This week in Broadway Bound, guest columnist Michael Fromme offers his
thoughts on a somewhat controversial subject. Broadway Bound itself will
return next Sunday, February 14, with the debut of Broadway Bound: Book
The recent trend in London to cast Hollywood stars in plays worries me for some reason. With the success of David Hare's The Blue Room, starring Nicole Kidman, it seems this trend may continue. I have long been opposed to the practice of casting "names" to attract an audience, yet it's been done for decades. Truth be told, there are always pros and cons to consider when discussing specific shows. The question is, whose place is it to judge the casting of one actor over another?
In a recent article about star casting in London, the Express wrote, "The elite of Hollywood are opting to slum it in the West End." Slum? Are we to believe film and television are vastly superior to the stage because salaries are higher and the dressing rooms more spacious? Yet even with working for miniscule wages and in cramped dressing rooms, Hollywood stars are being drawn to the stage because of the challenge of live theatre. Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Whoopi Goldberg and Ewan McGregor have all felt the need in recent months to perform before a live audience. Heading into London's West End in Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs, McGregor stated, "It has been so rewarding. I feel like an actor again." Are we to understand that while working on films and television, these celebrities are not actually acting, and in order to do so, they must turn to the stage?
Doing Broadway or the West End definitely provides more of a challenge for actors. Gone are the retakes and close-ups. Reactions and expressions now must be large to read into the house. Whereas on film you must get the scene right once, on stage you need to do it right eight times a week, every week for the run of your contract. Many "Hollywoods" look at acting on stage as a chance to refine their acting skills. On hearing they will be starring in a show, we often are quick to judge them at being unable to act, as if using your talents in film automatically precludes you from being able to perform on stage.
Theatre, like movies and television, is a business, and the goal is to sell tickets. Nica Burns, production director at London's Stoll Moss Theatres said, "A major film star is like having the best present wrapped up in the best package you could possibly want for a producer." Big names draw the public to the theatre. Whether or not they have the talent to carry the show is irrelevant to the box office for limited run productions. Would The Blue Room be a hot ticket on Broadway if it were starring Michelle Pawk rather than Nicole Kidman? Ms. Pawk's acting abilities are equal, if not superior, to Ms. Kidman's, yet the name recognition is not there.
Generally, I do not go to a Broadway show to see an actor; I go to see the show - although there are always exceptions. As a rule, I go to see the characters brought to life on the stage. I want to experience the story, the emotion, the drama. By using "Hollywoods" in leads, it often detracts from the show because you tend to see the actor, not the character. But, this is a sword that cuts both ways; the same can also be said of Broadway stars. I fully expect to see Bernadette Peters, not Annie Oakley, on stage this spring. Celebrity tends to be a disservice to the play by not allowing you to see the characters as written. Although I love MacBeth, I avoided the most recent production because Alec Baldwin always plays Alec Baldwin. I fear the day Tom Cruise discovers Shakespeare.
Do we blame the producers for wanting to see a return on their investment? (If so, we are fools.) I think we truly need to look at why someone is cast in the role. The worst example of cashing in on celebrity in recent years was Fran and Barry Weissler's revival of Grease. Producing a revival of a show that's only merit is memorable songs would not have been very profitable. The logic appeared to be "bring the audience in to see the stars, rather than the show." Famous names were paraded through; Rosie O'Donnell, Brooke Shields, Lucy Lawless, Deborah Gibson, Jeff Conway, Davy Jones, Sally Struthers and more. Seeing how a show's run could be extended past its expected life span, Disney jumped on the bandwagon with Beauty and the Beast, casting Deborah Gibson, and now Toni Braxton, as Belle. (Even going so far as to change the key of all the songs to accommodate Ms. Braxton.)
Or, are we talking double standards? People balked when they heard Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lou Diamond Phillips and Glenn Close would be starring in Broadway musicals, yet cheered on hearing the news Nathan Lane or Christine Baranski had landed film or television roles. Julie Andrews, Kevin Kline, and, dare I mention, Barbra Streisand have more recognizable names in Hollywood than many of the stars heading to Broadway or the West End, yet we'd never question their place on the stage. Ms. Streisand hasn't been in a Broadway show in decades, still I assume she'd instantly be welcomed back into the community.
How does one earn the right to star in a Broadway show? Is it a salary thing? Every year thousands of aspiring singers, actors, and dancers descend on New York and London, hoping to get a break and land a small role in a Broadway or West End show. Working their way from chorus member to a supporting role in a national tour, giving their all in hopes of seeing their names on the marquis of a Broadway theatre. They work for years at a wage which barely pays the bills, only to see a "Hollywood" waltz in, forgoing his normal multi-million dollar salary to graciously accept the "meager wage" which most stage actors only dream of someday seeing.
Some "Hollywoods" are accepted instantly on Broadway, regardless of past theatrical experience. While playing the role of Pseudolus, Whoopi Goldberg's personality emerged far more than the character created by Stephen Sondheim. The same can be said for Martin Short as Elliot in The Goodbye Girl. Yet Martin's return to Broadway in Little Me was eagerly anticipated, as is Whoopi's next season in 13 Days to Broadway. Both actors star in musicals yet neither is known for their singing. Of course fear spread through the community at the news that Arnold Schwarzennegger might be starring in The King and I. Again are we holding a double standard saying it is acceptable for "Hollywoods" to star in musicals, but not straight plays? Do we criticize Jennifer Jason Leigh's singing when her character is in fact a third rate cabaret singer?
Perhaps the deciding factor is a star's stage credits? Whoopi had been on Broadway prior to her run in Forum, in her one person show, performing a series of serio-comedic monologues, and Martin Short earned his right on stage as a member of the Second City comedy troupe. Both successfully carried demanding roles, therefore earning their place on the stage. But, if having a successful theatrical comedic run qualifies you to play the lead in a major Broadway revival, the obvious leads for Kiss Me Kate would be Jerry Seinfeld and Sandra Bernhard. Although neither worked their way through the ranks of theatre, both have been successful on Broadway, and Bernhard's personality would definitely add to the role of Kate.
On hearing "Hollywoods" will be appearing on Broadway, we all can hardly wait for Ben Brantley or some other critic to dig their fangs into their performance. Is this because of their celebrity? Often we hold them to a different standard than a Broadway actor. If two actors (one Hollywood and one Broadway) performed the same role at roughly the same level, the Broadway actor would be judged solely on how well they presented the character. The "Hollywood" would either be held to a higher standard because he or she normally generate multi-million dollar salaries, or a lower standard because she or he is not trained for or experienced in stage performance. Are Nicole Kidman's raves due to her portrayal of the character or simply because she is finally showing some versatility as an actress? I don't believe anyone else performing at Ms Kidman's level would have generated reviews nearly as positive.
As amusing as all the arguments against "Hollywoods" are, they will not cause the downfall of the theatre. Many people do pay to see the actor in the show, and naturally, this is good for the community. The more people we can draw into the theatre, the more likely we can foster that spark of interest into a love for the theatre. The Broadway we knew is no longer alive. It has evolved into a new creature filled with big names and elaborate productions. Andrew Lloyd Webber precipitated the downfall when Phantom burst onto the scene. This was the show too big to do the standard North American tour. With mega-musicals constantly opening on Broadway and the West End, the only way to compete is with celebrity.
Having the talent to carry a show is no longer enough on Broadway. Today's audience need celebrity or lavish productions to keep them entertained. The Chicagos and Beauty Queens are rarities now. But, if substance is less important than entertainment, how would you explain Tony Danza in The Iceman Cometh? The 1998 Tony awards proved that stories are less important than entertainment. The Lion King beat out Ragtime, even though Ragtime had the best book and score. The voters showed that the acting in Beauty Queen of Leenane was superior to that of the "Hollywoods" in Art, yet Art won the Tony. Art is a peculiar piece, in that the show needs celebrity to draw in any type of audience. The only statement I can truly make about this whole trend, whether it is right or wrong, is: I am not impressed by celebrity, I am impressed by talent.