Decorating Broadway with Bright Stars for the Holidays

Not a Broadway season goes by without a soap star dipping their toe in the Chicago pool at the Ambassador Theatre—so well oiled is that bare-bones revival that it was able to survive the placement of Ashlee Simpson. It’s become a petri dish for stunt casting experiments. A few blocks north, at the Circle in the Square Theatre, heartthrob Hunter Parish—he gained notoriety for “playing” dense on Showtime’s Weeds—is dancing around as the lord and savior in Godspell. Hunter has been no savior for the Stephen Schwartz musical, or so say the critics. Kara DioGuardi, Christie Brinkley—the stunts go on and on.

Broadway producers have forsaken the “art” of show business, opting to focus on the “business” prospects of an industry built on fickle tourists. Can you blame them? Purists often try, but they aren’t the ones funding these shows. They’re waiting in rush lines, trying to pay as little as possible to be entertained. They shouldn’t be blamed either. Alas, take note, purists: you don’t factor into the business part of show, at least not when it comes to the bottom line.

During this holiday season, as families swarm Manhattan for Christmas cheer and a supposed “sure bet” on Broadway, where does a theater aficionado look to for a Broadway-caliber experience? Seek out the lesser evils. Find the “quality” A-listers, or as I like to call them, bright stars—those recognizable faces plunked down on stage in order to draw critical praise while also bringing a certain charisma sought out by Us Weekly. Consider it a happy medium, because casting stars on stage is nothing new, nor is it going anywhere in the foreseeable future. The rent is too damn high.

A rare gift was recently handed down from the silver screen gods, Harry Potter. Unlike, say, Twilight, which had a single casting goal in mind—make girls squeal—Potter approached its casting decisions with acting in mind. A novel idea. Perhaps it was a British mindset, something America has yet to accept from its former rulers. We threw out more than tea in Boston, we seemingly tossed a bit of class. Potter’s casting team and directors hand picked an ensemble that understood the craft, at least for many of the key roles. And Broadway has reaped some of those rewards, both on the business and artistic sides.

Casting Daniel Radcliffe in Equus showed audiences more than his unmentionables—young Harry Potter proved that he could handle the complexities of a challenging theatrical work. He then danced his way to the Hirschfeld Theatre, joining another brotherhood—the American Musical. Critical praise came, as did tabloid coverage, screaming girls, and box office receipts. How to Succeed, indeed.

Now the deliciously sinister Alan Rickman, known to Tweens everywhere as Professor Snape, is whirling his acting wand around the Golden Theatre in Broadway’s Seminar. He’s certainly no stranger to Broadway, nor the stage, but to Potter-obsessed audiences, a marquee with his name flashing in bright lights means more than quality, it means celebrity. And that benefits a play like Seminar, deserving of extra attention.

Bright stars—you might recognize their faces, but you’ll definitely remember their talent.

Film star Scarlett Johansson took time away from moviemaking in 2009 to make her Broadway debut—the decision resulted in Tony Award-winning success—but her transition from film to stage wasn’t as simple as pouting one’s lips. Liev Schreiber, her co-star in the play A View From the Bridge, recently noted that stage acting proved difficult, at first, for Johansson. “You’re articulating the idea of a playwright more than you are acting. And if you articulate the idea of the play, there will be emotion behind it. But if you’re ahead of it with the emotion, then the audience just perceives it as narcissistic. It’s about the actor acting. You’ve got to get egg on your face to learn those things.”

I’ll be the first in line to turn my nose up at the thought of Jerry Springer coming to Broadway, but for the good of the theatrical economy, perhaps the ire should be directed at Hollywood casting directors. With blockbuster movies being used as the barometer for future Broadway stars and starlets, start demanding more from you summer popcorn fare. Try pressuring Hollywood into doing it like the Brits. Or perhaps try convincing George Clooney to team up with David Mamet—a truly perfect holiday gift.

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