Munch on Your Popcorn: Broadway Takes History on the Road to a Movie House near You

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

‘Mamma Mia’ was a hit Broadway show that was turned into a movie. Critics howled that everyone would go to the movie instead of the show and that the play would shut down faster than a dancing queen when the music stops. Just the opposite happened. The musical became more successful than ever, thanks to the fame given it by the film. ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Chicago’ were both made into movies and the films helped extend the runs of both shows, each running for years now.

Now ‘Memphis’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ are doing the same thing, in a smaller way. Each has been filmed in its entirety and will be shown in hundreds of movie theaters across the nation this spring. ‘Memphis’ began its screenings last week and will continue this week.  ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ will be on film screens during the first week of June.

The producers of ‘Memphis’ are hoping that the fame of the film will help them sell tickets when the show goes on its national tour this fall. They believe that people will see the film, love it and want to see the actual musical, the real thing. They hope will tell their friends.

Critics, of course, have wondered why anyone who sees the movie for $9 will then pay close to $100 to see the play.

‘Memphis’ producer Randy Adams scoffs at the suggestion. “It didn’t hurt other theater show sales at all,” he told a news service, referring to ‘Mamma Mia.’. “If anything, it revitalized them. People like to go with what’s familiar. So I think the more familiar people are with ‘Memphis’ the more likely they are to see the play (if they saw the movie).”

Fellow producer Sue Frost agreed. “We thought it would be a great marketing tool, particularly for the road,” she said, and added that they wanted to film the show with the original cast.

The shows, both history plays, are two of New York’s best.

‘Memphis,’ in fact, is one the best American musicals in years. It is loaded with good songs, laced with sensational dance numbers and features some superb acting. The strength of the show, though, and the reason it won so many Tony Awards, including best show, is its music history and strong, riveting, interracial romance story set in the early 1950s.

People who see the show must remember that it is set in a club on Beale Street, the heart of the Memphis music and entertainment district, in 1952. That is just five years after President Truman integrated the armed forces and two years before the U.S. Supreme Court integrated public schools in the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. Racism was alive and very unwell in America that year, especially in the south and places such as Memphis.

A liberal white DJ in the city, Huey, played majestically by Chad Kimball, becomes famous almost overnight and falls in love with a black singer, Felicia, played by Montego Glover. The two are unable to marry and live openly in the city, despite their prominence, because of racism. One night the two of them are accosted by a gang of white thugs and it turns their life around.

‘Memphis,’ despite its glorious music, is a searing story of racial conflict in one of the South’s largest and most legendary cities. The girl wants to be a famous singer and move to New York. The DJ understands that the only way they can live as an interracial couple is to move north, but he is Memphis born and bred and has trouble leaving his mother, neighborhood and roots. The show concentrates on racial division then, and now, and why all of the speeches and books about racism do not make it go away.

Glover is achingly lovable as the singer, but Kimball steals the show, and will steal the movie. He slinks and slips and slides across the stage, mesmerizes all with his twangy accents, the sweeps of his arms, cock of his head and his never ending belief that racism can be beaten back. You like him at first, and love him later.

The show’s book and lyrics are by Joe DiPietro. David Bryan wrote the music and also wrote the lyrics with DiPietro. The choreography is by Sergio Trujillo and Christopher Ashley directs.

There is a new market for taped shows like ‘Memphis’ and ‘Earnest’. There were only 32 screens that used high digital equipment for show films like these two a few years ago. Today there are almost 8,000 screens.

Today, audiences are more familiar with filmed shows than ever before. The Metropolitan Opera has been filming many of its operas and then showing them in hundreds of theaters across the U.S. (this year the Met showed operas on 1,500 screens worldwide and earned $48 million). The National Theater of London has been doing the same thing. The films give all theaters the chance to build an audience for any shows that will travel around the country, but it also brings theater and opera to towns where people might never have the chance to go to those shows.

The companies of ‘Memphis’ and ‘the Importance of Being Earnest’ are the Johnny Appleseeds of theater/film entertainment

Will this work, though?

Ken Davenport, a producer who writes a theater blog, thinks so. He thinks it can sell tickets now and build an audience for later. “One of the goals of the movie musical is to expose the tuner to audiences around the country, educating them well before the national tour of ‘Memphis’ gets to their market,” he said.

Davenport added that movies always help plays and songs (remember the theme to ‘Titanic’?). “Even mediocre musical movies help keep their source material running,” he said, and pointed to ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ also a movie, as an example.

“Broadway musicals in movie theaters around the country? It’ll help them,” he said.

The screen version of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ starring and directed by Brian Bedford, is just as challenging. During the intermission of the play on screen, audiences will listen to actors Alfred Molina and Michael Hackett discuss Oscar Wilde the man and the actor. Television and theater star David Hyde Pierce will lead audiences on a backstage tour during another part of the film.

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ will not just be shown in traditional cinemas. It has a schedule that starts June 2 and ends on June 28. There will be hundreds of screenings in the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico. It will be screened at places well off the beaten path, such as the Phoenix Art Museum, in Phoenix, Arizona, Colorado Mountain College, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art institute in Williamstown, Mass  and the fabled Guthrie Theater, in Minneapolis.  

The future to this process is limitless. Just imagine yourself five years from now. It is cold and rainy outside and you are having a cup of coffee in Biloxi, Mississippi. You want to be entertained, so you push a few buttons on your combination phone/ipad/itunes/musicbox/film/TV theater phone, four inches high and two inches wide, adjust your ear plugs and start watching a filmed production of the latest Tony Award winning play on Broadway or an experimental new play in Los Angeles by a theater company just booted out of Libya.

And the curtain on the phone opens…

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