We live in a world where a quick, temporary fix is often chosen over a long-term, more permanent solution to a challenge. Sadly, Broadway is no exception. Fifteen years ago, in response to dwindling audiences, theatrical producers started recruiting celebrities in an attempt to draw crowds. This practice may not have really solved the problem and has, essentially, changed the face of New York theater. The change hasn’t always been for the better.
Hiring celebrity talent is expensive. Big names (Hugh Jackman, Nathan Lane, Daniel Craig, and Daniel Radcliffe, to name just a few) have commanded over $100,000 a week for their roles on Broadway in the last few years. These soaring paychecks, of course, lead to higher ticket prices for theater-goers. If the goal was to increase theater attendance, has it really worked? I can tell you that, with tickets ranging from $150 to $300 each, many of the people in my social circle still go to the theater, but we go far less often. Additionally, when a show has been promoted based on a celebrity’s limited engagement and that engagement ends, audience attendance has been noted to decline again, unless another star of comparable popularity assumes the role.
And that, perhaps, is the most negative outcome of all. In an attempt to keep big names on marquees, Broadway producers often seem to cast a celebrity based on his/her star power, without even considering whether or not the individual can keep up with the supporting, professional ensemble. The result is often embarrassing for the celebrity. Simply put, a big name is not always synonymous with big talent. Attractive models that can’t carry a tune, one-hit country singers who can sing but can’t act, pop stars who break character in the middle of a performance to acknowledge a theater full of screaming music fans… none of these individuals belong on a Broadway stage. It diminishes the experience that is Broadway. With such a wealth of talent available in the city, this trend is insulting to hard-working, deserving actors and the theater-goers who love them.
Rather than simply filling seats a celebrity at a time, producers would do well to remember who theater lovers really are. We’re not impressed by gimmicks. We aren’t drawn by a name unless it’s backed by talent worthy of a Broadway stage. Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, Stomp, the Book of Mormon, and the recent August: Osage County have all enjoyed incredibly long runs or sold out performances, not because of an association with a big name, but because they offer theater lovers what Broadway, the theater capital of an entire nation, is known for – wonderful shows, impressively produced, with inspiring performances of the highest standard.