If you can watch films on your telephone, why shouldn't movie theaters present stage shows on their screens?
In the fast-changing world of how we experience entertainment, theatrical entrepreneurs are dipping their toes into the possibilities offered by filming their productions.
On Oct. 23, cinemas across the country will present a digitally recorded performance of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Merrily We Roll Along," a hit in London's West End before closing in July.
Locally, it will be shown at 7 p.m. at the AMC Garden State 16 in Paramus and the AMC Clifton Commons 16 in Clifton.
"We look at this as special-event cinema," said Janelle Mason, co- director of the London-based distributor, CinemaLive, discussing the strategy of a one-time-only showing.
Some exhibitors are charging premium prices, she added. (The two North Jersey movie houses have priced tickets at $15, in line with what they charge for regular-run films.)
With an intermission
The package includes a 20-minute feature on the musical, and there'll also be a theater-like intermission between acts.
The idea of filming and broadly distributing stage productions -- made viable by satellite transmission -- isn't brand-new. Britain's National Theatre has been doing it with some of its productions since 2009, and the Metropolitan Opera started a couple of years earlier than that.
"We're very optimistic, based on the success the National Theatre and the Met have had," said Mason, speaking on the phone from England. "We believe that our content will appeal to a broader audience."
In choosing "Merrily We Roll Along" to kick off what it plans to be a series of performances from the commercial West End, CinemaLive has selected a challenging show, although this revival, superbly filmed by Digital Theatre, is brilliantly done. (Sondheim praised it as the best version of the show he's ever seen.)
Despite its title, "Merrily" is not a happy-go-lucky musical. Moving backward in time, it's about three friends whose relationship is shattered by cynicism and selfish ambition, after having begun with starry-eyed hope and idealism.
The original production, in 1981, is one of Broadway's most fabled failures, having closed after just 16 performances.
Over the years, the show has achieved a mythic life among Sondheim fans, who've believed that with the right production, the show, which has a wonderful score, would work.
Across a number of off-Broadway and regional productions, however, the experience has always been the same: great anticipation - maybe this version will be the one! - followed by attendance, disappointment and reinforcement of the prevailing notion that the songs could never blend with the sour scenes and unsympathetic characters in George Furth's book.
With that background, the British production, which started out at London's small Menier Chocolate Factory, under the direction of actress Maria Friedman, is the theatrical equivalent of discovering gold after 30 years of hapless searching.
Why revival works
There's fine singing and acting, but the key to the revival - I saw the filmed show -- is that the characters, whatever their foibles, are respected. Rather than being regarded at a clinical arm's length, they're embraced dramatically as individuals worth our attention. They matter, and their triangular friendship resonates.
"It's all about the storytelling," said David Babani, the cofounder and artistic director of the Chocolate Factory (which takes its name from the building's function before it was converted into a very small theater).
Menier has established a trans-Atlantic reputation for its exceptional revivals of American musicals, with three productions, "Sunday in the Park with George," "La Cage aux Folles" and "A Little Night Music," having been presented on Broadway in recent years.
Babani said a key to the company's success is the limitation imposed by its restricted space, which demands a tight focus on a show's core.
"We start with the text," he said. "We take nothing for granted. What did the writers write? We boil things down to the essence, trying to be true to the original idea."
Reaching an audience via film is a voyage into the unknown, an experiment, he said, adding that, although nothing is perking at the moment, it wouldn't preclude "Merrily We Roll Along" coming to Broadway.
"We would love that."
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
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