Broadway's Netflix is coaxing live theater onto a digital stage

BroadwayHD wants plays and musicals to be as accessible as a $9-a-month streaming subscription. All the theater world needs to do is abandon its most basic instinct.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
Expertise Streaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation online Credentials
  • Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Joan E. Solsman
5 min read
"Hadestown" Opening Night

Hadestown, a modern take on an ancient Greek myth, won the Tony for best new musical Sunday. 

Getty Images

What if you could stream the Tony Awards' big winners like Hadestown as easily as you fire up Netflix?

Enter BroadwayHD. Founded by a husband-and-wife team with a combined 83 years of experience in the Broadway business, the niche service is like Netflix for theater. It offers a library of plays and musicals to stream on demand for a $9-a-month subscription. These aren't those out-of-focus iPhone recordings of your nephew's fifth-grade talent show. BroadwayHD specializes in live captures of high-end theatrical productions with HD or 4K cameras and the same audio that feeds into a theater's soundboard.

BroadwayHD doesn't have any of Sunday's Tony-winning productions like Hadestown, The Ferryman or Oklahoma. For now, it takes whatever it can get, which means most of its shows have ended their live runs. But the fact that BroadwayHD exists at all is a feat. Until three years ago, no service like it had ever ventured online. 

One of the main reasons: For people who worship theater, including many who make it, live tapings skirt uncomfortably close to sacrilege.

"[Some] people sign up to do live theater because it's live. Your memory of it is right there, right then, and you leave with your experience," said Sydney Beers, general manager of the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, which set a Guinness World Record with BroadwayHD for the first livestream of a Broadway show. "For some people, they feel strongly that you're not meant to be able to go and rent and watch again."

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BroadwayHD is the latest in a trend of more traditional performing arts modernizing to stay relevant. After years of television, movies and music migrating online, audiences' expectations have morphed. Like big-budget operas simulcast in movie theaters, BroadwayHD's goal is to make high-end theater productions accessible to people who don't live near metropolises like New York or have a $200,000 yearly household income.

BroadwayHD's founders and partners like the Roundabout believe that by making Broadway and other prestigious productions affordable and easy to watch anywhere, they'll accelerate interest in theater rather than drain ticket sales.

For the same reason you might tune in to an obscure Olympic sport because you learned about a certain player's captivating life story, BroadwayHD is betting people will attend more live shows if it's easy to familiarize themselves with the theater world, said Bonnie Comley, one of BroadwayHD's founders and a longtime Broadway producer.

"That's what we're trying to get for our culture: get people to have a vocabulary about who the players are in theater, who the players are on Broadway," she said in an interview. "[The way] for them to just keep thinking about theater is to watch it. … The more familiar they are with it, the better off everybody is within the industry."

The Tony awards

The Tonys, awarded Sunday night, are the Oscars of the theater world and Broadway's high-water mark for mainstream awareness each year. But they attract a fraction of the audience of other awards programs. The Oscars brought in 30 million viewers in February, followed by the Grammys with 20 million the same month. The Emmys drew 10 million in September.

Last year's Tonys telecast had only 6 million viewers.  

Meanwhile, the audiences for all these awards shows have been shrinking too, for much the same reason that BroadwayHD exists: People are streaming more of what they watch. Last year, the percentage of consumers using Netflix surpassed those with any pay-TV subscription for the first time, a PwC study found.

The Tonys face an added challenge: Relatively few people have seen the nominees.

"Beetlejuice" Broadway Opening Night

Beetlejuice, a musical adaptation of the film, was nominated for the best-musical Tony this year. 

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For one, Tonys are restricted to Broadway productions, which means nominations are generally limited to shows that opened in the last year in only 41 theaters -- all but one are clustered in about one-tenth of a square mile in Manhattan. On top of that, the nature of the Broadway season means many of the shows nominated for Tonys opened within only the last couple months. Of the 10 projects nominated for best musical or best play, half of them opened in late April.  

It's challenging even for Tony voters to see the shows that are nominated, let alone mainstream audiences. One way to make seeing them much easier for both voters and regular viewers would be to make them available to stream on demand.

Nearly all the titles available to stream on BroadwayHD now are productions that have closed. But could there be a future where you stream a Tony-nominated production before the awards are handed out?

"Without question. I'm looking forward to when we can show an opening night live on BroadwayHD," said Stewart F. Lane, BroadwayHD's other co-founder. "It's a big commercial. We can show it for a week and then maybe pull it back."

Comley projected that BroadwayHD could stream Tony-nominated productions before the awards ceremony within the next five years.

Gil Cates Jr. is the executive director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, which livestreamed its production of A Long Day's Journey into Night on BroadwayHD and has two additional titles available there on demand. The idea of streaming a Tony-nominated show when it's still in its live run had never even occurred to him before.

"In a way it's kind of genius," he said. "It's not about replacing theater. It's about adapting to the world we're in today."

"Kiss Me, Kate" Opening Night

One of the Roundabout's productions -- Kiss Me, Kate -- was nominated for the Tony for best revival of a musical.

Getty Images

But others, even partners involved with BroadwayHD, are unsure.

"I don't think we're there yet, and I don't know if we ever should be," Beers said.

BroadwayHD may be the Netflix of theater, but it has a much smaller library. It launched in 2015 with 110 shows. Today, it has 300 titles. But by comparison, Netflix has thousands of movies and TV shows.

While BroadwayHD said its subscribers have doubled in the last year, it wouldn't share how many subscribers it has. The company also wouldn't characterize how it's funded, if it has investors or whether it's profitable, other than to say that it's "self-financed" and concentrating all its efforts on growth.

But to get the people who make plays and musicals on board, BroadwayHD must challenge one of theater's bedrock principles: Theater is meant to be seen live and in person.

"We've seen a tremendous change in the industry from people telling us 'Oh, that's not what we do, that's Hollywood,'" she said. "And now people are saying, 'Well, when should we do it?'"

Originally published June 9.
Update, June 10: With Tony results.

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