When the high-definition cinecast of the musical Memphis hits movie screens this weekend, it could signal a breakthrough for the theater world.
Memphis, about race relations, love and rock 'n' roll in 1950s Tennessee, is last year's Tony Award winner for best musical. It's still going strong on Broadway, and a national tour is on the way — yet for $20 you will be able to catch the Broadway show in your local cineplex, including two in Lexington.
That's new, yet Memphis has company in the sudden race to convert live theater to limited-run movie house experiences.
Two weeks ago, the New York Philharmonic's benefit performances of Stephen Sondheim's Company were "captured" for HD cinecast starting June 15. Neil Patrick Harris stars, and the cast includes Patti LuPone, Jon Cryer and Stephen Colbert.
June also will mark the international HD cinema release of Oscar Wilde's comic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest, as it is currently being staged by Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway. Roundabout managing director Harold Wolpert suggests that Earnest — featuring an acclaimed turn in drag by Brian Bedford as Wilde's famous society scold, Lady Bracknell — will be the first American nonprofit troupe's show to get high-def treatment.
That distinction might not last long.
"There's a lot coming," says Julie Borchard-Young, whose BY Experience captured Earnest and will distribute it to cinemas.
"It's just starting to snowball," says Darryl Shaffer, whose Screenvision is distributing Company.
But is there any money in it? "I don't know," says veteran producer Ellen Krass, who has brought a number of Sondheim projects to the small screen on PBS. "Call me in a couple months."
"We're still in the early stages," says Bruce Brandwen, whose Broadway Worldwide is behind Memphis in HD.
The results are already in at the Metropolitan Opera, which these theater dreamers almost universally cite as their model. Next fall the Met will begin a sixth season of its trailblazing Live in HD cinecasts, which transmit certain Saturday afternoon performances from New York to movie theaters around the world, including Lexington. (Delayed screenings and encores are part of the package, too.) Last season Live in HD grossed $48 million, according to the Met's Web site. Half went back to the Met to cover costs and disbursements, and $8 million was profit.
Theater has been following suit most consistently in London, where the National Theatre is completing its second season of NT Live.
Technology gets cheaper and better all the time, and such low-end stuff as cellphones used by rabid fans to upload bootlegs has nudged a skeptical and heavily unionized theater industry toward a controlled embrace of digital opportunities. Getting support from the unions has been key, naturally.
One common fear had to do with cannibalization, the concern that video would kill the stage show. But movie versions of Broadway hits Chicago, Rent and Phantom of the Opera didn't hurt the theatrical box office.
"If you like something, you're going to see it in multiple formats," says Brandwen. "Disney has taught us that."
Like everyone else, David Sabel, the London National Theatre's digital producer, cautions that these HD experiences are exciting but no substitute for the real thing. The Met has endured criticism that the cinema phenomenon is tempting the company to design its rep, cast its singers and stage its productions with camera in mind. Can performing arts events conceived for the screen be far off?
"It's already happening," says Krass, whose Company nearly fits that bill. (The Philharmonic benefit notion came first, Krass says, with the HD idea close behind, and the performers knew about it as they signed on.)
Krass is in talks with companies about potential projects for stage and screen, but while the Met and the National have built-in audiences, it's not clear what else might excite the masses.
"Does somebody go in to see a Tony-winning play," Krass asks, "or to see Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert? I don't know. We're on a learning curve. ... I do feel you need a star to get you in the theater, or a Tony-winning piece, or a once-in-a-lifetime event. It's just not a regular thing."