While visiting my family in New York this summer, we to a trip to Manhattan’s theater district to see Newsies, the Musical. The movie version was a favorite of mine and my siblings when we were kids, so going together as a family was a nostalgic and meaningful experience. I do not regularly visit the theater, but I often have such a full, enjoyable time when I am there. This time around I was really thinking about what makes live theater so full of emotion and excitement. With video entertainment so ubiquitous in our lives – quite literally in our pockets – what is it that keeps live theater alive and successful?
There is a power to a live performance, any live performance, that is not present on a video screen. Even video recordings of live performances lose that certain edge, as the audience knows there is the possibility of editing and polishing. On stage, there are no second takes. Mistakes are possible – almost inevitable – and the most skilled performers learn to react and move forward. This is one of the best lessons I learned from my early music training. If you make a mistake on stage, just roll with it. Don’t make it obvious to the audience, because you are probably the only one who noticed.
When I really started to think about the fact that there is no editing of material for the show, and that these performers have to be perfect night after night with acting, singing, dancing, moving of sets, and music from the pit, I was just in awe of everyone’s talent and expertise. Considering this element of the show forged a connection to the cast and crew, one that is usually subconscious for theater goers.
During intermission, I walked down to the stage because I always love to peek into the pit to the see the musical equipment and the people who are so essential to the performance and are never seen by the audience. When I looked back up at the second floor of the theater, I saw several black and white video screens mounted along the front of the balcony. There was an usher standing with me, so I asked her what those were for. “They are so the actors can see the conductor,” she said. Now, I could see where the camera was pointed. Brilliant! While connecting with the audience, the actors can still see the conductor for cues and tempo. So there is some modern technology that is useful to this oldest of forms of entertainment!
I began to reflect more on this issue of technology being used to enhance a Broadway show. The music from the pit was mic-ed and projected through large speakers to the audience. I know this is nothing new, but think about how much that impacts the experience of the audience. The sound quality was excellent, and people in every seat in the audience could hear every instrument. Much of the backdrops were projected, rather than constructed. I imaging this would be less expensive and less labor intensive. Also, this musical did include a use of technology that I have never seen before. There are several scenes where someone climbs up a ladder to write on a giant chalkboard for the price of newspapers. Rather than having the actor write, the action paused and the words would write themselves across the board, which was some type of animated screen. It was an interesting way to use the technology in the show.
I was afraid that using more digital technology would take away from the theater experience, but it did not. The audience comes to see a great performance, whether or not it includes technology, and all of the people involved are the ones who create that wonderful performance that touches the hearts and minds of everyone in the audience. More than any other trip to Broadway I felt surges of emotion throughout the show. I don’t know if it was because I was so appreciative of the talents of everyone involved, or the way the songs tapped into warm childhood memories, or the collective feelings of the live performance, or a combination of everything. Regardless of why, the swaying of overwhelming joy and excitement that I felt was something I could not have experienced in front of any screen. I suppose this is why so many talented actors are drawn to the theater and why audiences fill Broadway theaters every day of the week.