‘Invention’ sparks reinvention

Sorkin's former movie pitch hits Broadway

“The Farnsworth Invention” has slid smoothly onto Broadway, with an initial workshop production at the La Jolla Playhouse in February transitioning swiftly into a Rialto incarnation that opens at the Music Box Theater Nov. 14.

Before that, though, it was a bumpy ride.

“Farnsworth,” about the struggle between the man who invented television and the RCA head who pioneered the TV industry, marks the Broadway return of Aaron Sorkin, the prominent tube creator who, after his initial legit success with “A Few Good Men” in 1989, made his name with skeins such as “Sports Night” and “The West Wing.”

But “Farnsworth” wasn’t originally aimed at the stage. And its roots as a screen project have led to a large-scale theatrical production that is an unusually expensive and risky new play offering in a fall season already crowded with nontuners.

A cinematically sweeping tale with a monster cast of 19 thesps, “Farnsworth” is capitalized at a hefty $4 million. “This is like a middle-sized musical in a small play house,” says Michael David, head of “Farnsworth” producing org Dodger Properties (“Jersey Boys”). “The play’s very theatrical, but you can certainly see the movie in it.”

In Sorkin’s version of the true story, the clash between boy genius Philo T. Farnsworth and early corporate leader David Sarnoff determined not only the ownership and future of television, but also the broader development of American innovation.

In 2004, New Line picked up a spec package for a proposed film with the same subject and title, with Sorkin writing the script and frequent producing collaborator Thomas Schlamme onboard to direct.

But soon after the package sold, Sorkin thought twice. “A week after, I thought of a much better way to tell the story onstage,” he says. “It’s ironic that the subject of the play is electronic media, because the play was really written as a love letter to the theater.”

The concept that turned the story legit was telling the tale from the perspectives of two competing, unreliable narrators: TV inventor Farnsworth and RCA prexy Sarnoff.

“We needed to hear the two voices of the two central characters,” says Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys”), helmer of “Farnsworth” and former a.d. of La Jolla Playhouse. “You can’t really achieve that in film. It’s a unique approach to the memory play that creates a new way of digging into the story.”

The impetus for working on a stage version of “Farnsworth” came when Sorkin was contacted by Ireland’s Abbey Theater, which wanted to commission a new script from him. The Abbey production, however, fell apart in 2006, when that theater’s deepening fiscal crisis prompted the org to pull out.

McAnuff, by then already attached as director, brought the show to La Jolla’s Page to Stage program, attracting enhancement from David. And along the way, Steven Spielberg, drawn by Sorkin and by potential interest in the property, signed on as a co-producer. (Frederick Zollo, originally attached as a producer to the film project, also is one of the producers of the stage incarnation.)

Reception to La Jolla’s month of developmental performances, which were closed to critics, proved positive enough to encourage the jump to the Rialto.

But moving forward with the show opened up a whole new set of challenges.

First, there’s the cast size: 24 Equity contracts, including understudies. The ensemble plays 60 roles. “It’s bigger than ‘Jersey Boys,’ ” David notes.

There are no big-name stars — along the lines of Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner in the current Broadway revival of “Cyrano de Bergerac” — to sell the show. The cast is headed by Hank Azaria (nommed for a 2005 Tony for “Monty Python’s Spamalot”) as Sarnoff and Jimmi Simpson as Farnsworth. (Simpson originated his role in La Jolla, while Azaria replaces Stephen Lang.)

Then there’s the fact the show has to stand out in a highly competitive field for drama this fall, including “Cyrano,” the latest Tom Stoppard offering “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and Chicago buzz-magnet “August: Osage County.”

“This is a big play that is going to require considerable attendance to pay its bills,” David says. “Like most plays, word of mouth is what’s going to make it work for us. We’ve tried to consolidate our ad budget to focus our marketing.”

Print ads, a traditional fave of nontuners, are not as prominent a component of the advertising strategy as they would be for most plays. Instead, marketers have put an unusually strong focus on TV ads (in a nod both to the subject of the play and also to the medium in which Sorkin cemented his rep), and also have done outdoor advertising to boost midtown awareness of the unfamiliar title.

And since the no-critics La Jolla run yielded no reviews, “Farnsworth” — unlike West End vet “Rock ‘n’ Roll” or Chi transfer “August” — has no out-of-town raves to tout; producers have no assurances of how hot or cold Gotham notices will run.

“That would have been helpful or reassuring,” David acknowledges.

But thanks in large part to the continued success of “Jersey Boys,” Dodger Properties is in a strong enough position to be able to take the risk. “The math will work,” David says. “If people like it.”

As for the show’s future life, London seems a logical candidate for a production if the Gotham version proves successful. And, to bring things full circle, a deal is in the works for the movie rights.

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