In this week's episode of the podcast, host Luisa Lyons chats with Kelly Kessler, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at DePaul University, about Kelly's new book Broadway in the Box: Television's Lasting Love Affair with the Musical.
We talk about Kelly's research, why television networks produce live musicals, the role of adverts, the first musicals on television, the first Broadway musical to air live on television (and who got to watch it), and why we should put musicals on television!
Broadway in the Box: Television's Lasting Love Affair with the Musical is available at all major bookstores.
Filmed Live Musicals is a site dedicated to cataloging stage musicals that have been legally filmed and publicly distributed. Visit www.filmedlivemusicals.com to learn more. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. You can also support the site at Patreon.
Host Luisa Lyons is an Australian actor, writer, and musician. She holds a Masters in Music Theatre from London's Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and now lives, works, and plays in New York. Learn more at www.luisalyons.com or follow on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Guest Kelly Kessler is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at DePaul University. Kessler's work draws on three main areas: the American musical, the intersection of genre and gender, and the mainstreaming of lesbianism in American television and film. Her scholarship can be found in works such as Studies in Musical Theatre, The Journal of E-Media Studies, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, Television and New Media, Movies, Moves, and Music: The Sonic World of the Dance Film, Televising Queer Women: A Reader, and The New Queer Aesthetic on Television: Essays on Recent Programming. Kessler has published two books including Destabilizing the Hollywood Musical: Music, Masculinity and Mayhem and Broadway in the Box: Television's Lasting Love Affair with the Musical.
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Luisa Lyons: LL
Kelly Kessler: KK
LL: Welcome to the Filmed Live Musicals podcast, a podcast about stage musicals that have been legally filmed and publicly distributed. The Filmed Live Musicals website contains information on nearly 200 musicals that have been captured live. Check it out at www.filmedlivemusicals.com. And now, on with the show!
Based at DePaul University in Chicago, Associate Professor Kelly Kessler’s work looks at the American musical, the intersection of genre and gender, most specifically masculinity in the Hollywood musicals of the post-studio system era, and the mainstreaming of lesbianism in American television and film. In addition to many journal articles, she has published two books, Destabilizing the Hollywood Musical: Music, Masculinity, and Mayhem and the recently-released Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Affair with the Musical. Welcome, Kelly.
KK: Thank you for having me!
LL: I’m very excited to be chatting with you today. So can you tell us a bit more about your research speciality?
KK: Sure. I specialize in mostly American television and film. Most recently over the last 10 years, a lot of that has been on television and the musical. Every once in a while I’ll venture away from the musical and do some other work on television, often on genre issues, but once I started honing in on the TV musical and working on this book really about a decade ago, it took me about 10 years to finish it. I just kept kind of building chapter at a time on that.
LL: And what led you to work on musicals and television
KK: I grew up going to musicals a lot. I’m from the St. Louis area, and every summer my parents would take us to the St. Louis Muny, which is a huge outdoor summer touring house. I saw Joe Namath in Li’l Abner there, I saw Lynn Redgrave in The King and I, Lynn [inaudible 00:02:13] in Unsinkable Molly Brown, so I spent my childhood going to musicals and my parents were fans of musicals. So I just grew up with a love of the theatre, and my trip to working on musicals was a slightly weird one in that I started graduate school and it hadn’t really been my plan, and I read an article that I thought was dismissive about the role of men in musicals, and it irritated me. And then I was like, “Well, I want to do something about that.” And that ended up being my thesis, which was on Western musicals and post-war masculinity. And then I kept working on that, which ended up being my first book on how shifts in the musical between the 60s and the early 80s ended up impacting articulations of masculinity in the musical, so then I just kind of kept going from there.
And then there was this rise of the one-off musical episode, and I developed a tremendous obsession with the Grey’s Anatomy episode, which led to a chapter, or an article, which then ultimately led to the book. It was me sitting in a panel about publishing and me thinking, “Well, nobody’s done that. Maybe I could work on that.” So I started working on what became the book, out of perhaps a really uninteresting epiphany.
LL: No, I think it’s so interesting to me that although it has boomed in the last sort of 10, 20 years, the scholarship on musical theatre has been kind of lacking. It’s kind of dismissed and seen as not serious compared to “straight theatre,” inverted commas
KK: Well, and it’s been very exciting for me over the last five years, I’ve been publishing more and presenting more with the musical theatre folks. I do a lot of work with the television folks in my area, and have done some presenting and publishing with the musical folks in my area, but so much of that is focused on film, and it’s a much smaller group than if I turned to the theatre studies folks, where it’s booming. There’s a much more vibrant musical theatre community, which became very useful for this project, since so much of it was about crossover: how has the musical been communicating between or traveling between the stage and the small screen for the last, what, 85 years?
LL: Yeah. Well, since we invented cameras, we’ve been pointing them at the stage.
LL: And I got so excited when I came across your research and your book, because I was like, “Oh my god, there are people writing about this!” Because I’m obsessed with this, the idea that we have been filming theatre forever, and people are like, “No, Hamilton is the first one!” And I tear my hair out because no, it’s not the first one! It’s in a long line of shows and musicals that have appeared on screen.
KK: Right. My book came out at an opportune time on that front, and actually the introduction to the book, the first thing I say, is essentially people assume that musicals weren’t on television until Glee, but in fact, this was a more visible version of what had been occurring for over half a century at that point. And then it depends on what’s in vogue at that moment, people think they’ve discovered something really new, and Hamilton is great and the filming of that is fabulous, and they do a really nice job of capturing it on film, but by no means is it the first or the only or the only now or… But it’s just what people decide is worthy of being paid attention to, and whether that’s fans or whether that’s the press, that so much of what’s been on television since the 80s, I guess, has been so varied, whether it was in failing cable channels in the early 80s or whether it was PBS, which isn’t often thought of as valued enough to be part of a larger public discourse.
LL: Well, that’s what led me to starting the Filmed Live Musicals website, was I did my Master’s at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and a group of friends and I went out to see Company filmed live at the New York Philharmonic, and Ellen M. Krass had an interview before the musical started, and she said that she had had trouble getting funding to film the show because no one had heard of filming live musicals. And my ears pricked up, and I was like, “But wait, didn’t people watch Into the Woods… It’s on VHS! It’s been out into the public, and Sunday in the Park with George!” I grew up watching that stuff all the way in Australia. I couldn’t understand how Americans who had access to PBS on a regular basis, how they weren’t aware that this was a thing.
KK: Who’s watching PBS? And I think that’s really interesting. One of the things I say in the book is when you have the emergence of the three arts cable channels in the early 1980s, the idea was, which, again, illustrates this oversight, “There’s this vibrant PBS audience! If we could just capture… Imagine having this many people watching live theatre on cable! The money to be made!” And then they figured out, “Oh, we really overshot that,” that the audience that was watching the arts on PBS was an audience that wasn’t really watching that much other television, therefore not necessarily an audience that wanted to pay more to watch more television when they were already getting the television they wanted on PBS, and you just saw Arts and the Entertainment Channel and CBS Cable just implode on impact.
And I don’t think it’s that different on some level today. I was just having a conversation with a grad student about it and whether or not I thought that Hamilton would open up this kind of new vista for musicals on television, and I mean, Hamilton is such a unicorn. It’s not as if BroadwayHD doesn’t already exist. It’s not as if there isn’t already a place that’s cheap. I mean, it’s one more streaming service to pay for, but it’s not that expensive. But Hamilton is… I mean, even Dear Evan Hansen isn’t Hamilton, and Dear Evan Hansen had good mainstream buzz, right? So I have a hard time seeing Hamilton as being some kind of turning point, especially as we saw the… That’s a whole other discussion, the live musicals that were on the networks that really, once they passed their point of novelty, didn’t really do that well, even though I thought some of them were done really well.
LL: Yeah, it’s tricky finding the market, how and when they’re released, because so many Broadway shows specifically have only been released at the end of their run or after they’ve closed. So we don’t really have much data on how ticket sales are affected, for example. The tiny view that we do, like Legally Blonde on MTV, the ticket sales, there was also The Search for Elle Woods that’s more accredited for boosting ticket sales on the road, but it didn’t sabotage the ticket sales. People had already seen it on MTV, but they still went and saw it on tour. But there’s so few shows that are available. So it will be interesting to see post-pandemic, when Broadway’s up and running again, how will Hamilton be affected? Will it still be the huge sellout hit that it is, and did releasing it online affect that, or did the pandemic affect that? It’s very hard to tell.
KK: I think Hamilton, there’s such a cache to having seen Hamilton in person that I think it can’t even be compared… Even this experience isn’t gonna give worthwhile data on what that impact would be, that everyone’s got their selfie with their Hamilton program or their selfie in front of the Hamilton marquis. It’s as if that means something in a way that seeing it on television didn’t. It definitely provided some kind of democratization, because clearly everyone can’t afford to go see theatre in the theatre. We were lucky. We were trying to get tickets when it came to Chicago, and we were those people who were online all day refreshing and never got through, but because we knew a guy, we went to the invited dress in Chicago, which was amazing. It was basically the theatre community of Chicago. We knew the costume design folks, cause my partner had worked for them before. She’s a milliner and a mask-maker. She was actually the… Her shop was making the majority of the hats for all of the Hamilton productions outside of London…
LL: Oh, wow.
KK: When the pandemic hit, so it hit our house as it has everyone else in theatre, which has just been devastating.
But for Hamilton, I think the liveness for it still really matters. And it was as if the excitement about Hamilton somehow allowed the lack of actual liveness to transcend the small screen in some ways, because one of the things about the live musicals, even though so many of the ones that have been on TV don’t have a live audience, but are still [inaudible 00:13:05] the energy is just so sucked out of the room. Something like The Wiz Live, the energy just felt like it was sucked out. And I actually really liked that production. I just really liked that. But something like The Sound of Music or the Peter Pans that were done, they just felt like the air had all been pulled out of the room. But for some reason I didn’t think that Hamilton felt that way, and I don’t know if it was because of the excitement about that show in general at that moment, that somehow that… As if it seeped through the screen.
LL: So do you think that shows that film with a live audience versus those that are just in a TV studio or are filmed without an audience, do you think that the camera, Hamilton aside, do you think that the camera is able to capture some of that energy that happens between a live audience and a stage show?
KK: So much of it has been done in terms of… In my book, I go beyond live musicals, per se. My definition of the musical for the book, because what I thought was more interesting, were the ways in which Broadway and the musical was entering into television, and that wasn’t just through musicals, it wasn’t just through isolated numbers on something like Ed Sullivan, but that included the music of Broadway coming onto television in variety, or that included stars of Broadway, whether that was Rodgers and Hammerstein on What’s My Line, or whatever, or being interviewed. So I was looking at it in all of these different ways.
One of the things that I think is really interesting, cause you do see live audience kind of in various parts, sometimes just used for reaction shots, so the artifice of the audience doesn’t always work. One of the things that I love is, and I still think it’s weird, is in Liza with a “Z” she… I feel like you feel her feeding off of her audience. And they do shots of the audience every now and again, and there was the same thing with Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett in their show that there were a lot of audience shots. And in those cases where they were individual performers, I felt like the energy of that audience got captured in some ways.
And I don’t know if that’s just Liza Minelli, who does that. If you’ve seen her live, then she makes you believe that you are the best audience that she’s ever, ever had. I saw her twice in Brighton Beach and the first year it was me and a friend and a bajillion octogenarians, cause it was a free show outside, and it was amazing. But she’s just sweating to death and she just makes you believe you’re the most special audience member she’s ever had, and she made that come through on the small screen as well, in contrast to Streisand, who wanted such complete control of the situation that in… I forget which special it was now, I think it was…
LL: At the Barclays Center?
KK: No, I think it’s her… Is it Call Me Barbara? Or My Name Is Barbara? I think it was her first television special. It’s all done without an audience. She was very controlling about everything that happened, and there’s one piece that’s filmed in front of an audience and she made them redo it because she was unhappy with how she looked or how she sounded, so she ended up rerecording it without an audience and then they brought in people from her fan club to watch a screening of it to get the ambient sound…
LL: Oh no.
KK: Input into it. It’s such a completely different… I think you really feel it. You know, you’ve got variety shows like The Pearl Bailey Show where she is all about her audience and she’s weaving her way through her audience and you’ve got the Carol Channing TV specials of the 60s, and she’s playing with her audience in a very Carol Burnett style, and Burnett, where the audience is so integral and really does, I think, add to it. And so many of the full musicals, I think because of the logistics of them, especially the newer ones where they were negotiating “How do I work on this soundstage? How do I go from place to place?” as they’re attempting to, I think, speak to both the technical desires of a contemporary audience and what they expect in terms of what a Broadway set is supposed to look like, trying to negotiate that live, so they ended up, Peter Pan and Sound of Music spread out across multiple stages, which is actually why I liked The Wiz, because it looked like…
KK: A theatre, right. And the idea was that it was gonna go from television to Broadway, and then the Broadway run never happened.
LL: Yeah. Do you think that that liveness… I know Jesus Christ Superstar was framed as a concert rather than… But to me, that’s what Jesus Christ Superstar is. It’s a musical concert, but for me that was my favorite of the broadcasts of those television musicals because you felt, although it made me crazy that the audience was screaming every other second, I was like, “Be quiet!” But you had that energy of the audience watching performers and the exchange of energy between the performers and the audience.
KK: I did really like that one, and I thought that that was really beneficial and they were trying to figure out how to tap into the audience and the… I think even the way that one was shot, in terms of the levels that they used, they were also… I think part of the reason that worked as well is it was about liveness and it was about casting and it was about how used to liveness the casting was. And that one, with a combination of Sara Bareilles and John Legend and [crosstalk 00:20:13-17] really looking forward to. But I thought that it also there captured their ability to work an audience. Each of those individuals. It was interesting that we saw the same television producer, oh, I’m gonna space on his name…
KK: No, that’s the… Not producer, director. Alex Rudzinski, who is the director of Dancing with the Stars, who then did a strong majority of the television musicals. And once you got past those first few, he did Grease and he did Hairspray and I know he did Jesus Christ Superstar. And you saw, I think, them attempting to bring in some semblance of liveness in the way in which it was shot from one to the other, and the ways in which… They brought in some kind of audience, whether it was with Grease you had kind of people on the outside, a lot of extras, and you had them zooming on the carts across the…
KK: But they were attempting to kind of reconfigure liveness, since they didn’t necessarily have the audience to feed off of. They did in some ways. They built it in in various ways with those. But they were trying to figure out how to reconfigure that. Sometimes that was through interactive technology, and sometimes it was through an audience there, and then Jesus Christ Superstar, clearly the one that went all in, like “We’re just gonna cram a whole mess of folks in here and see what happens now.” And it was as if it just kept rolling closer and closer to what a 21st-century audience could accept, an audience that isn’t built…
The purpose of the live musicals on television was the networks attempting to figure out how to capture a live audience. Their numbers were decimated by streaming and by cable and by people timeshifting, and they were trying to figure out how to capture a live audience. It’s where their ratings are based, and so where their ad dollars are based. So they’re kind of throwing Hail Mary passes in the shape of production numbers and they were just trying to figure out how to get the live audience there. It was not about entertaining theatre folk. We’ll watch it where we can get it. It’s not about us. I mean, we’re still watching the Tonys. We’re the only ones watching the Tonys. If their idea was, “Ooh, if we could only get Tony numbers! What can we do to get that?” When Tony numbers are terrible.
But so it’s “How do we get an average audience?” or “How do we get a large family audience?” And each time I think you saw them saying, “Okay, well this got this, but what else can I do?” And then I interviewed Alex Rudzinski about Hairspray specifically, and he had said that they had kind of pushed the social media connection as far as they could there, the interactivity, cause there was a whole looked like pop-up video, there were people everywhere, there was a completely… There were two separate recordings happening at the same time, there was the live television recording and then there was a behind-the-scenes recording going on the entire time and you could follow that entire feed on Facebook Live, which was fabulous, cause it was all following them.
And Jesus Christ Superstar, then, pulls back from that kind of interactivity and instead kind of doubles down on the kind of liveness that I think a contemporary audience that is not full of theatre folk is more interested in. Like, “Oh, now we’ve got rock music and a mosh pit! I can do that. That’s not just people randomly bursting into song.” Which some people just cannot go with. I mean, you could burst into song right now and I would be perfectly happy.
LL: Okay, let me just warm up!
The thought I had as you were talking about the ratings, I’m really curious about this obsession with capturing live ratings. Why don’t the ratings just change to capture the fact that shifting habits have changed? Everyone doesn’t sit at home at 8:30 on Friday night anymore, so why don’t they take into account streams and watching it later and… Is it harder to capture? I don’t understand this… Why does it have to be live?
KK: And they have to some degree. There’s now, I think, plus three and plus seven. But they still have to be gauged. That’s if you record it and you watch it within three days or you record it and you watch it within seven days. And there are some streaming services that the Nielsen ratings will still capture, but it also has to do with ad load, that the point is “Are you watching my ads?” That the ratings are all about “Are you seeing these commercials?” And the live musicals, at least with Sound of Music and Peter Pan, were largely sponsored by Walmart, and had things kind of built in, where The Sound of Music had created Walmart ads around The Sound of Music. And then Hairspray integrated… Was it Hairspray? I think it was Hairspray. Integrated ads in so they had filmed old-school-looking ads and they integrated it into the show as it would’ve been in 1950s television. Product placement. But they can’t just say “How many people watched this on…” I have The Wiz Live from Amazon. But there are no ads in there, so that doesn’t benefit the advertisers at all. The same thing with Hulu. It’s not necessarily the same ads, so you’re not getting… So it’s all about ad load. Again, it’s not about entertaining us. It’s not about what we want to see. It’s never about what we want to see except what can they get us to see to buy their toothpaste?
LL: Well, that is depressing and infuriating.
KK: Disney Plus is a different story. I mean, Hamilton was a different story. But how many… And I wonder at the end of the day what the… And I don’t know. All the work I did about Hamilton on Disney Plus I did beforehand…
LL: I think the numbers haven’t come out. I think Disney has been very kind of closed about how much their subscriptions went up or it’s been…
KK: Because did they go up and come back down?
KK: Cause you could get a subscription for a month, see Hamilton, and then go back away, right? And a lot of the streaming services play their numbers very close to the vest, that it’s harder to get those numbers. So, I mean, it is all about the Benjamins.
LL: As someone that… Part of the reason I struggled watching the filmed live TV musicals was the ad breaks. I don’t like watching my musicals with ad breaks! So I am not the target market, but I am the target market because I want to watch musicals on screen!
KK: And I also think that it’s a generational struggle that they have to figure out how to overcome in terms of advertising, and we see more product placement now, I think, than we used to. When I’m teaching undergrads television, it’s as if they don’t understand the economics, I guess that’s my job to teach them that, the economics of television that they don’t necessarily understand that something is an NBC show or an ABC show or FOX, cause they watch it on Hulu, so they just think it’s a Hulu show, and they’re so indignant about the ads, the mere fact that they exist and how they would never watch it on network television because the ads are there and how offensive is it that they’re being put there? And I’m like, “Dude, you wouldn’t even have it on Hulu if it didn’t air here first, or you would’ve never gotten to Breaking Bad, to start watching it two seasons in, if it hadn’t lasted the two seasons on a cable channel with ads.”
So it’s because of the ways in which television is so self-serve today, and you can structure your viewing around… You can get your Hulu without ads in it. I’m too cheap, so I still watch an ad. But it’s so easy for them to avoid them that I think it’s easy for people to forget that we’re just watching a commodity. It’s not the same commodity that, when we pay to go see a musical on Broadway, we’re paying to go see the musical on Broadway. When we pay to see the musical on NBC, we are paying for Walmart. And it’s disheartening, cause, I mean, they did it out of desperation. They didn’t do it out of…
LL: It’s not art. It’s show business.
KK: Right, which I think is even clearer in the Tony Awards. The Tony Awards are so chock full of stars that are not of the musical that… And they’ve pulled out... The design awards are always tucked into a commercial, so they get to speak for a hot five seconds, and then Sting will have a number. So they don’t care about us.
LL: I’m sad now. Quick, let’s go back to a happy place! Well, I don’t know that this will be a happy place, because it’s going to be just as commercial as it is now, but I want to jump back in time a little bit looking at the first musicals on television.
KK: Sure! Well, the first musical on television was, what’s the year… Well, actually, the first musicals on television were 1935. Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, which aired on NBC. And this is at a time where television was kind of cropping up and then not really going anywhere because of the war. Television gets kind of pushed back to the back burner during the war.
LL: And just quickly, you define Gilbert and Sullivan as a musical rather than operetta?
KK: For the purposes… I mean, definitely they are operettas. For the purposes of this project, I combined the two, which may be offensive to some. And that’s okay.
LL: It’s interesting, because in the later 20th century and into the 21st century, they’re marketed as musicals rather than as operetta. So there is a blurry line. I just found that very interesting.
KK: And I think there’s a slippery slope with… Once you get to Webber, and even Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti airs in the 50s, I think, which was super fun and super weird, but so I think there’s a slippery slope. And I had a difficult time sussing out what am I gonna cordon off as opera and what gets to come in? So it’s always dicey when you figure out…
But then the first musical that was made specifically for television was a musical called The Boys from Boise, in 1944. It aired on DuMont, which was the one network at the time that did not already have a radio network. So they were the guys who were struggling the whole time, and even watching a lot of things that were on DuMont, the quality didn’t look as strong. But so The Boys from Boise airs in 1944. It’s an original musical comedy written by Ray Nelson, Sam Medoff, and Constance Smith, and it was about chorus girls stranded in Boise and their escapades with the FBI, a crooked rancher, and a band of rustlers. And it had songs like “Girls of the 8-to-the-Bar-X-Ranch” and “You Put a Brand on My Heart.”
And I really, really enjoyed… This is really nerdy. It’s not saved. There is no kinescope of it. And I had read one review of it early on, and as I was doing my research and digging at the New York Library of the Performing Arts, I found more stuff on it, and it was so nerdily exciting to see the ways in which it was smack dab in the middle of the larger historical discourse of television at that moment. Because suddenly, they were attempting to put this genre, or this type of performance that is so inherently connected to spectacle on an 8-to-10-inch television in black and white. And you had magazines like Billboard and Tune In calling it “a pioneer video achievement,” “the night television came of age…” Billboard said that “Boise is to video what the late Thomas Edison’s “Train Robbery” film was to movies.”
So they’re clearly very excited about what’s happening, but at the same time kind of holding back because of this concern of what television isn’t able to do yet. Harriet van Horne from New York World had said, “The quality of the production soars beyond the ability of the studio apparatus to transmit it properly, as well as the ability of the receiver to do it justice.” And said that 120 minutes was simply a little too long to watch on an 8-by-10 screen. The reviewers talked about the lack of sharpness of the picture, the ways in which it was kind of waiting for color, things that the medium suffered from and the ways in which that impacted attempting to show musicals at the time. But at the same time, New York Times was quoted as saying, “While the Rialto faithful endured the noisy latecomers, taxi cab shortages, and poor seat locations, the owner of a video receiver merely had to flick a switch to bring fresh song and dance into his own home. Jim Reilly’s League of New York Theatres, no doubt, will be aghast at the thought. But it was not unpleasant either to sip a highball and enjoy a cigarette in a favorite chair.”
I loved this in the ways in which it was engaging in the bringing together of these two spaces, but also the ways in which it was smack dab in the middle of the debates that were occurring within the television industry at that moment, whereas CBS was really pushing for color technology, NBC, who is economically connected to RCA, doesn’t want that to occur cause it would render their sets unusable if the FCC changed the regulation.
LL: How many people were watching at this point? How many people owned television sets?
KK: What is that number? It’s a ridiculously small number. At this point, it would have been almost largely relegated to the New York area. I don’t have that number on me.
LL: Oh, no worries. But we’re taught it’s a very small amount of people.
KK: A very small audience at this point. And I know I have that in the book. It’s a number that I pull out often, that I’ll also pull it out in relation to when Peter Pan aired with Mary Martin on television, they kind of insisted it be in color and they really sold it on the fact that it was in color. And almost no one had color TVs at that moment.
LL: Believe us when we tell you the colors are gorgeous!
KK: Exactly. [inaudible 00:38:28] that was connected to it as a color program was very weird, considering almost no one would’ve been able to watch that in color. And very few people would’ve seen Boys from Boise. That is 1944, there just aren’t that many people with televisions, it’s largely relegated to one coast, that it isn’t until the early 1950s that we start to see television really explode and there’s a licensing freeze that happens in the late 40s. So in some ways it’s literally and figuratively singing to the choir, because it’s playing to the New York audience.
LL: Who already have theatre at their doorstep.
KK: Who do have theatre at their doorstep.
LL: In theory.
KK: In theory.
LL: Were any of those early programs filmed with a live audience, even a studio audience?
KK: I do not think that… Many things were. The first show that did air live from a Broadway theatre wasn’t until 1961. In 1961, Showgirl with Carol Channing was broadcast live from the Eugene O’Neill to a pay TV audience. But it was a pay TV audience in a suburb of Toronto. So in the 80s, Ain’t Misbehavin’ was able to claim that they were the first to do that, but really Channing had done it 20 years prior, but to an audience in a Toronto suburb. So I don’t know why
LL: Why? And…
KK: Because Carol Channing is amazing, and [crosstalk 00:40:14-16]
LL: I want it to be filmed and live, that’s great, but why this… How did that happen?
KK: I have no idea. I have no idea. It was one of those… When I was doing my research, I spent a lot of time talking to Jane Klain at the Paley Center in New York, who knows everything about musicals on television…
LL: Encyclopedic brain.
KK: Oh, man. She’s amazing, and she was like, “Oh, here’s this fact.” I’m like, “I love this fact!”
LL: “I am going to put it in my book.”
KK: Exactly. She’s just amazing. She ended up doing a whole read of the book before I sent it to the publisher. She was the person who I knew, if I was lying about something, she was going to catch me in ways that almost no one else would, because she just knows everything about musicals on television. She’s fabulous.
LL: I’m really curious about the relationship between Japan and Broadway and television, because Pacific Overtures, Victor/Victoria, and Will Rogers Follies were all filmed live on Broadway, but broadcast in Japan.
LL: Yeah. And it was sponsored by Japanese television. And I… Why? It seems to be only those three shows, and unfortunately I do not speak Japanese, so it’s hard to kind of research it. It’s like if I ever get funding, I would love to pay someone who is knowledgeable in musicals in Japan to tell me about that history, cause it’s like, why this town in Canada? Why… How does this happen?
KK: That is so interesting. Which production of Pacific Overtures?
LL: The original, 1979. It was filmed on Broadway, yep. There’s a bootleg on YouTube, but it was filmed live. It’s not a particularly great recording, is suffers from the stage lights look… You can’t really see the faces very well. But there was attempts at different angles, mostly it’s from the back of the theatre, but there’s a few from the side, a few close-ups. And it was broadcast on Japanese television!
KK: That is so interesting.
LL: And how did… Especially with the resistance that Broadway shows have historically had to filming at all, it can only be live, it’s ephemeral, you can’t capture that magic, all of that, and somehow these Japanese companies were able to negotiate it and so these three Broadway shows, and big Broadway shows, were filmed live and broadcast in Japan.
KK: Well, I guess in those cases, and the same thing with Cover Girl, the threat that those would have on Broadway sales and touring would be minimal, so on that front… But it is often… And if the recording was being funded by the Japanese business, then that would be a different story, cause those were very expensive to do, the recordings. I think the Sweeney Todd was 1.5 million dollars. It took them a bajillion side hustles to be able to pay off that investment.
LL: In terms of it being distributed on different cable and… Is that what you mean?
KK: Right, yeah. It ended up airing in a number of different places. It was done on spec for the Entertainment Channel, it was later jointly sold to Showtime and PBS after the Entertainment Channel went kaput, and between that it aired on some pay channels like Detroit’s… I think it’s IT TV and Los Angeles’s On, which were over-the-air pay channels. And I think it was that that also aired on flights on TWA. I think it was them and not Pippin. But they all needed these side hustles just to get out of the hole. So unless you’ve got something backing you, unless you have a decided stream, then it just seems like it’s not even worth it.
LL: The scale of mounting specifically Broadway. There’s a whole other world of filming regional or non-Broadway shows, it’s a different scale. But the cost of mounting a Broadway show and then, like you say, the cost of filming it is just so prohibitive. It’s why there are relatively so few.
KK: Well, and in the book, it says how many cameras and crew they needed just to do that Sweeney Todd. It was right as the tour was about to end, so they were doing it in the wee hours so they could figure out a way to do it when they didn’t have the audience, and they filmed parts with the audience so they could get audience reaction. But it was a huge undertaking, and that’s a threat to the main places where they’re gonna make money. I mean, you saw similar pushback with the radio, even with music being played on the radio, that they were like, “Hm, I don’t know, man. I don’t want people to not come see my operetta.”
LL: And it was the same with screening vaudeville acts in the cinema, which did eventually kill vaudeville, because why would you pay 20 bucks to go see the act when you can pay three dollars to see it on the screen? Fun parallels there, the fears that people had.
I want to jump across now to what do you think are the benefits of having a musical on television?
KK: I think it makes me happy.
LL: Excellent answer.
KK: There’s a democratization, because as we’ve already said, we know that everyone can’t afford to go to the theatre. Musicals are so good for the soul, and there are people who just don’t have access period, whether it’s economically or whether it’s because you live in a small town, and that is really the best advantage that I can see is the access that it provides people. Again, though, it’s not a philanthropic venture, so when the only real plus that I can find aside from “It makes me happy” is that it does allow for people who can’t see them… It could potentially create an audience.
I’m kind of a pessimist, but I’m often hard-pressed to think, “Oh, this is really gonna create a much bigger theatre audience, if people just have access,” especially today when people are so able to choose exactly what they want to watch that it seems less apt for people to determine that there is something new that they like, to search for… When I was a kid, you were watching ABC, CBS, or NBC, or a local station, so you just watched what was on and you just ended up watching a lot of old movies because they were there or you watched nothing. And I was not gonna choose watching nothing, but today you can choose whatever you want to watch…
KK: So why bother tuning into something that you don’t think you’re gonna watch? So I think it’s harder today to create audience on television. But it does allow that access for people who just simply don’t, either economically or regionally.
LL: Do you think for people like us, theatre people, that there’s something in us, either we grew up watching it or we saw a tiny thing on television once when we were five, that having that exposure opens… The thing I’m thinking of is like at BroadwayCon, I went for the first three years, and the thing that astounded me over the first three years was almost every single panelist, without fail, mentioned either bootlegs or seeing musicals on television as their gateway drug to picking a life in the theatre. And so even though it might be a small audience, isn’t there value in putting it out there for those people?
KK: Well, I think there is karmic value, but karma don’t pay no bills!
LL: No one comes to the theatre to make money!
KK: Oh, everyone knows that right now. But I do think that’s worthwhile, but I am not the person to ask. I already value it. I already see its value as a medium and I think that it is good for your soul and I think that it’s powerful and I think all of those things.
LL: All right, you and me, we’re going and knocking on the door of NBC executives and…
KK: But I do think that is valuable, and I do think that it’s… I remember my partner and I watching the first episode of Glee, and it’s so nerdy, and they’re doing “Don’t Stop Believing,” we have a single tear running down our faces because we know exactly what that meant to us as high school students. I know who I was. I am never deluded into thinking I was anything other than the theatre nerd who I was. And I know what that would’ve meant to me and I know what… I got my theatre club together in high school and I got them to get tickets to Les Mis and we drove to St. Louis. I was fighting for us to have letterman jackets. So I value what that means to… What Glee did was recognize the very real phenomenon of the outcasts who find their lifeblood in theatre in high school.
And televised musicals is definitely one way for those people who aren’t some place. Again, I was at least lucky that I lived by a city, so things would come to the St. Louis Muny and things would come to the St. Louis Fox, which is a gorgeous theatre. I saw the tour of Annie there as a kid. So I think that’s really worthwhile. But again, in the soul. But the industry isn’t driven by your soul, as we find out over and over and over and over again. And even today, where niche marketing is so much more successful. Like, what was it, Smash went… I think once it was canceled it went onto Ovation, right?
LL: That sounds right.
KK: I think that sounds right. I have a quotation from one of their execs who was like, their bad ratings on NBC would have always been blockbuster ratings for us, because the cable channels don’t need as high ratings to be successful, and they were like, it just would’ve been totally a missed market for us to not take this, a missed opportunity. So it seems like network’s not the place for it. There’s already BroadwayHD, but clearly not live. I mean, live, but not live. It depends on what ‘live’ means, I guess, as well. Does live mean…
LL: That’s a whole other episode.
KK: Right. Does live mean recorded live in front of a studio audience or does live mean you’re watching it simultaneous to…
LL: Real time.
KK: And we see that being negotiated in all of this, even go back to Ed Sullivan, that you have a live audience who’s feeding off of it, but it… And it aired live, but now when we watch it clearly it’s not live.
LL: Oh, this is so wonderful. I could talk with you for hours, but I don’t want to take up your entire day. So to finish up, I have some rapid-fire questions. You don’t need to think about it too much, and there’s no wrong answers.
So first up, what is your favorite musical?
KK: Oh, man. Oh, but I have to think about it! My knee-jerk reaction is Gypsy, but I’m not positive that’s right. People will slight me for it, but I really loved the movie, because I’m a huge Rosalind Russell fan. I know she didn’t do her own singing, and til her dying day insisted otherwise. I saw Tyne Daly in the tour of it. She and I share a birthday, and I love her. And then I saw part of the LuPone. That’s a long, tragic story. But I’ve just always really…
LL: My heart is breaking and I don’t even know the story.
KK: I did not try to use my phone and she did not take it away. I was not the person she’s yelling at in the ‘LuPoned’ video. That’s not me. That would be awesome.
LL: Do you have a favorite filmed live musical?
KK: I loved The Wiz. I, for various reasons… I thought it was gorgeous. I thought it was cast so well. I remember them slowly rolling out the cast, and this is after the first two, which I was kind of meh. They were announcing the cast one by one, and I was like, “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. They are figuring it out! They are nailing it here!” And so on the one hand, I thought it was cast so amazingly. I thought that the direction was fabulous. I thought it was shot really well. It was a kind of fabulous combo of kind of close-ups, pushing in, and able to get the close-up of them, but also really nice shots to capture the patterns on stage. I think the costume design is amazing. My partner made some of the Munchkin hats for it, so I got a preview of the Munchkin hats before they went to NBC. And I just thought it was a really fun show. And it was the one, as I said, that was the closest to theatre.
LL: And Cirque du Soleil have an amazing history of filming all of their productions, so they are really good at it.
KK: And I really liked Hairspray, more than other people. I thought it was super fun and I don’t know, Kristin Chenoweth had me at hello.
LL: You can’t go wrong with Kristin Chenoweth. It’s a win. You put Kristin there, okay, great.
KK: I know, right? I’m like, fine! I thought as a whole that was a super fun show. I liked it more than other people. I liked it more than Grease, personally.
LL: So filmed live theatre sits somewhere between theatre and film. It’s not exactly live theatre and it’s not exactly a film. So what should we call it?
KK: Filmed live theatre? I can’t just say it’s a teleplay. That’s a whole other thing. I don’t know. I mean, I think you just have to… Because I think it fills so many different slots in terms of what it is that it doesn’t have a name. It isn’t.
LL: My life’s mission, come up with a name for what this is!
Where do you stand on bootlegs
KK: I am old. And I guess also a hypocrite. Because I’m kind of uncomfortable with bootlegs in that... That’s one of the final things I talk about in the book, is I kind of touch on YouTube and what’s there. And on the one hand, again, it’s democratizing art. It allows people of all ages who can’t make it to New York to see things. But it is simultaneously taking money out of somebody else’s pocket. There’s so much Hamilton stuff that’s being made that… Like, there are Hamilton paper dolls that are being made based off the costumes, but Paul Tazewell’s not getting any of that money. And I think there is… As I continue to teach media studies, I increasingly see a level of entitlement toward content. And great umbrage toward the notion that everyone should not have access to all content, that “Well, how dare they say I can’t record this and upload it? I have a right to have this content.” And no, that is in fact somebody else’s content.
At the same time, I could not have done the book without YouTube. I could not have done the book without sketchily-uploaded clips of 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s television. I couldn’t have… Even some of the more recent stuff that I talk about in the conclusion is about fanvideos being made, which are using the music from Mean Girls. I recognize the ways in which fans aren’t just taking it, but are using it in really interesting ways to create new things. But I’m not wholly comfortable with bootlegs, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has been vocal about that, that people are not hearing it in the way it’s supposed to be heard, they’re not seeing it the way it’s supposed to be seen. And you know, where do you draw the line? So I feel like I answer that like an old person, like a kind of old hypocrite.
LL: Not at all. I think it is such a complicated, complex realm of the theatre industry that the entire industry, from audience through to the makers, to the producers, are grappling with. And it’s hard.
KK: And it’s already an industry that is so hard to make a profit in, in that… I suppose there’s an argument to be made that there are more people that go see the thing because they’ve seen the thing that they want to see the thing. And I think, again, Hamilton’s a unicorn. I’m not sure that’s the case with everything else. But I do think we have to consider whose pocket we’re taking money out of, and it’s not just… As long as it takes a Broadway show to even make a profit… So it’s not like taking a buck out of Steven Spielberg’s pocket, that it takes some serious success to make a profit as a Broadway show, especially if it’s not a huge [inaudible 01:02:03] which I refer to as… My partner worked on Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys musical. She was one of the assistant costume designers. And at the end of that show, they threw big beach balls into the audience and when I’m at a Broadway musical and I think that it needs more punch, I always say it needs more beach ball. I’m not sure Good Vibrations had enough beach ball. But whenever we see something and it seems like there’s just not enough… Or if they’re trying to make something have more beach ball when it shouldn’t, like I originally saw Burnt Part Boys, I don’t know if you saw that, it was at Playwrights Horizons. It started out at Barrington Stage Company, in a small theatre. It was a workshop there. And then it went to Playwrights, and the difference in venue, you could tell that they tried to give it more beach ball.
LL: And they put glitter on everything just cause it’s on Broadway.
KK: They do. Exactly. And it was this gorgeous, intimate… It was still really nice at Playwrights, but the intimacy that it had, and Broadway doesn’t do intimate musical well. Fun Home, that was the closest that, or I just had a dissociative, ‘too much like me in college’ reaction to it.
LL: Alison Bechdel shares my birthday!
KK: Oh, congrats!
KK: Sorry, I [inaudible 01:03:39]
LL: No, I love that.
What do you wish had been filmed and preserved?
KK: There was supposed to be a filmed version of Mame with Angela Lansbury. And I really wish that that existed a lot.
LL: What musicals would you like to see filmed live in the future?
KK: Oh, man. I feel like I have bad answers here.
LL: Not at all.
KK: What would I like to see? Oh, I also wish there was… Can I go back?
KK: I wish that I could see dueling Channing and Pearl Bailey Hello Dollys. I wish both of those had been recorded and that I could see both of those.
LL: So my dream for shows like that is DVD box sets where you can have every… So I want Pearl Bailey, Carol Channing, Bette Midler, Donna Murphy.
KK: Yes, yes.
LL: We’ll throw Barbara in, too. I want the full box sets with every performance. Well, not every single performance, but every leading lady for that show. That’s my dream. That’s what I want.
KK: Have you seen the Pearl Bailey Carol Channing television special?
KK: They did together… It was when Pearl was still doing Dolly on Broadway. They did, it’s like Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey perform Broadway. And it is amazing. They come out and do a duet to start with, they do a duet of men’s Broadway numbers. It is tremendous.
LL: Kay, I’m gonna go look that up as soon as we’re done.
KK: There’s some little parts of it on YouTube, but… It is phenomenal. It is all the things… And it ends with a civil rights duet with a very heavy-handed close-up of the two of them holding hands.
LL: Oh wow.
KK: It’s amazing. It’s fabulous. It gets me right there.
So what do I wish could be, would be recorded? I don’t know. What are the last… I would’ve really liked, except now it’s too late. I would’ve really liked more people to have seen the… This is a lame answer. The How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with Daniel Radcliffe. That, again, is something that I think live television… It would’ve provided something to people, but the liveness of that and the… I don’t know if you saw that live…
LL: I did. The audience, it was crazy. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
KK: It was like you were at a Beatles concert.
KK: I went one night, I was in New York doing research, and then I was waiting in line for lottery tickets, but it was the day that someone died. I think one of the crew members died and they cancelled the show that night.
LL: Oh, yikes.
KK: It was terrible. And then the next night I got lottery tickets, and the audience was crazy. It was like, teenage dude in front of me like, “Ahhh!” And after the show, the crying teenagers waiting outside and then the next night I went to see a different show, but I went back just to wait outside the theatre to watch the audience again, because it was just totally amazing. But I thought that was a super fun production. I do, when I’m feeling down, just go back to the YouTube recording of the Tony performance.
LL: So good.
KK: I think it’s “A Brotherhood of Man.” I just think it’s fun. I feel like I have bad answers for these things.
LL: Not at all. Kelly, thank you so much for your time today. It has been so interesting and you’ve lifted my spirit up. It’s so fun to talk with a fellow theatre nerd and someone who is so knowledgeable on this subject. Thank you so much.
KK: Thanks so much for reaching out! I really appreciate it. I’m so glad you enjoyed the book.
LL: It’s my pleasure.
Kelly’s book, Broadway in the Box, was published by Oxford University Press and is available from all leading bookstores. If you’re able, make sure to support your favorite bookstore and buy locally.
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