BroadwayGirlNYC: Celebs on Broadway - my take

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the role of Hollywood actors on the Broadway stage, especially following the Tony Awards -- where bonafide A-List movie stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson and Denzel Washinton all picked up acting awards.  In all three categories (best leading actress in a musical, best featured actress in a play, best leading actor in a play), these Hollywood heavyweights beat out theatre actors who are arguably just as talented, if not as well known to the world outside New York.
 
It's a quantifiable fact that celebrity actors sell tickets (Denzel Washington in Fences, Jude Law in Hamlet, and Daniel Craig & Hugh Jackman in A Steady Rain have all been sell-outs).  But members of the Broadway community are up in arms, led by Tony-nominee (2003 for Little Shop of Horrors) Hunter Foster, who launched the facebook group "Give the Tonys Back to Broadway".  The group now boasts over 8,600 members.
 
In Foster's words, "We want the [Tonys] to be about Broadway and for the fans of Broadway. This group is about including more of those artists that we admire and look up to, so that it truly becomes an evening to celebrate."  In Hunter's defense, he never calls out Hollywood actors for being undeserving of their theatrical achievements; but nevertheless his creation of the group has inspired debate across the web about what, if any, place film stars have on Broadway.

Member comments on the facebook group include "A better name for this group would be "Get Catherine Zeta Jones off Broadway... and can she please GIVE BACK her Tony?" and "Wtf is up with Scarlett Johansson winning a Tony? I didn't realize that the Tonys is now giving out awards for the best you-have-no-talent-but-we'll-overlook-that-fact-because-you're-hot award".  It's clear that to these fans, the potential added revenue and visibility that big stars bring to Broadway -- not to mention their talent -- is not important.  The bitterness at their very presence on Broadway is palpable, and the issue has expanded way past Hunter's initial point about the Tonys broadcast.

As I see it, the "A-lister-on-Broadway" trend is actually good for the chorus girls (and boys) -- since a working movie-star isn't likely to leave LA in order to play "dancer #3".  When Kelsey Grammer signs on to La Cage aux Folles, suddenly the production can get financial backing; this leads to more jobs for those who make their money supporting the bigger stars.  (It also creates work for the countless electricians, construction workers, lighting riggers, and other union flack who depend on funded shows to feed their families.)
 
But curiously, the folks it could potentially hurt are leading men like Hunter Foster.  He was nominated for the Tony for Little Shop, he played the lead in Urinetown, and he's currently starring as record impressario Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet.  He is not likely to go back to being a chorus dancer, any more than a film actor would want to start in that role.  Might he have had a chance to play Eddie in A View from the Bridge if Liev Schreiber hadn't been available?  I can't see it, but perhaps.  The truth is that we'll never know, because the producers wanted big names in that show; without the stars, the revival might never have made it to Broadway at all.  (This theory has not, it should be mentioned, affected his sister Sutton's success; she is a bonafide star of the New York stage, and has no problem getting cast in star vehicles almost every season.)
 
The fact is that despite record-breaking ticket revenues, Broadway is still struggling.  In order for a show make it to New York at all, investments in the tens of millions of dollars need to be raised; anyone turning over that kind of cash wants to know that there's a good chance of a healthy return on their investment.  How does one assure that money will be made?  Bring in a Hollywood star, of course.  The truth is that this trend is not likely to wane any time soon.
 
So how do I feel about it?  I actually don't mind "A-list celebrities" on Broadway -- if they're good enough, that is.  Catherine Zeta-Jones may have turned in a less-than-stellar rendition of "Send in the Clowns" at the Tony Awards, but onstage at the Walter Kerr, her performance was sensational.  Scarlett Johansson  was top-notch in A View from the BridgeCorbin Bleu has won over critics and skeptics as Usnavi in In the Heights.  And I haven't heard anyone argue that Jude Law didn't completely and impressively embody Hamlet.

Do I love these stars the way I love "Broadway's own" like Kristin Chenoweth, Raul Esparza, Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin and Donna Murphy? No.  But if they're skilled enough to tackle the roles, and can use their influence to bring in funding for ambitious shows, I say bring it on.

I do want to make two clarifying points.

1) The actors I've mentioned (Catherine, Scarlet, Denzel, Jude, Corbin) have all signed on for lengthy, if limited, runs in their particular shows.  To me, this is significant: it differentiates them from, for example, the rotating menage of "names" brought into Chicago for 4-6 weeks at a time.  I saw AshLee Simpson play Roxie Hart, and let me tell you: she is no Catherine Zeta-Jones.  Simpson, like many of the other "stunt cast" celebrities brought into Chicago, is a name that tourists will pay to see simply because she's famous.  (Sidebar: Chicago does occasionally get it right, as with their current Billy Flynn, Colman Domingo -- a remarkable Broadway veteran!)

2) The Tonys SHOULD skip over presenters like Paula Abdul (yes, she choreographed Reefer Madness in 2001, but that was a decade ago off-Broadway) and even more glaringly, 2008's Julie Chen of "Big Brother" (who has NO connection to Broadway, but her husband runs CBS). 

So, my advice to Broadway is this:

Skip the stunt casting (stars in short runs meant only to manipulate patrons into buying shows that really should be closed by now), but don't eliminate Hollywood involvement outright.  Let these actors earn their way onto Broadway with their talent.  If their presence brings in producer dollars and ticket sales, all the better -- the entire community benefits from more shows being open, and everybody wins.  When Tony time comes around again, celebrate those performers who have given their service to the theatrical community that year, as well as those who have dedicated their whole lives to this medium.  Because in the current state of the economy and the craft, we need ALL of them for the business of Broadway to thrive.


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