Virtual Reality and The Future of Broadway

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A screen capture of The Lion King‘s 360 degree “Circle of Life” video.

Last month, the team at the School of Rock musical (now in previews) unveiled the first-ever virtual reality (VR) music video for a musical number. A VR video means that it’s shot in 360 degrees and you can click-and-drag around the video just like you would Google Maps, and if you have the Google Cardboard headset (or you can buy one for about $15), you can put your phone in the headset and you, too, can be in the band.

This week, The Lion King on Broadway borrowed the idea and released a video of their opening number, “Circle of Life,” in VR. Andrew Lloyd Webber, who scored School, wasn’t pleased that Lion King decided to be copy cats. Disney had some choice words for Lloyd Webber too (including the word “commercial” — meow!).

Let’s be honest here — the Lion King video is way cooler, because it’s The Lion King. It’s still one of the highest grossing shows worldwide after opening eighteen years ago. It’s completely live, too. You can see the audience members and all of the puppets, costumes and makeup that would be used in a normal show. The School video gives the viewer more freedom, however, and they can look at whichever angle they choose. The Lion King video cuts to certain angles at certain times, which can leave the viewer feeling dizzy.

The real story here is not the catfight between a knighted ego (see if you can spot the references to two other Lloyd Webber musicals in the video) and one of the largest companies in the world, but is about what’s next for musical theatre. With more VR technologies and videos becoming accessible, will audiences come to expect a more immersive experience at the theatre? Or maybe, this could change the stage altogether. Maybe instead of a touring company hauling trucks and actors across continents to put on a show, they’ll set up an immersive screen and project the recording onto it. No actors needed.

Let’s be honest, though — the latter probably won’t happen. At least, not yet. Pro-shot recordings of Phantom of the Opera didn’t close the show. Theatre nerds are nerds through-and-through, and there’s nothing like experiencing it in person. Just like with any other nerdy fandom — sure, watching Star Wars at home is cool, but that’s not going to stop the diehards from waving their lightsabers around.

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