The absence of stars didn't hurt the Big British Monoliths of the '80s and '90s. Cynics alleged that, no matter who replaced performers in Les Miz or Miss Saigon, the shows wouldn't gain or suffer very much because they weren't built to showcase stars. Some suggested that, with Cats, there'd be no adverse effect even if a trained monkey were put in; others insisted that one or two simians did sneak in before the show closed up shop.

But, long before the British Invasion, we had musical comedy -- where, it was said, you needed a star to play Dolly, Mame, or Wildcat Jackson. So when the musical comedy renaissance began with The Producers, that smash hit trumpeted its stars, not only putting Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick's names high above the title but also including the guys' entire bodies in the logo.

We've since been reminded of what happens when your stars leave: ticket buyers leave, too. That logo just doesn't look the same with replacements in Lane and Broderick's place, does it? The Producers' producers eventually brought back the luminaries and the customers returned in kind -- until the stars left again. Now tickets can be found at TKTS.

These days, if you drive northward to Exit 16E-18E on the New Jersey Turnpike, you'll see a big billboard trumpeting The Producers that pictures neither Brad Oscar as Max nor Hunter Foster as Leo but, instead, whoever the actress is these days in the role of Ulla, surrounded by a dozen Tony Awards. Guess the management is hoping that sex will sell the show, though my assumption is that no one is going to purchase seats on the basis of this attractive but not especially mesmerizing lady. Who would have ever believed that Max and Leo wouldn't be part of The Producers' advertising campaign?

Meanwhile, right across the turnpike is the Hairspray billboard. Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur, the two original Tony-winning leads, have left the show but the sign hasn't changed. In fact, it hasn't had an alteration in a full year, when an enthusiastic critic's quotation was understandably replaced by "Winner! 8 Tony Awards 2003!" The logo didn't need to change because there were no pictures of Fierstein or Winokur to be begin with, just that stylized drawing of a half-face and hairdo and the fanciful, colorful letters that spell out Hairspray.

Okay, Winokur was a nobody when the show opened, but three-time Tony-winner Fierstein wasn't. Granted, those previous prizes didn't make him a household name in middle America but even a few of the Still-Silent Majority knew who he was from a TV appearance here, a film there. Looking back on it now, I'm amazed that Fierstein -- or at least his agent -- didn't demand from day one that he be prominently billed above the title and shown on all the artwork. But whoever made the decision to deny him has made that work in the show's favor. When I saw a sold-out matinee the other day, the entire house applauded, cheered, and stood for Michael McKean and Carly Jibson. They sure didn't seem to feel cheated for not having seen Fierstein or Winokur. I'm certain that many came out of the theater swearing that the original pair couldn't have been any better than these two. But I don't suspect that anyone comes out of The Producers either here or on the road believing that the leads they saw were as good as Lane and Broderick. How could they, with the constant build-up those guys got?

Truth to tell, Jibson is as good as Winokur. You can tell that, one day in the past couple of years, she sat in the audience of the Neil Simon Theatre, said to herself, "I can do that!" and was thoroughly convinced that she'd one day play the lead. The 19-year-old is totally confident, fascinatingly frenetic -- and, even more valuably, a marvelous company leader. Just watch her start the final curtain call of "You Can't Stop the Beat." Michael McKean? He gives it a most noble try and does exceedingly well. Granted, his timing isn't calibrated to the nano-second that Fierstein's was when, after meeting Velma and Amber Von Tussle, he declares, "I didn't care for them." McKean is an angrier and more bored housewife than Fierstein's was, but that's not the real loss. When Fierstein emerged all dolled up, once in each act, we all cheered because we knew that this was not only Edna Turnblad's ultimate dream come true but also noted drag queen Fierstein's supreme fantasy. McKean doesn't have that history of drag, so when he emerges each time in his fancy outfit, we don't have the same feeling for him.

You won't be surprised to hear that McKean is superior in one respect. He has (have you guessed?) a better speaking and singing voice than Fierstein. But, on second thought, he really doesn't -- at least not where Hairspray is concerned. Fierstein's voice is genderless. It's closer to a man's than a woman's, to be sure, but it's nevertheless free of sexual identification. McKean sounds like a man who just happens to be dressed as a woman.

Still, what Hairspray's new audiences who haven't seen Fierstein don't know won't hurt them. The mixed reviews that the critics gave McKean are beside the point. The newcomers don't know what they missed and weren't programmed from the outset through advertising to believe that there's no show without the stars, as they were with The Producers. So they'll still enjoy Hairspray for what it is -- and what it is is still considerable.

A little south of the Hairspray and The Producers' billboards is one for Mamma Mia! No star is mentioned here, either. And while the logo sports a picture of a happy bride, she is not the actress who originated the role in either the London or Broadway production, nor was she a replacement in one of those companies. She's just a model whose picture the show's producers liked. They're no dummies. That's one reason why Mamma Mia! is still doing brisk business. On the other hand, a show that's advertised on a billboard standing just before the Lincoln Tunnel -- with Hugh Jackman prominently pictured -- won't be doing any business at all in a few months.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]