Growing Up Thespian in the Digital Age, or Why I Feel Old
Last year my cousin Joseph, the other big theatre fan in our family, turned 16. As his self-proclaimed mentor and teacher of all things theatrical, I wanted to get him an amazing gift, and as it so happened, around that time the perfect thing fell into my lap. I was cleaning out my desk in my childhood bedroom, and I found, at the back of a drawer, my old iPod, chock full of the music staples of my teenage years – that is to say, lots and lots of cast recordings and essentially nothing else.
I sent Joseph a box in the mail containing that iPod, recharged for the first time in the better part of a decade and lovingly bubble-wrapped, along with a copy of Stanley Green’s Broadway Musicals, Show by Show, an older edition of which I’d spent hours memorizing by flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep. With these two items in hand, I figured, he’d be well on his way to becoming a bona fide musical theater nerd-slash-superfan.
Joseph was thrilled with my presents. I got the most gleeful phone call right after he opened the box, and he still talks about how excited he is to have the “magic iPod” on road trips. But what I’ve discovered, in the last year and a half of talking musicals with him, is that he didn’t really need them as much as I thought he did.
As a child, I quickly grew tired of hearing my parents and others of their generation tell me how much technology—and thus the habits of young people—had changed since they were growing up. This refrain was inevitably followed by an assurance that someday I, too would feel the same thing about people younger than myself. In the back of my mind I figured this was true, but I never expected to feel it so soon. Times change. We all know this. But am I the only one who thinks maybe times are changing faster than they used to?
The iPod I sent Joseph was full of cast albums that I had spent hours and hours ripping from CD into iTunes, painstakingly entering all the album information by hand. Those CDs are housed, to this day, carefully alphabetized in a pair of CaseLogic 72-Capacity Heavy Duty CD Wallets. The vast majority of my total allowance earned between the ages of 8 and 16 went toward actual, physical CDs of cast recordings; only in my later high school years did I begin to buy the lion’s share of my music digitally.
Joseph, on the other hand, doesn’t own a single CD that I know of. Apart from the “magic iPod” he listens to music entirely on his phone, where he has a bevy of iTunes purchases but can also choose from anything available to him on streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. It might just be the old lady in me talking, but it feels like my CD wallets are evolutionarily closer to my parents’ LP collections than to Joseph’s essentially limitless online library. And the book? It’s a fun addition to his shelves, but even I have to admit it doesn’t hold a candle to the convenience and completeness of Wikipedia or Playbill Vault.
Those aren’t the only things that have changed. When I was young, and when my parents were young, the only way to see a Broadway show was, well, to go and see it. These days, it seems like more and more productions are being taped not just for the archives at the Performing Arts Library, but to be aired on television, distributed in movie theaters, or made available on streaming services or DVD. The recent shows Joseph has been able to watch on Netflix alone include Company, Phantom of the Opera, Shrek the Musical, Memphis, and RENT (most of which are still available on Netflix and very much worth checking out if you haven’t already).
On top of all of this there’s YouTube, one of the most rapidly evolving internet resources for musical theater fans. In its early days most of the musical theater-related footage on YouTube was illegal, and as such didn’t stick around long. But in the last few years it’s been a thrill to watch up-and-coming writers—including many of those who sell their work here at NMT—embrace YouTube as a way to deliver professionally filmed performances of their work directly to the fans.
And what about the link between actor and fan? I could spend a whole separate post analyzing that situation, but it’s been changed by technology for sure. As a tween- and teenage fangirl, I had two possible ways to interact with performers: writing them letters and waiting at the stage door. Those two habits are not going anywhere any time soon, and are by and large still the only opportunities for actual interaction, but backstage video blogs on sites like Broadway.com and performers’ presence on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media allow fans to feel more closely connected to their idols.
The upside of all of these technological advancements is that they allow fledgling fans who live far from Broadway to engage more closely with the art form and community than ever before. Joseph lives in North Carolina, and easily knows as much about what’s on Broadway as I did at his age. But nonetheless a part of me wondered about the downside of a possible spoiler effect, so to speak: would being able to know so much about shows without actually sitting in the theater and seeing them ruin that live experience when it finally happened?
As it turned out, at least in Joseph’s case, I needn’t have worried. Earlier this month he came to spend the week with me, during which time he saw four shows. Before he even got on the plane in North Carolina, he knew every word of their songs, and every name and face he’d see in their Playbills. And every night, he’d come back to my apartment grinning ear to ear, and we’d have the same conversation. “How was it?” I would say. “AMAZING,” he would say. “Better than listening to it?” I would ask.
Every time, he’d answer something along the lines of, “Nothing compares to seeing it live.” Technology may be changing fast, taking the theater world with it, but as long as what he said stays true, I think we’ll be okay.
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