We seem to be seeing quite a bit more of these "cinecasts," i.e. Broadway shows and the like taped and presented in local movie theaters. It started with Rent, of course, and lately we've seen cinecasts of The Importance of Being Earnest, Memphis, and Fela, as well as a number of shows from London, including Frankenstein and The Merry Wives of Windsor. (Yes, technically Fela was taped in London, but it had a Broadway pedigree.)
It seems that producers are catching on to the idea that, far from cannibalizing ticket sales for the live versions of these shows, these cinecasts might actually serve as marketing for future tours (e.g. Memphis) or to maximize revenue for a show that might not tour (e.g. Fela).
Cinecasts can also expand the audience for a strictly limited engagement, as was the case with Stephen Sondheim's Company, a filmed version of a recent concert staging of the show with the New York Philharmonic, starring Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone. I didn't catch the live concert, despite my numerous trips to New York, but I can't say I really went out of my way. Did I really need to see Company again, I asked myself, even with such a stellar cast? I mean, I've seen many productions of the show, and the recent John Doyle Broadway production is available on DVD.
But I did catch a recent screening of the concert film, and five minutes into the showing, I realized that I could never really get too much of Company. It's really that good. Beyond the magnificent Sondheim score (it may even be his best), there's also George Furth's underrated book. People complain that the book is too fragmented, too cynical. But, from where I sit, those are two of its key assets. Despite the deliberate fragmentation, the show flows and builds elegantly, especially after the deft changes Furth made to the libretto for the 1995 Broadway production.
As for the headliners here, Neil Patrick Harris makes for a warm and wry Bobby, bringing to the role all of the charm that made him such an effective and entertaining host for the Tony Awards this year and two years ago. His singing voice can sometimes be a bit thin, but his intonation is strong and he performed the songs with great emotional fluency. And what more can I say about La LuPone? The woman is a sheer force of nature and vocal powerhouse nonpareil. There's a reason Patti's a living legend, and here she's at her diva-rrific best. Her rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch" was gripping theater, and the surrounding scenes dripped with her trademark sharpness and staccato delivery. In short: fab-u-lous.
Sharing space above the marquee were some Broadway dilettantes, folks who might not elsewise have found their way onto a New York stage: Stephen Colbert ("The Colbert Report"), John Cryer ("Two and a Half Men"), and Christina Hendricks ("Mad Men"). Each had his or her own charms, especially a delightful Hendricks as the flighty flight attendant April, but what really made this concert worth watching, beyond the aforementioned Harris and LuPone, was the exceedingly strong supporting cast of stage veterans: Martha Plimpton, Craig Bierko, Jim Walton, Katie Finneran, Jill Paice, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Aaron Lazar, Anika Noni Rose, & Chryssie Whitehead. Tony winner Finneran was a hoot as the neurotic bride Amy, and Whitehead was a knockout as Kathy, dancing up a storm in the number "Tick Tock," which Michael Bennett originally created for Donna McKechnie.
The concert was directed by Lonny Price, who seems to be making a career out of directing these concert presentations (see Candide and Camelot), and that's really not such a bad thing. He always seems to bring his own individual touches to these concerts, although his Candide really lost steam toward the end. His Company seemed more slowly paced than Doyle's, but with considerably more warmth and humanity. Despite the show's length, I found that I was almost always engaged, except during Anika Noni Rose's "Another Hundred People," which just kind of sat there, and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," which featured weak vocals and some rather limp staging by Josh Rhodes.
So, I'm all for more of these cinecasts, but the people involved need to find a way to market them more effectively, at least in the Boston area. There was a grand total of 18 people in the theater at the showing I attended. What's more, the theaters themselves need to do a better job of actually presenting these events. Each time I've attended a cinecast, the theater staff has been clueless. They're usually not even aware of the events.
I saw Company at the Showcase Cinemas in Woburn, MA, and the movie-theater staff got nothing right. The show started 20 minutes late. Somehow the computer that was supposed to start the show didn't kick in, and nobody was paying any attention to the computer, so we had to seek out someone in charge to look into it. Then, once the film started, the house lights didn't go down, and we had to hunt someone down again. Then, at the end of the show, the lights didn't come back on, and we had to fumble our way to the doors.
When I addressed my displeasure to the manager on duty, he couldn't have been less interested or concerned, and made a half-hearted offer of some free movie passes. I don't really go to the movies, so I declined. But I've heard numerous examples of similar experiences that people have had with these cinecasts across the country. I recently read somewhere that these cinecasts could represent a bit of a boon for a struggling movie-theater industry.
Only if they take them more seriously.