Thanks to the world of audio, New York theater is being revolutionized
When it was reported in late April that Rona Munro's play My Name Is Lucy Barton was headed to Broadway, the story carried an obvious selling point: Four-time Tony nominee Laura Linney was back on the Great White Way. But nestled in the announcement was a subtler, significant detail: This show would be co-produced by Penguin Random House Audio.
An odd fit at first glance: Why would a publishing house's audio arm help put on a big Broadway show? But New York theater has found an unexpectedly robust partner in the burgeoning audio space, democratizing a notoriously exclusionary medium and unveiling new artistic potential.
This new initiative found its wings with the entertainment company Audible. In January 2018, Audible Theater was launched via an original production of Harry Clarke, David Cale's solo show with Billy Crudup, which had opened Off Broadway the previous fall at the Vineyard Theatre. "You lose something when you take away the audience, the live experience," Crudup cautions. "But… getting new playwrights to a whole new audience was too good an opportunity to pass up." He was satisfied with the experience: "It transformed [the play] into a different kind of event."
Initially, Audible sought out solo plays to adapt for listeners. "There was a concerted effort to start there, just to make sure it's something that [could work] in audio," says Kate Navin, Audible Theater's artistic producer. Among others, she acquired Neil LaBute's All the Ways to Say I Love You, for which star Judith Light nabbed a uAward nomination (recognizing the best in solo performances). The show's director, Leigh Silverman, joined Light at Audible's studios for an exclusive recording. "A performance, for me, is a performance. It doesn't matter the venue in which I'm doing it," Light says. "If I were doing another play, I would now ask that we do it for Audible."
Light continues, "I want to share theater experiences with people who aren't able to go to New York to see them. It's incredibly important."
Light is eager to work with a cast for an audio performance, too, and there's precedent: Audible has expanded to include ensemble productions such as True West, starring Kit Harington, and Billy Crystal's Have a Nice Day. More significantly, on May 14, PRHA will release an ambitious audiobook of Angels in America - Tony Kushner's '80s queer classic that won multiple Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize - with the cast of its recent Broadway revival, headed by Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane, kept intact. The play runs more than seven hours in total, the cast is large, and many set pieces are complex enough to pull off on stage, much less on audio. But as the Broadway show started winding down last year, producers made it work, recording it gradually over several months. "It was like making a schedule for a film," Kushner recalls. "Going scene by scene, figuring out how we could get people who needed to be in the same place at the same time."
[Exclusive listen: Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn in the Angels in America audio play]
Kushner was skeptical. "But as they sent me little bits and pieces to listen to," he adds, "I thought it was terrific - not quite like watching it on stage, but also not quite like reading it." He enlisted Tony nominees Edie Falco and Bobby Cannavale to read stage directions. He tweaked the play ever so slightly. He even found that the more visual the scene, the more it resonated in one's ears. "The absence of all of that spectacular stuff happening forces an almost muted study," he says. "It really forces concentration on the words." Kushner cites the final scene of the play's first part, "Millennium Approaches" - in which an angel crashes through a bedroom ceiling - as an example of just that. He was especially concerned about transferring such an epic sequence this way ("It's the hardest scene in every version," he notes), and yet he finds, now, that "it benefits from being in this format."
"The audiobook is interestingly, ghostly embodying Angels in a way - like the thing that lives between the book and the staged event," Kushner says. "I want to do all my plays this way."
[Exclusive listen: The Angel (Beth Malone) visits Prior (Andrew Garfield) in the Angels in America audio play]
This is exploding the audience for quality theater. Consider the stats: The number of downloads on Audible's recording of Girls & Boys, an acclaimed Carey Mulligan vehicle, is equivalent to 26 sold-out weeks at Broadway's Booth Theatre - and the play ran there for only five weeks. Same for Feeding the Dragon, a drama by and starring Sharon Washington. The Audible best-seller sold what amounts to two years of capacity shows at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where it was staged. "Our mission boils down to bringing great performances and great writing to more people," Navin says. "We believe so deeply in what the work is." She shares an anecdote that moved her deeply: There's an [Audible] member in the [Midwest] who said that, because they listened to an Audible theater title, they noticed their local theater was producing a play, and they went and bought a ticket. That's pretty amazing."
The actors are all in. "When you give a performance, you take people to another place," Light says. "This is about telling stories. Your imagination, particularly when you're just listening to something, can run wild." Adds Crudup: "There are people from my hometown in Florida who never get up to New York, who've gotten a chance to hear one of the plays that I was in. That's been incredibly rewarding."