Broadway is dark, but there are plenty of ways to enjoy theater online

On with the shows!
Patrons make their way to seats before a showing of “Hamilton” at Proctors in Schenectady last summer.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Patrons make their way to seats before a showing of “Hamilton” at Proctors in Schenectady last summer.

Categories: A Summer To Remember, Entertainment, Life & Arts, Special Sections

Broadway’s gone dark, and with coronavirus keeping New York theaters shuttered through at least Sept. 6, a day trip to New York City won’t be in the cards this summer.

But never fear, there are plenty of streaming options available to get a glimpse of some of the best theater around. The stalwart Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ services all feature at least a few filmed versions of stage shows that can bring you to Broadway — or London’s West End — without having to shell out for travel.

As a semi-professional theater geek, I’ve plumbed the depths of these streaming services to find the good, the great and the, let’s say … unique options out there. Most of these require a subscription to a service such as Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime or the theater-focused BroadwayHD, but there are some free options available.

We’ll start with one you have to pay for. But trust me, it’s worth it. 

Disney+

“Hamilton” — It’s only the single hottest ticket in the history of Broadway theater, and now it’s coming to Disney+ on July 3 as part of your $7.99 monthly subscription. Filmed over two nights in 2016 before the show’s original Broadway cast left their roles, this was originally scheduled to be a theatrical release in 2021, but Disney and creator/writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda announced in May that the show would instead be released on Disney’s streaming platform — as if Baby Yoda wasn’t enough of a reason to subscribe on his own.

On its surface, “Hamilton” seems absurd. A three-hour, mostly sung-through, hip-hop tinged Broadway epic about the life of America’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. When Miranda debuted the show’s opening song at a White House spoken word event in 2009, his introduction drew derisive laughs — including from President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. By the time Miranda was done, nobody was laughing.

I was lucky enough to see “Hamilton” on Broadway in June 2018, two years after Miranda and Co. left the production and with understudies playing the roles of both Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It was still as mesmerizing a theater experience as I’ve ever been a part of. The version that will be streaming is the original production that won 11 Tony Awards and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Miranda headlines as the titular Hamilton, but it’s the show’s incredible and diverse supporting cast — including Tony winners Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Daveed Diggs in a dual role as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson — that brings to life what has become the defining musical of a generation.

Watch it, and you’ll understand the hype.

“Newsies” — No, not the 1991 movie of the same name featuring a very young Christian Bale warbling his way through “Santa Fe” in a voice that’s only slightly less embarrassing than the indistinguishable growl he’d adopt a decade and a half later as Batman, but a filmed version of the wildly popular stage adaptation starring Jeremy Jordan in the role Bale originated as Jack “Cowboy” Kelly. The story of the New York City newsboys strike of 1899 features songs written by the legendary Alan Menken, the man responsible for most of the iconic songs of the Disney Renaissance, and a truly spectacular cast of dancers that winds its way through high-energy numbers such as “Carrying the Banner” and “The World Will Know.”

Jordan’s rendition of “Santa Fe” is the backbone of the whole show, and this play features the single best Broadway song ever composed about journalism, the peppy “Watch What Happens.”

Netflix

“Shrek the Musical” — An adaptation of the first movie in the series of smash animated hits from Dreamworks, “Shrek” features its fair share of sophomoric humor — there’s an entire song about farting that I cringed my way through the first time I watched — and some ogre costumes that look fine from a distance onstage but can be downright disturbing close up.

That said, it also features two of the very best stage performers of their generation in Brian d’Arcy James as Shrek and Sutton Foster as Fiona, with Christopher Sieber providing an absolute blast while performing from his knees as the diminutive villain, Lord Farquaad. There are ups and downs to this one — Pinocchio’s screeching voice is a bit off-putting and overused — but the show features a few legitimately fantastic songs with “I Know It’s Today,” “Who I’d Be” and the high-energy hilarity of Daniel Breaker’s Donkey in “Don’t Let Me Go.”  

“Springsteen on Broadway” — Far from the traditional Broadway show, but it’s Bruce Springsteen, so forgive the indulgence. “The Boss” played a run of intimate one-man shows on Broadway in 2018, making his way through acoustic versions of iconic songs like “Thunder Road,” “Born in the USA” and “Born to Run” while weaving a narrative of his life growing up in Asbury Park, New Jersey. 

“Oh, Hello on Broadway” — And now for something completely different. Not a musical at all, “Oh, Hello” is a two-man play featuring brilliant comedians John Mulaney and Nick Kroll as George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon, a pair of geriatric New Yorkers with a bizarre set of worldviews and some even stranger pronunciation patterns. Kroll and Mulaney created the characters in the early 2000s and popularized them on Kroll’s sketch show, “Kroll Show,” before eventually bringing “Oh, Hello” to Broadway in 2016.

Amazon Prime Video

“Carousel” — As classic as classic gets, “Carousel” was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s follow-up to their smash debut, “Oklahoma!” The story of carnival barker Billy Bigelow and his love Julie Jordan is full of classic numbers like “If I Loved You” and the ubiquitous “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” This one’s a concert version from 2013 filmed live at Lincoln Center starring Nathan Gunn as Billy and Broadway favorite Kelli O’Hara as Julie, with Jessie Mueller — who would go on to star as Julie in the 2018 Broadway revival — in a supporting role.

It’s not a happy, high-energy show, and as it’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein piece, it’s no short experience.

Watching this one from the comfort of your own home might actually be easier than a night at the theater.

More from A Summer to Remember: 2020 Big Edition

“SpongeBob SquarePants” — Yes, a real thing that I was shocked to learn actually exists. Nickelodeon turned its long-running, smash-hit animated series into a stage musical featuring a human cast taking on the roles of the famed characters from Bikini Bottom. The show was nominated for 12 Tonys in 2018, and its national tour debuted at Proctors in Schenectady last September.

Unlike most musicals, “SpongeBob” doesn’t feature a single writer or writing team handling most of the songs.

Instead, Nickelodeon farmed out songwriting duties to a who’s who of the music industry, including Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, T.I., Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles and They Might Be Giants.

It’s a loud, candy-colored, bombastic experience that might not appeal to the old-school theatergoer, but it’s a wonderful introduction to the theater for a younger generation. And “[Just a] Simple Sponge,” penned by Panic! at the Disco and performed by Ethan Slater as the titular sponge, is a legitimately fantastic anthem.

BroadwayHD

“Cats” — It’s “Cats.” And people who love “Cats,” love “Cats.” I am … not in that particular camp. To me, it’s always been a weird, off-putting musical full of ’80s excess and featuring no discernable plot. That being said, Andrew Lloyd Webber is an icon of theater, and this 1998 filmed version does feature Elaine Paige singing the heck out of the show’s trademark song, “Memory,” in her role as Grizabella. And it features none of the terrifying CGI that made the 2019 “Cats” movie an infamous bomb — but you probably didn’t see that anyway.

“Les Miserables” — In my formative years as a theater nerd, I learned there were largely two camps of theater fans: those who loved “Les Miserables” and those who preferred “The Phantom of the Opera.” We’ll get to

“Phantom” in a second, but I was always firmly in the “Les Mis” camp, ingrained by many long drives listening to the soundtrack on cassette tape.

 

It’s one of the most iconic musicals of the past 40 years — though it’s cinematic adaptation was a woeful disappointment as well. The version here is the 25th anniversary concert filmed in front of a massive crowd at The O2 arena in London, and features a powerhouse cast led by the exceptional Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean, Lea Salonga as Fantine, Norm Lewis as Javert (quick aside: Javert’s “Stars” is my single favorite song in all of musical theater) and Ramin Karimloo as Enjolras. The less said of Nick Jonas as Marius, the better. Make sure to stick around for the encore, where four Valjeans — including Boe and the man who created the role, Colm Wilkinson — deliver a stirring version of “Bring Him Home.”

“The Phantom of the Opera” — Speaking of that other icon of epic, big-budget ’80s theater, my first exposure to “Phantom” was the 2004 movie version of the musical, which made the perplexing choice to cast gravelly Scot Gerard Butler — a good three years before “THIS! IS! SPARTA!”-ing his way into our hearts in “300” — in the title role with a voice that did not suit the part. At all. But what we’re talking about here is yet another 25th anniversary performance, this one filmed at the Royal Albert Hall in London and featuring a stellar leading duo with Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom and Sierra Boggess as Christine. It’s still not my cup of tea — nor is much of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s catalog, to be completely honest — but those who love “Phantom” tend to be among the most hardcore theater fans you’ll find. It remains a great example of big, extravagant theater.

“The King and I” — Another venerable warhorse of musical theater, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic has some material that can come off a bit cringe-inducing under a modern microscope, but it’s still earned its place in theater history. The roles of Anna and the king of Siam, made iconic on the screen by Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, are performed here in this 2018 version filmed in London — after it moved from a 2015 Broadway run — by Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe. It’s another lengthy one, but features longtime theater standards like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?”

YouTube

“The Shows Must Go On!” — Not one show, but a weekly option available for free — for a limited time. The channel, run by Universal, puts up a show every Friday from its collection and leaves it up for 48 hours.

Among the shows to have already gone through the rotation are UK productions of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” along with the recent televised live productions of “Hairspray” and “The Wiz.”

The shows are only up for 48 hours, but the YouTube page keeps a handful of clips from each show. Things change weekly, but if you keep up to date, you can catch a gem over a weekend.

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