She Loves Me debuted live on the televisions, mobile screens, and hearts of aspiring theatergoers everywhere last week. And despite a few initial technical difficulties, we stalwart viewers trudged on, stuck on our couches in pajamas, with cartons of vanilla ice cream on hand for Act 2, because we really had nothing better to do on a Thursday night than see Laura Benanti hit that high B.
But as interest in live-streamed theater expands from the few pioneering theater companies in England to the Broadway stage, and as major television networks keep adding live musicals to their annual lineup, it’s important to discuss how a successful live performance translates to a successful film, and what that says about each medium’s ability to create engaging narratives. I’ve been working on this question for over a year now, and it would take a couple of subsequent posts to give the topic its due exploration. So for now, let’s talk about She Loves Me Live specifically, what worked and what didn’t, and what the BroadwayHD experiment can show us about the theater experience.
What Worked: The Ballads and Solos
Close-ups were made for moments like Amalia’s somber ballad “Will He Like Me?,” a song which didn’t move me much when I saw it on stage but gained power with a camera framing Laura Benanti’s hopeful, yet troubled expressions. It’s the first solo in the show sung by a character alone, and an intensely personal moment for Amalia, whose fantasies about her dear friend are starting to become real. Film can be the best medium for this: bringing out nuances of emotion, making the imaginative become real.
Same goes for Amalia’s other solo reflections on her love life, “Dear Friend” and “Vanilla Ice Cream,” and Ilona’s “I Resolve.” The camera served to intensify the soul-searching power of these songs and make these women’s journey’s feel so much more intimate
What Didn’t: The Ensemble Pieces and Dances
Large ensemble songs and dances serve a different storytelling purpose. Rather than closing in on intimate character-centric moments, they tend to broaden the brush of the plot with spectacle, environment, relationships, and sometimes pure silliness. The only way for a camera to capture the hugeness of these moments is to cut to different angles of the stage. A wide shot of the entire stage just doesn’t work on film: it’s almost too overwhelming, too theatrical. Thus dance-heavy songs like “Romantic Atmosphere” and even Kodaly’s “Ilona” lose their punch (even if “Romantic Atmosphere” didn’t quite have much punch to begin with) in sacrifice to quick camera changes and ineffective angling. Somehow the human eye works differently watching a live performance in person than the camera’s eye. In person, we resist direction and close-ups, absorbing the entirety of the scene even if it’s a little at a time.
What Worked: The Realistic Performances
Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi are no strangers to television, and it certainly showed by how friendly the camera was to their performances. Benanti’s delivery always struck me as realistic and natural, which is really the preferred modus operandi for great film acting (you could argue that it’s also great for stage acting, but more on that later). Levi’s performance is more animated, but no less perfect for the camera. I’m sure you could find at least ten gif-able Zachary Levi expressions; he’s mastered the art of the manically uncomfortable smile.
Another performance that translated well to camera was Tom McGowan’s understated everyman Cipos. McGowan is a veteran television actor, and his lovable oafish just-trying-to-make-a-buck character feels like a the kind of small gem that needs the close-up framing of a tv screen to help him not be overshadowed by the larger personalities on stage.
What Didn’t: The Unrealistic Performances
Just to clarify: I don’t mean to separate the show’s performers into good or bad actors. Everyone in this cast does a fine job to be honest. But I think more theatrical styles of performance are better for the stage as opposed to film. Take Peter Bartlett’s hilarious turn as the Maître D’. Bartlett uses a lot of clown-like mannerisms and delivers his lines in exaggerated, breathy fashion. It’s fun to watch his meltdown on stage as he dramatically staggers across the stage in anxious anger and scowls for several seconds before recovering his volatile composure. But this extreme theatricality requires a suspension of disbelief, which is never something that translates well on camera.
The same, I’d say, goes for Jane Krakowski as Ilona. Even though her performance isn’t as exaggerated as Bartlett, her deadpan delivery has a vaudevillian streak to it that emphasizes presence and charm over nuance of character. On stage, it’s thrilling. On camera, boring.
What Worked: Set Changes
David Rockwell won a Tony for Maraczek’s Faberge-egg of a set, and the video recording did a great job of framing each set change with the high-definition detail and beauty it deserves.
What Didn’t: Seasons Change
That cute bit where the passing of time is indicated by a stagehand throwing autumn leaves (and then winter snow) on the audience? Seemed sort of lame on television. Again, theatrics don’t translate well.
What Worked: It’s LIVE, People!
I loved seeing the shadows of the back of people’s heads as they watched the performance. It was a great reminder that this whole show was performed live in real time, interrupting the visual determination a camera can produce. It’s also a bit like the moments when cast members on Saturday Night Live slip up during a skit. We love those bits so much because they reveal a bit the reality behind the show. Seeing behind the process of how something is created helps us appreciate the craft that goes into it.
Speaking of slip ups, Laura Benanti dropping ice cream on her bed sheets should be instituted into every performance of the show from now on.
What Didn’t: Misuse of Pre-show, Post-show, and Intermission
Before the show, we got a nice, little interview with Jane Krakowski and the significance of the show on her career and family life. It was worth a soundbite or two. But really? We had a whole 15-minute intermission that could have been spent with more artist interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, discussion on the history of the show, maybe even a special guest or two. Instead we got Justin Guarini counting down the ways Broadway HD is better than seeing the real show. First off, I disagreed with nearly every single point. Second, for an organization who claims to supplement live theater attendance and not replace it, that was definitely not the way to express it. Let’s get a bit more creative with the way we use this precious, precious time, BroadwayHD. I can interview Laura Benanti for you if you want.
What Worked: People all around the country got to see a great work of theater. Broadway became accessible. A stunning show was preserved through technology. And I got to write about this stage-to-screen trend. Let’s do this again sometime, eh? Vanilla ice cream for all!