From Idina Menzel to Kelli O'Hara, Broadway's Biggest Stars Are Taking Back the Spotlight This Season
The Great White Way's veterans (and some rising stars) are lighting up marquees once again…but can it last?
James Franco is on Broadway this season. So are Bryan Cranston, Zach Braff, and Michelle Williams. That's a lot of celebrity onstage, and yet all that supernova-level star power is more than outweighed by the Broadway big names who are treading the boards. Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel, Norbert Leo Butz, Kelli O'Hara, Jessie Mueller, Jefferson Mays, Cherry Jones, and Stephen Spinella, to name a few, are huge Broadway talents taking on roles that could have gone to more tabloid-friendly, internationally known celebs. Based on the marquees alone, it looks like the Great White Way is seeing a resurgence of the Broadway Star.
This renaissance is due, in part, to theater producers taking what could be a risk and financing projects that don't feature movie or TV stars. According to eminent Broadway casting director and MCC Theater cofounder Bernie Telsey, this bravery emerged because many of the season's Broadway star-led shows began their process out of town with the same actors in the principal roles, giving producers the chance to see those artists in action.
"People like Kelli and Jefferson and Cherry and Idina can all carry shows, and I think when they get seen in these early readings or early development or the regional theater productions, producers see how good they are, and then they want to build Broadway productions on them. The star-chasing thing does go away," said Telsey.
Recent Broadway seasons have also demonstrated that a household name above the title does not guarantee audiences in seats. "There have been some cases in recent years where celebrities were cast and the show didn't succeed," Velocity of Autumn producer Van Dean posits, so producers are less likely to go that direction without at least considering other options. Shows like Dead Accounts, starring Katie Holmes, and Breakfast at Tiffany's, starring Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke, for instance, opened in 2012 and announced their closings within a month.
The 2013-2014 season got underway in earnest last fall with Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie, Norbert Leo Butz in Big Fish, and Mary Bridget Davies in A Night With Janis Joplin. And the season has continued to include a host of shows, only about a third of which feature a big celebrity. The Broadway talent-rich year currently being enjoyed by theatergoers may seem the result of the convergence of several factors, but both Telsey and Jessie Mueller, Tony-nominated star of Beautiful — The Carole King Musical, attest that confirming how long this trend is here to stay isn't so simple. "Everything goes in cycles," said the actress. "Back in the day, the Broadway stars used to go do movies in the forties and fifties, so maybe it's swapping back…but it's interesting and it's exciting."
Telsey concurred, but pinpointed a specific element of Broadway producing that also factors in. "Some of it always has to do with timing. When you think about when Glass Menagerie first started at A.R.T. or Beautiful or Bridges [of Madison County] first started in their workshops, they never start all in the same season."
Whether this year's abundance of roles for Broadway favorites can be considered a bona fide trend, the success or failure of this season's shows will have an impact on future casting. So far, things look good for Broadway purists. The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Zachary Quinto (granted, a somewhat starrier name since his leading role in the new Star Trek franchise), opened to rave reviews and extended nearly two months past its originally scheduled closing date. Likewise, the U.K.-transplanted repertory production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Richard III exceeded expectations and even made back its investment .
"Shakespeare plays with Mark Rylance are a perfect example," said Larry Kaye, Dean's Velocity of Autumn coproducer. "He is an actor's actor. There was nobody else in those two plays [who] had a super prominent name, but the material was rendered so well that it didn't matter. People were hungry for the good material, well-produced and well-rendered."
It remains to be seen whether this year's prominence of the Broadway Star can, in fact, kick off a broader trend. "Casting is simply one factor," Kaye explained. "There are many other things that determine [if] your show is going to be successful: whether it's critically well received, whether the material is good and strong and will generate good word of mouth — which is the way most tickets are sold."
It's worth remembering, too, that Broadway can be a launching pad for theater actors who turn into big-name celebrities. "Look at Bernadette Peters and Barbra Streisand," Mueller points out. "People would be stupid not to let them do whatever they wanted in any kind of medium...we try to put ourselves in little categories — the straight actors and the musical theater actors, the Hollywood actors and the theater actors — but, it's like, we're all kind of doing the same thing."
In addition to highlighting homegrown theater stars, this Broadway season is also grooming the next generation of above-the-title names, and audiences are eager to help discover these new talents. "It's really hard to sing Beautiful, it's really hard to sing The Bridges of Madison County, it's really hard to sing If/Then," Telsey stressed. "You need people who are trained in that medium…and that's never gone away. Theater has had Idina and Norbert and Brian d'Arcy James and Raúl [Esparza], and now you've got the new [Jonathan] Groffs or the new Jeremy Jordans in the world. So audiences are completely open to making stars."