Marquee or Not Marquee?: That is the Question

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Al Pacino
Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross
Photo by Scott Landis

Received Broadway wisdom (wisdom on Broadway! Wow! What a concept!) has it that marquee names are virtually indispensable. To getchur money back, you gotta star Al Pacino or Scarlett Johansson or Jessica Chastain or Tom Hanks.

The apercu has dominated for some time. And if you look at the dough initially pouring into the Richard Rodgers box office where Johansson is emoting to favorable Cat on a Hot Tin Roof personal reviews and if you consider the Gerald Schoenfeld bonanza where Pacino is thesping to misunderstanding dismissive Glengarry Glen Ross notices and if you peek at the Walter Kerr books where Jessica Chastain’s bland turn is credited with fast recoupment, you’d think the argument is settled.

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If, however, you’re hearing buzz of Hanks’s tepid Lucky Guy advance revenues at the Music Box and hearing the new phrase “superstar backlash” bandied about, you might wonder whether marquee names on the Great White Way is an iron-clad in-the-black guarantee. Furthermore, if you consider the take-in results of recent Hollywood actors considered bankable-Paul Rudd, late of Grace, and Bette Midler, currently of I’ll Eat You Last-or gossip-column prominent-Katie Holmes of Dead Accounts-you might place less stock in the axiom.

Producers insisting on it might, of course, try dismissing the anomalies by claiming anyone failing to cause box-office stampedes mustn’t be a bona fide name. They might speculate that Hanks in a play about the late Daily News reporter Mike McAlary by the late Nora Ephron is no longer the reliable draw he was in the last few 20th-century decades.

On the other hand, you might challenge the prevailing assumptions and decide marquee names aren’t an absolute necessity. You might refer to productions lacking marquee names that have fared well. The Tony-winning(!) Memphis ran for nearly three years with no stars but rather Chad Kimball and Montego Glover stirring audiences with their electrifying performances of a hot score.

Coming to the Shubert this spring trailing its laudatory London reviews is the musical Matilda, with award-winning Bertie Carvel in a cross-dressing leading role. You’re asking “who he?” but maybe not when he walks off with a 2013 Tony. Moreover, it’s likely that this one-adapted from Roald Dahl’s children’s book-will also snag a best-musical Tony and reap box-office millions here as well as there but not because Dahl is a b-o magnet anymore.

What about the monumentally money-making Wicked, which opened with Kristin Chenoweth before she’d built her television following and the crowd-pleasing but not ticket-selling Idina Menzel? It may be questionable to suggest that the marquee name here was The Wizard of Oz, since that title wasn’t the played-up element in the tuner’s come-ons. A better case could be made that the marquee names for The Book of Mormon are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but if you just asked yourself who Parker and Stone are (the South Park boys), you’ve conceded the issue.

Granted, the success stories cited above are musicals. So maybe straight plays are what shout out for box-office boosts. Could be, since Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hasn’t done well with Amy Morton and Tracy Letts. (Does this also indicate that Albee is no longer a marquee name? Never was?)

Yeah, but Tracy Letts as the August: Osage County playwright saw his work last a year and a half-in large part because as a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner, the drama itself became the marquee name. Also, the Steppenwolf cast boasted no stars, which meant replacing them kept the box office unfazed. Actually, replacement actor Estelle Parsons undoubtedly added Oscar luster if not income.

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What about something like The History Boys, the huge hit at London’s National Theatre that came with no big names and misgivings about whether a script concerning an English public school would have appeal? It did and proved to be a wiser gamble than many straight plays with glossy names.

No one can blame producers, wanting to turn profits, for doing whatever they can to lure investors for risky new plays or dubious revivals or expensive musicals. But is the emphasis on names overrated when other factors are in play? Could it be that giving the public what it wants does not always mean offering stars for wide-eyed patrons to autograph-hound after the show? Where were the Debra Winger or Patti LuPone adulators when David Mamet’s The Anarchist shuttered so resoundingly fast. Could it be that what no one is facing up to is the need for quality in the basic material? Could it be that the play, not the player, is still the thing?

Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Photo by Joan Marcus

The responses to those rhetorical questions bring up a few ancillary aspects. One is the return of a Broadway item familiar in the first two-thirds of the 20th century: the vehicle. Yes, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross could be the best American play of the 1980s, but this season it’s a vehicle for Al Pacino. Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a vehicle for Johansson.

In other words, if the marquee-name theory holds, Broadway is once again a parking-lot for fabulous vehicles. And more than that, it’s vehicle time not for Broadway stars but for movie and television headliners. No more John Barrymore or sister Ethel, Helen Hayes, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Zero Mostel, Carol Channing. Is there even one name primarily associated with Broadway still selling tickets? Okay, Nathan Lane. Try identifying another.

Lastly, isn’t it being overlooked that names have their downside? And is that’s what’s behind the cracks beginning to show in the axiom these last few months? Let’s say a producer lands a star for a short period of time between silver-screen assignments, must make the investment back quickly and so nails a house with large weekly revenue potential. Let’s say the play is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof-originally presented at the now vanished Morosco (approx, 955 seats)-and that the play and the production is severely compromised at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (approx. 1300-plus seats).

Let’s call the practice The Scarlett Johansson Syndrome and quietly mull over the ramifications.

  • I agree with everything you said, but particularly appreciate your mention of the Morosco, the first Broadway playhouse I attended. It’s been gone for 30 years, along with the Helen Hayes and Bijou, and I miss all three of them very much, along with the less-expensive, more drama-oriented Broadway they represent to me.