In ‘Birdman,’ Broadway’s St. James Theatre plays itself
“Birdman,” the latest movie from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, is generating significant awards buzz for its comeback leading man, Michael Keaton, and a supporting cast that includes Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and Naomi Watts.
One of the movie’s key stars won’t be found in its final credit roll, however.
A Broadway house with a storied history, the St. James Theatre plays itself in the movie’s plot about a has-been action star (Keaton) and his attempt at career resuscitation through a vanity stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
The action of “Birdman” takes place almost entirely in and around the St. James, which is located in prime Broadway territory on 44th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.
Shooting took place over 30 days in April and May of 2013. The filmmakers had considered a few Broadway theaters before deciding on the St. James.
“It was quite lucky on our end. We had a gap of time in between shows,” said Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theaters, which operates the 1,700-seat venue.
Roth said that the filmmakers were able to share with him the plot of the movie in advance of the shoot and that Jujamcyn leased the theater to the movie production for the duration of filming.
The St. James, which first opened in 1927 as Erlanger’s Theatre, has served as home to a number of historic Broadway plays and musicals.
The Broadway premieres of “Pal Joey” and “Oklahoma!” took place at the St. James in 1941 and 1943, respectively. “The King and I” had its Broadway debut in 1951 at the St. James. “Hello, Dolly!,” starring Carol Channing, opened at the St. James in 1964 and ran for nearly seven years.
More recently, the theater has seen such blockbuster musicals as Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” and Green Day’s “American Idiot.”
“Birdman” prominently features the St. James’ actual stage, lobby area and exterior. But the backstage scenes were shot at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where the production crew built an intricate set of cramped hallways and dressing rooms.
Using digital effects and clever editing, the filmmakers created the illusion of smooth tracking shots between the backstage set and the actual theater.
Another digital trick involved a nearby bar where Keaton’s character confronts the New York Times’ mean-spirited theater critic (Lindsay Duncan).
The bar in the movie appears to be just a few steps from the St. James, but in actuality, it was shot at the Rum House, a popular Broadway hangout located three blocks north of the St. James on 47th Street. The film crew shot for roughly five days at the Rum House, according to a spokeswoman for Public House Collective, the organization that runs the bar.
For a movie set in the world of New York theater, it’s fitting that two cast members of “Birdman” are currently working on Broadway. Stone recently stepped into the lead role of the Roundabout’s revival of the musical “Cabaret,” while Duncan can be seen in a new revival of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” with Glenn Close and John Lithgow.
Roth, who oversees five Broadway theaters as the head of Jujamcyn, said he was moved by elements of the completed “Birdman.”
“Each of the characters in their own way was standing up for what theater meant for them,” he said. “Even the critic was defending an art form that was important for her.”
Next up for the St. James is the Bill Condon-directed revival of the musical “Side Show,” which is in previews and is set to open Nov. 17.
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