A New Era of Theater: Accessibility Fits the Bill

Written by Teen Writer Zoe Loughnane and edited by Teen Editor Valentine Wulf

Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story 20th Century Fox 2021

Musical theatre is a beloved art form. However, fans of the genre will be the first to admit that there are a lot of unrealistic parts to musical theater: breaking into song every few seconds, random dance breaks, that one character who only talks in minute-long monologues. Unfortunately, one all-too-real problem is how inaccessible it is. Musical theater is supposed to be fantastical and fun. Even when it discusses hard topics, there are songs and elaborate dance numbers to add levity. It’s a way to escape from the real world for a while, to a place where everything is a little brighter. It’s not fair that only some people get to experience this form of escapism.

As a lower-middle class individual who loves musical theater and has grown up bouncing between Chicago and Seattle, two big theater industries, catching shows has been near impossible. Tickets are expensive and getting them for a family of four is a financial nightmare. My family tried to get tickets to Hamilton for two years before we were able to find upper balcony, back row seats that we still had to dip into our savings for. Theatre is elitist. It shouldn’t be.

Theoretically, theatre is a form of expression and creativity where everyone is welcome no matter who they are. But that message is not relayed in ticket prices. Fortunately, organizations have begun to combat this exclusivity. While organizations such as TeenTix offer teenagers access to discounted rates, and some theaters provide student and veteran discounts, that still leaves a large portion of the population excluded. There are also geographic disparities to consider in this issue of accessibility. Tours often don’t visit smaller towns and in some places, the nearest city is hours away. In Washington state, there are only three theaters that regularly receive musical theater tours: the Paramount, 5th Avenue, and the First Interstate Center for the Arts in Tacoma. Local theaters might also be hesitant to put on well-known shows because of how expensive acquiring rights can be. However, in the last two years, the answer to this problem has begun to emerge, as we have seen an uptick in movie musical and proshot releases.

A movie-musical is a musical that has been adapted from the stage version to fit a film format. Oftentimes the plot is altered and songs are cut and/or added to fit the director's vision. This is the more popular option among streaming platforms. Big-name actors and actresses will often be recruited to garner more attention, as opposed to performers who have done the show or are well known on Broadway. While movie-musicals are a good option, they often fall flat in the main area where musicals should thrive: making the singing and dancing natural. The sorest victim? The widely resented Cats adaptation. Particularly Jennyanydots and her song The Old Gumbie Cat. What was originally written as a trio piece became a solo with actress Rebel Wilson ‘comically’ huffing and out of breath the entire time. It was painful to watch.

Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots in Cats (2019) directed by Tom Hooper. Film still provided by Universal Studios.

Similarly, the monumental Les Miserables crumbled in the face of poorly adapted music. The actors seemed to make up the pacing as they went, slowing or speeding instead of changing their lyrical dictation. Luckily, the quality of the adaptation varies depending on the creative team. There are some wonderful adaptations such as In the Heights, in which the choreography was arguably better than that of the stage version. Some of the most flawless interweaving of music, choreography, story, and real life elements were at play. In the Heights made singing about joy, grief and everything in between seem almost as natural as breathing.

In contrast, a proshot is a filmed version of a live production. Two examples of this filming method are Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and Disney’s Newsies (the one featuring Jeremy Jordan, not the 1992 version). Proshots allow Broadway actors to be immortalized in their roles, and give those not able to see the show in person, a look at the choreography, sets, staging, and costuming. The fact that it’s a recorded version of a live show as opposed to a movie musical allows a glimpse into that crowded theater and the thrill of a live performance without having to pay extreme prices or commute to see it. A lot of theater lovers prefer this version because they appreciate the craft and the art that goes into a show. But also because they don’t have to worry about casting choices. The performers captured in proshots are experienced in their roles, won’t crack on a high note, or subscribe to some perpetual trope like needlessly stopping to catch their breath with as much gusto as possible in the middle of a scene.

Producers are just starting to discover that musical theater is a profitable market, as before it was not seen as viable. It was thought to be too niche, and the cost of production was expensive for something they expected a small box office turn out for. However, the success of Hamilton proved to be a turning point for streaming platforms, and musical proshots are now starting to be seen as a profitable option. In 2021 alone, we were given movie adaptations of In The Heights, a new West Side Story adaptation, Tick, Tick… Boom!, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, and Dear Evan Hansen. We also got proshot releases of Diana and Come From Away. West Side Story and Tick, Tick… Boom! even went as far as to bring home four Golden Globes between them, a further testament to the fact that musicals are indeed good for business.

Slowly, theatre is becoming easier to access. People no longer have to wait for a tour to come around and pray they can find cheap tickets– they can watch them from the comfort of their own homes through streaming services like Amazon, Netflix, and Disney.

In the near future we’re looking forward to even more adaptations. Wicked, starring Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande, is finally getting the film adaptation that was announced 11 years ago, but never moved further in production until now. Musicals like 13, Matilda, and The Color Purple are also set for adaptations within the next year or two. And Waitress cast members have posted on social media hinting that a proshot has already been filmed.

Our world is changing. Gone are the days when only those of higher income can see shows. Gone are the days where the rest of us are left longing to be a part of their world. Now, finally, theatre is taking its rightful place–with the people.

Lead Photo: Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story (2021) directed by Steven Spielberg. Film still provided by 20th Century Fox.

The TeenTix Newsroom is a group of teen writers led by the Teen Editorial Staff. For each review, Newsroom writers work individually with a teen editor to polish their writing for publication. The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 6 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog. More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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