It was written by Oscar Wilde — in the late 1890s.
The current production of the hit "The Importance of Being Earnest" will be available on movie screens across the world starting Thursday. "Earnest" is the latest Broadway show to be captured on high definition cameras and beamed far from Times Square.
The play — led by Tony Award-nominated Brian Bedford as director and in the role of the fearsome Lady Bracknell — will be available on hundreds of screens in 35 states, as well as across Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Mexico, competing with "Kung Fu Panda 2," "X-Men: First Class" and "Green Lantern" in the global market.
The effort follows in the pioneering digital footsteps of The Metropolitan Opera and London National Theatre's NT Live series, which concludes its second season on June 30 with a live transmission from London of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" starring Zoe Wanamaker.
Recent high-profile stage shows that have been converted into a screen version include a live production of "Fela!" in London by way of NT Live and the Tony-winning best musical "Memphis," the first time a still-running Broadway musical was screened.
Chalk up the rise of the phenomenon to better technology and a desire on the part of movie theaters for so-called alternative content — a way to attract new customers with interesting offerings other than movies.
"There's this extraordinary appetite for unique and special programs that goes beyond what the movie theaters are traditionally offering," says Julie Borchard-Young, co-president of BY Experience, which captured the Wilde stage comedy using seven cameras in March.
Unlike "Memphis," which was edited from five performances, the screen version of the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of "The Importance in Being Earnest" wasn't spliced together. Three performances were captured on HD and the best one was picked to broadcast from start to finish, based on such things as the performances, lighting and camera angles. The movie version will be available on various dates until June 28.
Producers of such theater-to-screen projects aren't worried that the 2-D version will cut into demand for the 3-D show at the box office, where the Wilde play runs until July 3. In fact, Borchard-Young sees the opposite happening.
"These shows are never designed to be a replacement," she says. "The nature of these HD presentations is such that it whets the appetite for theatergoers to re-engage in a really meaningful way in their local communities, particularly for those who cannot travel to New York for various reasons to catch a show during its run."
This month will also mark the screen debut of a limited show that ended earlier this spring — The New York Philharmonic's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," which was staged at Lincoln Center in early April for just four sold-out performances. Twelve cameras captured the cast that included Craig Bierko, Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, Katie Finneran, Neil Patrick Harris, Christina Hendricks, Patti LuPone, Martha Plimpton and Anika Noni Rose. Lony Price was the director.
The edited movie theater version will appear in over 50 markets on June 15 in Canada and the U.S., including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, St. Louis and Milwaukee for $18 a ticket, a fraction of what the original cost at the Philharmonic.
A combination of the high caliber cast, the original limited run, low ticket prices and a personal love of Sondheim prompted Ellen M. Krass, an executive producer for the broadcast along with Screenvision, to help the project.
"I have devoted much of my producing life to Stephen Sondheim and I love his work," she says. "He is, I think, the greatest living composer and lyricist. Why shouldn't more people be able to afford to see him?"
Krass, an Emmy Award winner who has produced TV adaptations of stage plays including "You Can't Take It With You" starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, thinks such HD captures of live performances are the future. She even anticipates that Broadway shows may one day open this way.
She is also not concerned that a cheaper screen version will cannibalize ticket sales on Broadway, citing the 2002 movie version of "Chicago" starring Catherine Zeta-Jones that was in theaters while the show played at the Ambassador Theater.
"The truth of the matter is they go to see you more. Look what happened with `Chicago.' The play ran, ran, ran. It was kind of doing OK, the movie came out and the play is still running," she says. "It's something that everyone gets afraid of but it's something not to be afraid of."
The same case could be made for "Mamma Mia!" or "The Phantom of the Opera," which both have had long runs on stage despite popular movie versions. Or the national tours of shows such as "Wicked" or "Memphis," which have hardly harmed their Broadway counterparts: "Wicked" remains the No. 1 show on Broadway.
"Lady Gaga was on HBO. You don't think that interrupts her career, do you?" says Krass.
As technology improves, producers anticipate more such broadcasts, and even a day when high-definition captures offer moviegoers a 3-D version of a stage show, complete with silly glasses.
"We're not there yet, but I think eventually that will be an opportunity," says Borchard-Young.
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