When History Repeats Itself

Theatre has been pushing boundaries over the last few years to great results. But is it really conquering new ground or is history just repeating itself?


What is that old adage? If you don’t learn from history it will only repeat itself. Well when it comes to theatre marketing this is certainly happening.

In the past few years there have been a number of boundary-pushing strategies employed across the theatrical genre to increase the accessibility and audiences for theatre around the world. The Sound of Music and Peter Pan have been broadcast live on television across the United States (with plans for more shows on NBC and the other competing networks). Legally Blonde, Memphis, Billy Elliot, Shrek and Rent among others have had their live musical recorded and then released on DVD or TV. And this summer, The Last Five Years, Annie and Into the Woods are joining the long line of shows getting the Hollywood treatment and appearing in cinemas across the world.

These strategies have all been monumentally praised within the industry for increasing the ability for people to engage with musical theatre and hopefully generating a larger audience for future years. But something feels familiar about these efforts . . .

In fact, they aren’t actually new at all!

Many decades ago there was a golden era of musicals. Just like people will go to a club on their Fridays and Saturdays, all the cool people used to go to the theatre. The songs from these classic shows were popular hits on the radio and everybody knew the latest Rodgers & Hammerstein release. But times have changed . . . and with it so did the marketing efforts.

The strategies that we are seeing today are simply revamped ideas from this popular period. And you know what this recurrence says? These marketing strategies are partly responsible for the general societal love of the theatre.

South Pacific, Carousel and The King and I all appeared in the cinema box office of the time, much like Annie will be doing this summer. Pippin hit the DVD (well, back then they were VHS) racks long before Legally Blonde was even invented. And this December wasn’t the first time Peter Pan was broadcast across American TVs with Mary Martin taking on the lead role in the NBC 1955 telecast – the first time a full length Broadway musical had been broadcast on colour television – and was seen by over 65-million people.

Now, I’m not trying to decrease the creativity of these current strategies. There are enormous challenges and fantastic evolutions that each have gone through to satisfy the modern consumer and if you are going to borrow an idea, you may as well borrow from the best and then make it even better. But as musicals return to the more mainstream position they were back in the height of their popularity, maybe it is time to check out what else those crazy cats in the 50’s were doing because it could fill a missing link in engagement!

If it worked back then, we may as well learn from history and give it another go in a revamped 21st century manner!