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Times They Are A-Changin': A Look At How Broadway Producers Use Big Names To Attract Audiences

Danielle Turchiano Danielle Turchiano
June 4th, 2008 9:00am EDT
Katie HolmesWith the 12-year run of Jonathan Larson's "RENT" coming to a close this September, the course of Broadway's history will be forever altered as the seventh-longest running show of all-time, and longest current show, will be no more. "RENT" touched a generation, not only introducing youth to musical theater but also actually getting them excited for it.

The play also launched stars as well as attracted them in its later years. Brief performances by Neil Patrick Harris, *NSYNC's Joey Fatone, Melanie 'Sporty Spice' Brown, My So-Called Life's Wilson Cruz or American Idol's Frenchie Davis and Tamyra Gray certainly brought in renewed interest, as well as new media coverage, expanding the show's audience to yet another generation. In fact, just like how the tide of entertainment news has turned from simple film promotion to focusing on every celebrity happening from the life changing to the mundane, so is Broadway hoping to capitalize on the public's ever-expanding interest in such stars.

Before Christina Applegate struck comedy gold with Samantha Who? she took a stint in "Sweet Charity," a play about a young hostess' exploits dealing with love and life in New York City. Unfortunately for fans and the show in general, Applegate broke her foot during rehearsal, and without her the show was destined to close early. Applegate pleaded with producers to keep the show going long enough to take the stage, but by then the damage had already been done. There wasn't enough interest in the revival past its star, even when Molly Ringwald stepped in, and "Sweet Charity's" lights went out only eight months after it opened.

Christina Applegate

Similarly, producers hoped to drum up interest for old classics like "A Raisin in the Sun," "Hairspray," or "The Color Purple" by casting those who would appear to the MTV and younger generations, like Sean P. Diddy Combs, Ashley Parker Angel, and Fantasia, respectively. What they failed to take in to consideration while courting the younger audiences was the rising ticket prices in a city that has become too expensive to live right out of college without at least two roommates and eating Top Ramen and popcorn for dinner. Oh, and the fact that attention spans have gotten shorter and shorter. It is hard enough to sit still during a two-hour show if the plot drags for even a few minutes or doesn't feature any special effects, so no matter how they try to glam it up, Broadway may always have an old-fashioned feel.

Sean P. Diddy Combs

Bringing in celebrities is certainly not a foolproof contingency plan as the media names a new "it" star every few months or so, and the cost of keeping up often proves to be too much for some of the more meager theatres, which explains why nowadays shows come on and off of the various stags from 42nd to 53rd Streets in Manhattan quicker than the cabs fly by the corner when you're trying to hail one.

Though many actors often gravitate toward the live energy of the stage because that atmosphere feeds into their need for immediate gratification. The rush from looking out at a couple hundred faces all eager to hear the next line in prose or song is like nothing they will get on a film set. Celebrities are often anxious to move on to their next project after only a few months too, having gotten used to that kind of lifestyle from their time in film.

So while productions of "Curtains," "The Year of Magical Thinking," "Talk Radio," and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" all saw major surges while boasting headliners David Hyde Pierce, Vanessa Redgrave, Liev Schreiber, and Kevin Spacey, respectively, the shows are destined to have a blink-and-you-missed them run because who could follow those leads? Once the stars decide to move on, the shows undoubtedly will be forced to close as well. Whereas the power of Broadway used to be about the stories, it now appears to be in the hands of the storytellers.

Kevin Spacey

Even though "In The Heights," the hip-hop and salsa-infused tale of young working-class New Yorkers by a young New Yorker, appeals to the younger demographic, it endured years off-Broadway before slow-spreading word of mouth from the city's anti-hipsters and theatre critics garnered its uptown move. Now it has gained even more acclaim through multiple Tony nominations, but its stars are still virtual unknowns, so therefore its box office has only been modest. Unfortunately, it seems like today's Broadway requires the courting of an already famous face to bring the people in droves.

Fresh off the backlash of her oddball marriage to (recently turned-equally-oddball) Tom Cruise and her disappointing film choices (Mad Money), Katie Holmes is hoping to regain some acting cred for her turn in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," making her Broadway debut this fall. It's sad, but perhaps "In The Heights" should try to steal her away in an attempt to give them the much-deserved numbers she will undoubtedly bring to her performances...even if half of those people are just hoping for a glimpse of Tom, hovering eerily in the wings.

Katie Holmes

What do you think about big name stars appearing on Broadway? Make a comment!

Danielle Turchiano
Story by Danielle Turchiano
Starpulse contributing writer


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