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The Name Above the Title: A-List Stars on Broadway

The meth-making Walter White, the voices of a Disney princess and prince, a ‘Gossip Girl’ and a one hit wonder. This isn’t exactly the list that comes to mind when one thinks “Broadway Star,” but it is the reality of the Broadway line up this season.

For years now, Broadway and theatre culture has found its way to the mainstream. With movies like ‘RENT’ or shows like ‘Glee,’ this once subculture has become part of a new world. With its surge in popularity, stars have been elevated from Broadway names to A-list celebrities. Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Kristen Chenoweth and more have found their place not only as Broadway hits but television and movie celebrities.

Recently, many already A-list stars have made their way to Broadway to try their hand at the craft of theatre. This movement to theatre has received mixed reactions from the theatre community and critics of the performances supplied by these non-Broadway actors.

The History

Broadway is not new to a system of big names and stars selling out theaters. As Deirdre O’Leary Cunningham, assistant professor of English, whose work and research focuses on theatre and drama, explained, “The 19th century was the star system, it was really the age of the actor. You had all these huge stars who had their name above the title, and it didn’t matter if they were 30 years too old to be playing Juliet in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ they’re playing that role.”

With the beginning of the 20th century, the age of the director began.

“We had a move toward ensembles and much more realistic portrayals, and a move away from this overwhelming stage personality,” O’Leary explained.

Now, Broadway is seeing, once again, a resurgence of big names above the title. James Franco, Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester headline the limited engagement of John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men.’ ‘Breaking Bad’ star Bryan Cranston takes on the role of LBJ in ‘All the Way,’ Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming headline the revival of ‘Cabaret’ and in perhaps the most controversial casting of the season Carly Rae Jepsen and Fran Drescher headline ‘Cinderella.’

One hit wonder Carly Rae Jepsen is disappointing audiences with her performance of Cinderella in the broadway musical "Cinderella." Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

One hit wonder Carly Rae Jepsen is disappointing audiences with her performance of Cinderella in the broadway musical “Cinderella.” Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

The Short Run

Television and film actors are working constantly to stay relevant in their business, and as a result have little time to spare. Between actually shooting a movie or television show, the publicity tours and red carpet affairs there is little time to spend exploring other interests.The short run is a major reason A-list celebrities have found the chance to try their hand on Broadway.

“In 2014 we notice a lot of A-list stars returning to the boards, and I think there’s a lot of different reasons for that. I think the shorter run has made it happen, now we are very accustom to seeing ‘Six Weeks Only,’ or very short runs where a-list celebrities can do a show in between movies or on hiatus from a television show,” O’Leary explained.

This shorter run is both a gift to the talented actors and actresses who wish to take to the stage and a curse to the hopeful audiences as the chance of seeing their performances diminishes.

Attracting Different Crowds

The main result of big names taking to the stage on Broadway is the crowds they bring with them. Though maybe many people would not have had an interest in a production of ‘Of Mice and Men,’ or the historical drama ‘All the Way’, Cranston, Franco, O’Dowd and Meester cover such a wide array of fan bases that they will undoubtedly attract a large group of theatre newcomers.

This is true of Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen who bring with them the so called nerd culture from their roles in the X-Men and Lord of the Rings Movies. In an interview with the Huffington Post on Feb. 7, Stewart spoke about the new audience that their careers have attracted to their Broadway production of ‘Waiting for Godot.’

“People say they’ve never had an interest in Shakespeare, in Ibsen, never thought about this until they saw Captain Picard and Professor Xavier! I like to think sometimes people like Ian and myself — and Orlando Bloom, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz — that we are, in a small way, responsible for creating a new audience,” Stewart said.

Producers want to get big names into their productions to attract these crowds, but they also usually do not want to compromise on talent.

As O’Leary explained, “Ideally you want to put a talent on stage, and it helps if that person is a great actor, its even better if that person can get a whole bunch of people in the theatre who wouldn’t normally go.”

However, while the name can attract a crowd, there is a line where Broadway producers can be compromising talent simply for a recognizable name.

Hollywood bad boy, James Franco, is currently in the stage production of "Of Mice and Men." Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Hollywood bad boy, James Franco, is currently in the stage production of “Of Mice and Men.” Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

 

The Performances

Aoife Mahood, a freshman at Manhattan College and regular audience member at Broadway productions, has seen how the celebrity name can diminish the overall experience of a show.

“I think with a lot of these shows now, their casting directors are doing this for publicity and not so much for talent,” Mahood said.

She saw this first hand with the new production of Cinderella, “I saw [Cinderella] with the original cast first, and then I went back and saw it with the new Carly Rae Jepsen cast. Laura Osnes was the original Cinderella and Santino Fontana was the original Topher, and they were these big Broadway stars and they did it beautifully.” Mahood thought the new production was, “Terrible.”

O’Leary sees an issue with the casting for ‘Cinderella’ as well, “I’m not as enthusiastic when its announced that Carly Rae Jepsen and Fran Drescher are taking over the roles in ‘Cinderella.’ In my mind there is a little bit of jumping the line, but there is a gimmick to that advertising.”

Whereas McKellen, Stewart, Cranston, and many more are experienced and proven actors, some of these castings have been made for the publicity and business that they will attract.

“Consumerism has become part of the theatre experience in New York…Broadway is a business,” O’Leary said.

The Talent/Homegrown/Out of Work Actors

Historically though, Broadway stars grew from their roots on the stage and made a name for themselves that way. We can still see this evident in names like Taye Diggs or Idina Menzel, who have made careers for themselves from their starts on ‘RENT’ the stage show and eventually the feature film.

Menzel especially has rose to particular stardom first as Elphaba in the hugely successful Broadway musical ‘Wicked,’ to a role on the show ‘Glee,’ through releasing her own albums and most recently as the voice of Elsa in the Disney hit animated movie ‘Frozen.’

“We love the actors who start on stage and then have a huge career, but we are a little less pleased with someone who is in film and then says ‘I want to go do theatre,’ but if they have the training why not,” O’Leary said.

Much of the resentment from the theatre community toward the A-list actors who simply swoop in for a short run on the stage, comes from the fact that they leave many trained and talented stage actors out of a job.

“I don’t think its fair that they’re doing this, because there are so many talented people already in the Broadway community and they’re just making it harder for them to find a job,” Mahood said.

O’Leary expressed similar sentiments, “I think it’s frustrating to know that there are so many talented, out of work actors, who are being passed over for some name. Even when the name is not a big name,” she said.

Leighton Meester, the woman behind the TV Icon Blair Waldorf, is currently in the stage production of "Of Mice and Men." Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

Leighton Meester, the woman behind the TV Icon Blair Waldorf, is currently in the stage production of “Of Mice and Men.” Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

With this new trend of film and television actors heading to the stage has come with it a new audience, mixed reviews of the performances by these A-list stars and some resentment for the talented stage actors left unemployed as already successful stars take roles on the stage.

“I think most actors know that the ultimate test is whether they can do it on stage. There is nowhere to hide and you have to command the audience’s attention. Not everyone can do it, just like not everyone can be a film actor,” O’Leary said.

While the casting can at times be gimmicky, the new crowds, limited engagements and A-list stars all mean one thing: A livelier and flourishing theatre community.

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