STAGE TO SCREEN: Goin' Digital and O 'O,' Where Art Thou?

STAGE TO SCREEN: Goin' Digital and O 'O,' Where Art Thou? The folks at Broadway Television Network are no dummies: Not only did they offer me a glass of water on a recent visit to their Times Square offices, they even thought to put it in a Playbill glass. Very sporting for a company that bought Theatre.com, one of Playbill On-Line’s competitors, last year.

The folks at Broadway Television Network are no dummies: Not only did they offer me a glass of water on a recent visit to their Times Square offices, they even thought to put it in a Playbill glass. Very sporting for a company that bought Theatre.com, one of Playbill On-Line’s competitors, last year.

Judging from a 90-minute visit I paid to the pay-per-view startup’s offices recently, that isn’t the only clever thing BTN has done. Much has been made of the potentially ominous fact that the company has refused to release financial data for its first two broadcasts, Smokey Joe’s Cafe and Jekyll & Hyde. But as several BTN executives pointed out, there’s a lot more to the company’s long-term success than the initial pay-per-view debut.

Without a doubt, the most compelling feature of BTN’s product is the technical proficiency with which it records the productions. A total of five performances are taped, each using up to 10 cameras and 70 microphones. The shows often take months to put together; it took two weeks just to get the proper lighting for the Jekyll & Hyde taping. Many of the resulting advantages, particularly those involving surround sound, are a lot easier to appreciate on the big screen than they are on pay-per-view. For this reason, BTN also screened Jekyll & Hyde on seven digital movie screens around the country and will do the same on Oct. 14, when it premieres the Stephen Sondheim revue “Putting It Together.” (But if you think movie tickets are outrageous in Manhattan, brace yourself. BTN charges $20 per seat for the digital cinema screening, as opposed to $20 for pay-per-view, for which you can presumably invite nine other friends over and each pay $2. But the surround sound and picture clarity is really impressive on the big screen.)

From what various BTN executives (including president/CEO Bruce Brandwen) said, the hardest part of getting BTN off the ground was negotiating contracts with the various unions involved. Each show requires separate negotiations with the show’s producers and creators, but the 14 stage unions are all on board for the broadcasts. The one catch is that the show can’t air until at least six months into a show’s theatrical run. Future tapings could include plays or revivals, and it was even suggested that the next production might be a live recording.

Everyone involved stressed that pay-per-view is just the beginning for BTN. “Digital cinema is clearly going to grow,” said Brandwen, who broached the possibility of ultimately opening a BTN show on thousands of screens or keeping it around for a weeklong run. Subsequent pay-per-view viewings are always possible, and BTN is now preparing to release its first three offerings on VHS and DVD. Brandwen expressed the hope of eventually taping at least four shows a year and possibly even establishing a full-time TV channel made up of the productions, news-style coverage of the Broadway scene and other classic theater-based films. I’d be lying if I said I was a big fan of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Jekyll & Hyde or Putting It Together. The Sondheim show had a few impressive moments, largely courtesy of George Hearn and Ruthie Henshall, but these certainly aren’t the three shows I would have picked. Still, the technical prowess is a quantum leap over what you’re used to from any Broadway show on film, and BTN could end up recording a significant percentage of the Broadway musical season. Last year, for example, saw 10 musicals open on Broadway if you don’t count Blast! or George Gershwin Alone. If PBS tapes one of those 10 (it was taping Fosse the day I visited BTN) and BTN does another four, that’s half the Broadway season captured forever. Quite a far cry from the old days of saving the Tony Award videotapes just to catch one number from each show, huh?

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Now that “Original Sin” has finally come to (and possibly already left) your local theater and “O” is finally due to open at the end of August, it’s time to turn our attention to another long-aborning theater-themed project. I reported at some length (and quite favorably) about Danny Hoch’s “Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop” back in March, only to see it vanish from the radar screen. Hoch’s press reps have sporadically called to say it’s still on the way, and it has finally reemerged — the juiced-up monodrama is now scheduled to open Sept. 21. I hope so: I only managed to see a rough cut of the film, but it’s inventive and entertaining and poignant.

Speaking of “O,” I finally saw the preview before “Ghost World.” It looked pretty good, but nowhere in the preview is either Shakespeare or Othello mentioned. Lions Gate, the film’s new distributor, apparently doesn’t think too highly of its intended demographic. And speaking of delayed projects, most of the press surrounding “Glitter” has involved the sad goings-on involving star Mariah Carey. But if and when the film does open — it was bumped from Aug. 31 to Sept. 21, the same day as “Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop” — it will feature a script cowritten by Cheryl L. West (Jar the Floor).

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Cutting-Room Floor: Currently playing at The Screening Room in Manhattan is the Campbell Scott “Hamlet” that debuted on the Odyssey cable channel in December 2000 to mixed reviews. Among the costars are Denis O’Hare (Major Barbara) as Osric, Jamey Sheridan as Claudius and Blair Brown as Gertrude. Eric Simonson, brother of Playbill On-Line staffer Robert Simonson, codirects with Scott… Here’s the latest bizarre stage/screen cross-pollination: Once you’ve waited in line for 17 hours and gotten your Seagull tickets, kill the seven hours before curtain by heading over to the teen comedy “Bubble Boy” (Aug. 24), starring Stephen Spinella. Also opening Aug. 24 is Kevin Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,” costarring Ali Larter, currently of The Vagina Monologues. Larter also stars in the recently released “American Outlaws.” And don’t forget the newly restored “Funny Girl,” opening Aug. 31 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

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My Favorite Thought/Your Thoughts: It’s confession time. I’m writing this from my new computer at home, which is great except for the fact that I don’t have access to my database of letters from all of you. I haven’t forgotten you, and I’ll try to put two letters in the next column, so this one will have to go without. Don’t let that stop you from writing in, though. What are your thoughts on Broadway Television Network? Who saw “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and/or “Jekyll & Hyde”? Does BTN have what it takes? Would you watch four pay-per-view Broadway shows a year? What would constitute the perfect BTN season for you? Revivals, plays, regional shows—everything’s in play, but make sure the four shows are currently recordable.

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.