June 26, 2010

Broadway's Divisive Star Wars

Is there a litmus test that can determine who’s a true Broadway star? I ask because ever since Scarlett Johansson, Denzel Washington, and Catherine Zeta-Jones picked up Tonys earlier this month, some people have been griping that the awards, and spots on the Tony broadcast, should have gone to real Broadway stars.  So I’m trying to figure out what a real Broadway star is.

Does he have to do a certain number of roles on New York stages before he can qualify?  Or have served time in one of the seemingly countless revivals of Grease? Does her primary residence have to be in New York or at least Connecticut?  Does her bank account have to be no higher than the low six-figures?

Hunter Foster clearly has a firm definition in mind. A few days after the Tony Awards were given out, Foster, who’s currently in Million Dollar Quartet, began his Broadway career as a replacement in the original production of Les Misérables back in the early ‘90s and actually lives right in the theater district (I’ve no idea what his bank account is like,) set up a Facebook page called GIVE THE TONYS BACK TO BROADWAY!! 

Over the past two weeks, nearly 9,000 people have signed up and scores have left thoughtful comments (click here to read some of them.) Foster's campaign also has drawn attention from the New York Post, L.A. Times, Village Voice and New York Times. As well as smart commentary from my fellow bloggers Theater Aficionado at Large, Gratuitous Violins and BroadwayGirlNYC.

The subject also has gotten a workout in the theater chatrooms (some wags suggest the campaign may be the result of sour grapes cultivated when Foster and his actress wife Jennifer Cody didn’t get the red carpet treatment they expected at the Tonys). Even Scarlett Johansson has chimed in (click here to read the interview she gave the online gossip monger Perez Hilton).

I usually try to stay out of these identity politics debates, be they about who’s Black enough, authentically gay, a true Jew or, now, a real Broadway star. I figure if you quack like a duck, you get to call yourself a duck with all the rights and privileges thereof. 

But three things about the current dustup annoy me enough to speak out. The first is that it’s such a total diss to the folks who worked hard and won the awards. They may not all have been my first choices but they deserve this time to bask in their success.

That’s particularly true of Washington and his co-star Viola Davis. They may be better known for the movies they’ve appeared in but both cut their teeth on the New York stage and both are giving sensational performances in the current revival of Fences that is playing to sold-out houses at the Cort Theatre until July 11.

Similarly, Johansson may be a stage newcomer but she was singled out for praise in almost every review of the revival of A View From the Bridge that closed after a limited run in April. Don’t we usually celebrate a breakout performance like the one she gave? 

The second thing that’s bothered me about this debate is that no one seems to care much about what the audience might want. People like to see actors they know. It was probably the same back in Sophocles’ day. And what’s wrong with that? 

Yes, Broadway used to mint more of its own stars but it always made room for—and at times rewarded—Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda when they wanted to do plays. Seeing Fonda in his final Broadway production is still one of my most treasured theater experiences.

The job of the people who make shows is to make ones that audiences want to see. Sometimes they can do it with compelling stories (as with August: Osage County or Next to Normal, neither of which had Hollywood stars.) At other times it will be with familiar titles and tunes (as with the high-grossing The Addams Family and the long-running ABBA show Mamma Mia!.) And sometimes it will mean casting stars. 

Seeing a show today is more expensive than ever and people who buy the tickets shouldn’t be looked down on for how they want to spend their theater dollars.

Finally, how exactly would giving the Tonys back to Broadway work?  Should we start redlining leading roles on Broadway so that anyone with a 90210 zip code has to go to the back of the line until all actors living in New York are cast?  Or should anyone who has an Oscar or who has appeared in a movie that’s made over $100 million be disqualified from Tony nominations or appearances on the Tony broadcast?

“We want the [Tony] evening to be about Broadway and for the fans of Broadway,” says the call to arms on Foster’s Facebook page. Well, I love Broadway too but the populist in me doesn’t believe Broadway should be a private club.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


jan@broadwayandme said...

Many thanks, Steve. I find, to my great surprise, that I feel very passionately about this.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I'm in complete agreement with you. While I think Hunter Foster's intentions are good, to you point about Broadway being some sort of private club, where would he draw the line? You really can't.

Timothy Childs said...

You are absolutely right. These shows are being produced at this moment in time because the producers believe there is an audience for them. And because Broadway is, after all, commercial theater, star-casting makes perfect economic sense. Look at the shows on Broadway this season that have recouped their losses. You may not be so surprised that all of those productions had stars in them.