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Defying Gravity

First off, congratulations to everyone who performed in the musical Man of La Mancha this weekend. You guys were spectacular.

Now, musical performances come in all different forms. Some musicals are entirely ensemble-based, some are led by women, some have plants as the main characters. Some are live, some are filmed (oftentimes, one is adapted from the other!) No matter how it's structured, at its core, the musical is a live performance interspersed with song and dance. This post is going to focus on the differences in live and recorded musicals.

Now, as my musical theater expertise is limited to high school plays and Glee before I stopped watching it (seriously Quinn? Now you want custody?), I won't claim to know exactly what makes a good musical, so bear with me.

One obvious benefit to a filmed musical is the exclusion of errors; no matter how difficult a song or performance may be, the cast can always reshoot it in another take, until they have a satisfactory performance. This gives us the "bloopers" commonly seen at the end of comedy movies, where the failed takes are shown after the movie's been completed.
In contrast, live theater consists of practicing the play over and over again in the hopes that, when you do go on and perform, there are no errors, and if there are, the actors know their characters well enough to cover any slip-ups. This is a much more frightening way to perform, but it's also much more exciting. Take the January 9th, 2004 performance of Wicked:

The platform in "Defying Gravity" (a key element of the song) failed to rise in time. I got a heart attack just watching the video, I can't even imagine how Idina Menzel managed to cover it without an issue. Such is the risk of live theater, but it makes the end result all the more amazing.

Another common aspect of filmed musicals is cutting for time. This isn't just limited to musicals; movies as a whole have a very short amount of time to present their story, and unless you have an incredible movie (or you're James Cameron), you risk losing viewers and money if it goes on too long. In a musical film, this can often lead to shortening or removing songs, but that's not always a bad thing: the 1972 film adaptation of Man of La Mancha managed to trim an entire minute and a half off of the song "I'm Only Thinking Of Him," in a very clever way; it built on the overlapping trio present in the original song to still get the message across effectively.
This is less present in live theater; musicals can and will frequently go on for two and a half hours or more, depending on factors like production values. Still, it's still fairly rare for a full show to be performed; frequently, one of the first things a cast does is decide which parts they'll remove for time.

This is a fairly superficial thing to say, but a film has the definite advantage of looking for specific actors. A screenwriter can write a part and say "I'm feeling Emma Stone for this part" or "I wrote the role with [Alec Baldwin] in mind." Unless it's a huge, big-name theater, a live performance will often have to make due with what they have (one of the reasons why there's so frequently a shortage of males in theater). It's a small thing, but it does exist.

In the end though, the show always pulls through, whether it's live theater, live TV, or a pre-recorded film. Everything always works out for the best (and when it doesn't, the audience usually doesn't know anyway).


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