There have always been stars on Broadway. And stars that pump the theater full of energy. Until the growth of the nonprofit movement in the 1950s and 1960s, it was always a purely commercial proposition, and nothing moves tickets more effectively, typically, than the presence of a star (or two or three, if you’re lucky). One can achieve commercial success without a star. But the star-driven vehicle is an economic and cultural tradition of the Broadway theater. And theater people, being insiders, have a curious habit of forgetting what often motivates Mr. and Mrs. Suburbia to spend their money for a night on the town.
This may be purely a matter of observation, but it does seem as if railing against the presence of stars on Broadway has become a blood sport in the blogosphere of late. Chad M. Bauman, Arena Stage’s director of communications, posted a think piece on his blog on Dec. 27 called The Lure of Star Power. He wrote it in response to Playbill.com’s Top Theatre Stories of the Year, how “in a year with a down economy, it seems that the only thing that sells tickets are the stars.” Bauman cited the fortunate position of Arena during the last few seasons, what with jobbing in Carrie Fisher in Wishful Drinking and Valerie Harper in the Broadway-bound Looped. He acknowledged how stars make box-office registers ring, writing “it doesn’t take a marketing genius to sell tickets to star powered vehicles.” It doesn’t.
Bauman went on to explore a topic that the more New York-centric among us rarely consider: the need for regional theaters to sport the occasional star in order to generate buzz, ticket sales and, one may assume, the possibility of a donation or two down the line. “It used to be that New York and Los Angeles were the cities that needed stars to sell, but it looks like DC might be going that way as well,” he wrote, but then he did something counterintuitive. He outlined four “problems with stars,” and his explanations should be read in full. For the sake of this post, however, his point are this: for regional theaters, stars “are a gamble”; stars’ schedules rarely dovetail well with a regional theater’s calendar; regional theaters may be, through their use of star attractions, could be “building an appetite for something they cannot always feed”; and, pivoting off his third concern, he asks whether regional theaters are “teaching hoards of future patrons that only star vehicles deserve their patronage.”
Bauman is right to ask whether regional theaters should moderate their dependence on stars to jack up attendance. It is an error, though, to assume audience members who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles have no cultural appetite for stars. Audiences are always hungry to see stars. Before there was a constellation of nonprofit regional theaters, in the days before Broadway was truly and fully an international brand, the business model of the actor-manager was, by definition, about the star.
Again, not to make statistical hay out of straw, but it seemed as if it might be fun as an exercise to pick some random Broadway season of the past and determine whether stars were less or more present. According to the Burns Mantle Best Plays edition for the 1959-60 season — exactly 50 seasons ago — here are some of the stars that could have been seen: John Gielgud in Much Ado About Nothing; Patty Duke, Anne Bancroft and Patricia Neal in The Miracle Worker; Julie Harris in The Warm Peninsula (who remembers that?); Robert Morse, Walter Pidgeon and Jackie Gleason in Take Me Along; Mary Martin in The Sound of Music; Tom Bosley in Fiorello!; Jessica Tandy in Five Finger Exercise; Rex Harrison in The Fighting Cock (by Jean Anouilh, pigs); Charlton Heston in The Tumbler (another obscurity); Maureen Stapleton, Jason Robards, Jr., and Irene Worth in Toys in the Attic; Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne returning to the board in The Visit; Lauren Bacall in Goodbye, Charlie; George C. Scott in The Andersonville Trial; Anthony Perkins in Greenwillow; Henry Fonda in Silent Night, Lonely Night; Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera in Bye Bye Birdie; and Vivien Leigh in Duel of Angels. Scanning more deeply through the many cast lists, the following names also appear: E.G. Marshall, Melvyn Douglas, Phyllis Newman, Wally Cox, Kim Stanley, Tom Poston, Suzanne Pleshette, June Havoc, Larry Hagman, Farley Granger, Wendy Hiller, Una Merkel, Bert Lahr, Nancy Walker, Shelley Berman, Robert Redford, Jack Gilford, Alan Alda, Warren Beatty, Barbara Bel Geddes, Eartha Kitt, Carol Lawrence, Howard Keel, Estelle Parsons, Colleen Dewhurst, Billy Dee Williams, Cecily Tyson, James Earl Jones (the latter three grouped together due to a two-performance flop called The Cool World), Rosemary Harris, Alice Ghostley, Jane Fonda, Dean Jones, Ruth Gordon, Mildred Natwick, Katharine Cornell, Buddy Hackett, Frances Sternhagen, Shirley Booth, Robert Guillaume and Barbara Cook.
Are there more stars on Broadway now?
As for whether regional theaters should be more or less reliant on stars, it begs the larger question of what purpose, what social good, what social betterment, these organizations provide. They are tax-exempt charities, after all: If regional theaters need stars to get bodies in the seats, who isn’t doing their job? Moreove, precisely what utility is there for blaming the audience for what it has always gravitated toward? Is it possible that regional theaters, even the largest ones, fail to make a compelling case for the new work they say they do and the new voices they present? Have they failed to educate audiences about the experimental and adventurous work they supposedly offer onstage? Could it be that some regional theaters indeed forsake experimental and adventurous work — the work of truly new voices — and in the process lose the argument decisive that they are providing a social good?