STAGE TO SCREEN: What's in a Star?

STAGE TO SCREEN: What's in a Star? Do stars sell tickets in the theatre world? The gut reaction to this is “Absolutely.” Ask David Hare: Of his three plays to reach Broadway last year, the only truly compelling one (in my mind) was Via Dolorosa. It also did the least business, since it had neither Nicole Kidman (of The Blue Room) or Judi Dench (Amy’s View) in it. Those two plays, by the way, both ran into trouble near the end of their respective runs when their stars unexpectedly missed several performances.

Do stars sell tickets in the theatre world? The gut reaction to this is “Absolutely.” Ask David Hare: Of his three plays to reach Broadway last year, the only truly compelling one (in my mind) was Via Dolorosa. It also did the least business, since it had neither Nicole Kidman (of The Blue Room) or Judi Dench (Amy’s View) in it. Those two plays, by the way, both ran into trouble near the end of their respective runs when their stars unexpectedly missed several performances.

But the issue may be a bit more complicated than that. It has a lot to do with how Hollywood and its audiences define “star.” As most everyone knows, a very small number of movie stars earn very large amounts of money. People often bellyache about how overpaid John Travolta and Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey are. Well, they are and they aren’t. These guys all make about $20 million a film -- and they earn it in three days. Top movie names are paid according to what they can “deliver” on opening weekend, before reviews or word of mouth or any legitimate indication of a movie’s quality gets out. With the basic trajectory that most movies take (open big, lose 25 to 40 percent each following week), that sight-unseen marketability can essentially make or break a movie. By Hollywood’s estimation, “The General’s Daughter” made an additional $20 million in its opening weekend solely because Travolta starred in it. So the $20 million salary is really a down payment on that first Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Theatre is completely unlike this. Marquee value helps immeasurably during the typically lean previews, but stars really don’t make you much money unless they can stick around for a while. And they usually can’t. Kidman, Ralph Fiennes in Hamlet, Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh, now Woody Harrelson in The Rainmaker -- each of these shows was/is a limited run, largely because movie stars need to get back to being movie stars. So they sell tickets, but do they sell enough tickets to make it worth the producers’ while?

Another huge difference has to do with frequency. If you can’t deliver that opening weekend consistently, you’ll stop getting that big payday fast. The big names tend to do about one film a year to keep their name in circulation without being spread too thin. It’s tough to stay big without working a lot, unless you’re Streisand. (And even her last outing, “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” may have suffered from her time out of the spotlight.) But think about the theatre world. Who are the truly huge theatre people right now? Patti Lupone. Bernadette Peters. Mandy Patinkin. Liza Minnelli. If you take away Annie Get Your Gun and Minnelli’s Victor/Victoria and then add up the amount of time since these four have starred in a Broadway book musical, it’s been almost 35 years. Their pull comes as much from not being seen as it does from being seen.

In the absence of these big names, we have a batch of new theatre stars. But this is where the definition of “theatre star” gets dangerous. That phrase means something very different to New Yorkers than it does to the rest of the world. Marie Christine and, to a lesser extent, Epic Proportions are being sold as star vehicles for, respectively, Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth. These two supremely talented musical actresses are the undisputed darlings of the New York theatre community, and rightly so. But what does that mean to non-New Yorkers? (And make no mistake: A Broadway show can no longer exist without non-New Yorkers.) The ABC film of “Annie,” airing Nov. 7, will earn them some attention, but their producers may be somewhat overestimating the marquee value of these names. Almost as inexplicable is the casting of non-star Hollywood actors as Broadway leads. I enjoyed “Muriel’s Wedding” quite a bit, but does that mean I’d plunk down $75 to see The Wild Party because Toni Collette is in it? The Broadway community’s collective jaw dropped at the casting of Craig Bierko as Harold Hill in the apparently on-its-way The Music Man revival. I see far too many movies, and except for a vague memory of him as the bad guy in “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” I couldn’t begin to tell you anything about Craig Bierko. Will he sell a single ticket? The big exceptions to this are the revolving-door shows, where there’s bound to be at least one demi-celebrity at any given point. I’m thinking of Grease, of course, and the last year of Smokey Joe’s Cafe. (If the rumors about Brooke Shields and Tony Danza are true, Chicago could lamentably find itself in that category soon.) And the rules are also different Off-Broadway: Liev Schreiber, Ally Sheedy and Mark Linn-Baker all appear to be sufficient draws in smaller Off-Broadway houses.

What does any of this have to do with Hollywood megastars? Go back to the $20 million club. No matter how big the movie is, studios can only hand out so much cash to the talent. Movies today generally have one or two really big names, then it drops off precipitously. Tom Hanks, Matt Damon ... and a lot of young soldiers. Richard Gere, Julia Roberts ... and a lot of eccentric local color. There simply isn’t room to give decent character actors decent wages. If there were, Allison Janney could juggle two great film roles and a play every year. So could Alfred Molina and Brian Murray and J. Smith-Cameron and dozens of others. And they wouldn’t be such hot commodities that theatre producers would have to pay exorbitant salaries to get them. Right now, Debra Monk, Frances Sternhagen and maybe Dana Ivey are the only successful exceptions to this that I can think of. Hollywood still hasn’t begun to figure out what to do with Faith Prince and Donna Murphy. As a result, the world at large doesn’t know what it’s missing when they come back to the stage. And that’s sad.

There’s a lot more to be said about this. The New York theatre world is certainly richer from the repeated visits by Al Pacino, Kevin Kline and Nathan Lane. Paul Rudd, Taye Diggs and Cynthia Nixon are learning how to juggle the two. But with more and more filming being done in New York (turn on “Law and Order” sometime if you want to see local talent), this sort of cross-pollination could become the rule, not the exception. Wouldn’t that be nice?

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The release dates have been bouncing around a fair amount, and I'm sure a few more tweakings are yet to come. But as of press time, here is the release schedule for this winter's batch of theatre-themed films. Note: Except for "Anna and the King," each of these will open in Los Angeles and/or New York, then gradually expand into smaller markets. The idea is to open cheaply, see what the potential appears to be for Oscar nominations, then expand accordingly.

Dec. 10 will see two big releases, most notably "Cradle Will Rock," with John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, Bill Murray and about 25 other big people. Tim Robbins aims high here, using the 1937 Marc Blitzstein "labor opera" as a springboard to comment on art and commerce in the 1930s. It opens wide on Christmas Day. Also opening Dec. 10 is Mike Figgis' "Miss Julie," with Saffron Burrows and Peter Mullan. Figgis ("Leaving Las Vegas"), who directed Burrows in "The Loss of Sexual Innocence," filmed the classic Strindberg drama extremely quickly.

A batch of movies are opening Dec. 17, including: "Anna and the King," the opulent non-musical rendition of Anna Leonowens' tale, with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat; "Simpatico," an expanded version of Sam Shepard's horse racing drama, with Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte and Sharon Stone (and directed by Matthew Warchus, who will supposedly bring another Shepard tale of male rivalry, True West, to New York this spring); and "Topsy-Turvy," Mike Leigh's sprawling biopic of Gilbert & Sullivan.

In addition to the wide release of "Cradle Will Rock," Christmas Day will also see the debut of "Titus," Julie Taymor's bloody rendition of Titus Andronicus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. What better way to celebrate the holiday spirit than cannibalism, rape and mutilation? As it turns out, "Titus" will be the only Shakespeare release to bow this year: Kenneth Branagh's Jazz Age "Love's Labours Lost" is now slated for release in March.

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This seems to be somewhat hush-hush, but Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” (opening Nov. 19) might be a bit more erudite than expected. Word is that no less than Tom Stoppard has done some uncredited rewrites on the script. For everyone out there salivating over the prospect of a Burton “Sweeney Todd” (and there are a fair number of such fans, judging from your mail), could this convergence between Gothic British horror and theatrical heavyweights be a positive omen? Michael Gambon and Ian McDiarmid are among the British stage veterans appearing in “Sleepy Hollow.”

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Cutting-Room Floor: Jonathan Pryce -- still my top choice for the “Sweeney” movie -- will be singing on screen soon. He’s slated to play a slain Vegas singer named Victor Fox in “Unconditional Love,” directed by P.J. Hogan (“Muriel’s Wedding”). Rupert Everett and Kathy Bates play a pair trying to solve the murder of Fox, who was Everett’s lover. Pryce will allegedly sing about a dozen numbers. ... As mentioned several months ago, Patricia Arquette will star in the film of David Rabe’s 1973 play In the Boom Boom Room. Shooting is scheduled to begin next summer; the cast includes James Caan, Ellen Barkin, Jon Lovitz and Tom Waits. ... Stage veterans in upcoming movies include Joe Mantegna and Bebe Neuwirth in Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights” (Nov. 19); Dylan Baker, Laila Robbins, Terry Kinney and James Naughton in “Oxygen” (Nov. 12), which has been airing on Cinemax since August; Natasha Richardson in “Cotton Mary” (Nov. 19), which is based on a play by Alexandra Viets; and Amy’s View co-stars Dench and Samantha Bond pairing up again in the latest James Bond flick, “The World Is Not Enough” (Nov. 19). ... I jumped to an erroneous conclusion in my last column when I speculated on the age of Jelly Roll Morton in “The Legend of 1900.” Morton was just a kid in 1900 -- that much is accurate -- but the film is actually set decades later. It just involves a character named 1900. And “House on Haunted Hill” did in fact open Oct. 29, despite rumors to the contrary. My apologies.

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My Favorite Response: I asked in my last column about what effect (if any) the presence of a marquee name has on your wanting to see a play. The dubiously named First Lastname had this to say:

“Marquee name? What's that?

Sadly, the days of stage stars began to wane with the original productions of Babes in Arms, Pins and Needles and Oklahoma! By the time we got to the megamusicals of the ’80s (Cats, etc.), the need for marquee names was, for all practical purposes, completely eradicated.

Most marquee appeal nowadays is curiosity-driven. Not being unkind, but its appeal is sort of like a freak show. This applies to the few remaining dinosaur-stars still performing today (Carol Channing, Chita Rivera) who are a draw for sentimental reasons and/or the amazing fact that they can still do it. This also applies to TV and screen stars, even those with roots in the theatre (i.e, can they [still] do it?)

Regardless, the marquee value of names today is primarily a chance to say, ‘I saw him/her.’ The days of real stage stars (‘I want to see the new Ethel Merman show’) are gone, and as such, it's a moot point.

As for your final question, the few actors who are successfully working consistently on stage do vary the roles the play (Broderick, Ripley, Buckley, Peters, Sinise, etc.) That's why they continue to work and grow. If an audience member prefers actors in specific roles, they probably prefer specific theatrical genres and wouldn't cross over whoever the actor might be.”

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Your Thoughts: Of the pending theatre-themed movies, which one are you most dying to see? Which one would you never remotely consider seeing? Why? And is there anything more to say about stars on stage?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.