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Women on the Verge of a YouTube Afterlife

By Tyler Coates
Tuesday, May 24th, 2011
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Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott and Nikka Graff Lanzarone in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

I was able to catch the Lincoln Center production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown just a few days before it prematurely closed in January. The show, a musical adaptation of Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 film with a book by David Lane and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, was scheduled for a limited run from November to the end of January. With an all-star cast of modern Broadway titans like Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, and Patti LuPone, the musical seemed, at least on paper, to be a sure hit. In production, however, it was a bit of a flop: The complicated plot — unwieldy when adapted for the stage — distracted from the brilliant pop-oriented songs and the stellar performances from Scott, Benanti, and LuPone.

When Women on the Verge closed two weeks ahead of schedule, there was much speculation over the possibility for a cast recording. I certainly hoped for one; while I could see that the staging was, to be honest, quite a mess, the show itself was a lot of fun. I left the theater with several songs stuck in my head, including the stand-outs “Model Behavior” (performed by Laura Benanti) and “Invisible” (performed by Patti LuPone). The sign by the merchandise table advertising a pre-order for the recording was promising, but the lack of interest in the show (and the resulting early closure) was not.

The cast recording was released in May after all, not so surprisingly on Ghostlight Records, a imprint of Sh-K-Boom Records, the label co-founded by the show’s star Sherie Rene Scott. Sh-k-Boom and Ghostlight make a point to release cast albums to a wider audience, enabling a life for these more experimental and less mainstream musicals beyond the confines of their original runs. While shows like Wicked and The Lion King have the big-budget spectacle now associated with musical theater and have a longer shelf-life thanks to extended runs on Broadway and national tours, the legacies of recent shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Everyday Rapture, Passing Strange, and In the Heights must rely on a more specific audience to remain as memorable.

While Sh-K-Boom and Ghostlight provide a professional service to ensure these shows are not forgotten, there’s another avenue that Broadway fans have taken to remember such musical experiences.

Bootlegging has been a popular, if ethically ambiguous, practice for years. As cameras have gotten smaller (and come built into cell phones), bootlegging has also become more convenient. The internet has allowed for the easy distribution of videos surreptitiously shot in dark theaters, bringing these bootlegs to a wider (while admittedly still small) audience that would not have the chance to buy films off of the street. But YouTube in particular has made it possible for shows to break free from the confines of the ephemeral nature of the stage. Take Women on the Verge for example; a quick search for the musical’s title will, of course, result in a variety of videos, and a patient user can easily find clips from the show.

The video above, of course, is of questionable quality, but what it does give the viewer is the sense of the audience, which is an important aspect of seeing a live show. While one can experience the madness of the show’s opening number, there’s also the reaction from the audience as stars Laura Benanti and Patti LuPone walk on stage. Official videos posted by Lincoln Center’s YouTube account, which feature shorter (and more professional) clips of the show, do not necessarily have the same power.

While even professional films of stage productions have been popular for years (several of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, for example, are readily available on Netflix), it certainly cannot rival the emotional power of seeing a show in person. Neither can a soundtrack. But both act as tangible reminders of a theater experience, slightly demolishing the confines of the theater in which a specific production, supposedly closed and finished, can continue to be accessible to any audience member with an iPod or a laptop.