Can Live Theater Thrive Online?
In Part One, I talked to Tony-winning writer/director Gerard Alessandrini about the genesis of Spamilton, his highly acclaimed spoof of the megahit musical Hamilton. Here we discuss the challenges of getting his show in front of the massive audience that was introduced to Hamilton when it appeared on Disney+, the prospects for touring the latest edition of his legendary revue Forbidden Broadway, and the impact the pandemic is having on the theater world in general.
It seems like a missed opportunity that you can’t have Spamilton on tour now that everyone’s seen Hamilton.
We’re a little disappointed that theater isn’t happening around the country, because we did have a tour of Spamilton out that was going to many of the cities where Hamilton had already played. Now that Hamilton has been on Disney+, I’m sure we
would have been getting a lot of bookings and having a lot of fun touring.
One thing that bodes well is that Hamilton will probably remain in cycle on Disney+ or elsewhere, so there will still be interest in the show when you do get a tour out.
I absolutely think that’s true. It’ll still be there and everybody will know it from the point of view of the original cast, which is how I wrote Spamilton. So, yes, hopefully down the line, it’ll really make Spamilton more accessible and topical.
There is an interesting dynamic now in that Hamilton will still be prohibitively expensive to see when it gets to go back on tour—balcony seats were selling for more than $700 for the Atlanta dates—but you now have a mass audience that’s been exposed to the show through Disney+ that would probably be eager to see Spamilton live—partly because your ticket prices aren’t stratospheric.
That’s exactly right. But, of course, Hamilton is on hiatus, too—there’s no Hamilton in New York; there’s no Hamilton on tour. I’m sure they must be frustrated also.
Which of the other recent Broadway shows would lend themselves well to a broader audience via video?
The only show that followed Hamilton that sort of had a freshness and depth to it was Dear Evan Hansen. But I don’t know if they’ve done a video of that. The Hamilton video was done well because they had the money and the opportunity. The show was already a huge, huge hit. But
most shows don’t have the budget to do a high-quality video production. Rather than record a performance, most producers were probably thinking in the old tradition of “Oh, this will be made into a movie.”
But a few other shows besides Hamilton have done high-end videos that are enjoying broadcast. One I saw was SpongeBob: The Musical on Nickelodeon—don’t laugh—and they did an excellent video of it. It was very fun.
You also had a cast for Forbidden Broadway all ready to go out on tour when this hit, right? So, now you’ve got two shows that are sort of sitting in limbo.
We had three or four individual productions of Forbidden Broadway planned for the summer. I know we had one in San Diego, and the San Francisco Gay Men’s
Chorus was going to do a special and hysterical version.
There’s a wonderful regional theater down the street from where I live in Connecticut that’s been celebrated for decades—The Ivoryton Playhouse. We were all ready to do Forbidden Broadway Comes to Ivoryton. I was directing it and writing special material for The Playhouse. We got right up to dress rehearsal. Then we had to stop. All those productions got either postponed or are indefinitely up in the air. So, we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen.
What’s your guess about how this is going to play out for those productions?
I think it’s going to be a long time. They’re going to have to have a vaccine before people go back in the theater. Even if the government lets us open these theaters, who wants to risk their lives to see any kind of musical comedy or even a good play? I think theater has been sort of damaged and may have to reinvent itself from the ground up.
But I do want to make a guess that the smaller, Off-Broadway theaters and smaller shows like Spamilton and Forbidden Broadway will come back first, because to make a big show work financially, you have to pack a 2,000-seat theater, whereas with Off-Broadway, believe me, we can run with a small audience and make it work. We can even take away seats and make
I think the tourism of theater is pretty much going to be on hold for a long time in New York, but New Yorkers are actually going to want to go see something. Ergo, Off-Broadway may have a resurgence.
And it’s a lot easier to shoot a smaller show for streaming than a big Broadway show.
We do have some good video of Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton. In the old-school tradition, we also have terrific cast albums that are very professionally done. Cast albums are still viable entertainment.
If there’s one good thing for me about Broadway ending or freezing it’s that now neither Spamilton or Forbidden
Broadway: The Next Generation are dating in any way. They’re still right up to date.
One of the problems with New York theater being closed through at least early next year is that the talent is dispersing out of economic need. It’s too expensive to stay hunkered down in Manhattan. Actors traditionally make money as waiters but the restaurants only have limited service.
Right. Restaurants are attached to theatergoing in New York. And you’ve got to remember that an actor’s range of talent is time-dependent. In other words, you want to see young, beautiful people in a show—and in the movies as well. A lot of talented younger actors are missing their window of opportunity.
For example, they were planning to do that big revival of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. But now the stars might be too old for the parts by the time they get around to doing the show. The same is true in sports. Even with the most talented player, that physical prowess and ability to do those wonderful things only lasts a few years where they’re at top peak. By the time they’re in their thirties, they’re too old.
There might be a similar problem with hanging onto movies to release them in theaters instead of taking them straight to streaming. Given how quickly everything is changing in society, they could feel out of date by the time they’re released.
How true! I saw a questionable post online that said even Hamilton is out of date because it’s from a different, pre-coronavirus era. I don’t know if that is exactly true but all this has sort of put the kibosh on me as a writer because I write topical humor. So, how do I know something’s going to be funny in six months? I don’t. So, there’s no sense guessing. In the meantime, I’ll stay home and enjoy watching Hamilton and Disney+, and TCM On Demand.
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs,
a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.