The neon lights of Broadway are taking on a Hollywood hue, as a parade of movie stars including Scarlett Johansson, Katie Holmes and Tom Hanks grace the stages this year. Fame is hardly new to the theater district, but as celebrity culture infiltrates traditional theatergoing tendencies, who is in the show is becoming almost as important to the next generation of theater patrons as the plot.
When Jill Owen, 28, a New York accountant, buys a Broadway ticket, she bases about 90 percent of her decision-making on which celebrities are in the show. Last February, she saw “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” because it starred Scarlett Johansson, whose most recent movie megahit was “The Avengers.” Christine Tarves, 27, a marketing executive in Vancouver, decided to see “Grace,” a dark comedy about a young religious couple, because it featured Paul Rudd, who has appeared in many Judd Apatow hits. “I was a little disappointed,” she admitted. “It was a dramatic role, so not really what one would expect. His star power was almost distracting.”
Many first-time patrons are being lured to the theater by the chance to see in person the people they see on the covers of US Weekly and People magazines. “Stars are great for Broadway,” explained Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League. “They bring a focus on new productions and help develop a brand sooner”for the show.
When the Roundabout Theatre produced “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” last fall, starring Jake Gyllenhaall, 1,500 new members joined its discounted ticket program for people ages 18-35, compared to about 500 people for a show without a Hollywood star. “It’s definitely a group of people that we would assume to be young professionals, who are very interested in seeing film stars on stage,” a spokesperson for Roundabout explained.
It’s not just Hollywood’s A-listers singing the lullabyes of Broadway. The revival of “Chicago,” now in its 17th year, has been a revolving door of lesser celebrities. Jerry Springer, Christie Brinkley, Ashlee Simpson and Alan Thicke have taken their turns in the show. Last November, as Rudd was appearing in “Grace,” his fellow cast member from the 1995 hit movie “Clueless,” Alicia Silverstone, was acting at a nearby Broadway theater; her show, “The Performers,” closed after just seven performances. And American Idol runner-up (and 2009 Tony contender) Constantine Maroulis, just opened in a revival of “Jekyll and Hyde” that received mediocre reviews.
But the audience doesn’t always seem to mind the omission of “Juilliard” from the Playbill biographies.
A spring rainstorm wasn’t deterring Meghan Thompson, 40, of Pittsburgh, from lining up to see “Lucky Man” on a recent Thursday evening, as she stood outside the Broadhurst Theatre to purchase $27 standing-room-only tickets. “Tom Hanks drew me to this show,” she admitted. “He’s a quality actor. I don’t think he’d be in just any show.”
For years some Hollywood stars avoided the stage, until the advent of stage microphones and amplification in the 1980s made the transition easier, said Joseph Roach, a Yale University theater history professor who studies celebrity. The Broadway League’s St. Martin also credits the Hollywood writers strike of 2007-2008; as television and movie production ground to a halt, many stars found themselves looking for new venues.
“It used to be the reverse journey,” explained Elizabeth Bradley, a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a theatrical producer. “Actors were forged in the theater.”
Yet big stars don’t necessarily fill seats. “Simply casting one of these stars is not automatic box office gold,” said Garrett Eisler, an instructor of drama at New York University. Finding the right theater role requires versatility, while Hollywood stars are encouraged to play the same roles over and over again, said Eisler. “‘Lucky Guy’ is working commercially because he’s Tom Hanks, a good man playing a good man. A perfect match of the star and the role.” Johanasson didn’t fare as well in “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which “wasn’t designed for her to lie on a bed and purr all night – people didn’t get what they expected.” The average reader rating on the New York Times website rated the show as 2.5 out of 5.
To be sure, there are as many reasons for going to the theater as there are bulbs in a marquee. A 2012 Broadway League study cites personal recommendations, liking the music and seeing the movie version as the top three reasons to select a show, which may also explain the rise of movies-turned-musicals. The research profiles the average theatergoer as female, 43.6 years old with an annual household income of close to $180,000 and a college degree.
Roach, of Yale, said people are often searching for someone able to “live in moments we have imagined and dreamed about,” adding, “there’s certain magical personalities that can make us want to go there with them.”
St. Martin said, “I think having these celebrities come to Broadway has certainly helped keep the focus on live entertainment and on Broadway.” With the advent of reality television, social media and even the microphone, the definition of celebrity in our culture has changed, making star-power even more predominant.
Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando and Lucille Ball all started out in the theater. Yet while they were considered theater and consummate stage actors, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne’s stage stardom never transferred to film. “A film star, and even more so a television star, to open in a Broadway vehicle” is relatively recent, Bradley said.
But on a recent night at the TKTS stand, at the half-price ticket booth in Times Square “The Nance,” starring theater veteran Nathan Lane, had tickets available. Meanwhile, three blocks away, “Lucky Guy” had a line stretching from the box office out into the street. Hanks, nominated for a Tony for his performance, may not win, but surely his producers aren’t complaining.