The Great White Way has come to the World Wide Web. But does the oldest lively art, theater, belong on the newest medium?

By EW Staff
Updated June 05, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Theater is a real event that happens in real time. On the Internet, reality is virtual, and time — especially during downloads — is relative. So, in principle, there can’t be any strong connection between theater and the Net. After a survey of some leading stage sites, I have to agree: The Web’s sense of theater is minimal.

Not that you can’t find plenty of trivia. Pegged to the June 7 ceremonies, the official Tony Awards website (www.tonys.org) lists this year’s nominees, along with cursory data on each. It links to the shows’ own websites (should they exist) where you can find a little more data plus chatty interviews with the nominees and so forth. There are even occasional sound bites, which I gave up on after attempts to download the voice of Ragtime‘s Audra McDonald from http://www.livent.com had crashed three different computers.

One thing the Tonys haven’t taken into account yet is their past. The site lets you search the names of previous winners, but only for the last few years: Trying to hunt up nominees from the 1977 Broadway production of the musical Happy End, I discovered that the website, poor thing, had never heard of Kurt Weill. On the Obie Awards website (www.villagevoice.com/obies), at least you can look up every winner for the past 43 years. Trouble is, that bare information is all you’ll get; the site (which I’ve had a hand in producing) is hardly more than a fact page.

For better-dressed data, the handiest site is Playbill OnLine (www.playbill.com). The website of Broadway’s program magazine moves considerably beyond Broadway in its listings of what’s on: It offers hard news as well as gossipy features; the wide-ranging links let you order tickets, buy theater books, and search out convenient places to dine. Not every spot on the site is so free-ranging, though: Playbill‘s Who’s Who only reaches back a few years and is oblivious to many influential ”downtown” artists who rarely work in commercial venues.

These absences — the Tonys’ past, the Obies’ meaning, the great risk takers unknown to Playbill — are all symptoms of the theater websites’ basic failing: They give you no glimpse of why theater’s important, how it can still be thriving after thousands of years. The Web seems oddly materialistic for a virtual place, with most of these sites devoted to marketing shows like any other product. Okay, we’re in a material world, but the theater exists to show us that there’s more to life. The one online area where you get that sense, somewhat, is on Yahoo!, if you have the patience to prowl through the ocean of listings at www. yahoo.com/Arts/Performing_Arts/Theater. The subtopics here stretch in all directions, from sites for gay and lesbian theater, commedia dell’arte, and Kabuki to the inevitable Broadway and West End locations. Many turn out to be vacuous, but even at their worst they remind you that there’s more to the subject than the number of Les Miz companies currently touring. Still, even the best data’s no substitute for experience. If you’re that interested in theater, my advice is: Log off and go see a show. Or start your own theater, after which you may never have time to log on again. Tonys: B- Playbill: B+

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