Met Opera has been telecasting productions for years, and American theatre fans tend to have to look abroad for their recorded theatre fix, as National Theatre Live of England dominates that sphere, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre more recently creating offerings of their own. Just a few weeks ago, Shakespeare’s Globe broadcast their first livestream, the closing night of their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  

Daddy Long-Legs became the first Off-Broadway musical to offer a livestream. Producer Ken Davenport blogged about the success of the experiment, including its positive impact on ticket sales for a small show without much name recognition. She Loves Me then followed suit, though, like the Globe, it was broadcast shortly before it closed. Allegiance, which ended after a relatively brief run last year, will be screening in movie theaters. Such recordings could become a financial lifeline for apparently unsuccessful shows, who would be able to tap into fans who lacked the means to travel to New York to see them, but who, for the reasons discussed above, may very well love them anyway.

One could argue that, in contrast to these examples, there is no logic in telecasting or recording long-running shows such as Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon, or Hamilton. As long as houses are being filled, why should producers risk undercutting their own sales? But in making this assumption, producers are ignoring huge swathes of their potential market. There is a world elsewhere, and in that world are fans— especially young fans, but also foreign fans, disabled fans, and poor (heck, given the price of tickets plus travel, middle class) fans— who will likely never see a Broadway show. They will never travel to New York City, or even to a local city large enough to be visited by a Broadway tour. Their bootleg of Wicked isn’t the reason they didn’t buy tickets— in fact, if they could buy tickets, they almost certainly would, in spite of the fact that they’ve already seen a recording. Daddy Long Legs saw in increase in ticket sales, and a massive increase in cast recording sales. Perhaps Broadway shows would find a similar pattern— but even if they didn’t, I feel almost certain they would be reaching untapped but extremely enthusiastic audiences.

 

On the second or third day of college orientation, a classmate persuaded me to take the twentyish-minute train ride into New York City to see [title of show] with her (it didn’t take much convincing). I remember vividly how giddy I felt. It was partly the freedom of being in college— I was taking a train into New York City at night and no one, not even my RA, had to give me permission to do it— but it was also a glimpse at the dream life I’d spent years longing for. A cool new musical was playing, was closing soon, and on a whim, I was going to go see it. It was exactly as exciting as I hoped it would be. And I knew how lucky I was.

 

[I’m considering trying to see if I can conduct a survey to support some of the assumptions I make about what non-New York fans would be interested. I have anecdotal support from people I know, but something more systematic might be interesting! The Ken Davenport link above includes some data from surveys his people took about Daddy Long Legs specifically, but I think there are more general questions to be asked, too. If it happens, I’ll update this!]

 

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