Movies Hook Up with Theaters for a New Look at History

Culture Watch
tags: movies, plays

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. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

History from nineteenth-century London to the jazz age in Harlem in the 1930s to 1950s night club life in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, will be featured in a series of plays that have been filmed and will be aired in over 100 movie theaters this fall in the latest, and most vigorous, attempt to bring the New York theater to small cities and villages across the country in film form.

Broadway Worldwide and Specticast are teaming up to produce a five play series, ‘Direct from Broadway,’ that features Jekyll & Hyde, about the dual personality killer who haunted fictional London in the 1890s, Smokey Joe’s Café, a revue about 1950s America, Memphis, about interracial love in Tennessee in the ‘50s, Sophisticated Ladies, the stage salute to the 1930s music of Duke Ellington, and Putting It Together, a revue of Stephen Sondheim music. The filmed versions of these plays, in high definition, will be shown in theaters from Cranford, New Jersey to Scottsdale, Arizona, starting Wednesday with Memphis.

At the same time, the National Theater of London continues its HD movie versions of its plays, many about history, in the winter with a filmed production of War Horse, a play about World War I, to be shown at the Mahaiwe Arts Center, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and other theaters, Feb.21 and March 19. And, along with those two series, there is the return of “Live in HD” filmed operas in the ninth season of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s very successful series, with history operas such as Eugene Onegin, about nineteenth century Russia, and Falstaff, about Tudor England on the schedule. The Met has done well not only across America, but worldwide, in this series. As an example, last year 1,200 theaters in more than forty countries ran the series and sold 2.4 million tickets for a revenue stream of over $48 million.

Direct from Broadway’s goal is to dramatically increase the market for theater on film. Various plays, many about history, have been filmed and shown across the country in movie houses by other production companies. No series has contained five plays, though. Direct from Broadway’s creators have said that this initiative is a drive to open the door to even more plays on movie screens and more history.

Direct from Broadway has been successful in showing plays on screen in fifteen international markets already and will soon debut its movies at 37 film houses in Brazil.

The plays-into-movies offers little risk for local theaters. The five HD films are all pretty well known plays that ran for a long time on Broadway (some were even revived a second time). They all feature a lot of music and much of it is good (who can resist the chance to sit in the theater and, on cue, sing the bouncy 1959 hit song Love Potion No. 9 with the audience in Smokey Joe’s Café?). Most cineplexes are houses with several screens and the houses will only use the play films a maximum of five nights in the autumn and winter on a single screen, while revenue comes in from commercial films on the other screens. Movie theaters charge two or more times the price of regular movie tickets for Met Opera ($24 where I live) and plays into movies, so revenue is higher. These plays into films also open up a new theater going viewer market for theaters.

The series is a bonanza for history lovers across the country that live quite a distance from New York. They can now see plays about the past on films that were prevented by geography for years.

The odd aspect of the Direct from Broadway series, though, is that all of the play except Memphis were filmed years ago. Sophisticated Ladies was filmed live on stage in 1981, Smokey Joe’s Café was filmed in 1995 and the Sondheim review in 1999. Jekyll and Hyde was filmed in 2000 and starred David Hasselhoff. They are historical chestnuts, and a little bit of history in themselves. Will these older film versions of plays be as sharp as Memphis, filmed just two years ago? Will they have enough cameras, the lighting and sound, to succeed?

It’s an interesting idea. People who balk at the higher prices of tickets should remember that to see a Met Opera production in New York costs well over $100 and so do most Broadway shows, plus $30 or more for parking. The plays into films are cheaper, easier to get to and give history lovers yet another look at the past.

Hopefully, this idea will expand to include more current plays. Traditionally, successful plays end their New York run and then tour across the nation for a year or two and are staged at regional theaters. Now, in addition to all of that, they might be seen in hundreds of theaters in one night. It will help history lovers and, at the same time, produce extra revenue that can recoup the losses of some plays.

If these series work, in the future you might see a year long series of Shakespeare plays into films, or a series of World War II plays into films, or women’s history plays into films. The possibilities are endless. To find the theaters near you that have the Direct from Broadway or Met Opera film/plays, check out, the Direct from Broadway website or the Bow-Tie cinema chain website.

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