Perhaps the biggest draw of the theater is the fact that it's live and immediate. Fans love the connection that is made between themselves, the performers, and their fellow audience members (except when cell phones go off -- we hate our fellow audience members when that happens). But even those of us who prefer Broadway to "Must See TV" like to know that our favorite medium is represented on television. And it is -- but you have to know where to find it. So, for your pleasure and convenience, TheaterMania offers the following guide to theater coverage on The Tube.
There are a handful of programs out there dedicated exclusively to following, discussing, and promoting theater. Though few and far between, they are cherished. NY1's On Stage is a weekly, half-hour TV magazine that airs on Saturdays and Sundays at 9:30am (with repeats both days at 7:30pm, and again on Mondays at 9:30pm and 12:30am). The primary focus is on Broadway theater, including coverage of openings, interviews with stars, and reviews (usually by chief theater critic Roma Torre), but the show frequently ventures into the Off and Off-Off Broadway territory as well. Unfortunately, only subscribers to Time Warner Cable get NY1, but other folks who wish to get this weekly dose of stage news can tune in online at NY1.com.
Theater Talk airs on Friday nights at midnight over a handful of PBS affiliates (WNET in New York, WETA in D.C., WGBH in Boston, CPTV in Hartford). Co-hosted by New York Post columnist Michael Riedel and Susan Haskins, Theater Talk is an interview show that touches on every aspect of the theater from Off-Broadway to the West End. The impressive list of guests has included producer Cameron Mackintosh, writer Arthur Laurents, cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, director Michael Mayer, and theater legend Elaine Stritch -- and that's just in the last year. Riedel and Haskins often play good cop/bad cop with their guests, Riedel being the provocateur; as a result, some interesting discussions are had. Old episodes of Theater Talk, which date back as far as 1993, are available for purchase through the show's website.
Then there's Broadway Beat, a weekly program that airs on New York City's MMN1 (Channel 67) on Tuesdays at 1am. The show gets up close and personal with the Broadway scene, telecasting rehearsal and production footage of shows on and off Broadway and interviewing audiences members on the street. Hosted by Richard Ridge, Broadway Beat also features commentary, interviews, and reviews by Russell Bouthiller, Sidney Myer, and Quinn Lemley. The corresponding website is impressive in its depth, providing streaming video of past episodes, archives, photos, written notes and reviews, and more. Broadway Beat kicks off its new season on September 30.
Believe it or not, you don't have to live in NYC to get theater programming; there are several channels outside the city that offer some fine coverage of the art form. First up is the one blessed station that almost everyone can get: Whether you live in a big city or the suburbs, whether you've got cable or struggle with rabbit ears, whether you're a station member or a mooch, you can always count on the Public Broadcasting System. PBS has long been a reliable source for theater lovers. Over the past few years, its stations have carried the first hour of the annual Tony Awards ceremony, and PBS's Great Performances series has brought us tapings of full-length musicals from Sunday in the Park with George to Cats, along with features and documentaries such as Recording the Producers: A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks and specials like the My Favorite Broadway series.
Unfortunately, PBS's theater focus seems increasingly narrow these days, often limited to big name shows (Les Miz, anything involving Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc.) and/or productions deemed to have an exceptionally wide audience, such as Riverdance or Blast! Still, the not-so-mainstream item occasionally sneaks in, such as the broadcast of Sweeney Todd in Concert on Halloween night last year, or, most recently, the final performance of Broadway's Contact, which was aired as part of the Live from Lincoln Center series. A newer series, called Stage On Screen, has given us broadcasts of the Roundabout Theatre Company's productions of The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Women, and will soon show a documentary on the making of Topdog/Underdog. Because such programming comes with little fanfare and there are differences in scheduling from affiliate to affiliate, it pays to acquaint yourself with PBS's thorough and informative website.
On cable, there are a few networks to keep an eye on. Though it's no accident that A&E no longer refers to itself as the "Arts & Entertainment" network (it's more like the Biography & Law & Order channel these days), it does have theatrical offerings on occasion. The weekly Sunday morning program Breakfast with the Arts is mostly focused on classical music and opera but does veer towards theater at times, with telecasts of shows like Nunsense and the odd feature on a theater piece. A&E's weekly morning series Classroom, geared towards school children, also will sometimes deal with the performing arts. And, every now and then, the network will broadcast special events in primetime, such as the live concert Richard Rodgers: Falling in Love.
TRIO, a network dedicated to the popular arts, is a godsend for music and theater enthusiasts. It has been around for several years now and its audience and programming has grown over time. This looks to be the network that will more or less pick up where PBS has left off, showing specialized programming of interest to true aficionados. TRIO dedicated the month of May 2002 to the theater, telecasting Matthew Bourne's acclaimed The Car Man as well as The Syringa Tree and highlights of this year's edition of the "Broadway on Broadway" event that happens annually in Times Square. September offerings include airings of Leonard Bernstein's famous and historic Young People's Concerts, an episode of Laugh-In guest-starring Carol Channing, and Trio on Tour featuring Ute Lemper. Even the movies TRIO shows are often theater-related, such as Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands (adapted from the William Nicholson play of the same title) and the 1966 TV version of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman starring Lee J. Cobb.
The Bravo network has an aim similar to TRIO's but, aside from a few examples of original programming like the acclaimed Inside the Actors Studio, seems to be focusing (like A&E) more on reruns of TV drama series like thirtysomething and Hill Street Blues. It remains a good -- if unpredictable -- source for theater programming but, as with PBS, vigilance is required. For instance, over the course of a few weeks, you might find Sarah Brightman or Julie Taymor on Bravo Profiles, Stephen Sondheim on Inside the Actors Studio, and a showing of the film The Winslow Boy (based on the Terrence Rattigan play). Bravo has also shown specials, like Into the Woods and the aforementioned Sunday in the Park..., that were previously seen on PBS. As to its original programming, The It Factor should be especially interesting to theater fans as it follows 12 struggling actors -- among them, Daisy Eagan (formerly of The Secret Garden) and Queen Esther (currently starring in Harlem Song) -- in their never-ending search for work.
One other cable specialty that satellite users have been enjoying for years and in which Digital TV subscribers are now is a music station devoted to show tunes. Provided by Music Choice, it is one of dozens of specialty channels that provide listeners with a 24-hour nonstop, commercial-free broadcast of their favorite musical genre. DTV's Music Choice Show Tunes channel (636 on Time Warner in NYC) plays everything from obscure recordings to the newest Broadway cast albums. The screen display shows the song title, the singer, and the name of the album from which the selection was drawn -- along with various musical theater facts -- as each cut is heard.
The two most important annual theater awards shows in the U.S., the Tonys and the Drama Desks, are broadcast live on TV every year. The Tony Awards always air on CBS on the first Sunday night in June. For the past few years, only the acting awards and the four big prizes (Best Musical, Best Play, and the best revivals) have been aired during the two-hour CBS portion; as noted above, the hour prior to that is broadcast by PBS. Though this format is insulting in its implication that awards like Best Director, Best Score, and Best Choreography aren't important enough for network TV, it has allowed PBS to put together some beautifully produced programs -- clearly aimed at the theater geeks among us -- in which the work of these creative artists is celebrated through mini-documentaries.
The Drama Desks receive a much cruder presentation, given the much more modest resources of NY1, but at least the winners get to speak their peace without being drowned out by an orchestra after 10 seconds. And these awards, usually given out around Mother's Day, often indicate how the Tonys will turn out.