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Broadway Hits the Big Screen

Taped performances of Memphis and The Importance of Being Earnest will soon be coming to local movie theaters.

Chad Kimball and Montego Glover
(© Joan Marcus)
While audiences around the country have happily become used to going to movie theaters to see big-screen broadcasts of live productions from the Metropolitan Opera and London's National Theater, New York theater producers have been slow to adopt high-definition filmmaking as a way to preserve and promote their shows. But now, two high-profile Broadway productions are embracing the cameras.

Memphis, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical about an interracial romance in 1950s Tennessee between a white DJ and black singer (played by Chad Kimball and Montego Glover), will be hitting big screens nationwide for an exclusive run on Thursday, April 28; Saturday, April 30; Sunday, May 1; and Tuesday, May 3. The film will consist of one performance of a show, which was captured in mid-January at the Shubert Theatre.

Meanwhile, The Roundabout Theatre's acclaimed production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by and starring Tony Award winner Brian Bedford, will be shown in movie theaters and performing arts centers across the U.S., beginning June 2. Audiences at the Roundabout Theatre's American Airlines Theatre shared the auditorium on March 11 and 12 with seven large cameras during three separate shows, and producers will choose the best of the those performances and present it intact.

One reason these shows are now hitting the big screen is purely technological, says Bruce Brandwen, whose company Broadway Worldwide is co-presenting Memphis with NCM Fathom. "Ten years ago, there were only 32 digital screens in the U.S., and today, there are 8,000 screens in the U.S. with high-end digital equipment," he states.

But technology is only part of the equation, admits Brandwen. "There has been skepticism from theater owners as to whether video would cannibalize or have a negative effect on the show," he says. "There was one show - I won't give the name - that was a gigantic hit. But when I approached the producers to propose a film, the answer was 'We would not be comfortable doing it because we've never experienced a hit like this.' Let's not make a mistake, so let's do nothing."

The fact that Broadway's Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, and Mamma Mia! have not only continued to run - but have thrived - after the release of traditional film versions has perhaps caused some producers to reevaluate their thinking. "Those films certainly didn't hurt those brands," says Memphis producer Randy Adams.

Brian Bedford and Charlote Parry in
The Importance of Being Earnest
(© Joan Marcus)
For Earnest, Roundabout collaborated with L.A. Theatre Works, which secured foundation funding for the project, and BY Experience, a New York-based marketing and distribution company that has worked with the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theatre. "Both Roundabout and LATW agreed that this would be a perfect way for two not-for-profit companies to pool our resources," says Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes. "This sort of film makes great theater accessible to an even larger number of audiences, including students," he said.

Producer Ken Davenport, who is currently planning to mount a Broadway revival of Godspell, is firmly behind filming in HD. "It has the ability to help the show's tour and the Broadway production. It's another step in the right direction of embracing technology and taping productions to help market shows," he says.

Indeed, films and HD presentations cannot fully replace the Broadway experience, adds Brandwen. "The one advantage Broadway will always have is that it's live."