For many musical fans (like yours truly), the dream we all likely share is to be able to sit down in a theatre and watch as a talented cast brings your favourite story to life. Maybe you’ll even sing along – under your breath, of course – as they belt out every note of the songs you know by heart with so much emotion you’ll feel it in your bones. Ideally, this would all be happening in none other than Broadway, the shining symbol of musical theatre itself and your favourite performers are in the starring roles.
Unfortunately, I’m well aware that this dream is either difficult or almost impossible to achieve for some of us in the musical-mad community for various and varied reasons. Maybe you live in another country. Maybe you can’t afford the admittedly hefty price tag of those tickets or even just the time off to go for a show. Maybe you’re simply stuck at home and can’t go out at all. Whatever the case, I, having missed a few productions I really wanted to see myself due to factors beyond my control, share your pain and know all too well that even the bootleg recordings we resort to in our hour of desperation can’t measure up to the real thing.
But now we – or at least some of us – don’t have to experience that ever again thanks to the fact that media companies have taken the logical next step when it comes to musicals: record them! I know, I know… Part of the theatre experience involves sitting in an actual theatre to watch our musical of choice and then maybe heading to the stage door after the show in the hopes of getting one or two autographs. As I said before, not everyone has this option so having a legally and professionally filmed version of the performance is the next best thing for some.
Yes, I am aware that we’ve had musical films like Mary Poppins, Moulin Rouge! and Chicago for quite some time now and while I love them to bits, they’re not quite the same thing as filmed musicals, wouldn’t you agree?
This is probably the part where you go, “…Well? What are you waiting for? Tell me whether the musical I want to see got filmed and how I can watch it!” The answer to that is a bit tricky because there’s sadly no universal source you can turn to; instead, you’ll likely have to look up the musical you’re after and see where you can get it. Some are available on DVD and even Blu-Ray while others can be viewed via streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Google Play.
Although it might sound like there are only a handful of them, you’d be surprised at how many musicals have already gotten this treatment. I can only write about so many of them though because this piece wouldn’t end otherwise so without further ado, let’s dive in!
Hamilton: An American Musical
While it’s not the first ever musical to have gotten this treatment, I don’t think anyone can deny that Hamilton: An American Musical becoming available in digital form made huge waves not least because of its critically acclaimed status. The live stage recording was made with the show’s original principal cast performing in the Richard Rodgers Theatre in Broadway and its distribution rights were snatched up by Walt Disney Studios. Naturally, you can now watch the award-winning musical on the company’s streaming service Disney+.
Based on the biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Hamilton: An American Musical was created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who not only wrote the music, lyrics and script but also plays the titular character. Described by Miranda himself as about “America then, as told by America now”, it covers the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and how it was influenced by the people around him.
If there’s one musical everyone knows about even if they’ve never seen a single minute or even picture of it, it would have to be none other than Cats. This is quite possibly due to the ginormous impact it had on the musical theatre industry as a whole which no musical fan can deny no matter how they actually feel about the musical. As such, it’s no surprise a performance of it was recorded at London’s Adelphi Theatre and can now be purchased in DVD or Blu-Ray format. (In this house, we do not speak of the 2019 movie. It never happened.)
Depending on how knowledgeable you are about Cats, you may or may not know that it’s also based on a book – more specifically, a collection of light poems by T. S. Eliot titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The name everyone knows, of course, is Andrew Lloyd Webber since he was the one who created the iconic musical. Another thing you might not know is its plot which can best be summed up as such: “A tribe of cats called the Jellicles spend one night deciding which one of them will go to their version of heaven and be reborn.” Think that sounds loopy? Don’t worry; you’re not the only one.
Les Misérables: The Staged Concert
Here’s another famous book-to-musical adaptation you should’ve guessed would be on this list: Les Misérables! Yes, most people would probably think about the movie first before they think about the musical especially thanks to all the big names in it but you and I know the musical came first. (After the book, of course, but I shouldn’t have to clarify that.) Now the musical has its chance to steal the spotlight back with Les Misérables: The Staged Concert, recorded in the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End and available via streaming through Amazon Prime.
As in the Victor Hugo novel it’s based on, the musical chronicles ex-convict Jean Valjean’s life as he struggles for redemption in 19th century France. Following an act of mercy by a bishop, he is inspired to start his life anew and breaks his parole in pursuit of that goal. This leads to him becoming the target of a police inspector by the name of Javert who hounds him relentlessly. However, Valjean’s troubles also end up including his involvement with a group of young idealists and their revolutionary attempt to overthrow the government.
The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall
Of course, when it comes to adaptations that overshadow their source material, the trophy probably has to go to The Phantom of the Opera. Although the movie also had its fair share of Hollywood A-listers among its cast, it’s the musical everyone thinks of first and foremost before all the other versions. (Yes, that includes the book.) It’s one of the most financially successful outings of its type in the world and thanks to The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall, you can see why yourself via DVD, Blu-Ray, YouTube, Amazon Prime and BroadwayHD.
Once again, Andrew Lloyd Webber – this time with the help of his long-time collaborator Richard Stilgoe – applied his musical Midas touch to a piece of classic literature to create another memorable production. Like in its source material which is the novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, the story focuses on the beautiful soprano Christine Daaé who becomes the obsession of the mysterious Phantom, a disfigured musical genius living beneath the Paris Opera House where she performs.
Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway
It may seem like most musicals are based on famous books and it makes a lot of sense; after all, there are tons of great books both new and old that have the potential to become something even greater when they’re brought to life. A definite exception to the rule is Rent which represents a unique case where the adaptation went from one theatre stage to another, becoming something new in the process. The production closed in 2008 after running for 12 years but you can thankfully watch a recording of its final performance at Nederlander Theatre called Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway on DVD and Blu-Ray. (It got the movie treatment too in 2005 and, as an added bonus, stars most of the original cast members which I think is really neat.)
Loosely based on the opera La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini, Rent was created by Jonathan Larson and had humble beginnings as a workshop production before it graduated to off-Broadway theatre and finally Broadway proper. It follows a group of young impoverished artists and their struggles to build a life for themselves in the East Village neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan during the height of its bohemian era and under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
And there you have five filmed musicals that will allow you to feel like you have front row seats in a historic Broadway or West End theatre! …Okay, so I know it’s not quite the same thing but you have to admit it’s got its own perks. You can sing along at the top of your lungs if you feel like it, for one, and then there’s the huge plus of being able to pause it whenever you need to stop and do something else. If you got a physical copy, you can even rewatch it whenever you want and however many times you want without having to pay for another ticket! To be honest, I myself didn’t think much of them before but after being unable to go to any shows myself, I’ve totally become a convert.
Now if only someone could invent a time machine so that I can see Julie Andrews on stage playing Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady and make a recording of that…