Interview: Betty Corwin on How She Pioneered Archival Recordings of Broadway Shows

By: Nov. 10, 2017
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Broadway shows have been preserved for decades thanks to one pioneer with a passion. Betty Corwin was working in a hospital in 1969 when she came up with a brilliant idea to record them for history. It enabled legendary performances including Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire to be forever on tape.

The first show recorded was The Golden Bat, an Off-Broadway Japanese Avant garde rock musical at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1970. ''Originally, Actors Equity refused to allow us to use more than one camera,'' she told the New York Times in 1987. "Then the director Hal Prince stepped in and persuaded the union that the archive ought to be able to use two cameras to tape his production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company.

Nearly 8,000 titles including more than 4,000 live theatrical performances are now archived in the New York City Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Students, teachers, professors, journalists, authors, theater professionals or anyone with a valid research reason can utilize the collection.

The 1994 revival of Carousel starring Audra McDonald has been one of the most consistently requested titles. Anything by Stephen Sondheim, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and the work of Harold Prince are also popular. A spokesperson for the library says The Humans by Stephen Karam and A Doll's House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath are wildly requested.

And yes, celebrities go to re-watch their work too.

BroadwayWorld's Leigh Scheps spoke to Corwin, the founder and former director of the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT), as she was honored with a Special Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the American theatre.

How does it feel to be awarded with this prestigious honor?

Very strange. When you do things you sort of do things and move along. Suddenly you're given an award for it and it's really shocking.

How did the archives library get off the ground?

I started it because I was working in a hospital in the Bronx. I thought the best time of my life was when I worked in the theater. It was my sister-in-law who suggested [to] tape shows. Lots of people talked about it but no one ever did it. I thought: nothing ventured, nothing gained.

What did you do once you had the idea?

I had to get permission from half a dozen theater unions. Lincoln Center said, We will give you a desk and telephone and gave it three months. Everyone didn't agree right off. That took two and half years. After three months, you'd think the library would say, sorry. I had gotten one agreement by then from Actor's Equity. [The library] let me stay on and I did until I got the other unions.

How did you start filming?

I advertised in the New York Times for a camera man. I hired the cheapest camera man in New York. He wanted $200 and he had his own equipment. He taped our first show. Now when we do a Broadway show it costs $15,000. We use multiple cameras and highly professional cameramen. Through the years we've raised the money so now we have a good budget.

Is every show recorded?

No, but an awful lot of them are. Last year we did about 80.

What was your favorite archived show?

No question: A Chorus Line.

Why is it important to preserve these shows?

It was important to me because I remember Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie [and] Marlon Brando in A Street Car Named Desire. When you see these shows and incredible performances -- you wonder how they can disappear. Once the show is over; it's gone. What a shame that was --it bothered me.

Is there a show that's been viewed the most?

I think Sondheim's shows are viewed a lot. I don't if there is one show that is viewed the most. 4,000 are live performances of Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional productions. Those are the things I am most proud of because they would be gone if we didn't preserve them.

Photo Credit: Kacey Anisa Stamats