Could Broadway Exist in a Virtual Reality? Radio City Spectacular Raises a Question

News   Could Broadway Exist in a Virtual Reality? Radio City Spectacular Raises a Question
In the New York Spring Spectacular, which opened March 26 at Radio City Music Hall, Laura Benanti plays a character who wants to turn New York City into a "virtual reality wonderland." So, what would happen if Broadway no longer lived on Broadway?

Benanti, who headlines the latest Rockettes stage show, plays Jenna, a New York City tech giant who buys out a touring company in Manhattan and plans to fire its walking tour guide. In the middle of the show, she sings the new number "Bring It Home," penned by Tony Award-winning Hairspray and "Smash" songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

As the villain of the story, Benanti's character says that she'd love to bring Broadway to television screens across the world, but what would the future look like if that was really the case?

"If there were to ever be something like [a virtual Broadway], it would have to — and I know that I'm pretty much stating the obvious — be created to shine in that milieu, in that you can't just put up a camera and say, 'This is what that is.' It would have to be a hybrid," Shaiman told "It's a double-edged sword."

Laura Benanti
Laura Benanti

In the song "Bring It Home" — a nod to the Broadway community, in which audiences see snippets of Wicked, The Lion King, Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, Mamma Mia!, Aladdin, Les Misérables and Kinky Boots — Benanti sings of a world where Broadway shows could be live-streamed (professionally, of course) to televisions across the country, making theatre accessible to those unable to attend.

Although this would prevent illegal recordings from surfacing on the web (which so often happen, especially in the case of hot-ticket shows like this season's Hamilton), would attendance at live events decline? In "Bring It Home," Benanti sings, "If Broadway is your passion/You know every song and step/But when the work day's done/Be honest, don't you hate the schlep?

"But now a night on Broadway/Can be even twice as sweet/When your beat up Barco lounger/Is a front…row…seat!

"If you can't get to Broadway/There's something I can do/And wouldn't you prefer it kids/If Broadway came to you?"

Midway through the song, she continues, "Now sometimes shows are boring/And your snoring wakes the dead/But now you can fall asleep at shows/And actually be in bed!

"Yes nothing could be finer/Than to be in your recliner/Cause I love Broadway/So woncha let me bring it home!!!"

Although the song points to a virtual reality, Shaiman agreed that the experience of "live" theatre is unlike any other.

"When I read your email to me [about 'Bring It Home'], I was reminded of how many times I've seen on YouTube numbers from shows, especially Hairspray — from the actual Broadway performances," he said. "No matter how wonderful it may seem — or not — on YouTube, there's some nights I know I was there, and you just don't get the electricity that was happening in this theatre when you're watching it from someone's phone from the balcony. You just don't feel what it feels like to be there. Yet so many people feel, 'Oh, now I know what that is. I've seen it,' and unfortunately feel like, 'Now I don't need to go see.' They feel like they've actually gotten the experience, but they really haven't. And, I know other people then say, 'It's so wonderful that so many people who might not get to Broadway do have a chance to at least experience [it].' I mean, I'm putting aside the entire illegal aspect of it, but it would be hideous to think that people feel like that is equal to the experience of the live theatre."

Laura Benanti and the Rockettes
Laura Benanti and the Rockettes

He continued, "If someone had the choice of going to see it live or watching it virtual, so to speak, then I would hope they would always make the choice to go live."

In what realm, then, does virtual reality meet live performance? The Broadway 4D project planned to immerse theatregoers in a film experience that celebrates the history of Broadway musicals. It was to be housed at the Times Square Theater, the last of the dormant legit theatres between Seventh and Eighth Avenues on West 42nd Street in the Broadway theatre district, but was put on hold due to "obvious setbacks," including financial troubles.

"They were trying to do Broadway 4D, [but] that unfortunately all fell apart," said Shaiman. "That would at least have been in a theatre, but it proved that even if you're filming it, you have to film it in a certain way to create any kind of the magic that happens in live theatre."

Some theatrical pieces have thrived off the digital crossover. National Theatre Live, an initiative operated by the Royal National Theatre in London, broadcasts live performances (via satellite) of their productions to movie theatres and arts centers over the world. (The Audience and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time were NT Live events before they transferred to Broadway and received critical acclaim .)

However, according to Benanti, a Broadway existing in a virtual world may not be the best idea.

When asked about the song at this year's Miscast gala, Benanti told, "She's the villain — the character that I play — so Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who wrote this song, were trying to basically give a Broadway number, so that we could honor Broadway in a show about New York City, but also have a little bit of fun with the fact that I'm the villain, and I want to do these terrible things. And, virtualizing Broadway would be a terrible thing. My favorite thing that happens is sometimes when I say, 'Maybe I should buy Broadway and make it virtual, too' is [that] people boo. And, I'm like, 'I'm glad you're booing, but also I'm sad you're booing.'"

For the record, even in a show that raises the possibility of a virtual Broadway, Radio City Music Hall (the largest indoor theatre in the world) is still packing in over 6,000 theatregoers for an extended run through May 7.

( staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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