Last fall the hottest and most expensive theatre ticket (at $170) on Broadway was not for a three hour musical with a large cast and supporting orchestra. It was for a 90 minute revival of the play Betrayal by English playwright Harold Pinter with a three actor cast. What made the ticket such a valuable commodity was that the show was only going to run for 15 weeks (that includes 4 weeks of previews) and, more importantly, starred Daniel Craig (better known to movie audiences as “James Bond”) and his movie star wife Rachel Weisz (e.g., The Mummy, The Bourne Legacy, etc.).
There is nothing wrong with famous film actors appearing on Broadway. Many have their roots in the theatre and a substantial amount of experience on stage (witness the recent repertory appearances of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on Broadway). Further, there is a long historical tradition of actors moving back and forth from film and TV careers to stage appearances.
In fact, bringing in a famous actor for a stage production appears to be a “win-win” proposition. Producers gain huge presales and a reduced risk of financial failure. Actors gain psychic satisfaction and acting credibility, and sometimes even an award or two as well. Audiences gain the thrill of seeing favorite stars in the intimate setting of theatre.
Casting famous actors in Broadway shows also has a side benefit of helping expose a wider audience to the theatre. Many young people who have never seen the Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men (and who might not have otherwise done so) will be attending the spring Broadway revival starring James Franco (title role in TV biopic James Dean, Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, 127 Hours to name a few) and Leighton Meester (TV’s Gossip Girl).
Given all of these benefits, what is the downside? Who could complain (other than a few stage actors who are big-footed out of choice roles)? What could go wrong?
The Financial Side
First, the financial margin for short run shows is much thinner. That may be fine if the show’s run is part of a theatre’s yearly series of plays in a smaller Broadway or off-Broadway venue. In such situations, the financial planning is based on a series of short runs (with the potential for some healthy extensions when a production is successful).
Other productions, however, are planned for larger Broadway houses. In those cases, the limited run still demands large audiences to pay those star salaries and achieve a profitable run. For example, last year a revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had a planned run of 15 weeks. In the face of less than stellar reviews, the production regularly had many empty seats, even with tickets discounts. The production failed to recoup its $3.6 million in costs (including Johansson’s $40,000 a week salary).
In addition, some shows that only have limited star commitments need to have a longer run to break even. There was a time when even if a famous actor signed for a Broadway show, that actor would enter in a contract for roughly a year. It is rare to see famous actors make that type of commitment anymore.
Perhaps the most recent example of a star willing to commit to a long contract was Hugh Jackman’s labor of love in bringing The Boy from Oz to Broadway. The show ran 364 performances from October 2003 through September 2004. Jackman performed in every show and the production closed when his contract ended.
Today, it is increasingly more common to see stars committing for only 14-17 weeks. The shorter the star’s contract, the iffier the financial prospects for the show. The time needed for Broadway shows to make a profit can run from several months even to a few years depending upon the costs of mounting and running the production. (In the recent case of the $75 million Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark that closed in January, perhaps several years would have been needed.)
While stars can generate a healthy pre-sale, especially for the producer-coveted full-price or even premium-priced best seats, a star alone is not going to sell out an entire run, especially of a new work. It is a rare show that proves mostly critic-proof and audience-proof, especially in today’s world of social media.
The Artistic Side
Casting a famous, even a highly esteemed actor is no guarantee of a successful production. Some actors, especially those who make a Broadway debut, find that the experience falls far short of their dreams.
The biggest problem that can arise when a famous actor seeks a theatrical stint is casting. Few producers, especially those with stars or dollar signs in their eyes, are eager to tell an actor he or she might not be right for a role.
To give some recent examples, many women have swooned over Orlando Bloom in The Lord of the Rings films or the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Yet even he could not overcome the fact that most people picture Romeo as closer to 16 than 36, and last fall’s Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet did not achieve the desired level of artistic or financial success.
Similarly, when Denzel Washington expressed his desire to make his Broadway and Shakespeare debut in 2005, he was in a position to pick his role. However, Washington did not use his natural charisma to make a short bow in the title role of Julius Caesar, his skill at playing the corrupt figures (which won him an Academy Award for Best Actor in Training Day) to play Cassius, or even his talent at persuasion to give the memorable funeral oration of Marc Anthony.
Instead, Washington chose to play the conflicted Brutus. Unfortunately, there’s a thin line between honorable and dull that he did not successfully navigate. A much happier experience no doubt awaits him in this spring’s return to Broadway as the lead in A Raisin in the Sun, a role much better suited for his skills and his persona.
Some roles are probably a rough road for any actor, especially when that role has already been given an iconic turn. No matter how well Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) did in last spring’s revival of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there will never be another Audrey Hepburn. Many critics savaged her performance as Holly Golightly (although I found it satisfactory if not inspiring). The production closed early after 17 preview and 38 regular performances.
Clarke’s experience also illustrated that fact that theatre critics can be poised to pounce with a special ferocity at newcomers to the stage. The hottest casting news of the fall was the announcement that Michelle Williams would make her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles in this spring’s revival of Cabaret that is scheduled to run through the end of August.
If this production show falls short, Williams can expect to gain the bulk of the blame since many involved in this revival (including Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Sam Mendes as director) were a part of an acclaimed revival that ran from 1998-2004. The opening night cast for that production had, as Sally Bowles, another actress better known for her film work, the late Natasha Richardson (although she had appeared on Broadway previously in the title role of O’Neil’s Anna Christie). For the record, this reviewer believes that Williams will prove up to the challenge.
Another problem that actors who have worked mostly in film and television may face is a lack of experience with the intensely collaborative nature of theatre and the need for a director to exert leadership instead of fixing performances in the editing room. Last year’s revival of the play Orphans turned into Broadway’s biggest soap opera.
Disputes and incompatibility between actors Alec Baldwin and Shia LaBeouf lead to LaBeouf’s departure from the show during rehearsals. Attempts to downplay the disputes under the standard disclaimer of “artistic differences,” LaBeouf stoked the fire through releasing e-mails from Baldwin and the play’s director, Daniel Sullivan. Despite the old saw about there is no such thing as bad publicity, reporting about these clashes overshadowed the production to its detriment.
Even when producers imagine that they have cleverly planned a production, things can go wrong. Consider last year’s Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof previously mentioned in this article. In casting movie actress Scarlett Johannson as Maggie the producers selected an actress who had won a Tony Award for her 2010 Broadway debut in another classic play, Arthur Miller’s A View from a Bridge. Furthermore, she seemed ideally suited for the role.
Once again, however, few plays are critic-proof. Director Rob Ashford’s production managed to be both grandiose and offputtingly distant at the same time. The performances from a talented group of actors lacked mystery and complexity. [Note: Scarlett Johansson was out with the flu at the Sunday matinee seen by this author.] It joined the list of shows with famous stars that resulted in a loss for investors.
Only about a quarter of Broadway shows make a profit, although producers hiring famous actors are hoping to increase their odds. Therefore, you can expect to see more acting stars heading to the stage for short runs that fit their filming schedules.
This author has personally enjoyed many performances by a familiar actor on stage. In recent years, these have included Al Pacino as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Zachary Quinto in an outstanding production of The Glass Menagerie, Yvonne Strahovski in Golden Boy, Alan Rickman as the difficult instructor of a graduate writing course in Seminar (recently produced at Round House Theatre), and Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce in the hilarious Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike (opening April 16th at CenterStage in Baltimore, and at Arena Stage next season).
There were other intriguing Broadway debuts that just did not fit into this author’s schedule or budget. Last year, these debuts included Tom Hanks in Lucky Guy and the aforementioned Rachel Weisz in Betrayal.
For the record, I have never seen any modern star draw the reaction that Julia Roberts did in 2006 when appearing in Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. The crowd waiting outside her stage door regularly spilled into the street and shut down traffic for that block. Although her performance was poorly reviewed, that play is an example of a star ensuring that a production was a commercial success.
One of the more interesting but lesser known acting awards is the Theatre World Awards. Every June these awards recognize a dozen or so actors for an outstanding debut performance on a New York City stage, either Broadway or off-Broadway. These awards have been made since the 1945-46 season and usually recognize both existing stars and younger talents with bright futures ahead.
If you are eager to see a familiar film and/or television actor up close and personal on stage, there are many opportunities in this Broadway season. These include:
- Denzel Washington in A Raisin in the Sun
- Bryan Cranston in All the Way
- Zach Braff in Bullets Over Broadway
- Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming in Cabaret
- Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
- Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons
- James Franco and Leighton Meester in Of Mice and Men
- Toni Collete, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, and Marisa Tomei in The Realistic Joneses
- Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan
Looking on a more distant horizon, the most intriguing star Broadway debut performance may involve Oprah Winfrey. Reports have her in talks to appear in Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Night, Mother in the 2015-2016 season. She would appear with five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald in the two-character play about a mother’s attempt to prevent her daughter from committing suicide.
Before shelling out those precious dollars, remember that fame does not necessarily transfer into a winning performance. Very few actors can succeed without a quality work, a talented cast, a smart artistic team, and an astute skill at picking the right role. Unless you are in a gambling mood and/or trying to save money through a pre-opening offer, it is usually worth the time needed to read a few reviews by respected critics. Then you can make an informed decision over whether the Hollywood attraction is worth a Broadway visit.
[Side note: One of this author’s all-time favorite examples of a theatrical “in joke” came in the cult classic film Camp (2003) about an upstate New York performing arts summer camp. One teenage girl played by a young Anna Kendrick is trying to make the popular teen queen remember her from the previous summer. After running through a couple of attempts to jog her memory, she concludes with “We were in Night, Mother together?”]