Tuners tubthump on TV

Despite hurdles, tube segs reap benefits

It’s expensive. It’s labor-intensive. And it may or may not lead to a quantifiable box office benefit. But Broadway shows still push to get musical numbers featured on TV talkshows and other smallscreen outlets.

The challenges can be daunting, with creative hurdles regarding song choice and staging-tweaks coupled with the logistical hassles of limited rehearsal time and space constraints. The tab for a TV outing can run an average of $30,000 — costs often shared, but to varying degrees, with the television production.

Whereas in the past a good television perf could prompt a discernible boost in box office, such sales gratification is no longer instant in a new-media age in which consumers browse multiple news sources, and clips live forever on YouTube.

But for legit producers, flacks and others in the biz, TV remains an important step in establishing a musical as a recognizable brand.

“It helps the show penetrate in a way that’s very hard to do when you’re doing live theater,” says Diane Paulus, the “Hair” helmer who has restaged bits of her revival for TV skeins including “Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.”

It’s not easy to score a TV booking, given that Broadway shows are competing not just with other Rialto offerings but with movie stars and supermodels. For most, the strategy involves getting TV bookers in to see a show early in hopes they’ll get excited about it.

There’s also the talkshow pecking order to juggle. For instance, if you appear on “Today,” the highest-rated morning show, you won’t be appearing on its direct competish, “Good Morning America,” for a while. (Other frequent daytime destinations include “The View” and “Live With Regis and Kelly.”)

On the creative side, a TV perf comes with a slew of inherent questions. What song best showcases the tuner, and is it one people will recognize? How many cast members will perform, knowing that each one adds to the cost of the seg? Will the music be recorded or will the band be brought along?

The rule of thumb, according to the legiters who work on crafting such appearances, is that you’re not trying to make good theater. You’re trying to make good TV.

To that end, stage creatives are often involved in rethinking and restaging numbers to fit the time and space constraints of taping in a TV studio — or outside of one, in which case weather and costume wear-and-tear become considerations.

“The question is, how can we achieve what’s exciting about our show onstage when we do it on television, using what’s available to us?” says “Mary Poppins” associate director Anthony Lyn, who staged recent “Poppins” perfs on “Conan” and as part of the Walt Disney World Christmas Day Parade.

On “Conan” in November — a showcase timed to the L.A. run of the “Poppins” tour — several members of the cast performed the complicated chimney-sweep number “Step in Time,” complete with the show’s gravity-defying tap routine on the ceiling.

For the parade, “Supercalifragilistic…” began in an actual candy shop at Disney World and moved out onto Main Street, incorporating hundreds of young performers doing simplified choreography behind the principals.

Such moments were carefully tailored to the outlets in question. “We sit down and storyboard out where we want the camera to look at any given moment,” says John Stefaniuk, associate director of “The Lion King,” which got a recent showcase on “Dancing With the Stars.”

All legit creatives add that it’s vital to map out shots as much as possible, in collaboration with a TV show’s d.p. and cameramen.

For “Hair,” the strategy was to convey the fourth-wall-breaking nature of the stage perf on TV. “For us, it was about making it powerful with the studio audience, or breaking the boundaries with the host or the band,” says Paulus, who retooled a medley of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine In” for a perf that closely matched the 1960s appearance of “Hair” on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (which filmed in what is now Letterman’s studio), with actors clambering through and over the studio aud.

When “Fela!” nailed down a stint on “The Colbert Report” — a good match, producers thought, because of the political activism of the show’s title character — they wanted to bring as many cast members as possible as well as band members from the show’s house band Antibalas, which has a following in its own right.

They went with 10 actors and 10 band members, performing “Zombie,” a song that clearly defines the title character’s politics. And director Bill T. Jones got an intro interview that helped to explain to auds what’s going on in the nontraditional tuner.

That opportunity to educate potential ticket-buyers as to what a show actually looks and sounds like is one of the major upsides of TV appearances. Flacks point out that focus groups show screen footage is the marketing element that most helps potential ticket-buyers understand a show and formulate a reaction, favorable or not.

A musical also can get a shout-out from a host who saw the show prior to the TV seg, and that endorsement can have an impact with that host’s fans.

Daily ticket sales sometimes can rise directly in the wake of a TV appearance, but that’s an increasing rarity these days. Now a good seg is just one element in a mix of media impressions that can eventually contribute to a consumer’s decision to buy a ticket.

To that end, it’s useful for long-running productions to continue to show up on TV years after they open, in an attempt to keep the property fresh in ticket-buyers’ minds. That explains why “Poppins” and “The Lion King” — which opened on Broadway in 2006 and 1998, respectively, with both also currently out on tour — still try to drum up TV interest.

As Disney Theatrical praiser Joe Quenqua notes, “We’re in this for the long haul, for the life of the title.”

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