Broadening Broadway

If the play is the thing but the cost is not, there's theater at the cinema.

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The Tony-winning musical "Memphis" is set to play in taped form in more than 500 cinemas nationwide, including 10 in this area. Here, the cast performs at New York's Schubert Theatre.

And now, Broadway, coming to a movie theater near you.

Wait a minute. Broadway - in a movie theater? Isn't one of the main properties of live theater that it's not a movie?

Well, these days, yes and no. This weekend through Tuesday, Broadway's current Tony-winning best musical - Memphis - is playing in about 530 cinemas throughout America, including 10 screens here, and it's not some Hollywood version. It's the actual show, taped in high definition with six cameras over a series of performances from the Shubert Theatre stage, where it's in its 670th performance Sunday.

Taking a cue from screened sporting events, concerts, and mostly from the unbridled success of New York's Metropolitan Opera Company - a weekend fixture at many movie theaters - live theater itself is going to the movies.

It has obvious benefits for consumers - even Philadelphians, a 90-minute ride away from real-life, reach-out-and-touch-it Broadway: Memphis at the movies will cost you $20, one-fourth the average Broadway ticket, and you don't have to go far to see it. For movie-house operators, on-screen theater means even more new content to put audiences into downtime seats and bring in additional revenue.

For show producers who depend on real bodies at a single venue when the curtain rises, film-house exposure is just that - a branding device and a potential for international audiences, plus another revenue stream. Although arrangements vary, exhibitors and producers often split cinema box-office receipts 50-50, and theater artists are paid extra by the producers.

Live theater wouldn't be taking this route if it weren't for the Metropolitan Opera, whose nine cinema simulcasts last season sold 2.4 million tickets, grossed $48 million, and put a net profit of $8 million into the opera company's coffers.

Bruce Brandwen, a television entrepreneur, first tested the idea of major live shows on the big screen a decade ago, but was ahead of the curve. The avid following for the Met "revived the idea, and Bruce talked with Broadway producers," says Don Roy King, a longtime TV director and former Philadelphian who directed The Mike Douglas Show here, as well as the current capture of Memphis for big screens.

Memphis, scored by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, is the fictionalized story of a real-life brash, young, white DJ who integrated music on the airwaves in Memphis in the '50s - Hairspray, but 10 years earlier. The show's cinema engagement comes before any national tour and while it's riding high on Broadway.

"It's an attractive opportunity for people all over the country, people who don't happen to live in New York, to see Broadway theater on a big screen," says Jeremy Devine, marketing vice president of Rave theaters, showing Memphis in University City and Voorhees; the show is also playing here in selected AMCs and Regals.

King believes people who see it "will say, 'We know that one's good. Let's go see it again' " when they're in New York or when Memphis comes around live.

In fact, that has begun to be the case for Britain's venerable National Theatre, beaming its second season to 400 theaters around the world, beginning to turn a profit on the project, and now getting people at the box office whose introduction was through a movie house. (The stage company also has a brilliant current Broadway success at Lincoln Center in a play called War Horse.) Next up on screens, in real time but delayed depending on the time zone, is the National Theatre production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, in June.

"We haven't gone for the major multiplexes," says David Sabel, phoning from London, where he is head of the cinema project. "We've focused on independent and art houses, and places like the Bryn Mawr Film Institute have been really good for us. It's not the same as going to a production at Philadelphia Theatre Company or seeing Pig Iron [Theatre Company] on stage in Philadelphia, and it never will be - but it has some of the same DNA. We don't see it as cannibalizing. It only helps to bring more awareness."

Julie Borchard-Young, who with her husband, Robert, owns BY Experience, which places, markets, and beams events to movie theaters, cites a special feeling in movie houses during the high-definition broadcasts, replicating the auditoriums of live theaters.

"You feel that energy in the room, it's a shared experience. It's remarkable - people clap at high points," says Borchard-Young, whose company handles the Met and National Theatre, and which is working with the Roundabout Theatre Company's current popular Broadway revival of The Importance of Being Earnest, to fill cinema screens in June.

"I hang around and listen to the people when they come out," says Chris Collier, director of special programs for Renew Theaters' two movie houses, the Ambler and Doylestown's County, both also screening National Theatre shows, Shakespeare from Britain's Globe, operas and ballets from Europe, and, this summer, Earnest.

"They're having the experience of being in one of Europe's greatest venues. For $18 to be in London, you can't beat that. These even open with images of the audience coming into the theater, with the ambient noise."

That's the part "of being with live bodies and breathing the same air - what makes live performance specific and desirable," says Ed Sobel, associate artistic director at Center City's Arden Theatre Company.

And though "you don't get the same thing - liveness is the essence of being at live theater," says Sara Garonzik, producing artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company, "anything that generates excitement and possible new audiences through another medium is basically good for the theater. Not a substitute, but more positive than negative."

 


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.