Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Broadway & Hollywood: Harmonious Marriage or Torrid Affair?

I have been waiting to discuss the Broadway community's internal conflict over the presence of Hollywood on the Great White Way until I had completely sorted out my own thoughts on the subject and I'm finally ready to comment. I saw the writing on the wall during this year's TONY awards ceremony when Scarlett Johansson, Denzel Washington, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, all film actors, won the TONY award in each of their respective categories. The backlash from certain Broadway "purists" was almost immediate with a facebook group aiming to "Give The TONYs Back To Broadway" which now has nearly 9,000 followers. It is important to note that the performers leading this charge against film actors are not Broadway headliners, other than TONY nominees Hunter Foster and Christopher Sieber, but primarily chorus members. This adds a new layer to the argument as their protest may simply be a cry for the fame that they have sought but never achieved. But that is neither here nor there.

The primary argument made by Foster, Sieber, and company is that the TONY awards should be a celebration of a year in the theatre and the greater Broadway community rather than a showcase for Hollywood celebrities and commercial musicians like Green Day. In fact, this year's opening number was themed "pop songs that you didn't know were from musicals," which was clearly an attempt to sell Broadway to mass audiences. As a performer myself and a believer in creating theatre for artistic, rather than commercial gain, I completely understand where these performers are coming from. However, I also realize that Broadway is a business and that it needs to take in enough revenue to sustain itself for future generations.

I'm sure we would all love to return to the Golden Age of Broadway where theatre actors were revered and musicals were star vehicles for leading ladies like Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand and audiences would see shows simply because they loved the music, stories, and costumes. But something changed with American audiences, perhaps it was the growth of television, and the theatre began to lose its status.

The big budget musicals of the 1980s, notably Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, found a new way to attract audiences to the theatre. The producers of these shows found that if audiences, particularly tourists, could be wowed by elaborate sets and special effects, they did not mind paying a higher ticket price. This age of Broadway saw not only a dramatic increase in ticket prices, but also a change in mindset as audiences wanted to see their money on stage in the form of sheer spectacle rather than performance and talent.

This brings us to the box office tactic known as "stunt casting". Casting B-list celebrities in long-running shows, such as Ashlee Simpson in Chicago, Mario Lopez in A Chorus Line, and Lance Bass in Hairspray are all examples of this practice employed by certain Broadway producers to boost tickets sales. While it is great for audiences to see their favorite stars onstage, these actors from film and television take jobs away from theatre performers who have work very hard to rise out of the chorus. The reasons for casting major stars in Broadway productions are similar to stunt casting in that their names and starpower draw large audiences. But now that I've explained the background information, it is time to get to my opinions.

First, I think it is important to look at the broad scope of things before passing judgement. For every Hollywood actor that was rewarded with a TONY this season, there were many theatre actors that were also rewarded. Yes, Scarlett Johansson won the Best Featured Actress in a Play category, but an up an coming theatre actor, Eddie Redmayne won the Best Featured Actor in a Play category. In the musical performance categories, 3 of the 4 winners, Katie Finneran, Levi Kreis, and Douglass Hodge are theatre actors through and through, with Catherine Zeta-Jones being the only Hollywood gal, and even she got her start in 42nd Street on London's West End.

I look at this issue as a give and take between the Broadway Babies and the visiting Hollywood starlets. Big stars guarantee ticket sales, giving directors and producers a financial cushion so they can take risks with their productions. For example, outside of the hardcore Sondheim fans, this season's revival of A Little Night Music probably would not have had much of a fan base, if any at all, without Catherine Zeta-Jones leading the cast. But because a well known actress signed on with the show, this incredible piece of theatre was brought back to Broadway and a whole new generation of fans, not to mention it employed an entire cast of Broadway actors. Also, because Zeta-Jones' run in the show was such a box office success, the show can have a life even after she leaves. And best of all, Broadway fans will have the treat of seeing our very own Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch lead a show that may never have been revived at all without Miss Zeta-Jones.

It is my personal belief that live theatre must live on and it must continue to affect new generations of theatre-goers in anyway possible as long as the integrity of Broadway is preserved. I am still opposed to the "stunt casting" of shows with B-list celebrities, but I fully support the incorporation of trained and dedicated film actors, Denzel Washington among them, into Broadway productions if that is what it takes to get people into the theatres. I will even guess that most of the people who saw A View From The Bridge merely for Scarlett Johansson left with an appreciation for Arthur Miller, one of most beloved American playwrights in our history. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that almost all of those Scarlett fans are now Broadway fans that will continue to see theatrical productions for years to come, and that is just fine by me.

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