Using TV and movie names to lure bigger audiences to Broadway is hardly a new trick. Still, when Julia Roberts arrives in New York next spring to star in Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, she'll bring an unusually high measure of star wattage -- and producers are already eager to bask in that light.
"I told (Rain) producer David Stone, 'Well, this certainly opens the floodgates,'" says Margo Lion, whose hits include Hairspray. Rain's other producer, Marc Platt, notes that an A-list name above the marquee "will certainly get more attention from audiences who might not otherwise consider going to a Broadway play. And you hope that success begets more success."
That's one way of viewing the selling power of celebrities in recent seasons. Playbill.com editor Robert Simonson cites how Denzel Washington, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Billy Crystal lured ticket buyers despite "not always being particularly well received" by critics.
Combs' 2004 Broadway debut in A Raisin in the Sun ended with three sold-out weeks, and last spring's revival of Julius Caesar starring Washington grossed $8.5 million over 14 weeks and played to houses averaging 92% full, according to data compiled by the League of American Theatres and Producers. A 2003 revival of Salome with Al Pacino drew 89% capacity despite lukewarm reviews, and Hugh Jackman's star turn in The Boy from Oz attracted nearly sold-out crowds for its final 14 weeks.
But veteran producer David Richenthal notes that although "stars are the best insurance, one can make a list of instances where that insurance hasn't been sufficient." He lists Jessica Lange's recent appearance in The Glass Menagerie, which failed to generate critical or commercial heat, and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer's Macbeth, which closed after only 21 performances in 2000.
"You'll have a certain number of people in the industry gunning for Julia," Richenthal adds. "The attitude of some in the theater community will be, 'Come and prove it.' It's riskier than it sounds."
Raisin producer David Binder agrees. "We've seen huge stars not make it on Broadway because the performance or the production didn't deliver."
On the other hand, Lions says, big names can be a boon to playwrights as well as producers. Broadway "has lost a lot of talented writers to Hollywood," she says, and luminaries such as Roberts could help persuade screenwriters "to take a chance on theater. That's how it's done in London. In an ideal world, young writers could move back and forth between New York and Los Angeles."
League president Jed Bernstein hopes that actors will continue to follow suit. "For those of us on Broadway, it's exciting to have them shine an even brighter spotlight on what's going on."
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