If you're a theatre fan living in New York City, and especially if you're a theatre student or artist, you've likely heard about the New York Public Library's Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, which contains countless full videos of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and even regional productions from the 1970s. Anyone can come in and view these filmed productions in the NYPL's screening room. Recently, new titles were added to the archive, most notably The Phantom of the Opera (with the original cast); Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; A Strange Loop; and the 2022 Broadway revival of Company.
The library announced this in a social media post while also highlighting some of the other shows it has in its archives, such as Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Dreamgirls, A Chorus Line; In the Heights, and the 2018 Broadway revival of Carousel.
TOFT only puts productions in its archive after they have closed. So with Phantom's recent closure, you might imagine people lining up down the block to see the never-before-seen footage of the original 1988 cast.
But it's not as simple as just walking into a movie theatre—the purpose of the archive is to serve as a resource, not an entertainment venue. So, what are the stipulations? How can you view something in the archives?
Have a library card.
TOFT's archives are, of course, a resource of the New York Public Library, located at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Like checking out a book, you'll need a library card. Thanks to modern technology, you can get a head start by signing up for one online now. But you will have to register your account in-person for a physical card to access the archives.
You can walk in and view but....
The library does take walk-in viewers, but on a first come, first serve basis. And there may be limitations. If you walk in, all of the screens may be occupied. Or if you walk in and request to view something, you may not be able to view it without advance permission from a member of the original creative team. And you may not be able to view more than one film/tape, which is why we recommend that you...
Make an appointment, and call ahead.
The most important thing to know about the Theatre on Film and Tape archives is that viewing something day-of is not guaranteed. If you want a guaranteed viewing, you'll need to make an appointment at least one day in advance and reserve a time to view your desired film/tape. You can do this in-person, via telephone, or via email. Certain titles require special permission for viewing, so do this as far in advance as possible.
If you are running late, call and let them know. If you run more than 30 minutes late, you may lose your assigned monitor.
You can bring multiple people.
If you're taking your classmates or friends you're working on a project with, be sure to let the library know exactly how many people are coming along with you. There isn't a large screen like a movie theatre, just a regular monitor. But the Lucille Lortel screening room has 24 monitors, which can be linked to show the same film/tape for simultaneous viewing. They can accommodate multiple viewers at once so long as you give them enough notice. Also, note that children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.
Use the library's research catalog
Before you go, look up what the NYPL has in their catalogue. Though an astonishing number of productions have been archived at the library, there's bound to be a few you might want to see that they don't have. On top of that, one of the main policies of the archive is that currently running shows are not available for viewing (hence why Phantom has just been released after three decades on Broadway).
You can see what they have available in the archives by visiting the research catalog. It's recommended to use the advance search mode, and to specify "moving image" under "format" before entering the title of your search.
"Why can't I watch this online?"
In short, the library is a public-serving, non-profit education resource. By providing filmed versions of theatre productions, the library is providing educational properties, not profitable entertainment. For this reason, NYPL does not have to pay any of the performers or creatives associated with the available filmed productions.
If NYPL made its archives available to viewers anywhere, anytime, they would have to negotiate residuals or royalties with every single person working on every single show in their archives. And most likely, they would have to create new contracts for those older shows and every new show going forward. For more information and insight on this, check out our previous article about why streaming live theatre is trickier than it seems in the United States.
In the meantime, though Phantom is no longer running on Broadway, you need only go to the library to experience the music of the night.