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Theatre and Film: A Symbiotic Relationship

At first glance, theatre and film may appear to be very similar mediums of entertainment since they both focus primarily on audiovisual storytelling through performance. However, although they share methods of storytelling, they are two different art forms. The biggest difference is the fact that theatre is a live and ever-changing art form while film is recorded, and thus stays the same every time you watch it. Theatre is also much older, as it has existed since the days of ancient Greece, while film has only existed for a little over a century. Neither medium is necessarily better than the other; they each have strengths and weaknesses. However, they both display the importance of performance as a method of artistic expression in humans, and they offer fascinating glimpses into human culture and history. Although film is newer, it has not replaced theatre. Instead, the two art forms co-exist in a symbiotic relationship where each has the potential to support the other.

Perhaps the biggest way theatre benefits from film is that film helps make theatre more accessible to the public. Accessibility is one of theatre’s biggest flaws (at least in the United States): many people simply do not have the resources to see Broadway shows and can only see local community productions or hope that a popular show goes on tour and stops at a major city nearby. However, most U.S. households have a TV or a movie theater nearby. As a result, film adaptations and recordings of theatre productions greatly alleviate the issue of theatre accessibility. Many popular shows would not have achieved nearly the same level of mainstream popularity without film adaptations. Take, for example, West Side Story, which would likely not be nearly as well-known if not for its classic 1961 movie adaptation (which eventually led to another critically acclaimed movie adaptation in 2021). Through film, theatre can reach new audiences it would never be able to reach without it.

Image of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in West Side Story (1961)
West Side Story (1961),

Another tool that film provides is its ability to preserve specific theatre productions. When a theatre production closes, often only the memory of it remains: the sets, props, and costumes are destroyed or tucked away in storage, and the actors move on to new projects. The show may be revived in the future, but it will almost certainly be different than the last time it was produced. However, filming live theatre helps keep these specific productions alive. Take, for example, the original Broadway run of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. This production received a professional recording in 1989, and thanks to this recording’s existence, theatre fans can experience this show as it was originally produced, without having to sit through the less-than-stellar 2014 movie adaptation.

Image of Chip Zien, Joanna Gleason, and Bernadette Peters in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods
Into the Woods,

One final benefit that film provides is that certain theatre productions work just as well (if not better) as movies than as plays. For instance, the 2002 movie adaptation of Chicago seamlessly adapts its source material to film and included the genius directorial choice of placing most of the musical numbers within wannabe vaudeville star Roxie Hart’s imagination. Many movie musicals fail to properly suspend the audience’s disbelief during musical numbers (because film is generally expected to be more realistic than theatre), and this decision singlehandedly solved that problem. Similar praise can be given to The Sound of Music, which simply isn’t the same without those grand, sweeping shots of the Austrian hills found in the movie version.

Image of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago (2002)
Chicago (2002),

When it comes to the benefits theatre can provide for film, the opposite can also be true: musical adaptations of existing movies are often very popular. Some of them, such as Hairspray, have become theatre staples and have even received movie adaptations of their musical adaptations. These movies could then be considered movie-to-musical-to-movie-musical adaptations.

Image of John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray (2007)
Hairspray (2007),

Part of the reason these film-to-theatre adaptations can be so successful is that they often offer a new perspective toward their original movies. One of my favorite examples of this is the stage version of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which remedies much of the original movie’s tonal dissonance by giving the show a uniformly darker tone that simply couldn’t be done in an animated Disney movie. It also adds some fantastic songs such as “Esmeralda” and “Made of Stone,” and I can only hope that Disney will take inspiration from this adaptation whenever they make the inevitable live-action remake of Hunchback.

Image of Michael Arden in the stage adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,

Finally, theatre benefits from film simply because it can introduce the element of live performance to existing movies. Every theatre production changes a little bit each time it is performed, and this can freshen up theatrical adaptations of movies because it means they are no longer static. Sometimes there will even be mistakes, which can add more humanity compared to movies (which typically try to be “perfect”). Seeing live theatre is also usually a more intimate experience than watching a movie simply because the actors can interact with and respond to the audience. This can especially help comedies, such as Spamalot (a musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail), which adds audience participation to create even bigger laughs.

Image of David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria, Christopher Sieber, Steve Rosen and Tim Curry in the original Broadway production of Spamalot

Theatre and film, while similar in some ways and different in others, both offer unique experiences for audiences. When each medium’s advantages are properly utilized, they can be used to remedy some of the disadvantages of the other. As a result, theatre and film are not enemies: instead, they mutually benefit from each other’s existence.

Bryce Cain is a sophomore at IU studying Interactive & Digital Media as well as Theatre & Drama. He has worked for Media Services since the Fall 2022 semester. His interests include musical theatre, video games, and graphic design.

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