Whose “Live” Is It Anyway?

There’s a grand experiment underway!

Last December, NBC put on a (notorious) live, televised production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” starring Carrie Underwood.

Let me say that again:

A TELEVISED “The Sound of Music” starring CARRIE UNDERWOOD.

These certainly are end times.

(Check out this underwhelming video!)

I find it sort of sad.

I mean, I like “Sound of Music” a lot, actually. And I like seeing plays done for a wide audience. I’m glad the material is getting out there. But does it always have to be some old classic with Nazis? And didn’t Julie Andrews sort of nail it last time?

Now say what you will about that poor American Idol winner and her – how shall I put this? – sanitized performance. Say what you will about casting Audra McDonald as Mother Superior (it’s a choice!). Speak your mind about the production values and the strangely alienating vibe of the whole thin enterprise, but don’t overlook the main thrust of this behemoth:

TV executives are trying to get people to tune in to live theatre from the comfort of their own homes.

Let me say that again:

LIVE from the comfort of their HOMES.

Okay, am I nutso, or are those two things opposites?

I want to be clear, I have no problem with Saturday Night Live, simply because it’s live TV. I think live TV is great. It’s unpredictable, it’s dangerous. It adds a little spark of theatre to an otherwise polished and risk-averse medium. Live is great!

But when it comes to live story-telling, theatre does it best. I mean, as a medium, we can’t reach millions of people all at once. We can’t create a beautifully timed reaction shot that stirs the soul. We can’t reproduce WWII or realistic-looking robots. We can’t react instantly to the national consciousness and create mass-art for our moment. At least, not the way TV can. It has all its own strengths.

But theatre is live.

And I don’t mean just “in real time,” I mean in front of people.

Did you notice anything about that “Sound of Music” production? No laughter. No applause. Just a cold, empty sound-stage. Even the risk of live-ness is polished away. There is nobody there to boo or cheer, no in-the-moment adjustments. No charm. No danger. Everything an audience brings: all the dirt and sloppiness, all the whistles, all the life is ground out of it.

In fact, I think the only solution to this problem (and, if you watch the whole excrutiating 3-hour slog, you’ll realize it is a problem) is to bring in an audience.

Which, of course, makes it theatre.

And now we’re just recording stage productions, like (the amazing) PBS has been doing for years. And which, I feel, actually encourages people to go out and experience theatre, the world, their community. I want to do that again, BUT FOR REAL, they think! It’s a synergistic TV-Theatre alliance that promotes both arts and favors neither! Oh, what a world it would be if TV and theatre coordinated their efforts! A pipe dream perhaps, but we are in the dream business…

So now they’re making this monstrosity:

Peter Pan - 2014

It stars Allison Williams (“Girls”) and Christopher Walken (“Batman Returns”).

I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted just looking at it.

So, TV execs. While you’re pillaging the theatre canon for the safest, most accessible, and least-offensive musicals, do us all a favor:

Stop pretending it’s a TV show.

It’s theatre.

The distinction is important, because when you do theatre you have to account for risk, change, and immediacy. For politics and empathy. That’s what being “live” does! Toxic stuff in Hollywoodland, but unavoidable in the theatre. So don’t clean it up and make it palatable, give us raw, uncensored, gravelly, dirty, bawdy, scary, uncontrolled, unpredictable live TV (see: SNL!). It’s what our medium is good at!

I know it’s scary (believe me, I know!), but from one thespian to another:

Break a leg!


2 comments on “Whose “Live” Is It Anyway?

  1. I’m very torn on this issue. I agree that theatre is live in front of people, not just live in time, but I must say that these projects do have their value. These kind of projects, when done occasionally, drive audiences into the theatre, or get folks who would not be able to see theatre interested.

    I know that a lot of my interest in the career of Stage Management was kindled by videos of live performances online, pirated or not. But not that I’m in the business I see and understand how much those things hurt live theatre, and how poor they are in comparison to seeing theatre live.

    Like I said, I’m torn.

  2. […] actually a very serviceable production of the least interesting musical in the canon. Though, after last time, our collective bar was set pretty […]

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