Stars on Broadway

A spectre is haunting Broadway. Bringing huge status and gargantuan salaries, but sometimes poor performances, it is easy to see the inclusion of film stars and veteran actors in Broadway and West End shows as merely a populist move. The growth of celebrity stars has meant that – in the eyes John Breglio, producer of ‘Dreamgirls’ – “It is absolutely essential to have a major star to put a play on, otherwise it’s very hard”.

It is accepted that a star’s name on the bill will routinely bring oodles of audience members through the doors. With the budgeting of Broadway shows balancing on such a knife edge – indeed, only four out of five shows break-even – such automatic bums on seats is an immediate turn on for any theatre company or producer.

Yet these stars who will often only accept their parts on an “offer only” basis and not through an auditioning process have shown not to guarantee successful performances, and can re-direct the attention away from the true dramatic integrity of a production. Julia Robert’s Broadway debut in 2006 in “Three Days of Rain” was totally panned by critics, and Jennifer Garner’s performance in “Cyrano de Bergerac” received distinctly mixed reviews. Also, for all of those who have paid to see simply one member of the cast, will arguably overlook the merits of the entire production. The customary collective sigh when it is announced that a star role will in fact be played by some apparently inadequate understudy indicates so.

Yet the cynicism that surrounds celebrity Broadway performances fails to take into account the instances when great performances are delivered. Take infamous Daniel Radcliffe. Yes, there are moments in the countless Potter films when he appears devoid of any theatrical ability, but his role in “Equus” was the single most powerful performance I for one have ever witnessed, and Charles Spencer noted on its opening West End night that Radcliffe was “a thrilling stage actor of unexpected range and depth”.

The guaranteed revenue that accompanies a celebrity is the only thing allowing many productions to stay afloat

In many cases, the guaranteed revenue of having a celebrity is the only thing allowing the production to stay financially afloat. To use to use the oft-quoted theatrical maxim, “the show must go on”, even if the propelling factor comes in the form of a large celebrity grin on the billboard. The celebrity attraction must have been one of the predominant factors that meant gross Broadway sales in its 2009-10 season only fell by 2.2%, despite the recession.

The inclusion of celebrities also help bring classics a fresh edge, and to a wider audience. David Tennant’s “Hamlet” brought countless families and school groups through the doors; maybe just to see everyone’s favourite time-lord in the flesh, but also witnessing a Shakespearean tragedy they otherwise may not have seen.

It is granted that the celebrity actors that grace the boards are often grossly overpaid, yet their presence has become an integral part of the Broadway and West End scene. This can be cynically sniffed at, yet their presence is one of the attractive and endearing features of the bright lights.

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