By Frank Scheck
NEW YORK (Reuters) - If you can't come to Broadway, Broadway is going to come to you.
That's the philosophy behind the upcoming nationwide movie theater showings of two current Broadway shows -- Tony Award-winning musical "Memphis," and "The Importance of Being Earnest," the Roundabout Theatre Company's acclaimed revival of the Oscar Wilde classic play starring British actor Brian Bedford.
Although the concept has been around for a while, it has taken off in recent years thanks to the number of movie theaters equipped to show high-definition video and keen for alternative content.
Following the success of broadcasts of the London National Theatre's "NT Live" and the Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD," the new offerings mark the first time that Broadway shows will be made available in movie theaters while still enjoying successful theatrical runs.
"Memphis" producers Sue Frost and Randy Adams are unconcerned about the possibility of the broadcasts cannibalizing ticket sales for either the Broadway production or the upcoming national tour.
"We thought it would be a great marketing tool, particularly for the road, and we were enamored of the idea of capturing the original company," Frost told Reuters.
Adams pointed to the success of Hollywood versions of stage shows like "Chicago" and "Phantom of the Opera."
"It didn't hurt those (theater) sales at all. If anything, it revitalized them. These days, people tend to go to what's familiar. So I think the more familiar people are with 'Memphis' and its brand, they more likely they are to actually attend the show," he said.
"Memphis" is due to land on 600 screens around the United States for four showings between April 28 and May 3 at a recommended ticket price of $20 -- a bargain compared to about $130 for a top seat on Broadway.
Filmed with multiple cameras placed in strategic locations so as not to interfere with the enjoyment of live audiences, the broadcasts approximate the experience of seeing the shows in the theater, with the added benefit of close-ups that essentially give viewers the best seats in the house.
Bruce Brandwen, the founder and CEO of Broadway Worldwide, which is producing "Memphis," for movie theaters, pioneered the concept in the 1990s with such shows as "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Jekyll & Hyde."
Brandwen declined to detail the cost of recording and capturing "Memphis" for broadcast. But he said the process can range from $2-$4 million, depending on the number of stagehands, musicians and performers involved.
Several public performances of "Memphis" were shot in high definition, with the results edited for the upcoming broadcast.
The Roundabout took a different tack with "Earnest," which will be screened not only nationwide but also internationally beginning on June 2 and continuing on various dates through June 28. Three performances were filmed before live audiences, with one unedited version eventually chosen for the broadcast.
Roundabout's managing director Harold Wolpert said the goal of the project was to "make our work as accessible as possible to as many people as possible."
He said "Earnest" was chosen as the company's inaugural effort largely because of a grant from a well-heeled funder-- a huge fan of stage veteran Bedford, and the production -- who paid all of the out-of-pocket expenses.
"We do feel that when people see it that it will translate well," Wolpert said of "Earnest." "That's very, very important to us. Our bottom line is not just financial, but aesthetic as well."
(Editing by Jill Serjeant)