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VIP ACCESS: Digital Archives Put Broadway at Your Fingertips

January 11th, 2012

The “VIP Access” column serves up advice on how to make your theater-going experiences cheaper, easier and more fulfilling with inside scoop from the experts. For January, we’ve got the way to experience Broadway, without venturing out into the cold…

Photo by Rido.

The puppets of Avenue Q tell us that the internet is for porn; I’d take a slightly wider view and state that the internet is for procrastination. There’s nothing like avoiding, say, writing a blog post by falling mouse first into the web and getting lost in more information (or videos or images or…well, porn) than you could ever need. For Broadway lovers wanting a cyber vacation, the last month has seen unprecedented content uploaded with the launch of two major website initiatives designed to digitize theatrical archives and make them available online for academics and fans alike: Playbill Vault and Roundabout Theatre Company’s Digital Online Archive. Now that they’re both up and running, let’s take them for a test drive to see how they roll…

Lea Michele. Image via

Playbill Vault: The publishers of everyone’s favorite theater programs tout this website as “the largest broadway database on the internet” and I have to say, these folks ain’t lying. Do you want the Broadway grosses for a week last April? Have you seen Lea Michele’s childhood headshot? (You just know that actors are hating this feature!) Who was nominated for the Tony for Best Actress in a Play in 2001? (Juliette Binoche? Really?!) To whom did Mario Cantone dedicate his performance in Assassins in his bio? (“This one’s for Jerry…”; one assumes his now husband, Jerry Dixon) It’s all here in a clean, user-friendly interface with the signature Playbill covers as your guides and chatty daily trivia on the home page. The Broadway League (with it’s IBDB website) definitely has its work cut out matching the fun of browsing through the images, info and videos on Playbill’s blockbuster entry.

Best in Show: I love searching by “seasons”, clicking through all the shows that appeared during a particular theatrical year, in order, is an enjoyable, always surprising walk down Broadway via Memory Lane. Needs Work: I wish there was room for Off-Broadway houses that use Playbill as well so you could get a better sense of an actor’s range of work, but perhaps that will come as they digitize more material. My biggest complaint is that the search tools are spelling sensitive; if you’re looking for “Lea Michelle”, you’re never going to find “Lea Michele”.

Neil Patrick Harris in "Cabaret". Photo by Joan Marcus.

Roundabout Theatre Company’s Digital Online Archive: After more than 45 years on the New York theatrical landscape, the Roundabout’s archives should be a comprehensive dive into recent artistic history. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a tease; you’ll have to find a way to be invited  home before you get the goods. Unless you are looking for production stills or cast lists, much of the material listed in searches is only available in their physical library. The site looks good and is easily maneuverable but entries about actual scripts and scores from productions (with handwritten notes) are described but not shown. Tantalizing, indeed.

Best in Show: It’s a trip to look through production stills, particularly from a long-running show like Cabaret where you can see a parade of Sally Bowles or compare the come-hither stares of a half dozen powdered Emcees. Anything that provides semi-shirtless shots of  Neil Patrick Harris can’t be all bad. The inclusion of costume imagery is also an enjoyable and educational browse. Needs Work: I get it; this site is actually more for the academic who intends to visit the archives but is doing some pre-screening. However, would it kill them to throw us casual users a bone and upload some of the press videos they dangle in front of us? I want my b-roll footage from Everyday Rapture!

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