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TV, or Not TV?

David Finkle examines the increasing reliance on TV-star power to sell Broadway shows. logo
David Hasselhoff
It isn't necessary to buy tickets for Game Show, the Off-Broadway replication-cum-storyline of a television quiz program, to get a TV experience in theater these days. That offering, which cannily charges money for enthusiasts to see what they could attend free elsewhere, is only the most extreme example so far of how firm a grip the tube has on the New York theater community.

Names associated with television head the list of replacements in Broadway shows these days. At the moment, David Hasselhoff of Baywatch, Cheryl Ladd of Charlie's Angels, and Jasmine Guy of A Different World are starring in (respectively) Annie Get Your Gun, Jekyll & Hyde, and Chicago. Lea Thompson of Caroline in the City recently finished a stint in Cabaret. John Ritter (Three's Company) and Henry Winkler (Happy Days) are in the original Broadway cast of The Dinner Party, while Chris Noth (Law & Order, Sex and the City) and Michael Learned (The Waltons) are in the revival of The Best Man. And let's not forget soap opera diva Susan Lucci, who played the title role in Annie Get Your Gun when Bernadette Peters took a vacation earlier this year.

These actors are veterans of sitcoms and drama series on which they've presumably earned high TVQ ratings. It's a fair guess that the producers who hire them hope their familiarity will pay off, especially in terms of attracting tourists who are contemplating a drop-in at one or more of the longer running shows. But is that the only casting consideration? Furthermore, are TV stars with scant theater credentials to be looked down on by the Broadway elite--whatever that amorphous body might be--simply because they've gained celebrity on the tube?

Fran Weissler--who, with husband Barry Weissler, wheeled a number of small-screen performers through Grease!--certainly doesn't think so. As someone used to keeping shows going and going like the Energizer bunny, she believes strongly that a producer's job is to "protect" the investors. Her form of protection, she freely admits, is to put recognizable names on marquees; but she maintains that the material has to be protected as well. "When we choose someone for a show," she says, "it's for two reasons. Hopefully, they will sell tickets. But equally important is, do they have the talent and can they do it?"

Cheryl Ladd in Annie Get Your Gun
(Photo: Andrew Eccles)
Mrs. Weissler insists that these actors, no matter who they are, audition for her. "Cheryl Ladd auditioned in my living room," she says. "She had the goods, and now people love her. It's the same as when Rosie O'Donnell and Brooke Shields did Grease!" Still, it's not obligatory that the Weisslers be knocked out at an audition. "Sometimes," Mrs. Weissler observes, "you see something that says to you, 'This is not a great audition, but I think this person has it.' You go on sheer guts." In instances where she sees the potential, Mrs. Weissler says that she doesn't hesitate to hire the person and then recommend coaching. "Tyne Daly's audition [for Gypsy] was brilliant," she says. "By the time she came into her first rehearsal, she could really sing it."

Generally, actors don't mind auditioning. "I would have asked me to audition for Cabaret!" Lea Thompson confides, going on to explain that "most of my agents hadn't heard me sing." But Thompson is an example, as are many of her colleagues, of a television personality with deep roots in theater; she started as a dancer, then progressed to Off-Broadway roles before going to Hollywood. "Truthfully," she states, "I felt way more at home on my opening night in Cabaret than I ever did in the sitcom. It's in my body, that kind of [theater] work. Being on stage is just in my blood. A sitcom never did feel like home to me."

David Hasselhoff couldn't agree more. "All I've ever wanted to do is come to Broadway," he croons. That ambition, he recalls, was born in him when he appeared in an Atlanta production of Peter Pan at age eight. For the next six years, he did something like 20 musicals in his hometown and only skirted Broadway, because opportunities that took him to other places--like his television stints in The Young and the Restless, Knight Rider and, of course, Baywatch--kept arising. Hasselhoff is now starring in Jekyll & Hyde because the show's composer, Frank Wildhorn, heard him on a CD. But the actor admits that his transition to Broadway wasn't immediately smooth.

"I felt very overwhelmed at first," Hasselhoff says, "because of the enormity of the role." Getting on stage set him right, however, as did director Robin Phillips. ("He directed me like we were doing television or a film," Hasselhoff reports.) Now that he's delivering dialogue and songs in a situation where no one can shout "cut," the Hollywood expat emphasizes, the only person to whom he has to prove anything is himself. "That pressure is intense," Hasselhoff says, "a sense of bringing dignity and honor to this role." What he doesn't want is for the typical audience response to be merely, "Gee, doesn't he sing nice!"

Jasmine Guy in Chicago
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Another performer who began her career as a dancer, Jasmine Guy, is having a great time back on the boards, and not necessarily for the reason so often given by television folks who toil on Broadway--namely, to add a valuable credit to their résumé. Guy first auditioned for the Weisslers some time back and, she says matter-of-factly, "They kept me in mind." They sure did: She has since worked for them in both Grease! and Chicago. What she feels she gains from her eight perfs a week, and what invigorates her, is the interaction with other members of the cast. "You're more on your own in TV," she notes. "I love to stand in the wings [at Chicago] and watch the other people in the cast perform."

Perhaps the first people to hear about--and approach--television stars eager to notch theater exposure on their belts are casting directors. Jim Carnahan, director of casting for the Roundabout, says that he only taps actors who are right for roles, but that "it doesn't hurt if they're TV stars." He points out that casting decisions depend partly on "where you are in the life of a play," and he allows that the front office sometimes asks, "Is there someone who can play this part who can sell tickets?" Carnahan also feels that, "on the road, there's much more need of a name." He estimates that about half of the 47 women whom he and his staff have auditioned to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret were submitted by agents; the other half were approached by his office.

Jay Binder--who handled casting for The Dinner Party, as he has done for most Neil Simon shows--insists that John Ritter and Henry Winkler aren't in the play for reasons having anything to do with their television pasts. He underscores Winkler's Yale Drama School training and the actor's participation in readings of the piece long before its Broadway run was mooted. Of Ritter, he says, "I don't think there was any better physical comedian."

According to Binder, "Nobody said, 'Get two television icons for this show.' It was the best actors interested in the play." He believes that whatever negative feelings may be associated with the casting of TV stars on Broadway are due in large part to "the snobbery of the New York press," and goes on to say that "for Kelsey Grammer to be banished in that way is completely inappropriate." He's referring to the reception the Frasier star received this summer for his stab, so to speak, at Macbeth. "The issue is that he spent time here," Binder declares. "I don't know how soon he'll want to venture back, but the New York theater community should encourage it. Given what he chose to do, certainly, it should have been noted that this is a stage actor--and a good one. Why couldn't the reviews have said, 'This might not have been a good choice, but please come back?' "

Pilgrimages from television studios to theaters may not abate anytime soon, particularly not if we consider what may happen in Hollywood this spring. Should the strikes threatened against movies and TV materialize, it's possible that unprecedented numbers of actors will descend on Manhattan in search of stage work. "TV, or not TV?" is likely to become even less cogent a question than the current crop of relocated performers is already proving it to be.

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