How PBS Captures Broadway Shows for Great Performances | Playbill

Special Features How PBS Captures Broadway Shows for Great Performances

Executive producer David Horn on what audiences can do to make sure more shows are filmed for broadcast.

Great Performances on PBS Executive Producer David Horn on the set of Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ to Do.

You’d think filming a live theatrical performance for PBS would be a pretty straightforward job: show up, set up the cameras, record the show. But for Great Performances Executive Producer David Horn, you also have to think on your feet because anything can happen.

“We were in Tuscany, filming a show with Andrea Boccelli…we had bad weather and we had to postpone,” Horn recalls. “The wind blew so hard, it knocked the camera tower over and knocked one of the jibs down the hill.” The crew had to make an emergency call for a replacement camera. The moral of that story, says Horn, “We always used to say, ‘live means you never have to say you're sorry.’”

There is arguably no bigger expert on the art of filming a live performance than Horn, who has been a producer and director on Great Performances for over 40 years—making sure that audiences around the country have access to Broadway shows, operas, dance, and concerts for free. Horn has won four Emmys, and he’s worked with a who’s who of theatrical legends. Ask about any of them, and he’ll have an anecdote.

Barbra Streisand: “She usually uses a director that she trusts that she's worked with before…She then takes the product and she edits it herself with an editor. She's a perfectionist.” Great Performances presented Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn.

Julie Andrews: “Julie is a doll. We were going to do a concert down at Wolf Trap. And this was about ’89 or ’90. And we had a labor issue at the last minute—we had all the trucks, all the labor, the stagehands, everybody ready to set up at midnight before the next day. And we had to cancel. So I had to be the one to go tell Julie that we couldn't do her show…She was very understanding.” Horn was executive producer of the filmed live capture of Victor/Victoria on Broadway in 1995.

This May, Great Performances has released four new live captures: the Broadway revival of Purlie Victorious, last year’s Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Park, an Audra McDonald concert, and (on May 31) the Rodgers and Hammerstein 80th anniversary concert. After they air on PBS, the shows are available to stream on and via the PBS app. Purlie will be streaming until July 19, Hamlet will stream until June 30, the Rodgers and Hammerstein concert will stream until June 28, and the Audra McDonald concert will stream until June 14.

But how exactly does a Great Performances performance get captured? And why isn’t PBS producing specials for all of Broadway? Luckily, Horn was willing to go into the nuts-and-bolts of the Great Performances process.

The first step is show selection. Horn admits it’s not as easy as going to a particular show and asking if PBS can film them. First, PBS has to make sure there’s enough in its budget to cover the costs, since the network also films concerts, dance, and operas. Filmed performances are one of the most expensive things that the network produces. Horn estimates that it costs around $1.5-$2 million to film a Broadway musical and $1-$1.5 million for a play (in London, the cost is “a little more than half” of that due to cheaper labor costs).

PBS covers a portion of the production costs, and the individual show’s producers cover the rest (such was the case with the Purlie Victorious live capture). “We can rarely afford to pay for a production in its entirety, particularly a Broadway production,” says Horn. “It really has to be a passion. And in this case, the person that was passionate about it was Leslie Odom, Jr. And they reached out to us.”

Sometimes, PBS is interested in a production, but the Broadway show’s producers may shy away from wanting it captured, especially if it’s a new play or musical. “After Broadway, there's the tours, where a lot of the revenue of the shows are made, and there's a feeling out there that once it's on television, it diminishes,” Horn says. “But we find the opposite to be true. I think if somebody sees something on television, particularly if they live in more remote parts of the country, it sort of legitimizes what's going on and creates recognition and you want to see that thing in person.” Horn also adds that producers also shy away from a live capture because they want to adapt the show for a feature film.

But if a theatrical production decides that yes, they want PBS to capture them, then a licensing agreement has to be made. This includes how much the performers, the designers, crew, and everyone else who worked on the production would have to be paid for the broadcast and subsequent stream. And crucially, how much do the creators of the musical/play have to be paid, because they (or their estate) hold the grand rights to everything.

Sometimes, if a production is particularly expensive, the creators of the show would waive their fees so that it can happen. This was in the case for the PBS broadcast of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals in the '80s and '90s, including Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George.

“Many of the Sondheim musicals have been on public television. And they were because Mr. Sondheim wanted them. He would defer his cost to make the shows happen, to make his money hopefully, in the back end,” explains Horn. The “back-end” would be in DVD sales, on-demand sales, or the rights to resell the program to different broadcast or streaming services, along with whatever added audience the broadcast brings to the show for future productions. PBS usually has the rights to film the show and to have it available for streaming for three years, after which the rights revert back to the grand rights holder.

Mandy Patinkin and cast in Sunday in the Park with George

After rights are negotiated, then it’s time for the fun part: the actual filming experience. Horn sees the show once live, and then his team will film what they call a scratch tape: “It's a single camera recording that shows you all the positioning of the actors that we can build a script on. Every shot is completely scripted.” With that, and using a physical copy of the show script, Horn notes every entrance, exit, big gesture, key dramatic moments, character reactions—which moments need a wide shot versus a medium shot versus a close-up, and when the camera needs to move and follow certain characters. Basically it’s a storyboard, as you would do on a scripted filmed production.

“Most plays, musicals have about 1000 scripted shots that are done in advance,” says Horn.

The show is then filmed, in a multi-camera set-up over three nights. Before every filmed performance, Horn has a four to five-hour meeting with the camera crew where he directs them on which shot he wants when, using the script of the show as a guide. Horn will also watch the footage at the end of the evening to make adjustments for the following day. By the end of the three-night filming process, the entire crew are experts on the show they are capturing.

“By the third time, we’re pretty smooth, we could broadcast live around the country,” says Horn. “It's a craft. We're not making a film. We're trying to capture the intent of the theatrical performance. But through that, have a script that gives you something different than you would be seeing in the audience—reactions of a character that you might not notice sitting in the audience because you're focused on the person speaking. That's where a bit of the art comes in.”

Though Horn has worked on Great Performances for over 40 years, his passion for the arts and making the arts accessible has not dimmed. In the interview, he spoke multiple times about how essential it is to have a program like Great Performances to inspire viewers around the country to go see a live performance. At the same time, Horn isn’t shy in admitting that over the years, as costs have gone up across the board and charitable giving has gone down, it’s been tougher to find the money to produce Great Performances.

So when asked how audiences can continue to support PBS Great Performances, the answer is simple: “Donations to PBS,” says Horn with no hesitation. “Every dollar counts.”

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