Friday, November 5, 2010

Celebrity Casting on Broadway: What's in a Name?

By Peter Rodman
June 24, 2010

Today’s New York Times posed the question, “Where do you stand on the issue of the celebrity blitzing of Broadway?
"Boon or blight--or both?”
My answer, in a word, is “both.”

Scarlett Johanssen did a fine job in "A View from the Bridge," but it's a travesty that she beat her female co-star, what's her name (Jessica Hecht), and that other guy (Liev Schreiber)--who carried the whole affair--lost out to Denzel Washington's dumbed-down James Earl Jones impression, in the recent revival of "Fences."
"Bridge" is a great example of the two-headed monster that is celeb-infused Broadway. By all accounts, it was probably the best-ever production of a previously thought-to-be-lesser Arthur Miller play. Its wordy, nuanced, dramatic, changing moods required a yeoman's job from all concerned, each and every night--but while Johanssen certainly added the appropriate sparkle (and some terrific acting chops) she'd still have been the 'least missed', if you absolutely had to lose one of the three main characters, onstage.
Oh, and then there's this: It opened in January, and closed in April.

James Gandolfini  (Photo by Peter Rodman)
Likewise, "God of Carnage" exemplifies the best and worst of this phenomenon. While its cheesy, slapdash set made the stars seem almost greedy for sopping up the whole budget, it gave Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis two confidant screen actors to play against. And while James Gandolfini used the stolid surroundings to exorcise his inner Tony Soprano, it sometimes seemed he and Jeff Daniels were in two different plays.
Couple this with Daniels's decision to take over the Gandolfini role a year later, and you've got the good and the bad of it all, embodied in a single play.
A limited run 'celebrity engagement' intoxicates its producers, who reduce their budget by offloading talent, quicker than you can say "Florida Marlins."
The overall trade-off is obvious.
Drawing 'fannys to the seats' is top priority, and always will be.

Abigail Breslin  (photo by Peter Rodman)
But as we sometimes marvel at the ascent of a hard working young starlet (Abigail Breslin in 'The Miracle Worker' comes to mind), so too will we occasionally be appalled, by the community theatre-level overacting of their co-stars, as with the better known Matthew Modine, in that same production.
In foisting everyone from Catherine Zeta-Jones to Rosie O'Donnell on its touristy clientele, Broadway has a long tradition.
Invariably, musicals have been better off *without* such star turns...if it weren't for that pesky issue of survival.

What seems to irk Broadway veterans the most is the fact that in "limited runs," Hollywood celebs are swooping into town like hungry vultures, making off with a passel of Tonys, and flying back out again, barely having seemed to stop in New York at all. One pictures them clutching trophies in their talons, squawking with talentless glee as they fly off, in this purists' portrayal.
The theory is that Broadway's perennial 'farm team' (of young stage actors devoted exclusively to craft) will get somehow swallowed up, overshadowed,or--worst of all--tempted to leave--by all the hype.

But the "play play"--the non-musical outing--has long needed (and benefited from) the star power of, say, a Madonna, to bring fans out to see a relatively unknown Joe Montegna ("Speed the Plow")--or an Al Pacino, to nurture a (now deceased) James Hayden ("American Buffalo"), as if in an Actor's School seminar.
Non-theatre people just don't tend to go to non-musicals as a destination, unless that's all the TKTS booth has at half-price that day. The added "oomph" a star can give actually draws fans to see much deeper fare than "Cats", without so much as a single moment of tap, or a single note sung.
And if all this means is that Willam H. Macy takes the lead in "Oleanna" or Scarlett Johanssen plays a nubile temptress I have to watch up close...I'm fine with that!

Scarlett Johanssen  (Photo by Peter Rodman)
 Tony Randall understood this principle as well as anybody, in establishing the marvelous National Actors Theatre, back in the early '90s. I saw everyone from DeNiro to DeVito there, and was rarely disappointed.

In my view, the general rule of thumb for celebrity ‘stunt-casting’ is:
Musicals, no.
From the time roughly forty years ago, when Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller became parodies of themselves on the road forever, this casting ploy has almost always screamed "summer stock."
But dramatic plays, on Broadway?
If carefully casted...yes.
Both Broadway and Off-Broadway have generally done a marvelous job at this.
There is a definite danger, in overdoing it--witness, "God of Carnage 2."
(All things in moderation.)
But overall, I'd say that--creatively, at least--the dramatic genre has fared far better, and with fewer indignities, than the musical.

To hear the purists tell it, you'd think we'll all soon be sitting in theatre balconies, blaring all those plastic horns like at the World Cup, if we don't stop celebrity casting, ASAP.
I say they're alarmists, snobs, and elitists--who'd sooner take the fun out of seeing a movie star up close, than realize the undeniable benefit of 'elevating' a theatre full of just-plain-folk, with something truly worthwhile.

It all boils down to the age-old question: ‘What’s in a name?’


This article and the photographs herein Copyright 2010 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.

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