Looking at the current Broadway season, both at shows that have already closed and upcoming productions, the most prevalent trend is star power. And by star, I don’t mean theatrical heavyweights like Ethel Merman, George M. Cohan or Bert Lahr — these names certainly mean little to nothing when it comes to the current theatregoing masses. Stars on Broadway this season mean Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Scarlett Johansson.
All of these actors have names that transcend the stage — something producers surely hope will fill seats as tourists roll into town. While some of these recognizable names won over even the toughest of Broadway critics, and proved more than capable of handling a live production, it was name alone that won them the role.
The trend of casting Hollywood celebrities in Broadway shows is nothing new, and has been griped about by many a theatre columnist, however, with news of Ragtime, a completely star-less musical closing after a brief revival, the subject should once again be analyzed.
Broadway advertisements should cease saying a particular show is “starring” an actor if by actor it means movie star. Moving forward, it would be wonderful to see commercials and posters touting a Broadway show is “celebritying” a Hollywood actor and leave “starring” for the theatrical legends. Angela Lansbury is starring in A Little Night Music, while Catherine Zeta-Jones is celebritying in the Stephen Sondheim musical.
To be fair, Zeta-Jones is delightful in Night Music, and her singing and dancing abilities are on par with many a strong stage actor, however, Christiane Noll delivers a knockout performance (see video) in Ragtime, but it would be a cold day in hell before her name showed up on PerezHilton.com, so saying Noll is starring in a production means little money in the bank for producers.
In this time of economic uncertainty producers shouldn’t be blamed for trying everything in their power to fill seats. It was a brilliant move teaming up Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig on stage in A Steady Rain, as Jackman has proven an exception to the celebrity rule after making Broadway is second home. But, while A Steady Rain might have brought in the bucks it sacrificed cultural value — the production was a complete snore.
Ragtime’s lack of celebrity is one of many reasons why the musical failed to set box office records, as was pointed out by Patrick Healy in The New York Times last week. While that ultimately led to an early demise — the production is set to close on January 3rd — Ragtime should wear that as a badge of honor.
Set at the turn of the century, Ragtime is a sweeping story that follows three truly American stories, a Jewish immigrant and his daughter, a well-to-do white family and a Harlem musician (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.) dead set on attaining equal rights for African Americans. Not something light and mindless like White Christmas, but certainly more fulfilling.
The cast and crew of Ragtime should go their closing proudly and remember the words passionately sung by Coalhouse at the show’s end:
And say to those who blame us
for the way we chose to fight
that sometimes there are battles
which are more than black or white
Ragtime chose to stand up to the celebrity factor and prove a point, that actors and a strong story, not a celebrity, make a fulfilling show. So to Christiane Noll (Mother), Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse), Bobby Steggert (Mother’s Younger Brother), Robert Petkoff (Tateh), Stephanie Umoh (Sarah), Ron Bohmer (Father) and the daring producers of Ragtime, thank you for a worthy revival of this important musical.