TV's reality series, talkshows bring in new audiences

The revolution may be staged as well as televised.

Both on Broadway and London’s West End, serious synergy has begun to emerge between the legit world and television, much of it sparked by the success of shows like “American Idol” and the mania for unknown vocalists catapulted into the spotlight.

But the relationship goes beyond the obvious, affecting not only casting but the way legit productions are conceived, marketed and promoted.

“Idol” contestants, who have nabbed roles on and off Broadway, are attracting new audiences to New York theaters. Daytime talkshow endorsements for musicals like “Grey Gardens” and “The Color Purple” also are drawing a new crowd to the Great White Way.

The latest and most concrete manifestation to date of the TV-legit connection in the U.S. is NBC’s reality show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” which premiered Jan. 7. Following the “Idol” template, the show will allow home viewers to cast the leads in July’s Broadway revival of the 1950s-set tuner by phoning in votes for their favorite contenders.

Some might feel this television exposure could trivialize the legit production, turning it into a gimmicky afterthought. But director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall — one of the judges on the show — sees only the upside.

“People say, ‘Isn’t this a bald commercial event to bring people to Broadway?’ ” she observes. “Well, yeah. Is that a problem? Broadway is commercial. You’re always casting a combination of people who can do the work and bring attention to the show.” (Marshall’s most recent Broadway stint was the hit revival of “The Pajama Game,” in which Harry Connick Jr. made his musical theater debut.)

Talent-search reality shows have created a ripple effect far wider than a single production of “Grease.” TV increasingly stands not only to profile stars who can sell tickets but as a training ground for new talent, with an increasing number of contestants springboarding from tube exposure to musical roles on stage.

Among other “Idol” vets, Diana DeGarmo and Constantine Maroulis are building legitimate tuner careers. DeGarmo starred in a regional production of “West Side Story” before landing a role in the Broadway run of “Hairspray,” where she’s contracted through February. Maroulis gave a last-minute bump to sales of the recently closed “The Wedding Singer” before joining the hit Off Broadway revival of “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

Margo Lion, producer on both “Hairspray” and “Wedding Singer,” admits she initially viewed television as a haven for stunt casting.

“I was skeptical at first, but many of these (reality show stars) have proven to be excellent performers,” she says. “If they weren’t, audiences would lose interest.”

TV stars also can help broaden an audience, Lion adds. She says DeGarmo and teen star Haylie Duff, who did a brief stint in “Hairspray” last year, have lured young girls in particular to the theater. The production aims to extend that strategy with the addition to the cast of Ashley Parker Angel, who emerged from ABC’s “Making the Band” series to a recording career in the group O-Town and subsequently as a solo artist. He will play teen heartthrob Link Larkin in “Hairspray” starting Jan. 19.

It’s not just reality recruits who can pump Broadway ticket sales. More traditional promo strategies like the talkshow route still provide visible payoff. The day after Rosie O’Donnell featured “Grey Gardens” lead Christine Ebersole on “The View,” single-day ticket sales leapt almost 100%. O’Donnell was a major champion of Broadway on her own talkshow and has significantly increased the number of featured performances from legit shows since she began co-hosting “The View.”

“Grey Gardens” producer Lou Gonda claims it’s hard to overestimate TV’s influence. Regarding “The View,” he says, “Audience members appreciate having someone’s ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval before they spend $100. It seems to help even more than (good) reviews.”

But the impact, Gonda continues, goes deeper than weekly receipts. “Ticket sales are great, but awareness is just as important,” he says. “If people see something on a television show, they’ll remember it.”

That principle also worked for Broadway hit “The Color Purple,” whose profile was boosted enormously when Oprah Winfrey signed on as a producer and featured the musical on her talkshow. Winfrey’s endorsement helped the show establish a foothold with audiences beyond the traditional Broadway demographic and it has steadily built since then via word of mouth.

If the “Grease” series becomes a prime-time hit, it stands to amplify the Oprah factor for the revival. The series is co-produced by the BBC, which scored with a similar skein in Blighty last summer called “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” Brit auds selected newcomer Connie Fisher to head a West End revival of “The Sound of Music.” The result combined stellar ratings, critical praise and a hit show that already has extended six months.

Hoping for lightning to strike twice, the Brit pubcaster recently announced a follow-up dubbed “Any Dream Will Do,” which will let viewers choose the leads for an upcoming production of Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Another British web, ITV, also is jumping on the legit-reality bandwagon, announcing plans in December for its own “Grease” casting series to be co-produced by “American Idol” stalwart Simon Cowell’s Syco TV.

Encouraged by the results of “Maria” in Britain, exec producer Al Edgington says the formula for the NBC series will remain largely unchanged. Three judges — including Marshall and “Grease” co-writer Jim Jacobs — will whittle down the contestants to 12 finalists, and viewers will eliminate two each week.

Marshall insists the theatrical production will stay front and center and not be obscured by the talent quest. “Thanks to shows like ‘American Idol’ and ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ people are interested in this kind of singing and dancing,” she says.

“Broadway is our big selling point,” Edgington notes. “Unlike other audition shows, you have to be able to sing, dance and act.”

Many musical theater purists remain skeptical of the influx of “American Idol” vets as a step down from legitimately trained theatrical performers. However, more optimistic pundits are hoping that network TV exposure can raise awareness not just for single shows but for theatergoing in general. After participating in the selection of Sandy and Danny in “Grease,” national auds may feel more invested in New York theater as popular entertainment.

Edgington says this overall boosterism should be part of TV’s marriage to legit. “We’re trying to peel the mystique off Broadway,” he says.

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