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Question: Why are so few Broadway musicals available to purchase on DVD? Answer: Visit Amazon.com or Playbill's online store, and one can easily buy DVD recordings of Broadway's Into the Woods, Fosse and Jekyll and Hyde. Other musicals, such as The Light in the Piazza, Contact, and Legally Blonde, have been recorded and broadcast on television, but are still unavailable for purchase. Why some and not others? The reasons are surprisingly complicated, and as Playbill.com found out, don't always have a single answer.
Maria Somma, a spokesperson for Actors' Equity Association (AEA), says that every show that wishes to be recorded for broadcast in its entirety must be evaluated separately, and "all the terms and conditions must be negotiated on an individual basis." If the producers 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 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.
These contracts are long and involved, and since each recorded production is treated as its own case, the headache-inducing minutia can sometimes threaten to take over. Because of this, producers often think long and hard before deciding to record, broadcast and release a DVD.
Most musicals that have been broadcast on television have done so on PBS, either through "Great Performances" or "Live from Lincoln Center." The difference between these programs is that most "Great Performances" broadcasts eventually become available for purchase, while those from "Live from Lincoln Center" do not. According to "Live from Lincoln Center," 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."
Many productions broadcast through "Great Performances," such as Kiss Me, Kate and Cats, were recorded in England, exempting them from American union broadcasting rules; therefore, the resulting DVDs are available for personal purchase. The recent Broadway revival of Company, however, was filmed at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre shortly before its closing in July 2007 and was released on DVD in May of this year. This was possible, Somma says, because of the decisions made through either AFTRA or SAG.
Legally Blonde, however, is its own special case. As the first Broadway musical to be broadcast in its entirety while still open and with no plans to close, the deal struck between its producers and the MTV executives had very specific regulations. "Part of what was stipulated and set up upfront was that there would be a limited amount of showings," says Kristin Caskey, one Legally Blonde's producers. "They (MTV) were allowed, I believe, six airings over a six-week period. And once that was done, it was done."
The collaboration came about because MTV executive George McTeague saw the show, "fell in love with it, and thought it would be absolutely perfect for the MTV audience," says Caskey. "We looked at the pros and cons and realized that the demographic that MTV speaks to is a demographic for our show."
The success of broadcasting Legally Blonde on MTV, combined with its spin-off reality casting show that named Bailey Hanks the new Elle Woods, seems like it would be perfect packaging for a DVD, right?
Not if you think about it. "It's one thing to have a film come out, which is quite different from what you experience when you see it onstage," says Caskey. "In this instance, the MTV special was, obviously, what you see onstage, so as long as the show is running, we didn't really have any interest to have a DVD out there for the general public to purchase. Our interest is in having them come see the show, either on Broadway or on the national tour, which launches this fall. And, if at some point further down the line, years from now, if that becomes of interest, we would have to go to the studio and all of the different unions to see if this is something everyone wants to do."
Lindsey Wilson, who is temporarily filling in for Zachary Pincus-Roth, is a theatre writer whose work has also been seen in The Syracuse Post-Standard. She can be reached by emailing LindseyAnnWilson@gmail.com.