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Stars Over Broadway

How much does star casting help a show? And what are the tradeoffs? David Finkle ruminates. logo
Ashley Judd and Jason Patric in a publicity photo
for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(Photo © Jean-Marie Guyaux)
When Ned Beatty gave an interview to The New York Times some weeks back in which he made, well, candid remarks about his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof co-stars Ashley Judd and Jason Patric, he astonished the New York theater community. After all, negative intramural opinions are usually kept away from the public forum; they're normally confided to intimates who drop by an actor's dressing room and are overheard only by a dresser.

Because Beatty's harsh comments on his colleagues' abilities echoed some assessments that had already been made by reviewers, they seemed to confirm the conjecture that both Judd and Patric had been cast in the revival of the Grade-A Tennessee Williams piece for their drawing power at the box office rather than their acting prowess. Forgotten for the moment were those reviews wherein Judd and Patric were applauded for their work, he perhaps more so than she. (By the way, it's worth noting that Beatty's general predisposition to talk disparagingly about colleagues is well known in certain quarters).

One result of all of this is that the casting of stars has become a very hot topic of discussion. The producers of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were assumed by some people to have been mercenary in their selections -- you know, "Let's make money, and the unwary patron be damned." No one would question the inadvisability of throwing actors into plays they can't handle. Moreover, no one will argue that there haven't been times when actors have landed or been considered for assignments beyond their abilities. My favorite story in this vein -- which may be apocryphal -- concerns a producer contemplating a replacement for Mary Tyler Moore, who'd taken over the lead (usually a male role) in Brian Clark's Whose Life Is It Anyway? The producer suggested getting Julie Harris. Told that Harris was unavailable, he replied, "Then get Brooke Shields!"

But producers aren't always in such cavalier moods. Thinking about protecting their investments (and their investors), they juggle many variables as adroitly as they can. My own take on Judd and Patric in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is that the producers must have thought a good deal before casting them. Neither I nor the public at large have any idea whether Judd was the first choice to succeed Francis O'Connor, who played Maggie to Ned Beatty's Big Daddy in the London revival of the Williams work, or whether Patric was the first choice to succeed Brendan Fraser as Brick.

What I can say, having seen the London version before it was imported to these shores, is that while Fraser was extremely effective -- his hulking physique added unexpected dimensions to Williams's drama -- Patric registers as no less good at his task. An underrated movie actor, Patric has always excelled at the kind of brooding in which Brick indulges along with the alcohol he continually decants. Tapping Patric for the role struck me as a shrewd move, and not necessarily a box-office-weighted one, either; though the actor has made his share of movies, he certainly can't be considered a star of Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt magnitude. His one action-hero outing -- in Speed 2: Cruise Control -- was a flop and, since then, he only seems to do movies in which he can flaunt his character acting skills.

As for Judd, she does have movie-star glamour that's fully displayed as Maggie, but it's an up-in-the-air question whether or not her film audience has been following her faithfully to the land of Tennessee Williams -- and that's something the Cat producers must have thought about before calling her agent. Not so incidentally, Judd does bring more authenticity to Maggie than Francis O'Connor did. So to my way of thinking, the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof movers and shakers are off the crass-commercial hook.

But the dilemma of how to cast shows remains, and there's no sure-fire formula for solving it. Still, some producers seem to think that they have the formula and believe that they only go wrong when they deviate from it. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, together and separately, regularly reckon that the star of any production should be the production. That was the thrust of Cats as well as The Phantom of the Opera, which turned Michael Crawford into a star -- if only when he's doing that show. When Lloyd Webber decided to produce Sunset Boulevard in New York with Glenn Close and not Patti LuPone (who'd played Norma Desmond in London), he may have outfoxed himself. The show's grosses plummeted when Close left and Betty Buckley -- not a big box office light but perhaps a much better Norma -- moved in.

Operating under a different assumption about the casting of stars are Barry and Fran Weissler. True, they hired movie star Kathleen Turner to play Maggie in their 1990 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof revival but, with shows like Grease, they have often taken the tack of casting people with some kind of recognition (often TV-Q) in supporting roles. Yet the couple's biggest coup ever may have been landing country music favorite and Broadway novice Reba McEntire to replace the bona-fide Great White Way darling Bernadette Peters in the 1999 Annie Get Your Gun revisal. The canny Weisslers were also smart in signing Melanie Griffith for a stint in Chicago, though that star's drawing power possibly had more to do with the fact that she was playing on the same street as husband Antonio Banderas than with her fitting the part so well, whatever her shortcomings as a singer and dancer.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick during
curtain calls for The Producers
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
When it comes to casting stars on Broadway, the crucial question is: Who and what exactly is a star? Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick certainly were stars during their initial run in The Producers -- so much so that when they left the show in March 2002, the box-office figures took a tumble. Now that they're back, Producers tix are once again selling like hotcakes. When Lane did Trumbo Off-Broadway, he was a hot ticket whereas subsequent players weren't. Yet Lane isn't really a movie star. Neither is Broderick a Hollywood heavy; in fact, he came close to being a laughingstock in his last big feature film, Godzilla. It remains to be seen whether the Lane-Broderick combo will do big business when they re-team for the recently announced Producers flick. For now, they may perhaps be rated as the kind of Broadway stars that Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, and Robert Preston were: East Coast attractions that didn't register the same way on the West Coast.

Producing on Broadway at today's prices is a chancy thing; so is producing Off-Broadway anyplace other than a not-for-profit company where taking risks is the mandate. Under these trying circumstances, it's increasingly difficult to determine where to draw the fine line between caution and playing it safe. Heaven help the producing aggregate that would bring The Boy From Oz, a large-scale musical about a flamboyant, gay songwriter who dies of AIDS, to the Main Stem without someone of Hugh Jackman's fame and talent to carry it. And though it may have sounded like a praiseworthy notion to give hard-working Broadway unknowns Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager the chance to sparkle in the Never Gonna Dance spotlight, these performers have proven to lack the kind of starshine that Twiggy -- perhaps not the greatest hoofer -- brought to My One and Only.

Something else that has to be looked at when weighing stars as part of a production's viability is the example that famous screen and television actors set by doing plays. How can Heather Graham's appearance in Craig Wright's Recent Tragic Events at Playwrights Horizons be assessed in terms of the tradeoffs involved? Certainly, there must be more than a couple dozen New York actresses who would have done a better acting job in the role that went to Graham, who has something of a movie name. Did Graham's presence lure some fans to PH's refurbished digs who may not have tried theater before and will now come back? That's an invaluable benefit, and it may imply that some long-range effects were taken into consideration when this casting choice was made.

Admittedly, stars can sometimes skew productions in odd ways, and not always because they're miscast or ill-equipped. Take, for example, Madonna's appearance in David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. It was stunt casting but, even though the fearless pop star got much attention, so did the play and the men -- Ron Silver and Joe Mantegna -- whom she was supposedly supporting. And what were the audiences like? Well, they certainly didn't seem to be made up of the kind of folks you'd expect to find at a Madonna concert.

Of course, the ideal answer to all of this is to cast stars who are also accomplished stage actors -- and to cast them appropriately. Al Pacino wants to play O'Neill on stage and, fortunately, he has the chops for it. So does Kevin Spacey. Dustin Hoffman found Willy Loman's brown suit a perfect fit, and Paul Newman was oh-so-right as the stage manager in Our Town. Meryl Steep's Arkadina in Mike Nichols's treatment of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull was one of the best performances of the past decade. But not every movie star who has mastered stage work wants to return to the boards; Streep hadn't done so in something like 20 years, while Newman had been absent for 38. And once Marlon Brando left the New York theater 55 years ago after his triumphal two-year run in A Streetcar Named Desire ended, he never returned.

New York theater is now and always has been a blend of art and commerce that can't be broken into components like a chemical compound. Indeed, the ratio of need for a star to a production's requirements may be very different from show to show. Sometimes producers get the balance right, sometimes they don't; sometimes their miscalculations are avoidable, and sometimes they aren't. One thing's for sure: The decisions involved are never as simple as observers have tried to make the current Cat on a Hot Tin Roof controversy out to be.

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