10 Questions Provoked by Peter Pan Live! and Into The Woods
Is Hate-Tweeting Healthy? What’s the Lesson for Theatre?
The conversations about the film adaptation of the musical Into The Woods and the live television broadcast of the musical Peter Pan prompt some déjà vu: They sound much like the buzz last year over the film adaptation of the play August: Osage County and the live television broadcast of the musical The Sound of Music. The two shows at the end of 2014 provoke some of the same intriguing questions about theatre in the digital age as the questions I asked about those two other shows at the end of 2013—and some new questions as well.
1. What does it say that, once again, the biggest “theatre” stories at the end of the year were about a TV show and a movie? Has the definition of theatre changed? Can you call it theatre if you’re not breathing the same air as the actors?
2. Will live broadcasts of old musicals become a new holiday tradition? Will they eventually replace annual reruns of It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street? And will new Santa comedies in movie houses be replaced by a yearly grim Meryl Christmas?
3. Is the commercial success of these screen adaptations encouraging to theatre in any way? Have the NBC specials proven the value of “live” in a digital age? Will live TV musicals have any repercussions one way or another for live theatre (the non-screen kind)?
4. Did social media, especially Twitter—and the nearly ubiquitous “live blogging” by media companies trying to tap into this newly popular practice—affect how TV watchers reacted to Peter Pan Live!, and, more recently, Galavant (the new "comic musical TV series" on ABC, with songs by Broadway and Hollywood composer Alan Menken)? Does social media encourage “hatewatching?”
5. Is “hate-Tweeting” healthy? Would fewer people have watched such shows as Peter Pan Live! or Galavant if they hadn’t been able to Tweet about it?
Has the definition of theatre changed? Can you call it theatre if you’re not breathing the same air as the actors?
Shortly before the broadcast of Peter Pan Live! in December, its stars and creative team went on what seemed like a campaign offensive:
“I feel like it's a blood sport,” producer Craig Zadan told The Hollywood Reporter. “If you love something, you very rarely tweet something sweet; but if you hate something or you have something nasty to say, you're going to tweet.”
“Hatewatching is a thing,” Allison Williams told The Daily Beast. “It’s a whole way of watching something, and it’s not an audience that’s natural to a non-cynical performance. Peter Pan, you cannot watch cynically.”
This didn’t sit well with James Poniewozik of Time Magazine, who wrote that he was “rankled by the idea of being told not to hate it, that we should avoid snarking on Peter Pan Live!—not for the good of NBC, of course, but for the good of society itself.”
Perhaps this was a bit of jujitsu marketing, because Peter Pan Live! ranked first on “Nielsen’s social TV ratings,” generating some 475,000 Tweets—slightly more than The Sound of Music—and attracted some 9.2 million viewers. Although this was under half the viewers for The Sound of Music, “we won every hour, which hasn't happened on Thursday with entertainment programming since a year ago,” NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt said.
6. Is there a lesson for theatre in the apparent connection between Tweeting and bigger audiences?
7. Last year Charlotte Alter, reviewing The Sound of Music in Time Magazine, outdid some of the snarkiness of the Tweeters: “When Carrie Underwood stepped out on the (wooded, not grassy) hills and started singing, I wished the hills were alive with the sound of hungry mountain lions.”
This year, reviewing Peter Pan Live! in Time, Poniewozik said of Allison Williams, “She seemed more obviously like a grown woman playing a small boy, which lent some of her flirty scenes with Wendy a tension that made her no-snark edict seem like a cruel dare.”
But he also said: “Technically and visually, Peter Pan Live! delivered… In all, taken on its own silly, sweet, weird-British-fantasia terms, it was a good time.”
Were Peter Pan Live! and Into The Woods better than The Sound of Music and August: Osage County, or did they just seem better because…we’ve gotten used to these new genres?
8. Are live musicals on television, a form that lay dormant for fifty years until NBC revived it last year with The Sound of Music, a different genre than a live musical on stage or one adapted for the screen, and therefore deserving of different (more relaxed?) criteria for assessing?
9. In the Broadway Spring 2015 season, five of the nineteen shows opening are either directly adapted from a movie, or based on the source used for the movie but clearly taking advantage of the brand established by the movie: Honeymoon in Vegas, On The Twentieth Century, An American in Paris, Finding Neverland, and Dr. Zhivago. In the 2013-2014 season, there were six. Is this a trend to lament or to appreciate? Is there something inevitably lost in any kind of adaptation? Or does it depend on the result? Has the transition from screen to stage been rougher or smoother than stage to screen?
10. As I wrote in HowlRound recently, everybody in theatre seems to want more intimacy on stage. Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout has suggested that theatre be marketed for its intimacy—the “immediate physical presence of flesh-and-blood actors”—as well as for its “artisanal” qualities. This was his way to combat the “stay-at-home mindset” engendered by the “on-demand mentality” (e.g. Netflix.) Do shows like Peter Pan Live! (and Into The Woods) encourage people to go to the theatre, or keep them happy with other platforms?
What can theatres do to combat the “stay-at-home mindset”—to stay live and alive?