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Is Netflix the New Broadway?

The streaming service is distributing screen adaptations of American Son, The Prom, and Tick, Tick…Boom!

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale star in Christopher Demos-Brown's American Son, which became available to Netflix subscribers on November 1.
(© David Lee for Netflix)

Before we begin, let's get one thing clear: Broadway receipts reached an all-time high last year. Producers are clamoring to bring their shows to New York, and theaters are rarely dark for long. Broadway is doing fine.

But streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and Prime Video represent a major disruption to the film and television industries. It would be naive to assume that their arrival on the scene will leave Broadway untouched. Rather than viewing the shifting entertainment landscape with mounting dread, we should consider the opportunity it presents to expose a wider audience to the theater artists we have come to know and love.

I've recently written about how Netflix is screening one of its movies, The Irishman, in a Broadway theater for a few weeks. This Story of the Week is about the opposite phenomenon: all the Broadway titles moving onto Netflix, and how this could develop into a serious trend. Are you ready to see Broadway shows from the comfort of your own living room?

Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, and Jeremy Jordan appear in the 2018 Broadway production of American Son. Below: They reprise those roles for Netflix.
(© Peter Cunningham / David Lee for Netflix)

What Broadway titles can I currently watch on Netflix?
As of last Friday, you can watch a filmed version of Christopher Demos-Brown's American Son, directed by Kenny Leon, the Tony-winning director who also helmed the Broadway play. Though not strictly a taped version of the Broadway show, all of the original cast members (including Kerry Washington) appear on a set that hews closely to Derek McLane's design for the Broadway production, so home viewers can get a good sense of the stage play (although I have argued that the energy of the live audience was the saving grace of the show, and that is something Netflix cannot yet stream to your home).

Since 2017, Netflix subscribers have been able to watch a taped version of Oh, Hello on Broadway, the hilarious show by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney that I hope returns to the stage in regular installments until the performers are the actual age of Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland. Netflix also hosts taped versions of Springsteen on Broadway and Shrek the Musical.

Steven Levenson and Lin-Manuel Miranda are collaborating on film version of Tick, Tick…Boom!, to be distributed by Netflix.
(© David Gordon)

What Broadway titles are coming to Netflix?
This week it was announced that Broadway actors Vanessa Hudgens, and Robin De Jesús will join the cast of Tick, Tick…Boom!, a new film adaptation of the Jonathan Larson musical with a screenplay by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) and directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton). While Tick, Tick is not a Broadway title, having never been performed there, this early effort by the composer of Rent is beloved in musical-theater circles, and recently received a major off-Broadway revival starring George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, and Lilli Cooper.

Last Friday, we also learned that Ariana DeBose was joining the cast of The Prom, the Drama Desk-winning musical that Ryan Murphy is adapting for Netflix. The starry cast is set to include Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Awkwafina, James Corden, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, and Kerry Washington.

The Prom is part of a larger deal Murphy has inked with the streaming service that will result in a small-screen adaptation of The Boys in the Band (Murphy produced the 50th anniversary revival on Broadway), and a miniseries based on A Chorus Line. Some of the theater's best titles are already making the leap over to Netflix, and this trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Will we start to see new made-for-Netflix musicals?
I hope so! The Greatest Showman proved that a movie-musical not based on a preexisting Broadway hit can not only work, but can be quite profitable. But with film studios increasingly putting their money behind superhero franchises, The Greatest Showman looks like an outlier. If I were an aspiring composer, I wouldn't be counting on re-creating its success with a major theatrical release.

Similarly, Broadway producers surely find the latest jukebox musical an easier sell to their investors than an untested score. Institutional off-Broadway theaters, with their not-for-profit business models, are much friendlier territory for new voices. But considering how difficult it is to eke out a living in the not-for-profit theater, it is unsurprising that many of the most talented playwrights eventually find more stable employment writing television (increasingly for streaming platforms like Netflix). It seems likely that composers and lyricists will eventually follow suit, just as so many Broadway composers hopped the train from New York to Hollywood following the invention of the talkies in 1927.

At her Carlyle show this week, Jessica Molaskey paid tribute to the late great producer Harold Prince, who brought musicals like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret to the Broadway stage. Molaskey wondered aloud, "If Stephen Sondheim was just graduating from Williams College today, would there be a Hal Prince to produce him?" Maybe so, but it seems likely that this producer isn't sitting in an office in Rockefeller Center. Very likely, she's in Los Gatos, California.