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Are the Stars Out Tonight?

David Barbour muses on the phenomenon of Broadway actors missing performances. logo
In what may be the most highly anticipated return since the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will resume their starring roles in The Producers for a limited engagement beginning on December 30 and ending on April 4. When this was first hinted way back in August, it sparked a frenzy; with New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel fanning the flames of the rumor, the St. James Theatre's box office was besieged by people lining up to buy tickets that wouldn't actually go on sale until months later.

The return of Lane and Broderick is generally viewed as very good news for The Producers, a show that fell from the box-office stratosphere when the stars' contracts ran out. But the news may not be as good as it sounds, for the fact is that neither performer has a great attendance record. During his first stint in the role of Max Bialystock, Lane fell into a terrible funk despite the acclaim, the awards, and his astronomical salary. He went so far as to cry the blues to Alex Witchel of The New York Times in an astonishing interview that offered up numerous details about his tragic childhood and boyfriend troubles. Overall, he made the prospect of starring in The Producers sound about as appealing as a two-year stretch in the Gulag Archipelago. In the end, Lane missed an enormous number of his scheduled performances in the show, reportedly due to a polyp on one of his vocal cords -- and though Broderick missed far less often, his attendance record was far from perfect.

Before we accuse anyone of malingering, let's consider that chronically absent stars may be suffering from a serious and heretofore undiagnosed disease. This past spring, while the rest of the world was worried about the Asian-based infection known as SARS, Broadway was dealing with a far more insidious phenomenon that I call STARS: "Stars Affected by Repetition Syndrome." The problem became citywide news when most of the second-night press corps was shut out of Gypsy for a week during the show's preview period because star Bernadette Peters had come down with a respiratory infection; in response, the media made Peters the official poster child of STARS. Currently, another revival is weathering a similar situation as Donna Murphy continues to miss previews of Wonderful Town due to the flu.

What's going on? Is Broadway going to hell in a handcart? Is this the end of theater as we know it? Hardly. It's fashionable to blame today's performers for a fundamental lack of the right stuff; nostalgists recall those long-past days when not even floods, civil alerts, or broken limbs were enough to stop Merman, Channing, or the Lunts from making their appointed rounds. One of the funniest passages in Elaine Stritch at Liberty recalls Stritch's attempt to understudy Merman in the New York company of Call Me Madam while simultaneously playing a featured role in the New Haven tryout of a Pal Joey revival. A trouper if ever there was one, Stritch pulled it off -- but the real joke is that her multiple trips up and down the Merritt Parkway were totally unnecessary because Merman was never going to miss a performance. Clearly, both women were born with an immunity to STARS.

While it's true that many of our senior performers appear to be made of sterner stuff -- has anyone ever heard of Chita Rivera or Marian Seldes calling in sick? -- it's also true that outbreaks of STARS have been occurring for decades. Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett quickly grew disenchanted with their lackluster 1960s vehicles Wildcat and Fade Out -- Fade In and tried everything to wriggle out of their contracts. When Las Vegas hepcat Sammy Davis, Jr. wearied of the nightly routine in Broadway's Golden Boy, he started finding reasons not to show up. And let's not forget David Merrick's famous remark that Pearl Bailey's two-year run in Hello, Dolly! resulted in three years' worth of missed performances.

There's very little to be done about STARS; a quarantine isn't practical and there's certainly no vaccine. There are, however, three warning signs of this dread disease and it's important that producers learn to recognize them. If someone in your show is experiencing these symptoms, it's time to call the doctor -- or, at least, the Equity Deputy:

1) Aches and pains. Broadway doesn't generate its own celebrities anymore, so they have to be imported, usually from film and television. There's nothing wrong with this system as long as everyone understands the hard work involved. Even for theater regulars, a Broadway show can be a tough go; just ask Melissa Errico, who burst a blood vessel in her throat during the last revival of My Fair Lady, or Laura Benanti, who required back surgery while appearing in Into the Woods. Many Hollywood types, accustomed to the daily grind of sitting around their trailers as they wait for their close-up or a call from Vanity Fair, are ill prepared for the intense concentration and physical stamina required by an eight-performances-a-week schedule. Thus Julie Andrews, who in her youth navigated such demanding roles as Eliza Doolittle and Queen Guenevere, was undone decades later by the demands of Victor/Victoria. Andrews set one of the all-time records for absenteeism, missing more than 250 performances. (Then again, given how Victor/Victoria turned out, it's a wonder that she showed up at all; if someone had asked me to sing "Louis Says" in public eight times a week, I would have probably gone into the federal witness protection program.)

2) Fatigue. Star roles are more demanding than ever. Older vehicles such as Annie Get Your Gun and The Music Man aren't walks in the park but they were constructed to give their lead actors time to rest and regroup during a performance; nowadays, stars are expected to never leave the stage in order to justify those $100 ticket prices. This practice began, I believe, with the 1978 Liza Minnelli vehicle The Act. Minnelli, then at the peak of her popularity, was required to deliver all but two of the score's musical numbers and, predictably, she started missing performances. Nathan Lane's absences from The Producers may have had a lot to do with the demands of that show: After carrying on like a maniac for nearly three hours, Lane was forced to deliver the 11 o'clock number "Betrayed," in which Max Bialystock reenacts the entire play in four minutes and 52 seconds. This season, producers had better hope that Hugh Jackman (The Boy From Oz) and Ellen Burstyn (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All) have the energy to handle their rigorous roles. On the other hand, I have no such worries about Tovah Feldshuh (Golda's Balcony), a woman who could probably play Golda Meier indefinitely and settle the Middle East situation on her days off.

3) A general feeling of malaise. Hey, it's not easy doing eight shows a week, simulating the same emotions and singing the same songs over and over again until the melodies and lyrics are branded into your brain. Noël Coward himself never liked to appear in his vehicles for more than three months. This is probably the right place to mention Audra McDonald, one of Broadway's most notorious truants. I saw Ragtime three times but I only saw McDonald once; she even missed many performances, both scheduled and unscheduled, during the limited run of Marie Christine. A short list of other performers who have developed reputations for chronic absenteeism would have to include Emily Skinner and the aforementioned Laura Benanti.

Of course, there are such things as acts of God. Sometimes, bad things happen to good actors. My first, admittedly rather cold, reaction to reading a death notice for the actress Rachel Kempson was that there would be understudies on at Long Day's Journey Into Night and Talking Heads that week -- and, indeed, dutiful daughters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave did miss performances for their mother's funeral. As it happens, both sisters are total pros; Lynn Redgrave did Talking Heads for several months Off-Broadway despite her recent cancer treatments.

We should pay tribute to the Redgraves and to the many other stars whose attendance record is impeccable. Antonio Banderas apparently never missed a performance in the demanding lead role of Nine, and not even a stun gun could keep Harvey Fierstein out of Hairspray. As for those who are susceptible to STARS, perhaps they wouldn't succumb if the disease were warded off with lots of good reviews, applause, and cash. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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